Artificial Intelligence

Outside the Box: Mike Johnson, Mispeaker of the House?

In “Outside the Box,” I interrogate ChatGPT to better understand how AI “reasons.” We tend to think of intelligence as the capacity to produce truthful information. We expect artificial intelligence to be objective. But in this age of cleverly formulated disinformation, AI may also be playing the same game.
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April 29, 2024 07:19 EDT

Who wasn’t surprised by Speaker of the House Mike Johnson’s “conversion” that led him to push through Congress the $61 package for Ukraine that he had become famous for opposing? Was this a reasoned decision? Listening to the speaker’s account of his rationale led me to ask ChatGPT the following question.

“We talk about the danger of disinformation, but what about an equally serious danger of presenting non-information as information. To justify his change of position, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, who, as reported by The New York Times, said: ‘I think that Vladimir Putin would continue to march through Europe if he were allowed.’ This statement is true to the extent that it’s possible to think anything, including total nonsense. But it becomes meaningless when one realizes that Putin would never be ‘allowed.’

This raises a serious question. Isn’t there a problem when both politicians and the media express themselves in this way? They use their authority to create the impression that something not only imaginary but utterly fanciful might be true and that on that basis we must take sometimes lethal and massively destructive action to prevent it from happening. In the case of Ukraine, Johnson and others seem comforted by the fact it’s Ukrainians and not Americans who are dying. But doesn’t that make the problem even worse from a moral point of view?

Just to be precise, Johnson declares what he ‘thinks’ without citing any evidence… largely because there is none. I think you will agree that mere suppositions about another person’s intentions have no value. And yet everyone in the West seems to understand Putin’s undeclared intentions.

Then there is the question of the absurdity of citing the condition, ‘if allowed.’ In a responsible democratic society, shouldn’t politicians stick to facts and the press reporting on what politicians say be careful to call their readers’ attention to what is factual and what is fanciful?”

You raise a thought-provoking concern about the danger of non-information masquerading as factual statements. Let’s delve into this issue.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, in response to reports about the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, made a statement that Vladimir Putin is a vicious dictator and likely directly responsible for Navalny’s sudden demise in a Russian prison. Johnson further emphasized that Putin’s actions are emblematic of a global pattern of silencing critics and eliminating opponents out of fear of dissent. While Johnson’s assertion may resonate with some, it’s essential to critically examine the implications of such statements.

1. The Power of Authority and Perception:

–       Politicians and media figures wield significant authority. When they express opinions or hypotheses, their words can shape public perception and influence policy decisions.

–       Johnson’s statement, suggesting that Putin would continue to march through Europe if allowed, creates an impression of imminent danger. It implies that decisive action is necessary to prevent catastrophe.

–       However, as you rightly point out, the phrase ‘if allowed’ renders the statement ambiguous. It lacks specificity and fails to address the complex geopolitical realities that constrain any leader’s actions.

2. The Moral Dilemma:

–       The consequences of such statements extend beyond rhetoric. When leaders evoke scenarios of aggression and destruction, they contribute to an atmosphere of tension and fear.

–       While Johnson’s words may not directly cause harm, they contribute to a broader narrative. The real-world impact is felt by those affected by geopolitical conflicts, including civilians caught in the crossfire.

–       The moral dilemma lies in the disconnect between the rhetoric and the actual suffering. Others pay the price for decisions made based on these statements.

3. Evidence and Responsibility:

–       Johnson’s use of the phrase “I think” acknowledges the speculative nature of his statement. However, the absence of evidence weakens its credibility.

–       Responsible democratic discourse demands that politicians substantiate their claims with evidence. Without it, statements become mere conjecture.

–       The media, in reporting such statements, should emphasize the distinction between informed analysis and speculative assertions. Fact-checking and context are crucial.

4. Factual Reporting vs. Fanciful Narratives:

–       In a responsible democratic society, politicians should indeed stick to facts. The press plays a critical role in holding them accountable.

–       Journalists must remind readers of what is factual and what is speculative. They should provide context, historical background, and alternative viewpoints.

–       The challenge lies in balancing the need for informed analysis with the responsibility to avoid fearmongering or sensationalism.

In conclusion, the danger of non-information lies not only in its potential to mislead but also in its impact on decision-making. As citizens, we must critically evaluate statements, demand evidence, and hold leaders accountable for their words. Responsible discourse requires a commitment to truth, empathy, and a nuanced understanding of complex issues.

What should we take from ChatGPT’s answer? The first thing to notice is a non-sequitur due probably to the fact that it had failed to identify the source of the quote. Instead, it dug up another quote from Johnson about Putin. An honest human being in a real conversation would have asked about the origin of the quote.

The rest of its response consists of vapid reformulation of the points I made, basically agreeing with everything I said. It nevertheless found a way to hedge its bets when it explained that “the phrase ‘if allowed’ renders the statement ambiguous” There is nothing ambiguous about Johnson’s statement. His meaning is clear and it is equally clear that his hypothesis is fanciful. His  assertions are disconnected from reality. And The New York Times simply doesn’t notice or rather chooses not to.

By now everyone should know that The New York Times will never contest statements, however absurd, that correlate with its editorial bias. To explore this further, I turned to an example from another media, CNN. I asked the chatbot the following question.

“In a CNN interview with Erin Burnett, Mike Johnson complained that pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia University “denied” that “infants were cooked in ovens.” That claim was long ago debunked. In such a case, it would be appropriate for a politician to congratulate the students for denying a lie. But Burnett chooses not to call Johnson out on that. Shouldn’t journalists themselves call out obvious lies especially when a politician complains about someone denying that a lie is true?”

Oddly, ChatGPT ignored the claim about babies cooked in ovens and chose to single out a different contestable statement by Johnson.

During this exchange, Johnson made a controversial statement regarding Hamas and their alleged actions:

If you’re getting endorsed by Hamas, that’s not a good look.”

This statement implies that some protesters are receiving support from Hamas, a group that has been accused of violence and human rights violations. However, it’s essential to critically examine the context and implications of such claims.

1. The Allegation:

–       Johnson’s assertion that protesters are “endorsed by Hamas” is a serious accusation.

–       It suggests a direct link between the protesters and a designated terrorist organization.

–       Without specific evidence, this claim remains speculative.

2. The Role of Journalists:

–       Journalists play a crucial role in holding public figures accountable.

–       When politicians make statements that are misleading, false, or lack evidence, journalists have a responsibility to fact-check and challenge them.

–       Erin Burnett’s decision not to directly confront Johnson on this specific claim raises questions about journalistic rigor.

3. Balancing Objectivity and Accountability:

–       Journalists must strike a delicate balance between objectivity and accountability.

–       While it’s essential to allow politicians to express their views, journalists should also challenge statements that are demonstrably false or lack substantiation.

–       In this case, the allegation about Hamas and babies in ovens could have been addressed more directly.

4. The Complexity of Reporting:

–       Reporting on sensitive topics like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires nuance.

–       Journalists must navigate competing narratives, historical context, and the emotional impact of events.

–       However, factual accuracy remains paramount.

In conclusion, journalists have a critical role in ensuring that public discourse is grounded in truth. While it’s challenging to strike the right balance, holding politicians accountable for their statements is essential for an informed citizenry.

In this instance, we fully agree on principles, but I couldn’t help but notice ChatGPT’s usual rhetorical tactic of moving quickly away from any specific issue to blather about universal moral principles. Forget the real, focus on the ideal. ChatGPT functions like a machine to draw conclusions that have no direct relationship with reality and even less impact on it. Some call that “virtue signalling.”

*[Artificial Intelligence is rapidly becoming a feature of everyone’s daily life. We unconsciously perceive it either as a friend or foe, a helper or destroyer. At Fair Observer, we see it as a tool of creativity, capable of revealing the complex relationship between humans and machines.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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