Tag Archives: Facts

Confirmation Bias on Steroids

Ralph Reed is currently chairman and founder of the aggressively Christian Faith and Freedom Coalition. He says the 11-year-old recordings of Trump bragging that as a “star,” he could engage in sexual assaults with impunity are “ancient,” and do not change his view of the businessman.”Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson, who also backs Trump, said evangelical leaders frustrated with Trump’s controversies need to “lighten up.”

I guess boys will be boys. (Even when they’re 59, as Trump was at the time the tape was recorded.)

Although a number of Republicans have distanced themselves–once again–from Trump’s language and behavior, only a few have withdrawn their endorsements, and he and his most ardent supporters have retreated to the time-honored tactic of 12-year-olds everywhere: “The Clintons are worse!”

Will this latest eruption by the real Donald Trump be enough to cut into Trump’s base of support? Probably not. They live in cocoons impervious to unwanted facts.

I’ll admit to visiting 538.com–Nate Silver’s blog–on a more than daily basis during this nerve-wracking and bizarre Presidential campaign. On a recent visit, a post by Carl Bialik discussed a new study about how and where Americans get our information — and how  our political beliefs affect whether we believe what we read.

Among the findings: About 6 in 10 report being better informed than they were five years ago. One possibility, though, is that our fractured media environment means more Americans are convinced that they are more informed while at the same time retreating into their silos.

Short version: what people believe they know may or may not be accurate. The post reminded me of similar, sobering conclusions reached by Aaron Dusso, a young colleague who is part of the academic “team” at the Center for Civic Literacy.

“While the goal of better education is laudable, as a remedy to the problem of civic ignorance it presupposes that the cause of this problem is a lack of exposure to information. In other words, if people only knew the facts, they would think and behave differently. The problem with this belief is that, at best, it is only partially true. Research in psychology has routinely shown that people do not engage the world with an open mind. They actively avoid information that may contradict what they already believe, interpret ambiguous information so as to fit with their existing beliefs; rationalize and actively reject disconfirming information; are biased when retrieving information from memory; overestimate how much others agree with them; and assume others are more influenced by media than they are.”

A recent post by Juanita Jean provides a perfect–and incredibly depressing– example of the phenomenon.

I have an acquaintance who is a Facebook Republican. She is a sweet woman and claims to be a Christian, but this is what the cult of Donald Trump is doing to people. I sent her a note this morning that I was going to turn off her feed on my Facebook page until after the election because this crap is unforgivable.

That paragraph was followed by screen shots of tweets sent by the “sweet woman,” a Trump supporter. The first one purported to be a story about Senator Tim Kaine’s “open marriage” and how his “creepiness” was scaring women voters away from Hillary and to Trump. When Juanita responded with a link to Snopes, confirming that the information was false, the “sweet woman” responded with “He looks like a perv. And I just read that Snopes is run by Hillary supporters.”

Translation: if reputable sources–fact-checkers, mainstream media, scientists, experts in a field– provide information inconsistent with my preferred beliefs, they can’t really be reputable.

We’re doomed.

Faux History For God

I’ve often repeated Pat Moynahan’s famous adage: we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.

I stand corrected.

In Texas (where else?), “educators” unsatisfied with actual American history have responded by creating their own. Because God.

Did you have any idea that our first President believed that government required God and the Bible in order to function? And are you familiar with the following quote from President Ronald Reagan? “Within the covers of the Bible are the answers for all the problems men face.”  Chances are you haven’t heard of either of these – because they’re both fiction. George Washington is better categorized as a Deist (rather than a traditional Christian), and Reagan never made such a statement about the Bible.

It’s part of a strange indoctrination strategy at a small school district in eastern Texas. On the walls of the school hallways and classrooms are many such alleged “passages” from the Bible and “statements” attributed to prominent figures in American history that all are inaccurate, misquoted, taken out of context, and even made up out of whole cloth.

The school’s practice of inventing “suitably” pious quotations with which to indoctrinate children came to light after a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation challenged the quotations.  According to the organization’s attorney Samuel Grover:

“The district cannot even fall back on the argument that these quotes have educational merit, given the many examples of misquotes, misattributions, and entirely fraudulent quotes displayed on its walls…The district sets a poor example for its students if it cannot be bothered to fact check the messages it chooses to endorse.”

With all due respect, I don’t think the problem was “failure to fact check.” I think the problem was the readiness of dishonest people to invent a history that would be more consistent with their religious preferences than that pesky thing called reality….

I guess they missed that place in the Ten Commandments about “bearing false witness.”

What We Know That Just Ain’t So

I forget the source of this old quote, but I’ve always liked it: “The problem ain’t what we don’t know, it’s what we know that just ain’t so.”

Recently, a regular reader sent me an article from “NeuroLogica Blog” (there’s obviously a blog for everything) that documented that hoary saying.

When asked what percentage of the population is Muslim the average answer was 15% when the reality is 1%. How many people are Christian: average answer 56%, reality 78%. How many people of working age are out of work and seeking a job: average answer 32%, reality 6% (at the time of the survey). That one seems strange. Did people really think the unemployment rate was 32% (that was average, which means some people thought it was higher)? During the great depression the unemployment rate peaked at 25%. What percentage of girls between 15 and 19 years old will give birth: average guess 24%, reality 3%.

As the author noted, the interesting (indeed, the pertinent) question is – why are so many people so misinformed about the facts? After all, these are verifiable and concrete data points, not “facts” that are really value judgments like “socialism is bad” or “religion is good.” And as the author also noted, the internet makes it incredibly easy to locate and verify these facts.

The article listed “the usual subjects”–education that doesn’t sufficiently teach critical thinking skills, a fragmented and frequently lazy media, politicians whose spin (and outright lies) are rewarded. All of these are implicated, but perhaps the best explanation is confirmation bias.

…the tendency to notice, accept, and remember information which confirms your existing narrative. The fact that we have narratives also is a huge factor. There is a tendency to latch onto themes and narratives, and then use facts to support those narratives, rather than to alter our narratives based on the facts. It is therefore no surprise that facts which have political implications have been so distorted to fit political narratives.

In other words, confirmation bias convinces us of things that we want to believe, but that “just ain’t so.”

And we wonder why Americans can’t find common ground.

Lies, Damned Lies and Politics

My husband regularly listens to right-wing radio. He enjoys regaling me with the latest in what passes for wing-nut argumentation; when I express annoyance, he generally reminds me that it is important to know what all manner of people are saying.

This morning, he presented me with the latest gem being used to defend Republicans against charges that they are waging war on women. Right-wing pundits are insisting that it was bad for women when Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Act because–wait for it–requiring employers to pay men and women equal wages for equal work cost 500,000 women their jobs. Employers simply couldn’t afford equality.

To the best of my knowledge, there is zero evidence of job losses attributable to the passage of the Lily Ledbetter Act. This accusation thus joins the growing number of fact-free assertions–okay, flat-out lies–that increasingly constitute American political discourse. Partisans of all stripes have gone well beyond spin, and are deep into “making shit up” territory.

We all know that facts have been taking a real beating, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise when I came across Fact’s obituary.

Read it and weep.