Tag Archives: confirmation bias

Constructing Our Own Realities

In the mid-1990s, as part of the publisher’s effort to promote my first book (“What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?”), I was booked onto a call-in radio show in South Carolina. Belatedly, I found that the show I was on followed Rush Limbaugh; the calls that came in reflected that audience.

I vividly remember one of those calls. The country had been going through one of those periodic arguments about whether the religion clauses of the First Amendment preclude  posting religious texts–specifically, the Christian version of the Ten Commandments– on the walls of public buildings. (It does.)

The caller argued that the Founders would have had no problem with such practices, because “James Madison said we are giving the Bill of Rights to people who live by the Ten Commandments.” This supposed quotation had been circling through rightwing organizations; as I explained to the caller, not only had it been rebutted by Madison scholars, the statement was dramatically inconsistent with everything we know Madison did say. At which point the caller yelled, “Well, I think he said it!” and hung up.

This exchange occurred before the Internet, before Facebook, Twitter and other social media facilitated our ability to fashion our own realities. I recount it because it illustrates how desperately many of us–probably most of us–look for evidence that supports our biases and beliefs.(As the Simon and Garfunkel song says, “man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”)

What brought this exchange to mind was a column in the Washington Post by Ralph Peters, a commentator who has just left Fox News.

As I wrote in an internal Fox memo, leaked and widely disseminated, I declined to renew my contract as Fox News’s strategic analyst because of the network’s propagandizing for the Trump administration. Today’s Fox prime-time lineup preaches paranoia, attacking processes and institutions vital to our republic and challenging the rule of law.

Four decades ago, as a U.S. Army second lieutenant, I took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution.” In moral and ethical terms, that oath never expires. As Fox’s assault on our constitutional order intensified, spearheaded by its after-dinner demagogues, I had no choice but to leave.

Peters, who is very politically conservative, says the network was once an outlet for responsible conservatism (an assertion with which we might take issue), but has become an intellectually-dishonest propaganda source. There is a good deal of evidence that Fox has always been more interested in delivering Republican talking points than in objective reporting; what Peters is reacting to may simply be the outlet’s increasingly blatant partisanship. The age of Trump isn’t noted for subtlety.

Fox bears a considerable amount of the blame for creating an environment in which voters prefer spin and propaganda to objective fact, science and evidence. Its influence is waning now, as television channels and internet offerings proliferate, and as its older audience dies off, but America will be dealing with the damage it has inflicted for many more years.

That said, the basic challenge we face isn’t new. Voters have always “cherry picked” information. Confirmation bias didn’t suddenly appear in response to Fox or Facebook.

Fox’s business plan was explicitly focused upon providing ideologically compatible “news” to an “underserved” Republican audience. (Less-well-known Sinclair Broadcasting is equally dishonest.) My caller, back in the mid-1990s, may have gotten his misinformation from books by “historian” David Barton, who made his money giving fundamentalist Christians a version of history more to their liking. There will always be ethically-challenged entrepreneurs willing to make a buck pandering to our fears and prejudices.

The question is: what can we do about it? How do we counter propaganda effectively, without doing violence to free speech and the First Amendment? The only answer I can come up with is better civic and news literacy education, but that will take time and a commitment to revitalize the public education that Trump and DeVos are trying to dismantle.

It’s a conundrum.

Fox And Its Friends

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have reported the acrimonious departure of Fox News commentator and author Ralph Peters from that cable channel. As the Post described the resignation,

Commentator and author Ralph Peters isn’t just closing the door on his career at Fox News Channel. He’s slamming it right off the hinges.

In a blistering goodbye email, Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who commented on military affairs, called Fox “a mere propaganda machine for a destructive and ethically ruinous administration.” He described President Trump as being “terrified” of Russian president Vladi­mir Putin.

Peters accused Fox of assaulting America’s constitutional order, undermining the rule of law, and “fostering corrosive and unjustified paranoia among viewers.”

Peters had been associated with Fox for ten years, and it’s hard not to wonder what took him so long to recognize the cable channel’s business plan, which has always depended upon pandering to the biases of conservative viewers, no matter how much that required doing violence to accurate reporting–but I suppose it’s better late than never.

Although Peters didn’t use the word “treason” in the blistering email he sent to the organization, the implication was hard to ignore.

When prime-time hosts — who have never served our country in any capacity — dismiss facts and empirical reality to launch profoundly dishonest attacks on the FBI, the Justice Department, the courts, the intelligence community (in which I served) and, not least, a model public servant and genuine war hero such as Robert Mueller — all the while scaremongering with lurid warnings of ‘deep-state’ machinations — I cannot be part of the same organization, even at a remove. To me, Fox News is now wittingly harming our system of government for profit.

Previously during his ten-year stint as a Fox commentator,  Peters said that his producers had never given him a script, or instructed him what to say. In the past year, however, as questions  about the possibility of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia continued to gain salience, Fox refused to let him comment on the topic, despite the fact that he has considerable relevant expertise. (He was a former intelligence officer.)

There has been a good deal of research by political scientists into the operation of “confirmation bias”–a very human trait we all share to some degree. Fox–along with talk radio demagogues and outlets like Breitbart and InfoWars–intentionally feeds conservatives’ desire to see their beliefs confirmed by “news.” (At the other end of the spectrum, “Addicting Info,” “Occupy” and others provide similar grist for liberal true believers, but research suggests that their influence pales in comparison with Fox.)

Here in a nutshell (no pun intended) is the dilemma of a liberal democracy committed to the principle of free speech. The marketplace of ideas must be open to all–ideologues and cranks as well as thoughtful commentators and accurate journalists. That means the consumers in that marketplace must be discriminating, in the best sense of that word. They must be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. And in a country where civic and news literacy are low, consumers are more likely to “buy” substandard or counterfeit  products.

I’m glad Peters finally figured out that Fox cares more about profit than patriotism, more about ratings than reality. Somehow, however, I doubt that his departure will prompt many loyal viewers to change the channel.  Confirmation bias may be more addictive than cocaine.

 

The Big Lie(s)

With every announcement of a cabinet nominee, the news gets more depressing and surreal. Trump is deliberately naming agency heads who oppose the missions of the agencies they will control–nominees who can be expected to eviscerate efforts to address climate change, undermine public education and favor saber-rattling over diplomacy, among other disasters.

All of them are contemptuous–or ignorant–of demonstrable facts.

Case in point: Andrew F. Puzder, the fast-food chief executive Trump has chosen to be his secretary of labor. As The New York Times has reported, Puzder has a “passionate disdain” for both the Affordable Care Act and efforts to raise the minimum wage.

He says the law has led to rising health insurance premiums, “reducing consumer spending, resulting in a reduction in restaurant visits.”

He has also argued that the act has given businesses an incentive to cut back on full-time workers to avoid the costs of providing them with insurance, as the act frequently requires.

The problem is that the available data largely disagree.

Fast food sales are actually up since the ACA took effect, and there is no correlation between employment growth in the industry and health insurance premiums. States where premiums increased more did not tend to have lower employment, and the percentage of people who are forced to work part-time even though they prefer to work full-time has fallen dramatically since the Affordable Care Act was enacted.

He is similarly wrong about the effects of raising the minimum wage; employment has actually increased in the wake of most such raises.

Puzzler doesn’t know what he is talking about, so he will fit right in with the other cabinet nominees, and with Trump and his voters.

It turns out that most of those voters inhabit our new “post-fact” society. A survey fielded after the election may illuminate the gap between those voters and reality.

* Unemployment: Under President Obama, job growth has been quite strong, and the unemployment rate has improved dramatically. PPP, however, found that 67% of Trump voters believe the unemployment rate went up under Obama – which is the exact opposite of reality.

* Stock Market: Since the president was elected, the stock market has soared, nearly tripling since the height of the Great Recession. PPP found that 39% of Trump voters believe the market has gone down under Obama – which is also the exact opposite of reality.

* Popular Vote: As of this morning, Hillary Clinton received roughly 2.7 million more votes than Donald Trump, but PPP nevertheless found that 40% of Trump voters believe he won the popular vote – which is, once again, the exact opposite of reality.

* Voter Fraud: Even Trump’s lawyers concede there was no voter fraud in the presidential election, but PPP found that 60% of Trump voters apparently believe “millions” of illegal ballots were cast for Clinton in 2016 – which isn’t even close to resembling reality.

Soros Conspiracy Theory: A whopping 73% of Trump voters believe George Soros is paying anti-Trump protesters – though in reality, George Soros is not paying anti-Trump protesters.

The survey goes a long way toward answering the question repeatedly asked by so many anguished Americans: why on earth would anyone vote for this monumentally unfit, unethical buffoon?

Americans live in the age of confirmation bias, where you can find sources on the Internet supporting your preferred worldview, no matter how ridiculous or flat-out insane. Propagating the Big Lie has never been easier.

The strategy of the Big Lie comes to us courtesy of the Third Reich; as Joseph Goebbels helpfully explained it,

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

Joe Nocera wrote a column a few years ago in The New York Times, explaining our more sophisticated modern Big Lie techniques,

You begin with a hypothesis that has a certain surface plausibility. You find an ally whose background suggests that he’s an “expert”; out of thin air, he devises “data.” You write articles in sympathetic publications, repeating the data endlessly; in time, some of these publications make your cause their own. Like-minded congressmen pick up your mantra and invite you to testify at hearings.

You’re chosen for an investigative panel related to your topic. When other panel members, after inspecting your evidence, reject your thesis, you claim that they did so for ideological reasons. This, too, is repeated by your allies. Soon, the echo chamber you created drowns out dissenting views; even presidential candidates begin repeating the Big Lie.

Thanks to fake news and the Internet, Big Lies have become much easier to sustain.

Thanks to uncritical, uneducated citizens who lack both civic and media literacy, facts, credibility and reality no longer matter.

The rest of us are screwed.

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.

Just the Facts…

I guess we no longer need the “big lie.” We Americans–for that matter, people everywhere– are perfectly comfortable simply rejecting facts that make us uncomfortable, or otherwise conflict with our preferred realities.

I’ve previously blogged about the emerging academic literature on confirmation bias.  A reader sent me an article from the Boston Globe summarizing much of that literature.

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

 

Needless to say, this is a real problem for democratic theory, which places a high value on an informed populace.

 

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

As the author notes, we humans tend to base our opinions on our beliefs–and those beliefs can have what he delicately calls “an uneasy relationship” with facts. Although we like to believe that we base our beliefs on evidence and fact, research suggests that our beliefs all too often dictate the facts we’re willing to accept.

 

Sometimes we just twist facts to make them fit with our preferred beliefs; at other times our preconceptions lead us to uncritically accept rumor, misinformation and outright propaganda if those reinforce our worldviews or confirm our resentments and/or suspicions.

 

The phenomenon is certainly not limited to the political right, but the most recent glaring examples do come from the GOP “clown car.”  Donald Trump insists that he saw “thousands of Muslims” cheering when the World Trade Center came down, even though everyone in a positions to know says that never happened. Ben Carson “quotes” America’s founders for statements they never made (and in some cases, expressing sentiments diametrically opposed to what they actually did say.) Carly Fiorina insists that she viewed a video that doesn’t exist. And people who want to believe them, do.

 

As the Globe article put it, thanks to the internet, “it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.”

 

Identifying the problem and solving it are two different issues. To date, there has been progress on identifying the phenomenon, less on what we need to do to counter it. That said, researchers are working on it.

 

One avenue may involve self-esteem. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

 

No wonder those of us advocating for evidence-based public policies are having such a bad time…..