In 1983, director Mike Nichols was rehearsing Tom Stoppard’s play, The Real Thing, for Broadway. The remarkable cast included Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, Christine Baranski, Peter Gallagher, and Cynthia Nixon, then just 17-years-old. According to Hermione Lee’s new biography of Stoppard, the playwright had a note for Gallagher: Could his character “be more plangent?” A panicked Gallagher looked at Nichols for help. Nichols, according to Lee, replied, “F***ed if I know.”
Mark Harris tells this story differently in his new biography of Nichols. In this recounting, Stoppard directs the comment at Nixon: “A guitar is more plangent than a trumpet,” Gallagher recalls Stoppard saying. “‘It’s as if you were to take a pebble and drop it into a pool from a very small height. Plangent.’ We’re Oh my god. That was plangent.”
A key moral of these small stories – unmentioned in either biography – is that finding and telling the truth in an inherently messy world is remarkably difficult and relentlessly hard work.
Last week’s TBL discussed motivated reasoning in relation to this moral. More broadly, I argued – based upon clear and straightforward research evidence – that each of us is susceptible to the problem and, crucially, that no particular sort or category of us is less prone to the difficulty than any other.
We are so susceptible to the foibles of confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and our overarching bias blindness generally that we fall prey to them often and often don’t recognize it. Indeed, Snopes would not exist without our propensity for not letting facts get in the way of a good story (in a bit of delicious irony, this idea is often falsely attributed to Mark Twain). Augustine had it right more than a thousand years before Descartes: Fallor ergo sum (“I err therefore I am”).
As I often say, we like to think that we are like judges, that we carefully gather and evaluate facts and data before coming to an objective and well-founded conclusion. Instead, we are much more like lawyers, grasping for any scrap of purported evidence or argument we might exploit to support our preconceived notions and allegiances.
All of us. Even yours truly. Especially yours truly. Now read the previous three sentences aloud and apply them to yourself.
I got feedback on and considerable pushback to last week’s epistle. Responding to it is the focus of this week’s TBL.
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A Product of Trust
It had been out barely an hour before I started getting pushback to last week’s TBL. I should emphasize up front that I look forward to your comments each week, good, bad, indifferent, to informative. The following early criticism is representative of many I received and will serve as the jumping-off point for this week’s missive.
“I'm having trouble seeing this article as not an exercise in false equivalence, propelled by its own motivated reasoning.
“…While I certainly believe every person is rife with the same biases, it seems that the left is more a fractionalized jumble but basically reality-based whereas the right is organized but unreality-based. Equating the two seems intellectually incorrect.
“Can you give a left example of the factual equivalent of 30M people on the right believing that the presidential election was ‘stolen’?”
This is an important critique and one worth dealing with in earnest. Let’s start with a little review.
Facts are a real thing, despite what the Nihilists think. Because facts are real. It is imperative that we take the Nihilists, left and right.
However, even mundane and uncontroversial facts can be difficult to ascertain, as the stories in the two biographies noted up top demonstrate. Reality is messy.
When making his defense of British soldiers during the Boston Massacre trials in December of 1770, John Adams (played by Paul Giamatti below) offered a now famous insight: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence” (Legal Papers of John Adams, 3:269).
Because facts without interpretation are useless, facts can be stubborn – as when they don’t fit with our preconceived notions. “[T]he dictates of our passion” can lead to confirmation bias – seeing what we want or expect to see and making truth-seeking monumentally more difficult.
Meanwhile, those for whom facts are an obstacle to be overcome see them as horrid, which horrid facts lead to motivated reasoning – our tendency to see what it is in our interest to see.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that each of us is “a bit of a rattle” sometimes. Love and Friendship, a witty black comedy of manners and machinations based on Jane Austen’s epistolary novella, Lady Susan, makes the point while seeming to have more in common with Oscar Wilde than the author of Sense and Sensibility. “Facts are horrid things,” Lady Susan (played by Kate Beckinsale) shrugs, dismissing any potential responsibility for her latest scandalous behavior. Hearing Lady Susan spinning her having been unmasked as a duplicitous scoundrel as everyone’s shame but her own is a masterful and hysterical tour de force. Mere “horrid” facts will not deter her. Motivated reasoning FTW.
Megan McArdle sums things up nicely.
“We like studies and facts that confirm what we already believe, especially when what we believe is that we are nicer, smarter and more rational than other people. We especially like to hear that when we are engaged in some sort of bruising contest with those wicked troglodytes — say, for political and cultural control of the country we both inhabit. When we are presented with what seems to be evidence for these propositions, we don’t tend to investigate it too closely. The temptation is common to all political persuasions, and it requires a constant mustering of will to resist it.”
That was the primary point of the last week’s TBL.
It’s tempting to think the answer to these difficulties is simply to muster up the will and pay better attention, to engage in a bit of “Sherlocking.” After all, Holmes can deduce an entire life story from just a floppy winter hat. His high-functioning detection skills suggest that the answers to all of life’s mysteries, frustrations, and unsolved murders are sprinkled all around us. The trick is simply knowing when, where, and how closely to look.
Of course, such unerring induction is much harder and less reliable in real life (again, recall the two biographies highlighted above). Reality is messy and, unlike Sherlock Holmes, we have a hard time paying attention. “The things right in front of us are often the hardest to see,” declared Apollo Robbins, the world’s most famous theatrical pickpocket, echoing Orwell. “The things you look at every day, that you’re blinded to.” And he then sets out to proving it … astonishing us in the process.
In 2016, Neil deGrasse Tyson floated an old but still stupid idea for an ideal nation: “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.”
As I like to say, on our best days, when wearing the right sort of spectacles, squinting and tilting our heads just so, we can be observant, efficient, loyal, focused, assertive truth-tellers. On those days, Rationalia seems a bit less like an authoritarian fever dream. However, on many days, all too much of the time, we’re delusional, lazy, short-sighted, partisan, arrogant, easily distracted confabulators. It’s an unfortunate reality, but reality nonetheless.
These foibles are universal. As last week’s TBL showed, the research evidence is crystal clear: confirmation bias and motivated reasoning are not uniquely Republican problems in matters of kind or degree. They are human problems.
Still, a remarkable number of us appear downright and disproportionately crazy. And that reality returns us to my critic’s question and to Donald J. Trump.
My critic is correct that a universe where millions upon millions of Republican base voters believe the 2020 election was stolen and that the American government is actually run by a cabal of famous cannibals and pedophiles belongs to another category of error. Those examples don’t feel like garden variety motivated reasoning.
I agree that those examples are a different and dangerous kind of crazy. I deny that they are a problem of motivated reasoning.
There are two categories of reasons for the sorts of crazy we’re seeing from the GOP base today.
The secondary reason is loyalty. Trump doesn’t offer loyalty of any kind but he demands absolute fealty. Moreover, he has refused to go away despite losing and losing both houses of Congress, too. Perhaps worse, he adheres to the iron law of institutions, meaning he is far more concerned with his power within the Republican Party than the Party’s power, influence, or success. Therefore, any Republican who crosses him can expect aggressive criticism and a primary challenge, irrespective of party damage. And he can enforce his petulance because the GOP base is with him, which leads me to the primary issue.
The key problem here isn’t really about how we think. It’s about who we trust. It has always been the case that humans are dependent on social ties to gain knowledge. None of us has seen everything or is an expert on everything. In the aggregate, none of us has seen very much or knows very much.
All of us, most of the time, “know” what we know not because of any reasoning we have undertaken but because of who and what we trust: books, papers, teachers, parents, media, etc.
Trumpists aren’t more susceptible to motivated reasoning than the rest of us. They, like their dear leader, reject the very premise of the search for truth. Objective truth is deemed irrelevant. For them, nihilism is the order of the day.
Mr. Trump has built his political brand upon his insistence that transparent and easy-to-check falsehoods – President Obama was born in Africa, Mexico would pay for a border wall, it didn’t rain on his inauguration while the crowd there was the biggest ever, and the election was stolen – are true and, perhaps more importantly, his insistence that his acolytes pledge fealty by acknowledging (trumpeting!) that such falsehoods are true. His consistent goal has been to establish total control over the Republican Party and his followers, even over matters of truth and falsehood.
Early in Mr. Trump’s term, his then press secretary, Sean Spicer, eagerly announced favorable employment statistics. During the Obama years, Trump had routinely described those monthly jobs reports as “fake,” “phony,” and “totally fiction.” But when they made him look good? “I talked to the president prior to this and he said to quote him very clearly,” Spicer said. “They may have been phony in the past, but it's very real now.”
Note that the then-president was not saying that the Bureau of Labor Statistics had gotten better. He was laying down a different marker, in authoritarian fashion, that truth and falsehood were subject solely to his will. Mr. Trump may have been our first post-modern president.
The contrast between the parties, then, could not be starker, at least on the surface.
“The facts have a well-known liberal bias,” claimed Paul Krugman, quoting Rob Corddry, “and experience keeps vindicating his joke.” Jonathan Chait mostly agreed. “In American politics,” he wrote, “reliance on empiricism is an ideology” and, to be more specific, that ideology is liberalism.
However, there are more than enough examples where the Democrats have beliefs or make claims that are unsupported or even contradicted by good evidence for Mr. Trump and his media enablers to claim equivalency, false though it is.
But for the relatively small “Crazy Caucus” – the likes of Lauren Boebert, Mo Brooks, Madison Cawthorn, Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Jim Jordan – elected Republicans don’t think Q has any insight or that the 2020 election was really stolen. The public at large surely doesn’t. Still, the Trumpian nihilism is supported and maintained by his strong base of support, a base that terrifies nearly all elected Republicans.
Crucially for our discussion, while Mr. Trump’s base seems to believe that the election really was stolen and, to a much lesser extent, that Q is a thing, those beliefs are not a product of motivated reasoning. There was no reasoning involved. They were a product of trust or, more accurately, distrust and misinformation.
As Jonathan Rauch has shown, there is nothing new about disinformation. Lies and propaganda of the usual sort are designed to instill a certain belief, typically false. Disinformation, on the other hand, is designed to make you disbelieve everything. By pumping out bad information by the ton and sowing doubt on so many sources of information, it seeks resignation to the “fact” that truth either doesn’t exist or can’t be ascertained. As former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon famously told Michael Lewis, “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with sh*t.”
Obviously, the strategy has worked.
According to Gallup, distrust toward media plummeted during the Trump years such that only 10 percent of Republicans trust the media while 73 percent of Democrats do. A January YouGov/American Enterprise Institute poll among people who said they voted for then-President Trump in 2020 found that a staggering 92 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that “the mainstream media today is just a part of the Democratic Party.”
One study that looked at trust in news media, by University of California, Berkeley, political scientists Taeku Lee and Christian Hosam, found that from 2016 to 2019, the role of media distrust in opinion formation shifted such that individuals who distrust the media more consistently consolidated around Trump. That media distrust now operates “as a basis for Americans to sort themselves into political tribes,” and as a way for Trump supporters to distinguish themselves, ideologically, even from other Republicans. It is possible that “a new form of conservatism is likely brewing with media distrust being one of its biggest factors,” Hosam told Vox.
We aren’t talking motivated reasoning here, folks, we’re talking epistemic abdication. The Republican base trusts Donald Trump and the institutions that might challenge his “facts,” most prominently the media, have no trust whatsoever. And the media have made enough errors, factual and strategic (such as deciding to oppose everything Trump is for and vice versa, irrespective of the merits – e.g., the “lab-leak” hypothesis), for the base to feel vindicated in their views every time conservative media tells them to.
All of us want to be right but, more than that, we long to be seen, to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to matter.
Joe Biden won the presidency fair and square. Despite dozens of court cases and hundreds of news hits on Fox, NewsMax and OANN claiming otherwise, there has not been a single credible argument made that his victory was illegitimate. Anyone with even half-a-brain who spent just a few minutes on the Google machine would find how easy it is to debunk election fraud claims. That reality did not and does not matter to millions of Americans.
“Why worry about facts and truth when we can spend our time ‘owning the libs’” … and waiting for “our president” to be reinstated?
Totally Worth It
Last week I noted my mother’s use of “Decoration Day.” Tom Brakke responded with his lovely remarks on the occasion of Decoration Day in 2001. You should read and treasure his words before subscribing to The Investment Ecosystem, his indispensable journal, which is relaunching this weekend.
Jaten Dimsdale started putting cover performances out on YouTube in 2019 under the name Teddy Swims. He tried out a wide variety of styles and learned that people loved his voice – with very good reason. Listen.
Please contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright) and let me know what you like, what you don’t like, what you’d like to see changed, and what you’d add. Don’t forget to subscribe and share.
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This is the best thing I saw or read this week. The most moving. The coolest. The funniest. The scariest. The most stunning. The most mesmerizing. The most impressive. The most significant. The sweetest. The most heartwarming. The most ridiculous. The most fun.
This week’s benediction again features the amazing roots-rocker sisters, Larkin Poe. The song is “Holy Ghost Fire” (and I checked, it’s “Sing!,” not “Sin!”).
Thanks for reading.
Issue 66 (June 4, 2021)