The Better Letter: As Though the Truth Were True

Confirmation bias as business model

As a kid growing up in a cinder block church in small-town America – it wasn’t the middle of nowhere, but you could see it from there – Sunday evening services included testimony time. Congregants were given the opportunity to stand and recite what God had done for them.

As America has become increasingly secularized, the human need to proclaim has become less a matter of faith and more a matter of politics. Quite naturally, testimonies, no matter how heartfelt, are often vehicles for virtue-signaling.

Even alleged people of faith seem more enamored with the political than with evangelism.

On Wednesday, Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president in the history of our republic. The ceremony and the accompanying celebration included lots of testimonies.

Words can be great. Inspiring, even. “For words alone are certain good,” wrote Yeats. Music can improve them.

Whether it’s religion, politics, or anything else, words matter. But deeds matter more. That’s the hard part. In comparison, getting elected is easy.

The Jesuit Daniel Berrigan once said of Dorothy Day that she lived “as though the truth were true.” I pray that would be accurate of President Biden and all of us. 

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Shockingly Prone

Over thousands of cryptic posts since 2017, QAnon’s unidentified online prophet (“Q”) assured his anxious followers that President Trump was secretly spearheading a spiritual war, fought with the help of the U.S. military, against an elite cabal of child-eating Satanists and pedophiles who control Washington, Hollywood, and the world. A recent NPR-Ipsos poll reported that 17 percent of Americans believe the ever-evolving conspiracy theory and another 37 percent aren't sure. 

President Trump gave a major boost to QAnon last year when he refused to disavow it from the White House briefing room, calling followers “people that love our country” and like him a lot. Newly elected Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene of Georgia has expressed full-on support for QAnon and is now a member of Congress. Well-known disciples of the movement and others wearing clothing branded with QAnon slogans were among those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 in an effort to overturn President Biden’s election.

Many QAnon conspiracists convinced themselves that Wednesday’s inauguration would be the culmination of the plan to win the war, with the ceremony an elaborate ruse set by President Trump to lure the evil elites, mostly Democrats, to a single location. Mr. Trump would announce martial law through the Emergency Alert System and retain power before carrying out mass arrests and executions. 

As Wednesday approached, elderly Americans, fueled by internet gossip, were buying CB radios and filling up bathtubs with water to protect them from coming power outages. Neighbors were warning each other to stock up on food. 

As the inauguration neared and there was no sign of any “coming storm,” some true believers kept the faith, noting that 17 flags — Q being the 17th letter of the alphabet — flew on the stage as Mr. Trump delivered his farewell address. The slightly less crazy did not.

“17 flags! come on now this is getting insane,” one poster on a QAnon forum devoted to the “Great Awakening,” the quasi-Christian name for QAnon’s utopian end times prophecy, commented unironically.

Like the various other doomsdays, Krakens, and coming storms hypothesized by the QAnon community, and like the many other conspiracies propagated by Mr. Trump, this wish-fulfillment fantasy of climax and violence was entirely phony. Nobody was arrested but for the conspiracists whose attempts at insurrection at the Capitol failed. Joe Biden became president. Those who trusted the plan were left high and dry. 

As a top post on a popular QAnon forum read, “It's like being a kid and seeing the big gift under the tree thinking it is exactly what you want only to open it and realize it was a lump of coal.”

That’s largely because we humans are shockingly prone to bad ideas, ideas that escalate to terrible decisions, and then metastasize into actions that undermine, damage, or even ruin our lives and futures.

We can’t seem to help it.

We choose poorly, far too often, on matters big and small, vital and prosaic, important and ordinary.

By this point, nearly all of us have at least a passing knowledge of behavioral bias — a significant cause of poor choices — and its lead actor, confirmation bias, whereby we see what we want to see, accept these desires as truth, and act accordingly. What we “find” is often little more than Jesus on toast – what we wanted or expected to find all along. It explains why the average man claims to have slept with 14 women while the average woman says she has slept with seven men. It’s why disillusioned Americans, bitter at their being overlooked or left out in one way or another, see a grand conspiracy behind their plight.

We like to think that we see the world as it truly is. The difficult and dangerous reality is that we tend to see the world as we truly are. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Magician’s Nephew, a children’s book that is so much more than that, “What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” For all of us, far too often, believing is seeing.

Once we reach a conclusion, we aren’t likely to change our minds, even when new information shows our initial belief is likely wrong, and clinging to that belief has real costs. “When we know something we stop thinking about it, don’t we?” a character in the Miriam Toews novel, Women Talking, recognizes, as she tries to develop the ability and willingness to change her mind. And once we start seeing confirmation bias, it’s hard not to see it everywhere.

Simon and Garfunkel got the concept by 1970, well before Tversky and Kahneman, when Simon wrote and they first sang The Boxer. “Still the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

The Apostle Paul got it two centuries earlier than that. “Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

When we grab a glass of what we think is apple juice, only to take a sip and discover that it’s actually ginger ale, we react with disgust, even when we love ginger ale. We quite naturally try to jam the facts into our preconceived notions and commitments or simply miscomprehend reality such that we accept a view, no matter how implausible, that sees a different (“alternative”) set of alleged facts, “facts” that are used to support what we already believe.

David O. Russell’s American Hustle began as a script by writer and producer Eric Singer entitled “American Bulls**t.” Its major theme is expressed by a stripper from the American southwest turned would-be English aristocrat, played by the great Amy Adams.

Truth is irrelevant to “get[ting] over on all these guys” because “people believe what they want to believe.”

Confirmation is common – routine. Yet it is highly desired, sought-after even. We preach to the choir and ignore the needy heathen. If you tell people what they want to hear, you can be wrong indefinitely. QAnon has made a lot of people a lot of money. You can spout nonsense virtually undeterred and unchecked. You can even tell people that if they give you money, God will make them rich, and lots of people will give you money.

As Oxford’s Teppo Felin points out, “what people are looking for – rather than what people are merely looking at – determines what is obvious.”

The Music Man, perhaps America’s greatest musical, features Harold Hill, a traveling con man who poses as a boys’ band leader who sells band instruments and uniforms to naïve Midwestern townsfolk, promising to train the members of the new band. As he has done many times before, his intention is to flee as soon as he receives the money.

Librarian Marian Paroo suspects Harold is a fraud but holds her tongue since her moody little brother, Winthrop, is excited about the band. As Harold falls for Marian, he “gets his foot caught in the door.” In the final scene, Harold is asked to prove his legitimacy by having the band play. They’re terrible, but (of course) their parents are enraptured by their children’s “talent” and all ends well.

Parents thinking their children are far better than reality allows? That’s common because believing is seeing. All turning out well? Not so much.

The advent of omnipresent digital technology has turned this sort of common confirmation bias into a highly profitable business model. 

The digital revolution means the path from lunacy to mark is without barrier, without friction even. Information – good, bad, and evil – travels in virtually unlimited quantities, at the speed of light, virtually unimpeded. Information (even that which is uncollated, uncorroborated, and unreal) wants to be free.

The internet isn’t broken. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do

Ben Smith wrote recently and powerfully about this reality in his column for The New York Times

“If you haven’t had the experience of posting something on social media that goes truly viral, you may not understand its profound emotional attraction. You’re suddenly the center of a digital universe, getting more attention from more people than you ever have. The rush of affirmation can be giddy, and addictive. And if you have little else to hold on to, you can lose yourself to it.”

The Social Dilemma is a 2020 documentary that explores the rise of social media. It focuses on the exploitation and manipulation of its users for financial gain through surveillance capitalism and data-mining. The film explains in detail how social media's design is meant to nurture an addiction (through likes and notifications), manipulate its users (by placing more and more extreme iterations of what we focus on front and center in our feeds), and empower confirmation bias (via echo chambers and feedback loops). 

Those most susceptible to QAnon are the most likely to get the most exposure to QAnon. No matter what bizarre idiocy someone thinks is true, the internet puts other true believers a mere click away and demonstrates that there’s always something and someone crazier out there. 

The lack of friction between purveyors of dangerous nonsense and their marks is insidious. It’s highly dangerous. It’s also exactly how the internet is supposed to work.

Unfettered – frictionless – humanity isn’t a good thing. Lord Acton was right (emphasis supplied). 

“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility [that is, the later judgment of historians] has to make up for the want of legal responsibility [that is, legal consequences during the rulers' lifetimes]. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which . . . the end learns to justify the means.”

Our Founders wisely recognized what human nature demands checks and balances. Especially with respect to the powerful.

The internet is set up to avoid any such frictions. Confirmation bias is highly sought after. It is the favored business model. Digital media has no interest in our living as if the truth were true. It convinces us that our desires are true. It’s confirmation all the way down.


Totally Worth It

Great song. Great singer. Great guitarist.

This was the cutest thing I saw this week. The most disgusting. The coolest. The saddest. The most inspiring story. The most depressing. The most powerful. On great leadership. A virtual tour of the Metropolitan Museum. DedicationHmmm.


Benediction

This week’s benediction is self-explanatory. To the extent it isn’t, Wynton Marsalis fills in the gaps.


Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Issue 48 (January 22, 2021)