The Better Letter: Liars of Us All

On confirmation bias and bets.

In the spring of 1989, a Salomon Brothers investment banker out jogging was raped and left for dead in New York City’s Central Park. The woman had been abused so brutally that when she was finally discovered, stripped and covered with mud, she had lost three-quarters of her blood and had already turned cold to the touch. Then-Mayor Ed Koch called it “the crime of the century.” Five schoolboys were eventually tried in the case; the “Central Park Five” were all black or Hispanic.

It turned out, however, that the rape of the Central Park jogger had been committed by a career criminal, serial rapist, and murderer named Matias Reyes. Despite the certainty of so many, the widely accepted narrative about a gang of “wilding” boys who raped the young woman was false. The wildly inconsistent confessions coerced out of the boys under the pressure of hours of police interrogations without being able to speak to their parents were false. And the inevitable convictions of the Central Park Five were also false.

For those who were convinced of a certain sort of narrative about street crime and black teenagers in the city (like Donald Trump), the Central Park jogger case checked every box. They “knew” what happened…even though it did not. To be clear, as reported by The New York Times, a mob of “teenagers invaded Central Park to assault, rob and harass joggers, bikers, and others in a night that came to symbolize an era of rampant crime and racial tensions in the city.” The Central Park Five almost surely were among them and, as reported by an NYPD-appointed Armstrong Commission, may well have contributed to the attack. However, as the Commission conceded, there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the Five were guilty of the crimes with which they were charged.

On the other hand, if you are feeling a bit smug and self-satisfied about your progressive bona fides or about not being a Trumpkin, you should not think you are somehow immune to this very sort of problem. The evidence does not support your hubris either.

For people who believed a certain type of narrative about white privilege and preppy rich-kid high-handedness and misadventures at elite universities, the Duke lacrosse scandal was too good not to be true, facts be damned. It checked every box. Three wealthy Duke student-athletes, all of them white, part of a team known for its hard-partying aggressive jocks, were charged with raping a poor black stripper during spring break at an off-campus rental that regularly served as the team’s party house.

Even after the comprehensive dismantling of the accuser’s claims and after the prosecutor was disbarred for multiple acts of blatant misconduct, the underlying narrative remains largely intact because the false accusation “was a virus that landed in the most hospitable petri dish imaginable, a culture rife with unresolved racial, sexual and class tensions and grievances.” Besides, these were not very nice kids and they were taking advantage of a poor black woman. For example, “the players’ behavior at that party was apparently despicable. Among other things, they yelled racial epithets at the two strippers, both of whom were African-American. They acted like spoiled, arrogant rich kids.” The facts may not have proved out, but they felt true and still do for many. However, as Jon Stewart said at the time, “those three Duke kids who spent the last year presumed guilty of assaulting a black woman because the issue had huge symbolic resonance with the media – turns out they didn’t do anything.”

Thus, for a different set of true believers, the people for whom Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons was written, the players were bad guys despite their exoneration, and the prosecutor was merely overzealous for a good cause. Civil libertarians and activists who typically oppose government overreach in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion bent over backward to support a corrupt public official committed to withholding and hiding evidence and to railroading innocent defendants. Meanwhile, “law and order” conservatives were eager to denounce a system they had previously so often defended in the face of dreadful disconfirming evidence. But you did not see them taking up the struggle of others who may have been wrongly convicted by the corrupt prosecutor but who didn’t have the money or the platform to fight back the way the Duke defendants did.

We are neuro-chemically confirmation bias addicts. As such, we tend to reach our conclusions first. Only thereafter do we gather purported facts and, even then, see those facts in such a way as to support our pre-existing beliefs and commitments. When they fit with our preferred narrative, so much the better. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has observed, disbelieving is very hard and difficult work.

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. 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. 

Our human nature – including ample allocations to the dangerous combination of confirmation bias and bias blindness – makes liars of us all. And that’s the subject of this week’s TBL.

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Liars of Us All

Kirkpatrick Sale wasn’t just sure, he knew. The world as we know it might not end, exactly, but it would collapse.

Sale’s book, Rebels Against the Future, provides an apocalyptic vision of an America destroyed by technology. Sale (founder of New York’s Green Party and a self-described “anarchocommunalist.”) argues that civilization is a catastrophe – “they all end by destroying themselves and the natural environment around them.” 

“If the edifice of industrial civilization does not eventually crumble as a result of a determined resistance within its very walls, it seems certain to crumble of its own accumulated excesses and instabilities within not more than a few decades, perhaps sooner, after which there may be space for alternative societies to arise (Rebels, p. 278).”

Before the book’s publication, WIRED magazine’s executive editor Kevin Kelly went to Sale’s Greenwich Village apartment in New York City for an interview. Kelly hated the book and the outlook it portended. 

Kelly saw the confrontation as “adversarial.” Sale found it “hostile.”

During the interview, Sale called for economic collapse, open rebellion by the poor, and environmental disaster, all within 25 years – by 2020. He hoped any survivors would become primitive hunters and gatherers again, with a pre-industrial life, joined together in small, tribal-style bands, in a return to Edenic paradise.

Kelly, on the other hand, saw technology as an enriching force, allowing society to flourish. As he saw things, technology offered “choices.” Kelly was as optimistic as his adversary was pessimistic. So, Kelly proposed a wager.

“I bet you $1,000 that in the year 2020, we're not even close to the kind of disaster you describe — a convergence of three disasters: global currency collapse, significant warfare between rich and poor, and environmental disasters of some significant size. We won't even be close. I'll bet on my optimism.”

Sale agreed to the bet and they shook on it. Kelly suggested that William Patrick, their mutual book editor, serve as referee. They both expressed the hope that Kelly’s forecast was right.

Even though Sales had called for the dollar to become worthless, economic depression, and a global stock market crash, none of which happened, he wrote a short book in late 2019 preemptively claiming victory, sort of. Essentially, Sale saw the inevitable collapse as very much underway, with no evidence that we are willing or able to stop it. In the end, he is sure, whether or not he was off by a few years isn’t all that important.

By last March, it seemed possible that a global pandemic might give Sale the victory. With supply lines seemingly shattered, the stock market in freefall, citizens shuttered and terrified in their homes, and the economy screeching to a halt, civilization appeared to be teetering at the edge of the abyss. 

However, the economy bounced back quickly and, while not fully recovered by a long shot, is remarkably strong. The environment has issues, obviously, led by climate change. But environmental catastrophe had not arrived. War was not raging.

Source: The New Yorker

When the once distant deadline arrived with the dawn of 2021 (Kelly agreed to move the conclusion of the debt back to the end of 2020 to provide more time for the apocalypse to dawn), Kelly had clearly won. Even so, during a time of climate crisis, pandemic, and great wealth inequality, Patrick thought he faced a much closer call as referee than any (but Sale) might have anticipated. That said, as Kelly recognized, “Sale lost the bet not because he misjudged our problems, but because he misjudged our capacity to deal with them.”

At the conclusion of the original bet, Kelly offered Sale a double-or-nothing opportunity. He remains as optimistic as ever

“I believe that we are in fact on the eve of a 25-year period of global progress and prosperity, the likes of which we have not seen before on this planet. In 25 years, poverty will be rare, and middle class lifestyle the norm. War between nations will also be rare. A bulk of our energy will be renewables, slowing down climate warming. Lifespans continue to lengthen. I’ll bet on it.”

Sale thinks otherwise yet declined any new bet. The predicted collapse, he asserts, is “not like a building imploding and falling down, but like a slow avalanche that destroys and kills everything in its path, until it finally buries the whole village forever.” 

And he reneged on the bet.

“I didn’t lose the bet,” Sale claimed, and refused to send the $1,000 stake to the designated charity. He thinks it was rigged. Kelly warned that history won’t be kind to Sale’s reneging but Sale was nonplussed. He’s convinced there won’t be a history – thus, often wrong, never in doubt.

As the great physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman stressed, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

As I have written many times, we like to think that we are like judges, that we carefully gather and evaluate all the relevant 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 we can exploit to support our preconceived notions and allegiances while preemptively attacking and dismissing anything that might contradict them. Perhaps worse, the more educated and intelligent we are, the more likely we are to reject relevant but opposing facts because we are smart and sophisticated enough to come up with seemingly plausible counter-arguments to what those facts suggest or even to the idea that they are facts.

According to Stanford’s John Ousterhout, “it’s easier to create a new organism than to change an existing one. Most organisms are highly resistant to change.” And as Oxford’s Teppo Felin points out, “what people are looking for– rather than what people are merely looking at– determines what is obvious.”

Once again for emphasis: Our human nature – including ample allocations to the dangerous combination of confirmation bias and bias blindness – makes liars of us all.

_______________

* These sorts of public bets are nothing new.

In 1870, John Hampden made a £500 bet with naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace that he could prove the Earth was flat. Hampden lost the bet but Wallace discovered that those so convinced of their rightness and righteousness will never concede defeat, irrespective of evidence. Hampden insisted that Wallace cheated, the Earth was indeed flat, and was eventually imprisoned for threatening to kill Wallace.

Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, perhaps the all-time ecological best seller, also believed in environmental collapse, in his case on account of overpopulation. His 1968 book begins as follows.

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.”

He bet economist Julian Simon (who was as optimistic as Kelly, banking on human ingenuity and the robustness of a market economy) $10,000 in 1980 that five commodity metals (copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten) would become scarce and increase in price over a decade. Ehrlich called Simon the leader of a “space-age cargo cult” convinced that new resources would miraculously fall from the skies. He didn’t count on profound technological advance. The prices declined, and Simon won the bet handily.

But Ehrlich insisted he won, seriously if not literally.

The Stanford biologist and MacArthur Fellow asserted, “[o]ne of the things that people don’t understand is that timing to an ecologist is very, very different from timing to an average person.” He claimed to be right – that disaster was imminent. Indeed, he still claims to be right more than three decades later. Ehrlich is sure that disaster is just around the bend. He insists that if he were to write the book today, “My language would be even more apocalyptic.”

And, of course, Donald Trump bet our democracy on the 2020 election being stolen from him, despite his inability to back up his assertions. He lost but still insists it was rigged.


Totally Worth It

The most exciting player in baseball – a just-turned 22-year-old soon to be the best – will play for my San Diego Padres for a loooooooooooooong time. The Pads are following Warren Buffett’s advice, being aggressive when their competition is retrenchingSpring Training has begun, too.

If you only read one thing this week, make it thisThis is the smartest thing I read this week. The saddest, unless it was this. The funniest. NASA stuck the landing this week and we now have a vehicle and a drone on Mars.

Carole King’s Tapestry is 50 years old this month. It is a perfect album. It came to define the singer-songwriter genre. Joni Mitchell and James Taylor sing backup, for goodness’ sake. Some of the greats extol its virtues here. “Her 12 songs have been ringing clear and true for 50 years,” as Natalie Merchant said. Put it on the turntable, literally or figuratively, this weekend and just listen (oh, and darlin’, just as it was 45 years ago, the answer is still “Yes,” always “Yes”).


Benediction

Christians celebrated Ash Wednesday this week, a day they typically go to church, pray a solemn liturgy, and are marked on the forehead with the sign of a cross made from ashes as “a sign of our mortality and penitence” to begin Lent. As the ashes are imposed, a member of the clergy says to each person, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This rite doesn’t work well during a pandemic but, really, hasn’t the last year seemed like Lent, with our mortality ever before us? Even so, Lent points to Easter and the defeat of death, so it is never devoid of hope.

This week’s benediction is a lovely new version of the 1759 hymn, “Come Ye Sinners.”

“Come, ye sinners, poor and needy | Weak and wounded, sick and sore | Jesus ready stands to save you | Full of pity, love and power.”

“May God bless our Lenten sacrifice.” Whatever it is.


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

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Issue 52 (February 19, 2021)