The Better Letter: Not "The Onion"

This week: motivated reasoning.

“There’s a southern accent where I come from,” sang the late Tom Petty, perhaps the best writer of opening lines in rock ‘n roll history. “The young ‘uns call it country; the Yankees call it dumb.”

Where you stand – literally and figuratively – determines what you see.

After a controversial 1951 football game between their schools, psychologists asked students from Princeton and Dartmouth to watch game film and comment upon the officiating. The students were far more likely to see the referees’ calls as correct when they favored their school than when they favored the rival. In a conclusion that will surprise nobody who has been a rabid sports fan or seen one in the wild, the researchers famously concluded that the emotional stake the students had in affirming their loyalty to their respective institutions shaped what they saw on film.

That result is a classic manifestation of motivated reasoning, in that the end or goal motivates the cognition. While confirmation bias is our tendency to notice and accept that which fits within our preconceived notions and beliefs, motivated reasoning is the complementary tendency to scrutinize ideas more critically when we disagree with them than when we agree. We are much more likely to recall and accept supporting rather than opposing evidence. Upton Sinclair offered perhaps its most popular expression: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

If you are old enough, you may recall that in 1964 the U.S. Surgeon General famously issued a report linking smoking and cancer. It was a very big deal at the time and was extremely controversial. 

Shortly thereafter, two scientists interviewed smokers and nonsmokers alike and asked them to evaluate the Surgeon General’s conclusions. Nonsmokers generally agreed with the Surgeon General. Smokers, however, who clearly had something significant to them at stake, were not nearly so sanguine. They concocted a variety of dubious challenges, including “many smokers live a long time” and “lots of things are hazardous.”  

A related study by the late Ziva Kunda should ring true in these politically polarized times. A group of test subjects were brought into a lab and told that they would be playing a trivia game. Before they play, they watch someone else (the “Winner”) play, to get the hang of the game. Half the subjects are told that the Winner will be on their team and half are told that the Winner will be on the opposing team. The play they watch is rigged such that the Winner answers every question correctly.

When asked about the Winner’s success, those who expect to play with the Winner are extremely impressed while those who expect to play against the Winner are dismissive. Prospective opponents attribute the Winner’s success to good luck. The exact same event received diametrically opposed interpretations depending upon whose side the interpretors were on. Sounds like cable TV “news,” doesn’t it?

Real-life examples are legion.

While doing press for “Fast and Furious 9” in Taiwan this week, John Cena, one of the film’s stars, accidentally told the truth by referring to Taiwan as a country. Because China takes its claims of sovereignty over Taiwan with the utmost seriousness, Cena put hundreds of millions of dollars at risk and incurred the wrath of Chinese nationals and bots on that nation’s social media platforms.  

No doubt motivated by the economics, Cena apologized profusely and in Mandarin.

George P. Bush is the grandson of the late former President George H.W. Bush, son of former Florida Governor and presidential candidate Jeb Bush, and nephew of former President George W. Bush. He is running for Texas state Attorney General. 

On Monday, “P” tweeted a picture of himself talking on the phone, saying that it was “great to speak with President Trump to discuss the future of Texas and how we are keeping up the fight to put America first. I appreciate the words of encouragement and support.” P doesn’t seem to recall that Mr. Trump accused his uncle of treason, attacked his father early, often, and very personally, and even took shots at his mother.

No doubt motivated by his desire to get elected and recognizing the cold, hard, fact that today’s GOP has entirely sold out to Donald J. Trump, P (like Ted Cruz and so many others) eagerly went full Theon Greyjoy.

The Scottish philosopher and famous skeptic David Hume recognized back in the 18th Century that, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Motivated reasoning proves the point and is the primary subject of this week’s TBL.

Not “The Onion”

Ezra Klein (now of The New York Times) co-founded Vox Media in 2014 to practice “explanatory journalism.” Apparently, to that point, journalists had never explained things. Who knew? Then, as now, Vox offered consistently progressive “explanations” for various ideas, policies, and events by a talented but ideologically pure staff. 

Klein’s big introductory think piece for Vox dealt with motivated reasoning and why it makes politics so difficult. When the information at issue relates to a core belief or commitment, our mental abilities (including mathematical abilities) rise or fall depending upon whether the “answer” supports or opposes the preexisting commitment. Perhaps most frustrating is the reality that the smarter and more well-informed we are, the more likely we are to engage in motivated reasoning – we’re clever enough to come up with seemingly plausible explanations for our priors.  

“Consider how utterly insane that is: being better at math made partisans less likely to solve the problem correctly when solving the problem correctly meant betraying their political instincts. People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right.”

For example, to support his unwillingness to support the necessity of raising the minimum wage to $15, Republican Sen. John Thune recently pointed out he earned $6 an hour as a teenager in the 1970s, failing to recognize that, on an inflation-adjusted basis, that would be more than $20 today.

Klein recognized the gravity of the threat, even in 2014.

“The threat is real. Washington is a bitter war between two well-funded, sharply-defined tribes that have their own machines for generating evidence and their own enforcers of orthodoxy. It’s a perfect storm for making smart people very stupid.”

The Trump years have only increased the stupid. On all sides.

Klein recognized the universality of the problem, consistent with all the available research. In other words, it isn’t a Republican problem or a Democratic problem. It’s a human problem.

However, he only recognized the problem in theory. Every one of Klein’s examples consisted of conservatives falling victim to motivated reasoning.

Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate and progressive pundit for The New York Times, took the theoretical problem and made it painfully real. The title of his commentary, opining on Klein’s piece specifically and motivated reasoning more generally, exhibited his scientific denialism and proved the omni-partisan nature of the problem: “Asymmetric Stupidity.”

Krugman saw “a genuine intellectual puzzle” because his “lived experience is that this effect is not, in fact, symmetric between liberals and conservatives.” In his view, this “lived experience” trumped the research evidence. Krugman insisted instead that conservatives are simply much less rational than liberals because reality skews liberal. He even went so far as to deny that there were examples where liberals engaged in the “overwhelming rejection of something that shouldn’t even be in dispute.” If what is being expressed is perceived to be the unvarnished, simple, and obvious truth, bias can’t be part of the equation.

Krugman insisted that, “faced with setbacks, liberals rush to fix things, rather than denying the problem.” He further postulated – with a straight face – that liberals get things right so much more often because they “don’t have the same kind of monolithic, oligarch-financed network of media organizations and think tanks as the right.” It is a claim almost too ridiculous to take seriously without motivated reasoning since Krugman made it via The New York Times.*

Yale’s Dan Kahan, who was Klein’s primary interviewee in the Vox piece and an author of much of the relevant research, found Krugman’s view “amazingly funny,” in part because the research is so clear. After “laughing [himself] into a state of hyperventilation,” Kahan replied, pointing out how Krugman’s essay was itself evidence of how “ideologically motivated reasoning is in fact perfectly symmetric with respect to right-left ideology.” Thus, Krugman provided “decisive, knock-down, irrefutable proof of the ideological symmetry of motivated reasoning.”

They aren’t strictly relevant (as Kahan emphasizes, it’s the process rather than the outcome that is crucial), but there really are numerous instances of liberal “stupidity” about things “that shouldn’t even be in dispute” (if not as well-known as those involving climate change), including the brute fact that nuclear power is the safest and cleanest energy source we have and vital to getting to carbon-neutral. 

It’s as easy as Ado Annie to show that Republicans are prone to motivated reasoning: simply point at Donald J. Trump. The former president decides a poll is accurate or not by whether he leads it. If a news report is negative about him, it’s fake. If he loses an election, it’s rigged. Oh, and virtually every other elected Republican determines the right position on any given issue based upon whether DJT approves or is expected to approve.

That said, American progressives are utterly convinced that they are mere empiricists and fact-finders, seeking, finding, and doing what is right, true, and just in a battle against the troglodytes on the right. They aren’t ideologues – oh, no – they’re pragmatic problem-solvers unalterably committed to truth, justice, and the American Way.

That entire trope is horse-hooey all the way down.

If they were honest, they would admit their biases upfront and defend the ideas that inform their biases. Instead, they claim truth – sometimes with a capital “T” – based upon the fiction that the liberal “frame” is a window onto reality.

Examples, you ask? Sure.

As I noted last week, it’s crazy to pretend that huge, in-person BLM protests are actually okay during a pandemic, a three-time Jeopardy winner holding up three fingers for three wins should be canceled as a white supremacist, or lockdowns, school closures, and outdoor mask-wearing are necessary after vaccination.

There are so many more.

On Wednesday, President Biden announced he has asked the intelligence community to “redouble their efforts” to investigate the origin of COVID-19, “including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.” Last January, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton pointed out in a Senate hearing that the Chinese government lied about COVID-19 originating in a Hunan seafood market, located in the same town as China’s only biosafety level-four laboratory. Sen. Cotton got enormous pushback from virologists, and in turn the mainstream media, for raising this issue, who claimed it was racist to do so. 

Also on Wednesday, Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias tracked how the debate around the lab leak theory has evolved over time, and how the press ignored or discredited it. “This is a case of a smallish group of reporters and fact-checkers proclaiming a scientific consensus where none ever really existed,” he wrote. 

“How did people let the original story of what Tom Cotton even said go so badly awry? Essentially Cotton said something that was then transformed into a fake claim of a Chinese bio-attack, then the fake claim was debunked, and then the debunking was applied to the real claim with little attention paid to ongoing disagreement among researchers.” 

Meanwhile, The New York Times’ COVID reporter insisted we should stop talking about the lab leak hypothesis – even if it’s how COVID was transmitted to humans – because that idea is racist. She later deleted what she had written not because it was wrong, but because it was “poorly phrased.”

A few more ready examples follow.

It is a common progressive trope that the United States is on the cusp of being an authoritarian white Christian nationalist state, despite avowed liberals and progressives in the White House and in control of both legislative branches.

Police aren’t modern day “slave patrols” committed to black genocide, nor is it “open season” on black men.

In April, the Harvard Crimson conceded that the university’s conservative faculty are “an endangered species.” Nonetheless, and contrary to virtually every conservative student’s experience at major American universities, Asheesh Kapur Siddique of the University of Massachusetts claimed that “[t]he modern American university is a right-wing institution.”

Last summer, reporters from mainstream outlets stood in front of rioters burning buildings and hurling objects at police in Kenosha, Wisconsin and characterized the protests as “mostly peaceful.”

You can’t make stuff like this up. It’s almost too absurd to believe, even it isn’t The Onion.

It’s a free country (mostly). If a Nobel laureate wants to demonstrate that he can’t tell the difference between motivated reasoning and a valid causal inference, nothing I say is likely to stop him. Then again, if a Nobel laureate unequivocally demonstrates that he can’t make that distinction, there isn’t much reason to think I’ll do it any better.


* Krugman makes a difficult situation much worse by failing even to consider opposing viewpoints, which is vital if one is to have a hope of beating bias.

“Some have asked if there aren’t conservative sites I read regularly. Well, no. I will read anything I’ve been informed about that’s either interesting or revealing; but I don’t know of any economics or politics sites on that side that regularly provide analysis or information I need to take seriously. I know we’re supposed to pretend that both sides always have a point; but the truth is that most of the time they don’t.”

Totally Worth It

Monday is Memorial Day, which my parents called Decoration Day. Through the sounding of Taps, members of The United States Air Force Band solemnly render honor to those who have given “the last full measure of devotion.” On Memorial Day, we honor their service, pay tribute to their lives, and thank them for their selfless sacrifice.

The Linda Lindas, an all-female punk rock band of teenagers that lit up social media last week when a video of their recent performance at the Los Angeles Public Library went viral, signed a record deal, too. The band — Bela, Lucia, Eloise, and Mila – range in age from 16 to 10 and describe themselves on social media as “Half Asian / Half Latinx. Sisters, cousins, and friends who play music together because it’s fun!!” Enjoy the concert. 

I wish I had written this sentence: “In ‘Final Account,’ the filmmaker Luke Holland interviews a series of erstwhile Nazi functionaries: older men and women who seem to have spent a lifetime perfecting the use of the passive voice.”

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The Dow Jones Industrial Average was 125 years old on Wednesday. Use this tool to calculate an inflation rate for your personal spending.

May 31 and June 1 will mark the hundred-year anniversary of one of the most horrible events in modern American history: the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. A century ago, hundreds of black residents and businesses of the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma were brutally killed

“Greenwood was so promising, so vibrant that it became home to what was known as America’s Black Wall Street. But what took years to build was erased in less than 24 hours by racial violence — sending the dead into mass graves and forever altering family trees.

“Hundreds of Greenwood residents were brutally killed, their homes and businesses wiped out. They were casualties of a furious and heavily armed white mob of looters and arsonists. One factor that drove the violence: resentment toward the Black prosperity found in block after block of Greenwood.”

Stevie Nicks turned 73 this week. She’s the woman who wrote songs about how terrible her ex was and then had him play and sing back-up on all the songs – for more than 45 years. 


Bob Dylan turned 80 this week. The benediction for this TBL is a classic, Grammy-winning Dylan song performed by Eric Burdon (The Animals), and as true today is it was when Bob wrote it in 1979. 

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Issue 65 (May 28, 2021)