Without Evidence

newspapers_viabinoriranasingheIt is conventional to give people the benefit of the doubt—to err, when possible, on the side of uncertainty and not to presume the unlikely is untrue. But it is one thing to give the benefit of the doubt in uncertain circumstances, and it is quite another to give an outsized benefit with very little doubt indeed. That, in essence, is origin of false balance.

Worse, of late the media has taken to determining what subjects are in doubt not by what evidence is available, but instead by how forcefully people argue for one side or another. A forceful but untrue statement often triggers a confused and muddled response from journalists, who, by dint of their profession, know both that the statement is painfully untrue and that to contradict it outright is painfully taboo.

Journalistic conventions, intended to ensure fair treatment regardless of personal inclination, fail abysmally when public figures refuse to play by the rules.

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How We Got It Wrong

hillary-clinton-concession-speechThe grief is palpable—if you are liberal. 11/9 is like 9/11, in that your very way of life is under attack. Which, in many ways, it is. But why it feels that way is more complicated than that.

If you are centrist, this outcome doesn’t much register—this is business as usual, maybe a little worse but not that much. And if you are conservative, it’s annoying but still a win—Trump is an unlikely hero for conservative values, but hey, you won, so who cares about the other two thirds of the country. Fuck em.

And because there is so stark a divide right now, I need to apologize to my conservative friends. I think you are dead wrong about Trump, and no, Clinton is not a corrupt criminal, and no I don’t forgive you and would never trust you with my rights—but  you were right about one thing: the media does have a liberal bias. All that grief? It’s in the media. All that confusion? Yup, that too. All our pain? Everyone seems to share it. After all, how could this happen? How could we have gotten it so wrong? The media is convulsing along with us and scrabbling for answers.

Well, in the bluntest way possible, the Onion answered that: Area Liberal No Longer Recognizes Fanciful, Wildly Inaccurate Mental Picture Of Country He Lives In. But put more kindly, we thought most of the country shared our values, or at the very least that they wouldn’t tolerate the obviously intolerable. And we didn’t realize that fairness and protecting people from harm—the principals Trump violates and derides—are themselves liberal values.

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The Revisionists

4714006087_42e0da5f08_b“People are pouring across our borders.” “Immigrants are taking our jobs.” “Unemployment is the worst it’s ever been.” “Refugees are coming in and we have no idea who they are.” “The second amendment is absolutely under siege.” “Islamists want to conquer this country and impose sharia law.”

If there is a single narrative at stake for America, this is it—“they’re coming for you.”

And if you’re thinking “that’s the other guys,” flip the script—don’t just look at the words of one particularly unfiltered and untruthful demagogue, look at the narrative overall.

“Money is pouring into politics and controlling our elections.” “Corporations are destroying our jobs and our health.” “Chemicals are ending up in our food and we have no idea what they do.” “Christians want to take over the government and impose their restrictive beliefs.”

Whether you frame it as a story of fear or a story of heroic resistance, the core is the same: we’re under attack by dangerous, insidious people who have come to take what we have, and if we don’t fight back, we’ll watch our way of life disappear. So stand up and fight, or be prepared to lose your freedom.

Except… every single one of those statements is a lie. Every. Single. One. Some of them are motivated lies, and some of them are ignorant lies, and some of them are exaggerated lies, but they are all lies.

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The Novel and the New

notnow_viaellaOver the past year the Black Lives Matter movement has called attention to disproportionate police violence against disproportionately black Americans. For many black Americans, this was a breakthrough into the mainstream for a challenge they have lived with their entire lives. For many white Americans, this is a new and surprising piece of information about the world.

If you are a white American, it’s understandable that you would find it novel to think black Americans have more to fear from police officers. After all, you may have lived your entire life without worrying much about the police, and certainly without feeling like you have no control over whether you live or die at a traffic stop. You might wonder what we, a free and just society, should do about this new problem.

But of course it isn’t a new problem—just novel to you. It’s an old problem, and what’s new is that white people, by and large, now know about it.

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Intuitive Lies

onfire_viasusannenilssonPolitics has always mobilized the most intuitive kind of lies—the kind that we don’t bother to look at very deeply because they confirm our existing prejudices. Politicians are masters of the lie that feels true, even when all the facts run counter. And we buy those lies, and repeat them, and believe them, not because they have any isolated value, but because they bolster our view of the world.

Yet even knowing that, this election seems to me to be built on uniquely straightforward misinformation.

So I have been paying more attention to this election than some in the past, but not because I am disillusioned or disgusted with the choices, or frustrated by my vote not counting the way I’d like. Instead, it is because I think this election is historic, I very much want to see how we deal with it as a society.

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The Missing Words

police_viathomashawkThere are a bunch of people out there right now who want to tell you “support the police” and “blue lives matter.” Many of these people also say slightly more nuanced things like “there is more crime in black neighborhoods so police are needed there” or “there are a few bad apples, but the police need the freedom to act” or “black people would be safe in encounters with the police if they just do what the police tell them.”

But all of those phrases have a missing word, right there at the end where it matters the most.

That word is “unconditionally.”

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Skewing the Tribe

imposter_viaalexbellConformity is one of those tricky things: we like to give it the side-eye, but we also like to practice it, often without even knowing we’re doing it. We enjoy the feeling of being “right” with everyone else. The trouble is, it’s really hard to think differently than the rest of a group—so the feeling of being “right” isn’t really a feeling of being right at all. It’s just a feeling of being the same.

There is a series of psychological experiments that speak to the question of conformity. Collectively, these are known as the Asch Paradigm, and the most oft-repeated result of these studies is that, given enough peer pressure, a large number of people will give obviously wrong answers to questions. For example, when asked a simple question like “which of these three lines is the same length as this fourth line?” people were much more likely to pick one that was obviously longer or shorter if a group of other people confidently chose the wrong line first. In other words, seeing other people give the wrong answer with confidence made them change their own answer—and even doubt their own judgment.

You can tell this as a story about how we succumb to the pressure of the group and espouse ideas that are wrong. But I think it is more interesting as a story about how we impose conformity on others—about how confident we are in our views, especially in groups, and how viciously we ostracize people who propose something different.

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