SCRIPTED / ARROGANT / DUMB AND TOWN: The roll call of troops at the Post and the Times!

TUESDAY, MAY 11, 2021

Youngsters attack Buckeye State: Long ago and far away, the western world's first great journalist recorded what he had seen.

He compiled a list of the forces assembled on the wide plains before Troy. His lengthy recitation dominates Book II of The Iliad. This is the way he began:

Sing to me now, you Muses who hold the halls of Olympus!
You are goddesses, you are everywhere, you know all things—
all we hear is the distant ring of glory, we know nothing—
who were the captains of Achaea? Who were the kings?...

For the record, Homer's sexual politics were at times impressive and strong.

After a bit more throat-clearing of this traditional type, Homer's roll call of the troops began. We're using Professor Fagles' translation:

First came the Boeotian units led by Leitus and Peneleos:
Arcesilaus and Prothoenor and Clonoius shared command
of the armed men who lived in Hyria, rocky Aulis,
Schoenus, Sclkos and Eteonus spurred with hills,
Thespia and Graea, the dancing rings of Mycalessus,
men who lived round Harma, Ilesion, and Erythrae
and those who settled Eleon, Hyle and Peteon,
Ocalea, Medeon's fortress walled and strong.

We'd like to post the full roll call, but Homer goes on for more than three hundred additional lines, listing those who journeyed to Troy to avenge a tribal insult. 

(We humans have always behaved in such ways, top leading scholars all tell us.)

Today, we begin a series of reports by reviewing two similar roll calls. The background would be this:

Within the past two weeks, the Washington Post and the New York Times  prepared and published separate reports about the shooting death of 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant. This young person had been in foster care in Columbus, Ohio at the time of her death. 

Each report discussed the particular circumstances of this fatal shooting. Each report discussed the way Bryant had ended up in foster care. Each report offered an overview of the state of Ohio's foster care system.

All three topics are important. Who had these newspapers charged with the task of exploring these topics? We start with the roll call at the Washington Post.

The Post's front-page report appeared on Friday, April 30. Modern Muses say that these reporters were assigned this important task:

The Roll Call at the Post:

Tim Craig: Craig is twenty-one years out of college (Gannon, class of 1999). His official bio at the Post tells us this:

Tim Craig is a national reporter on the America desk, often traveling to faraway places to bring the best and the worst of the country to Washington Post readers. Before joining the National desk in 2017, he served as The Post's Afghanistan-Pakistan bureau chief from 2013 through 2016. Craig was based in Islamabad, Pakistan, and in Kabul but traveled frequently throughout the region, the Middle East and Europe. In 2011, he also did a stint in The Post's Baghdad bureau. Craig began his career at The Post in 2003, serving as a Maryland government reporter, the Richmond bureau chief, and a D.C. City Hall reporter. Before joining The Post, he spent three years covering government and politics and urban affairs at the Baltimore Sun.

In the byline to the Post's report, Craig was the featured reporter. In a move we don't quite understand, he had joined forced with another veteran journalist:

Randy Ludlow: Ludlow is a "senior reporter" at the Columbus Dispatch. He has worked for major newspapers in Ohio since 1983, spending 19 years at the now-defunct Cincinnati Post before moving to the Dispatch in 2002. 

In what seems to be a self-description, Ludlow tells us this at the Dispatch web site:

Old-school muckraker. Journalist of nearly 50 years. Champion of governmental transparency and access to public records. National, multiple-time Ohio winner of First Amendment awards. Honored by SPJ as Best Reporter in Ohio and for best investigative reporting. Regional Emmy winner for team project with WBNS-TV. Working Capitol Square and the Statehouse since 1992. Alumnus of the late, great Cincinnati Post (19 years).

For good or for ill, the Washington Pot had assigned this important report to a pair of experienced journalists.  At the New York Times, a somewhat different demographic clambered ashore at Troy.

The Roll Call at the Times:

The Times' report on these important topics appeared above the fold on the paper's front page on Sunday, May 9. The byline featured the names of three reporters. The first name listed was this:

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: Bogel-Burroughs is almost two years out of college (Cornell, class of 2119). He recently created a false impression concerning the death of Daunte Wright. His official bio goes like this:

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs reports on national news for The New York Times. He is from upstate New York and previously reported in Baltimore, Albany, and Isla Vista, Calif.

That's it!

The third reporter in the byline was Will Wright. He's almost six years out of college (Kentucky, class of 2016). His company bio says this:

Will Wright is a national reporting fellow for The New York Times. He has reported from Oregon, Louisiana, Texas and Kentucky. He previously covered eastern Kentucky for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

For the record, the national reporting fellowship program brings young reporters to the Times to serve one-year stints. The program is a recent replacement for the summer intern program.

Bogel-Burroughs and Wright are virtual cub reporters. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with that.

They were joined by Ellen Barry, an experienced Times reporter. She graduated from Yale in the class of 1993. Her company bio says this:

Ellen Barry is the New England bureau chief of The New York Times.

She was previously the London-based chief international correspondent, and before that, the paper's South Asia bureau chief, based in New Delhi.

In 2020, she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in feature writing for “The Jungle Prince of Delhi.” Before India, Ms. Barry was also a correspondent and then bureau chief for The Times in Moscow. While in Russia, she was part of a team which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for a series on impunity in the country’s justice system.

Ms. Barry was also a Pulitzer finalist for feature writing in 2001, for beat reporting in 2004, and for breaking news, as part of a team, in 2007. She covered mental health and rural New England for The Boston Globe, and covered the American South for The Los Angeles Times.

Barry is quite experienced, and award-winning. We don't know how her name ended up on that Times front-page report.

Briefly, let's be clear. There's no reason why someone who's just out of college can't be a capable reporter, even an outstanding reporter. That said, we were struck by the contrasting call of the roll at these rival newspapers.

What happened on the day Ma'Khia Bryant died? Why was she in foster care, and what is the current state of Ohio's foster care system?

These strike us as important topics. The Post assigned two experienced reporters to run these topics down.

The Times took a different approach. They assigned a young reporter just out of college, along with someone in the successor to the paper's intern program. Somehow, the paper's highly experienced New England bureau chief ended up in the mix.

In any given situation, young reporters might bring fresher eyes to a particular assignment. In some given set of circumstances, veteran reporters may be stuck in the past in some way which isn't helpful. 

In this case, we'll only say this:

In certain major ways, the young reporters at the Times offered a front-page report we would describe as embarrassing and hapless. Unless your goal is to stick to the types of Storylines which make Our Town's hearts glad.

As they reported Ma'Khia Bryant's death, the kid reporters went after the whole state of Ohio! They offered an overview of the state's foster care system which we would describe, on a journalistic basis, as arrogant, unintelligent—dumb.

In fairness, we'd have to say that their report did favor modern Storyline, in which official agencies will always be wrong in cases like this and some single study can always be found to support whatever point the "journalist" wishes to (seem to) make.

Hector was slain on the plains outside Troy. In our view, nuance and judgment met similar fates in the Times' front-page report. 

In fairness, editors waved the report into print. In our view, the report is a reflection of prevailing New York Times culture, as devised along the wide sands of the Hamptons, "where the breakers crash and drag."

Tomorrow, we'll start to show you what the young reporters wrote. Can Our Town survive this regime? Experts suggest that it can't!

Tomorrow: Reporters fight the power


How long will cognitive chaos rule?

MONDAY, MAY 10, 2021

For a long time, Haidt says: Earlier today, the Washington Post's Robert McCartney posted a gloomy report. The headline says this:

Even in moderate Northern Virginia, GOP activists buy the ‘big lie’ about Biden’s election

McCartney had spoken to Republican activists from the more moderate parts of Virginia. Here's how his report starts:

MCCARTNEY (5/10/21): Republicans at the national level persist in pushing the “big lie” that President Biden was not legitimately elected, and I’m sorry to report that GOP activists in Northern Virginia mostly seem to agree.

In interviews at Saturday’s state conventions in Loudoun and Prince William counties, a majority told me they believe either that Democrats stole the election for Biden, or at least that enough “shenanigans” occurred to make them doubt the result.

I was disappointed to hear it. I had hoped that Republicans in the two outer suburbs would be more accepting of reality. Loudoun and Prince William residents are comparatively better educated than those elsewhere in Virginia. GOP voters there are also more moderate. 

Examples of his interviews with those activists follow. Even in the more moderate part of the blue-leaning state, McCartney found that GOP activists don't believe that Biden actually won, or feel that they aren't real sure.

In fairness, there's no ultimate way to prove that anyone ever won any election. Did FDR really defeat Herbert Hoover in 1932? If you don't want to believe that he did, there's no ultimate way that anyone can make you.

A person can always imagine, or become convinced, that FDR ended up in the White House due to some fiendish ballot-stuffing scheme—a scheme so fiendish that it escaped detection. Today, there would be plenty of orgs eager to push that idea.

You may think that's a crazy idea. But go ahead—try to prove it! In the end, there's no way to compel belief.

In the end, all examples of widely shared national belief are built upon social cohesion and trust. When social cohesion and trust take a dive, so does shared belief.

In recent decades, shared belief has been worn away by the power of partisan media—by partisan talk radio, partisan "cable news," partisan Internet sites and partisan social media. 

Also, social media allows us to find other people as dumb and deluded as we ourselves are. At one time, it was hard to do that!

This lets Republicans believe that Donald J. Trump really won the election, and it lets us, over here in the streets of Our Town, believe that Daunte Wright was being arrested on a  warrant for a marijuana charge. Or for dangling air fresheners! 

We saw it on Brian Williams' show! We read it in the Times!

Under current arrangements, residents of various towns are told about the crazy beliefs of people who live in the other towns. Fox viewers learn about how crazy we are in Our Town. We, in turn, are told about the crazy beliefs Over There.

Over the weekend, we watched a C-Span book event, during which Jonathan Haidt was asked how long this state of affairs will last. It will last a long time, the gentleman gloomily said:

HAIDT (4/18/21): I'll have to say that, if we channel Steve Pinker or Matt Ridley, in the long run things get better. And as you've pointed out, with every previous major technology there are disruptions. 

So if I had to bet, I'd bet that, fifty years from now, things are going to be a lot better, and we'll have figured this out.

However—however, for the next ten or twenty years, and probably for the rest of our lifetimes—my lifetime, not the younger people here—I think what has happened to us is that the tower of Babel was destroyed between 2009 and 2012. 

In that story, in the Bible, God said, "Let us go down and confound their language so that they may not understand each other." And while it's always difficult to find the truth, I think that, after 2012, we are in Babel. and social media has made it possible for people to create alternate narratives within every company, within every university, and everything is a battle to put your narrative forth.

And so I think that we will never again find shared truth—I shouldn't say never again. In the next twenty years, we will not be able to find shared truth. And so I'm also despairing that good research such as yours—our ability to even agree on the facts, even within the social sciences—is being compromised by this.

So I guess I would say, long-term optimism—you've got to be an optimist long-term if you look at history.  But short term, I'm very, very pessimistic.

Haidt was speaking with Professor Bail about Bail's new book, Breaking the Social Media Prism. To watch the full event, click here. Haidt's assessment comes right near the end.

Professor Haidt has been an apostle of sanity over the past several decades. We may be slightly gloomier than he is about the problem in which we're now deeply mired.

In our view, our nation was well on its way to Babel as early as the start of Campaign 2000, if not long before. We started designing this site in the fall of 1997 because we thought things were already so far out of hand.  In our view, this very much isn't a problem which started with social media.

According to Haidt, things will be fine if we wait fifty years. Along the way, we'll offer this bit of advice:

Stop believing that The Crazy is confined to The Others. Our Town is shedding its sanity too, and The Others are told about the crazy things we say and do on every night on Fox. Some of those reports are crazy, but quite a few of them aren't.

Our Town is losing its sanity too! Experts tell us that human history has always followed this pattern, with tribal breakdown leading onward toward some version of war.

On the brighter side, it's always the fault of the other towns. Our Town has never been wrong!


Starting tomorrow: SCRIPTED / ARROGANT / DUMB AND TOWN!

MONDAY, MAY 10, 2021

Can Our Town hope to survive this?: This very morning, on page A3, the New York Times presents a list of seven Noteworthy Facts drawn from today's editions. 

There are seven "noteworthy facts" in all. This is one of the listings from today's version of this daily feature, which is available in hard copy only:

Of Interest
NOTEWORTHY FACTS FROM TODAY'S PAPER

[...]

In 2016, two media scholars analyzed a data set of 300 million tweets from the 2012 election. Twitter users, they found, “selectively share fact-checking messages that cheerlead their own candidate and denigrate the opposing party’s candidate.” 

These media scholars today! Two such giants had uncovered a noteworthy fact—people [sometimes or frequently] selectively cheerlead for the candidate they favor, while denigrating the candidate they oppose!

To someone inside the New York Times, this seemed like a "Noteworthy Fact." It was a noteworthy fact deemed to be of special interest. 

Nor is this the only example of dumbnification found in today's "Of Interest" feature. Whoever selects this newspaper's "noteworthy facts" had also spotted these. We're presenting each listing in full:

NOTEWORTHY FACTS FROM TODAY'S PAPER

[...]

Edmonton's Connor McDavid, 24, ranks fourth in the N.H.L. with 1.4 points per game in his career, behind Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mike Bossy. He has 31 points in his last 11 games.

[...]

Southern California is home to the nation’s largest concentration of warehouses.

The Scythians inhabited the steppes that eventually became Ukraine from the 7th until the 4th century B.C. To the classical Greeks, they were known for their fierce fighting, for their elaborate funerals and for smoking marijuana. 

Those ancient Scythians, with their "Mary Jane!" But also, these noteworthy facts today! 

You've now seen four of the seven listings in today's compendium of New York Times Noteworthy Facts. For the record, we're omitting the "noteworthy fact" about when Cirque de Soleil originated. ("In the 1980s.")

We're often struck by the world-class dumbness displayed on the Times' page A3. This morning's effort seems especially noteworthy, what with the newspaper's shocking discovery  that people (sometimes or frequently) cheerlead for their favored candidate while denigrating the candidate they oppose.

Who would declare that a "noteworthy fact?" In our view, the answer to that question is itself a noteworthy fact.

Remarkably, someone at the New York Times judged that fact to be noteworthy! Someone at the New York Times decided to single it out. 

As a bit of anthropology, that selection strikes us as an extremely noteworthy fact. This is why we say that:

You'd think that no one could be so dumb as to see that blindingly obvious fact as especially noteworthy.  But someone inside Our Town's smartest newspaper did in fact single it out. 

That strikes us as a significant anthropological and cultural fact. Can Our Town really hope to survive this kind of intellectual leadership?

How dumb is life inside the world of the current New York Times? How dumb is life inside that org, but also how scripted and arrogant?

We plan to explore that topic this week, focusing on one major news report. 

In print editions, that report appeared above the fold of yesterday's (Sunday) Times. First, though, consider this:

In its print editions on Friday, April 30, the Washington Post published a front-page report about foster care in the state of Ohio.  The impetus for the front-page report was the recent shooting death of 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant. 

Bryant was living in foster care in Columbus, Ohio at the time of her shooting death. In print editions, the headline on the Post's report said this:

Teen's death ignites call to reform foster system

What followed was a lengthy, competent news report about foster care in Ohio. The report had been written by two experienced, veteran journalists—Tim Craig of the Washington Post and Randy Ludlow of the Columbus Dispatch.

In fairness, the world's isn't going to change because of Craig and Ludlow's report. That said, their report included a lot of information about the stresses on Ohio's system, starting with "a surge in the number of foster children" caused by "the nationwide opioid crisis." 

In somewhat cursory fashion, the reporters described the way Bryant had ended up in the foster care system. They quoted various people with various views about Ohio's overall system, ending with a cautionary note:

CRAIG AND LUDLOW (4/30/21): Many foster parents also say they, too, would like to see the day when their services are not needed. But in Ohio and elsewhere, they know it’s only a matter of time before they get another call from their agency pleading for them to take in another child.

“There is literally nowhere else for these kids to go,” [foster parent Laura] Flynn said. “So for people who want to criticize foster parents, you instead should think whether you can take in a teenager.”

Stating the obvious, a person can criticize some state's foster care system without criticizing foster parents. That said, there's no perfect way to run foster care, these reporters had seemed to suggest.

Yesterday morning, above the fold on Sunday's front page, the New York Times offered a more detailed account of Bryant's history in the foster care system. In something resembling a break from standard practice, they even named the person who kicked the other young woman in the head right before Bryant was shot.

The Times now offered its account of Bryant's history within the foster care system and of her shooting death. It's hard to find the words to describe how scripted, arrogant and dumb this New York Times' effort was.

The lead reporter for the report is one year out of college. (In fairness, approaching two.) He was joined by a second reporter who's working for the Times for one year as part of its Newsroom Fellowship Program, a recent successor to its summer intern program.

These cub reporters were joined by a veteran reporter who ought be ashamed of herself for having her name anywhere near any such report. That said, there seems to be little sense of shame available at the Times, the most famous news org in Our Town.

Does anyone care about Ma'Khia Bryant, or about the many other kids living in foster care? Does anyone care about how kids end up in foster care? 

Does anyone care about what sometimes happens to such kids when they're in foster care? About what happens to such kids after they "age out?"

The report in yesterday's New York times was disgraceful for its arrogance, but also for its world-class dumbness. 

By our lights, the dumbness bled all the way over into the realm of stupidity. In our view, the dumbness was largely driven by Storyline, narrative, script.

The Times had assigned a couple of kids to handle this important topic. Joined by an award-winning veteran, the youngsters produced a front-page report which was arrogant, scripted and dumb.

Some editor or editors waved the report into print—and who knows? Those editors may have been the source of the report's large dumbness!

Briefly, let's be clear. Nothing is going to change at the New York Times. Also, nothing is going to change in the streets of Our Town, where we Townies seem to believe that we're all above average.

Yesterday's front-page report is the fruit of the culture we've chosen. But can Our Town expect to survive in the face of such arrogant dumbness? 

Leading, highly credentialed experts insist that it probably can't.

Tomorrow: The roll call of the scribes


Where does mistaken belief come from?

SATURDAY, MAY 8, 2021

Our Town can't catch a break: Simply put, Our Town—our pitiful, failing town—can't seem to catch a break.

Let's be more specific:

Our Town's thought leaders can't help themselves—and we Townies are constantly misled, even misinformed, by the various thoughts they provide.

For one example, consider an (interesting) new analysis piece in the New York Times. It was written by Max Fisher. His identity line says this:

Max Fisher is a New York-based international reporter and columnist. He has reported from five continents on conflict, diplomacy, social change and other topics. He writes The Interpreter, a column exploring the ideas and context behind major world events.

Fisher writes The Interpreter column. That's the New York Times' way of saying that he's one of the newspaper's "smart" ones.

(Offering a bit more background, Fisher is twelve years out of college—William and Mary, class of 2008.)

In his new column, Fisher explores an important question: Where does misinformation come from? More specifically, he's asking this extremely important question:

Why does misinformation seem to play such a large role in our public discourse at this point in time?

Those are very important questions. Just for the record, the headlines which sit atop Fisher's column look exactly like this:

‘Belonging Is Stronger Than Facts’: The Age of Misinformation
Social and psychological forces are combining to make the sharing and believing of misinformation an endemic problem with no easy solution.

That's the problem that Fisher's exploring. Showing extremely good judgment, he turns to Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan for the bulk of his analysis.

To Fisher, Nyhan is a Dartmouth political scientist. To us, he's one of the Spinsanity guys, dating to the earliest days of the political Internet.

Nyhan did a lot of good work back then, in his youth. Since then, he's done a lot of good work in his role as an academic. 

(Nyhan is twenty years out of college—Swarthmore, class of 2000.)

As Fisher examines his topic, he turns to Nyhan first. In the following passage, Fisher, channeling Nyhan, starts to explain why we live in an "Age of Misinformation:"

FISHER (5/7/21): We are in an era of endemic misinformation—and outright disinformation. Plenty of bad actors are helping the trend along. But the real drivers, some experts believe, are social and psychological forces that make people prone to sharing and believing misinformation in the first place. And those forces are on the rise.

“Why are misperceptions about contentious issues in politics and science seemingly so persistent and difficult to correct?” Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist, posed in a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s not for want of good information, which is ubiquitous. Exposure to good information does not reliably instill accurate beliefs anyway. Rather, Dr. Nyhan writes, a growing body of evidence suggests that the ultimate culprits are “cognitive and memory limitations, directional motivations to defend or support some group identity or existing belief, and messages from other people and political elites.”

Is "good information" really "ubiquitous?" We can't quite agree with that. 

In our experience, bogus claims are everywhere. Fact-checking those endless claims can be extremely hard. 

That said, we agree with almost everything which comes next. Indeed, as we read the following passage by Fisher, we get the impression that Nyhan may be consulting with the same disconsolate anthropological experts from whom we've drawn so much wisdom here on our own sprawling campus

FISHER (continuing directly): Put more simply, people become more prone to misinformation when three things happen. First, and perhaps most important, is when conditions in society make people feel a greater need for what social scientists call ingrouping—a belief that their social identity is a source of strength and superiority, and that other groups can be blamed for their problems.

As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational beings who put truth-seeking above all else, we are social animals wired for survival. In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.

This need can emerge especially out of a sense of social destabilization. As a result, misinformation is often prevalent among communities that feel destabilized by unwanted change or, in the case of some minorities, powerless in the face of dominant forces.

Framing everything as a grand conflict against scheming enemies can feel enormously reassuring. And that’s why perhaps the greatest culprit of our era of misinformation may be, more than any one particular misinformer, the era-defining rise in social polarization.

“At the mass level, greater partisan divisions in social identity are generating intense hostility toward opposition partisans,” which has “seemingly increased the political system’s vulnerability to partisan misinformation,” Dr. Nyhan wrote in an earlier paper.

Growing hostility between the two halves of America feeds social distrust, which makes people more prone to rumor and falsehood. It also makes people cling much more tightly to their partisan identities. And once our brains switch into “identity-based conflict” mode, we become desperately hungry for information that will affirm that sense of us versus them, and much less concerned about things like truth or accuracy.

We think of ourselves as "rational beings," but we're actually "wired" for social cohesion within a "righteous ingroup?" (Within a so-called tribe?) That sounds a great deal like what major top disconsolate experts have glumly been telling us! 

At times of growing social hostility, our brains switch into an identity-based conflict mode? This leaves us "desperately hungry for information that will affirm [our] sense of us versus them?"

We wouldn't use the word "information" there, since we're actually speaking about something almost completely different. But that sounds a great deal like what top experts have been telling us:

We're wired to adhere to the tribe, and to the tribe's tribal verities? Our brains have been wired for that dating back into prehistory?

We're wired to contrast the good, decent people found in Our Town to scheming people we regard as The Others?

That's exactly what we've been saying, while acknowledging that we've been receiving these insights from major top world-renowned experts! We'll even guess that Nyhan may have gained access to the same high-ranking sources.

At any rate, whatever! Let's see where Fisher's promising essay breaks down, as things tend to do in Our Town:

In theory, Fisher should be on his way to an extremely instructive report. Nyhan's work tends to be quite insightful. What in the world could go wrong?

Fisher should have been on his way to an instructive report. But alas! After reading Fisher's first two paragraphs, our youthful analysts were already giving his Interpreter piece their famous thousand-yard stares.

What had the youngsters so upset? Townies, please! Take a look at the way Fisher started his essay:

FISHER: There’s a decent chance you’ve had at least one of these rumors, all false, relayed to you as fact recently: that President Biden plans to force Americans to eat less meat; that Virginia is eliminating advanced math in schools to advance racial equality; and that border officials are mass-purchasing copies of Vice President Kamala Harris’s book to hand out to refugee children.

All were amplified by partisan actors. But you’re just as likely, if not more so, to have heard it relayed from someone you know. And you may have noticed that these cycles of falsehood-fueled outrage keep recurring.

We are in an era of endemic misinformation—and outright disinformation. Plenty of bad actors are helping the trend along...

Right at the start of his essay, Fisher offered three examples of the mis- and disinformation which currently plague the land. 

And sure enough! In a reflection of tribal necessity, all three examples come from "the right"—from the very bad people in other towns, the bad people found Over There.

None of Fisher's three examples was drawn from the streets of Our Town. Later on, he offers one more specific example. Guess who it involves?

FISHER: In another study, published last month in Nature, a team of psychologists tracked thousands of users interacting with false information. Republican test subjects who were shown a false headline about migrants trying to enter the United States (“Over 500 ‘Migrant Caravaners’ Arrested With Suicide Vests”) mostly identified it as false; only 16 percent called it accurate. But if the experimenters instead asked the subjects to decide whether to share the headline, 51 percent said they would.

These Republican test subjects today! There they went again!

None of Fisher's four examples emerged from the streets of  Our Town. Through the course of his lengthy essay, all four of his specific examples came from the very bad people found in the towns Over There.

Does that make theoretical sense? Consider:

In theory, Nyhan's descriptions of humans as "social animals wired for survival" would seem to apply to humans across the board.   

In theory, the social / psychological dynamics which Nyhan describes would apply to people who live in Our Town, or to people in our own tribe, not just to people we loathe and oppose.

That said, Fisher blew past this obvious point in the examples he offered in his first two paragraphs. Adding to the general absurdity,  one of the three "false rumors" he cites—the claim that Virginia "is eliminating advanced math in schools"—seems to have stemmed from a plausible source.

We base that on this recent column by Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews, a highly reliable non-partisan source. Based on Mathews' column, it sounds like concerns about that possibility may have stemmed from weird behavior and puzzling postings by the Virginia education department.

(Headline: "Virginia allies with, then backs away from, controversial math anti-tracking movement.")

In these ways, Our Town can't catch a break! Our Town's thought leaders can't help themselves when it comes to expressing their thoughts. And the rest of us, the rubes in Our Town, are routinely misled by these leaders.

Fisher could have cited plenty of examples of bogus beliefs being spread in Our Town, even within his own newspaper. It seems to have been beyond his capacity to imagine such a state of affairs. In such ways, a general theory withers and dies on the vine.

We'll guess that Nyhan could explain the process by which Fisher chose his examples:

According to theory, Fisher's brain is wired to spot false belief among opposing groups. His brain isn't wired to spot false belief in Our Town, the place where Fisher and his "affinity group" all live.

The regular people of Our Town are routinely misled in this way. A groaning example of this practice appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

That example involved an old hobby-horse, "the gender wage / pay gap." Wild embellishment about this topic is an established "oldy but goody" here in Our Town.

We love the way these embellished claims make us feel; our thought leaders routinely provide them. In Friday's example, Petula Dvorak went well beyond the call of duty in this conventional practice. She even included a Mother's Day hook!

We'll try to get to Dvorak's column next week. We'll note the specific disclaimers at her principal data source, disclaimers which explicitly say that its data shouldn't be used in the way Dvorak does. 

For today, we'll only remind you of this:

In the crowded warrens of the New York Times, Fisher is one of the "smart" ones. Nyhan's theory works all the way down, even as Our (floundering) Town can't seem to escape its pull.