ANTHROPOLOGY NOW: Where do group misstatements come from?


Part 2—Drum asks, anthropologists answer:
Kevin Drum asked a good question this week, even if in overwrought and selective form.

His question appeared in the headline which sat atop a recent post. The question he asked was this:
Do Republicans Believe Their Own Lies?
In one way, there we went again! If a person believes an inaccurate statement, then, of course, his or her misstatement isn't a "lie," if we're all still speaking English, which we frequently aren't.

That said, Drum was asking a very good question—though his question applies to Democrats, liberals and journalists as well as to Those People.

In a nutshell, Drum's question starts with this accurate observation:

We often see members of political groups repeating standard misstatements. The statement in question is factually false, but it gets repeated over and over again.

That's the background. Drum's question is this:

When people repeat a standard misstatement, do they believe the inaccurate claim they're making? Or do they actually know that the statement in question is false?

Given the times in which we live, Drum restricted his excellent question about this syndrome to Republicans. In particular, he correctly noted that Republicans commonly make a misstatements about the way Obamacare—the ACA—first passed into law.

How did Obamacare pass into law? Did it pass the Senate under "reconciliation," requiring just 50 votes? Or did it pass with a real majority as defined by Senate math, with 60 votes out of a hundred?

In fact, it passed with 60 votes. The leading authority on the matter tells the story like this:
On December 23, [2009,] the Senate voted 60–39 to end debate on the bill: a cloture vote to end the filibuster. The bill then passed, also 60–39, on December 24, 2009, with all Democrats and two independents voting for it, and all Republicans against (except Jim Bunning, who did not vote).
Despite this history, Republicans routinely claim that Obamacare slithered through with just 50 votes. Drum was wondering if Republicans really believe this inaccurate statement, or it they're simply lying when they make this claim.

We took his question to a panel of anthropologists. Thoughtfully, they explained the way the minds of our failing species work.

Not unlike the lemming, they said, members of the species known as Homo sapiens are strongly inclined—"hard-wired" even—to work in groups. Even worse, we're inclined to divide ourselves into rival groups—Us and Them, or perhaps skins and shirts or even Nike and Reebok—and to battle things out from there.

We tend to acquire our beliefs from the sachems of our tribal group. If we hear the sachems say X, Y or Z, we minions will start to repeat it.

Typically, these scientists told us, the minions will in fact routinely believe the various claims they are making, The minions will rarely fact-check the statements they hear from tribal leaders and then from other tribal minions.

As a general matter, they will assume their own tribal claims are correct, and that the tribal claims of The Others are wrong. Or at least, so these scientists said.

These scientists panted a gloomy picture of the way our species works. You can forget all that "rational animal" crap, one of them hotly said, brandishing a supersized rum toddy.

That said, their presentation turned even more gloomy when they offered some current examples of the way this hard-wired system works. They pointed to the current claim that a "huge black turnout" decided Tuesday's Senate election. Incredibly, they also pointed to some bogus statements made just this week on The Rachel Maddow Show!

Liberals hear Rachel make these claims, these scientists said, and they are strongly inclined to assume her claims are accurate. Soon, minions start to repeat her claims. As a general matter, liberals believe these false or highly misleading assertions, according to these scientists.

These anthropologists were painting a gloomy picture of the way our species works. That said, we fact-checked the claims from the Maddow Show and saw that the scientists were right.

It was much as the anthropologists said. This bullsh*t works this way Over Here as well as among The Others!

We'll take you through Maddow's recent misstatements in the next day or so. That said, we'll suggest that you consider another deeply destructive example from the recent past.

We refer to the widely bruited claim that Candidate Al Gore said he invented the Internet. Within the upper-end mainstream press corps, minions repeated this claim for twenty straight months, helping send Candidate Bush to the White House, where he launched a disastrous war.

The journalists' claim that Gore made that statement is extremely hard to sustain, these scientists told us. By normal standards, the scientists said, the journalists' ubiquitous claim should be scored as false.

Despite this fact, journalists kept repeating their claim from March 1999 through through November 2000. Some of them even put the word "invented" inside quotation marks, though Gore had never used it!

Almost surely, many of these journalists believed the assertion they were making, the anthropologists surmised, since they'd seen their sachems make it.

Many journalists did believe their guild's inaccurate claim, the scientists said—but some of them likely did not.

Drum was asking a very good question about the way our species works. Because we live in tribal times, he may have seemed to suggest that his excellent question only applies to The Others.

In fact, a wide array of major groups parade about the countryside repeating bogus claims. Bees do it; birds do; even educated D's do it. They fall in love with favored claims which may, in fact, be false.

As a biological species, we're strongly inclined to fall in love with our tribal claims and assertions. Anthropologically speaking, we aren't especially strongly inclined to ask if these statements are true.

Our documentary film, Anthropology Now, will be coming to movie palaces soon.

"I love the smell of misstatements in the morning?" Many people from many groups will implicitly make that statement in this award-winning film.

Still coming: Weaponizing moral claims. Also, the sounds of silence

Full disclosure: On July 20, 1958, we were present in Fenway Park when Bunning pitched his first no-hitter.

Only ten years old at the time, we sensed he was up to no good.


  1. When there have been investigations of the amount of factually incorrect information held by Republicans compared to Democrats, the Democrats have been found to believe less nonsense and have beliefs more grounded in reality than the Republicans. This is attributed to Fox News, and now places like Alex Jones and Breitbart. But statements like this one:

    "In fact, a wide array of major groups parade about the countryside repeating bogus claims. Bees do it; birds do; even educated D's do it. They fall in love with favored claims which may, in fact, be false."

    are factually incorrect because Democrats do not believe the same amount of misinformation as Republicans.

    So Somerby is presenting yet another false equivalency here.

    And why does he want to convince us that the things liberals believe are just as much narrative as the conservatives? Why does he want to undermine liberal faith in their own knowledge? Why does he want us thinking that our leaders are feeding us propaganda on the left, just as we can see them doing on the right?

    If Somerby were being paid by the Russians to undermine our functioning Democracy, I don't believe he could do a better job. Somerby has been serving fascism lately, in this case by undermining truth and fostering a lack of trust in media reporting. Why is he doing that?

    My previous theory was that he was blindly following Bernie into the abyss. Now I think he is just earning his rubles, like our friend Mao. Why else would someone write this crap, day in and day out?

    1. "When there have been investigations of the amount of factually incorrect information held by Republicans compared to Democrats, the Democrats have been found to believe less nonsense and have beliefs more grounded in reality than the Republicans. "

      do u have a link for that

    2. "Why else would someone write this crap, day in and day out?"
      Especially since nitwits like you so completely misunderstand what Bob writes.

    3. Because your leaders are feeding you propaganda you God damn fool. That's the whole point dummy.

    4. Let's see: condescension: check.
      Name-calling: check. Exhibiting an attitude opposite to the one demanded by the blogger: check. Arguing from emotion, and not reason: check. Lack of a convincing defense of one's position: check. Failure to persuade someone you disagree with: check. Antagonizing someone you disagree with: check.
      Must be a Somerby fan.

    5. OK fine but if you think your leaders don't feed you propaganda on the left just as you can see them doing on the right, you have something to learn my dear sweet wonderful child. That is the point. But I get that you don't get it. No prob. You are probably right. They are worse, right? It's them who are the problem. Right? Lol. Have a good weekend.

    6. There's no left and right, they are both on the right. Two fake 'parties' representing two slightly different groups of business interests.

    7. There's no left or right, only Putin. One simulacra babbling inane nonsense over and over in a dead-end troll factory job.

    8. Anon 11:43 , Anon 10:50 is correct about Democrats.
      I can’t provide links but I can provide anecdotal evidence gathered from the Internet over the last ten years.
      First, let me say this: Claims that are more outrageous, and claims that use provocative language are more likely to be repeated. Websites with an agenda (and serious journalists) can’t resist the temptation to pass along a juicy story.
      There is a tactic employed by government agencies to catch a leaker by using the “Barium Meal”, what Tom Clancy called the “Canary Trap”
      The idea is to pass out agendas with some provocative language to each participant in a meeting, with each important segment worded slightly differently. When a reporter quotes directly from what he knows to be an official document, and publishes, the identity of the source is known.
      I’m sure most deep staters, deep throats and savvy reporters know about this ploy, but the newbies may not.
      The point is provocative statements have longer legs and greater stamina (and are subjected to less critical analysis) than mundane ones.
      I observed over the decade that many flat out lies by Republicans and other conservatives are repeated over and over, frequently verbatim, on many Google sites. I mean 40 or 50 websites with the same story, page after page on Google. Of course, the right wing sites also cover demonstrably false claims made by liberals.
      This is not true of liberal sites. Very few falsehoods appear over and over. Sometimes a really outrageous claim will only appear on 3 or 4 sites. Many times liberals will debunk fake news more often than they repeat it. Some liberal lies, of course, are as immortal as Dracula.
      I think this is more indicative of the fact that the right wing has far more megaphones, and larger ones than the left. They started their propaganda war in the 1940’s, but liberals waited until much later before they counterattacked, and in much smaller numbers.
      However, on social media, there are many more gullible liberals sharing false information than there are on the Internet sites.
      Of course, the right wingers overwhelm the liberals with false information.
      I occasionally correct liberals I know personally on Facebook, and they usually withdraw.

      Bob’s schtick is quite appropriate. Liberals should take extreme care to be truthful. There is nothing more damaging to their cause than “It’s just another libtard lie. Ignore it”, or “You’re a liberal, because of that, I can never accept your opinion.”
      Why give your opponents ammo when you don’t have to?
      Anon 10:50 is dead wrong about Bob Somerby and The Daily Howler.

    9. Well, thanks for a reply I guess.

      "This is not true of liberal sites. Very few falsehoods appear over and over. Sometimes a really outrageous claim will only appear on 3 or 4 sites. Many times liberals will debunk fake news more often than they repeat it. Some liberal lies, of course, are as immortal as Dracula."

      Some of the larger liberal lies are so grand that they are just blindly accepted as truth. For example the "1 in 5 women in college will be sexually assaulted" stat which the Obama Whitehouse touted directly:

      The statistic is at best stretched as thin as possible to sound good for headlines, at worse very misleading and disingenuous. Even the huffington post calls out the stat as misleading.

      Believing whole heartedly this ridiculous fact has led to the moral panic of the #metoo movement amongst a general malaise of distrust in statistics and official sources.

      You're correct that the right has similar issues. The stampede to get dish on the other tribe is insatiable. For example, last week when the Roy Moore accuser with the yearbook said she added a note with the date and location. This was quickly translated into outright forgery, with one notable example of evidence being a single picture with blue looking ink right where the signature is. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, including video of the event right when that picture was taken, this blew up for a bit and convinced many that she was an outright fraud. The leftist corollary to this is the whole Russiagate scandal which is just as ludicrous, but is a convenient war drum of sorts which helps bind fellow tribals together and rally them for common cause. They may as well be waving terrible towels at a Steelers game.

      I suggest that each side is learning from one another in a cynical attempt to influence others and get eyeballs. Even handed, sensible, proportionate reporting just doesn't sell, which is the end goal for most everything we read. There is no room for serious discussion in media or politics in general. In a sense it is the price of convenience of having representatives, whether politician, editor, producer or other technocrat, choose what's best for you. It is a condensed package, sold to you just like everything else is. I guess it shouldn't be much of a surprise.

    10. Much of the problem is semantic. Though ther may be precise meanings to some words, those meanings are not universal.
      Surge, skyrocketing, and especially sexual assault have wildly variant meanings to different people.
      Lately, sexual assault has been used to describe everything from a guy being a jerk at work to violent beatings and forced penetration.

    11. As we embrace change and diversity we lose bonds like common language and perspective a little bit at a time. It is inefficient to have to clarify repeatedly

    12. 'We' don't lose common language and perspective.

      Just as Orwell described in 1984, zombies use official Newspeak, but the proles, a majority, won't give a fuck about the Maddows of the world, and keep using the normal language, language of their parents.

  2. An accusation of assault is not a "moral claim". It is against the law to assault people, including women. This idea that when women start complaining about actions that have been ignored for generations, it is somehow "weaponizing" anything is ridiculous. The laws should have been enforced all along. It is right to stop ignoring them just because sex is involved and women have less power in this world than men, and thus can be victimized at will by more powerful men.

    This isn't weaponizing morals. It is what it looks like when an underclass has the ability to stick up for itself. The ability to use the internet to shed light on wrong behavior is a powerful equalizer in our society. This is happening now because the internet makes the bad behavior visible and buying power makes those in power care about public reaction. This stuff has always happened but people care now because of the pressure afforded by internet exposure.

    It is about time!

    1. Underclass. Right.

      What's being weaponized is the outrage. Big difference.

    2. Outrage is a useful emotion because it motivates change.

  3. Said authority goes on to recall: "House Democrats had expected to be able to negotiate changes in a House–Senate conference before passing a final bill. Since any bill that emerged from conference that differed from the Senate bill would have to pass the Senate over another Republican filibuster, most House Democrats agreed to pass the Senate bill on condition that it be amended by a subsequent bill.[189] They drafted the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, which could be passed by the reconciliation process.[190][193][194]"
    So, yes, 50 votes, because reconciliation was necessary, given the House conference didn't vote for the 60-39 Senate bill, but yet another version which wouldn't have overcome the Senate's filibusterers.

  4. "We refer to the widely bruited claim that Candidate Al Gore said he invented the Internet"

    But Bob, everyone knows that it was a joke, mocking his pompous self-aggrandizing presentation.

    "I took the initiative in creating the Internet" is the exact quote. Is it any better? Wasn't he practically asking for it?

    1. Al Gore did take the initiative in creating the Internet. There was a little group of congressmen interested in emerging technology. Gore was one of them, pushing for an "information superhighway." Another member of the group, Newt Gingrich, acknowledged Gore's role.

    2. The media lied about what he said.

      Meanwhile, Brahmin Bush, the one with the father with four names, was "the guy you want to have a beer with."

    3. I wonder if Noam agrees with that, imp?

    4. ...mocking his pompous self-aggrandizing presentation."

      Yup. Having a president who knows what he's talking about is SO "Establishment". LOL

  5. Here's a howler: diversity is our greatest strength! Yet both sides claim to believe it!

  6. On July 20 1958, not even Ted Williams hit off Jim Bunning.

  7. The Senate version of Obamacare did need 60. But the bill that reconciled the Senate and House versions could pass under reconciliation and did, because of Scott Brown.

  8. This is what they are talking about. Formally it's HR 4872, the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. As I remember, the House passed the Senate version of main Obamacare and then some tweaks that could pass under reconciliation did.