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.