Tag Archives: confirmation bias

A Theory of the Flourishing of Ignorance

“When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!”            –Alice in Wonderland

Any thoughtful person looking at our peculiar times can’t help but wonder why the willful acceptance of misinformation is so pervasive. In an era when the ease of researching anything is easy, and credible news sources are just a click away, it is a puzzle to understand why so many are flying blind with their own preferred fantasies.  Most of us know the common markers of self deception heard all around us: covid vaccines are very dangerous; “the government” is using them to take away our freedoms; progressives are Nazis or “communists;” there is a concerted “war on Christmas;” voter fraud is widespread; university teachers indoctrinate their students; and that was just a “party” in the Capitol on January 6, not an insurrection.  These kinds of fictions keep surfacing. Nearly all of these claims are provably false, using accepted means for verifying facts and applying common tests of source credibility.  How do people stay in their own bubble?

It’s Now Easy to Live in an Information Desert 

An admittedly oversimplified but compelling explanation hints at part of the cause.  In a nutshell, we no longer give sufficient time to comprehensive news sources that were common even fifteen years ago. Instead, we cherry-pick news about just a few stories, choosing sources more for conformation than information.  A result is that we are poorly informed or unaware of what the best evidence shows in a given instance.

The reason this is so easily was made clear to me on a recent trip where, for days, my only source of news was television. None of the three hotels where I stayed had a newspaper available.  And their WI-FI access was predictably spotty. Typically, even good television news shows cover only a few stories.  Frequently, as with the collapse of the condominium on Collins Avenue in South Florida, one story dominates. Cable news especially has a hard time juggling a complex news agenda, even though they have capable reporters that are ready for calls from producers that often never come. A single story formula tagged as “breaking news” seems to be a ratings winner.

A good newspaper forces closed minds to open, at least a little.

This matters, because cable and internet news has largely replaced much more diverse city newspapers that still existed until a few years ago. Newspapers carried various stories from the AP, perhaps Reuters or and AFP, as well as the paper’s local reporters and other specialized news services.  Even a middling city paper offered a daily window on the world.  And a very good one, like the New York Times, forces closed minds to open.  For example, on the day I started writing this, just the first page of the Times featured 18 different news items, including a photo story of an ICU staff trying out a new treatment to save a dying covid patient. The image of medical staff hovering over a patient suggested a valiant effort to find a medical off-ramp just short of death. True, readers still chose what they wanted to read. But its hard to miss conclusive and myth-busing headlines.  What would that front-page picture say to an anti-vaxxer?

In addition, news consumers are not tied to the linear and and narrower stories of cable and broadcast news outlets. Video edits for the viewer, one story doled out at a time at the pathetic oral rate of about 200 words a minute. By contrast, print lets the reader decide from a much broader palette of stories. In addition, Americans were once better informed partly because news services and many newspapers had a financial interest in doing straight news.  Commentary may work for the increasing tribal cable networks, but not for a news service like the Associated Press, which needs neutrality to satisfy its very different subscribers.

Misinformation by the Truckload

It’s now an old and sad story that news readership is on life support.  Some papers have survived, but with far fewer reporters.  Whether it is the Allentown Daily Call or the New York Daily News, staffs that remain now sit in a sea of empty desks.  The rationale of the earnings-driven owners is that younger Americans aren’t newspaper readers, which is sadly true. But it is a mistake to assume that younger Americans have thrown in the towel on credible news stories.  And yet the major internet giants like Google aren’t much help. They aren’t journalists, and they aren’t very good at aggregating stories for the collective good. Their selections are mostly governed by algorithms rather than solid reporting.  In truth, neither CNN’s Jeff Zucker or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg would cut it in the journalistic worlds once occupied by Fred Friendly, David Halberstam, Janet Malcolm, David Carr or Ben Bradlee.  These latter-day giants would have seen through the charade of one-note news, as well as the price it exacts from an increasingly distracted public.

Curating our Memories

If we had the obligations of institutions like museums, all of us would probably have to periodically amend the landmark narratives in our lives that we have incorrectly remembered.

There are no shortage of examples of museums and archives that have been forced to correct their narratives about past events.  Was a painting in a gallery actually the property of a Jewish family who had to forfeit it to the Third Reich? Is that tribal dress portrayed in an exhibit of an indigenous group really accurate, given recent and revised histories?  Do our textbook descriptions of the American Constitution adequately treat the deference to slave-owning that historians and progressives now see in some of its provisions, including the electoral college?

Remember the Lerner and Lowe song in Gigi sung by an older couple?

He: We dined with friends.
She: We ate alone.
He:  A tenor sang.
She: A baritone.
He: Ah, yes, I remember it well. That dazzling April moon.
She: There was none; and the month was June.
He: That’s right. That’s right.
She: It warms my heart to know that you remember still the way you do.

On big and little matters, we tend to curate our own histories with details that still seem clear. One personal example: I was certain I witnessed the mayhem of the 1968 Democratic Convention in front of a television set in a basement playroom on Quebec Street in Denver. I can still picture the black and white images of the horrors unfolding on Michigan Avenue in front of the Hilton Hotel, vivid as if they were yesterday. The “clear” mental image stays because it marks the sinking feeling that must come to most young Americans when they first encounter a national trauma that pushes aside a simpler faith in national invincibility. The storms of American political and cultural life are an unintended national birthright, forcing amendments to exceptionalist narratives that finally must give way.

But I digress. The problem with my memory is that I could not have been in my parent’s basement in Denver. In 1968 I was living in Sacramento California, where almost no one has a basement. And I was a senior in college, not the higher schooler I remember.  The dates are irrefutable markers. If we functioned like public institutions, all of us would probably have to rework the landmark events in our lives that we have curated as mental exhibits. This amounts to the same kind of historical refurbishment that now happens regularly, using the tenets of critical race theory, the #Metoo movement, and other redefining perspectives. At institutions like the Smithsonian or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the creation of amended narratives must now go on all of the time.

I have not checked, but I wonder if the National Constitution Center In Philadelphia has tempered its assessments of the founding document to reckon with the last President’s trashing of what seemed like well-established norms. The emoluments clause prohibiting the use of the office to make money is a case in point. Similarly, writing history texts for grade-schoolers has become an occupation that now leaves some school boards and publishers figuratively bloodied. The question of who gets to tell the stories of our collective past has turned into its own kind of battlefield.

Psychologically, we are not well-positioned to abandon inaccurate narratives. As has been much discussed through the recent election and its aftermath, Americans are like most people who resist new corrective narratives that bump up next to older inaccurate ones. As noted elsewhere, the tension between the two creates an uncomfortable form of dissonance we would like to avoid. And so we often take the avoidance route: only considering evidence that confirms what we already believe.