Can’t We All Just Get Along?
On Thursday, June 1st, Paul Krugman, writing in the NY Times about the United States withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, noted:
much of today’s right seems driven above all by animus toward liberals rather than specific issues. If liberals are for it, they’re against it. If liberals hate it, it’s good. Add to this the anti-intellectualism of the G.O.P. base, for whom scientific consensus on an issue is a minus, not a plus, with extra bonus points for undermining anything associated with President Barack Obama.
Fueled by Breitbart and Fox News, encouraged by the Tweets of the Executive, abetted by the Do-Nothing House/Senate “leadership,” the party of obstruction, even with majority power, is more preoccupied with dismantling the Obama administration’s accomplishments and continuing an ideological street brawl with “liberals” and “progressives” than governing the country and actually accomplishing anything substantive legislatively. I don’t want to just write about this clear failing on the right, however, because I will freely admit that, as a person with a decidedly left-wing view of the world, I react the same way as soon as Trump, or McConnell, or Ryan, or anyone on the Right opens his (and, yes, it is almost always “his” on the right) mouth. A recent NRP interview with Vox reporter Zack Beauchamp (pronounced “Beach-um”) opened my eyes (ears?) to a concern those on the left should take note of --- immediately!
What Mr. Beauchamp reported about (Vox, May 19, 2017) is a burgeoning “fake news” hub on the left. His story focuses on four sources (who use Twitter and Facebook, primarily) that he refers to as the “Russiasphere.” These people promote stories of questionable veracity about the Trump administration and its ties to Russia. The sources are: Louise Mensch (283,000 Twitter followers, a former British Parliamentarian & romance novelist), John Schindler (a former NSA spook with 226,000 Twitter followers), Claude Taylor (a D.C. photographer with 159,000 Twitter followers) and a website, Palmer Report ( run by a little known journalist with 70,000 FB fans). They traffic in stories that consistently insist that their “sources” have revealed stories that the Russians do have tapes of Trump with prostitutes, that Ryan and McConnell funneled Russian money to Trump, and the like. Sadly, some of their “information” has been re-Tweeted by (formerly) credible sources like Donna Brazile and Keith Olberman on the left and conservative “Never-Trumper” Rick Wilson. According to Beauchamp: “Members of the Russiasphere see themselves as an essential counter to a media that’s been too cautious to get to the bottom of Trump’s Russian ties.” The problem here, of course, is that the Left could travel into the Rabbit Hole that the Republican Party has fallen down. As Beauchamp reports: “’One of the failures of the Republican Party is the way they let the birther movement metastasize — and that ultimately helped Donald Trump make it to the White House,’ says Brendan Nyhan, a professor at Dartmouth who studies the spread of false political beliefs. ‘We should worry about kind of pattern being repeated’.” The problem, as noted by Krugman at the beginning of this piece, is that partisanship shapes our views more than rationality or scientific evidence. Beauchamp cites the work of Yale Law School Professor Dan Kahan, on what is called “motivated reasoning” to explain this phenomena.
In an experiment Kahan conducted, he “gave subjects a particularly tricky math problem — phrased in terms of whether a skin cream worked. Then he gave a random subset the same problem, only phrased in terms of whether a particular piece of gun control legislation worked. The results were fascinating. For the people who got the skin cream problem, there was no correlation between partisanship and likelihood of getting the right answer. But when people got the same question, just about gun control, everything changed: Republicans were more likely to conclude that gun control didn’t work, and Democrats the other way around. People’s political biases overrode their basic mathematical reasoning skills.” (emphasis, mine) As Kahan explained (May 5, 2011, Discover magazine) “motivated cognition refers to the unconscious tendency of individuals to fit their processing of information to conclusions that suit some end or goal.” So, our ideological biases are so strong that they totally color how we view the news. As Kahan noted in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 8, No. 4, July 2013, motivated cognition leads to “dynamics such as biased information search, which involves seeking out (or disproportionally attending to) evidence that is congruent rather than incongruent with the motivating goal.” Doing research for this blog, I will admit to leaning toward sources that favor left leaning conclusions --- reinforcing Kahan’s point.
The question, then, is can we, as a society, overcome this inherent polarized bias that now permeates our landscape? If the fallacious “Russiasphere” stories gain traction, the Left could run down the same trail as Breitbart and Fox News, creating an equally untrustworthy left-wing media sphere. Whatever the case, the greater concern may be “motivated cognition/reasoning” and our growing inability to hear the other side’s point of view --- a problem that could create an enormous threat to our democracy.