Friday, August 26, 2016

On embracing your own facts

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. 
–Daniel Patrick Moynihan   
     Rational discourse—i.e., useful discussion—depends on several things. Among other things, it depends on people assigning the same meanings to the words they use. Society could not debate, say, the morality of abortion if people were allowed to use such words as “abortion,” “fetus,” “trimester,” and “life” in their own eccentric ways. All discussion would come to a standstill—or would simply become noise.
     To a certain extent, of course, some do use these words in eccentric, and even deceitful, ways. And useful discussion becomes that much harder.

* * *
     I'm reminded of a curious chapter in the anti-tax movement. Ronald Reagan, of course, is an anti-tax hero among Republicans. In fact, however, he did raise taxes.
     But he was inclined to deny this fact.
     Here's how Joseph J. Thorndike tells the story:
     The modern history of GOP linguistic gymnastics [re taxation] begins with Ronald Reagan, who famously began his presidency with a dramatic tax cut. The Economic Recovery Act of 1981 gave conservatives … a huge [anti-tax] victory.
     Before the ink was even dry on the bill, however, Reagan was floating plans for a tax increase. Except he wasn't calling it that. "The administration, carefully attempting to avoid any implication that it would raise taxes, described the proposals as an effort to 'curtail certain tax abuses and enhance tax revenues,'" explained The Washington Post.
     Reagan's attempt to rebrand his tax increases as "revenue enhancements" did not go unnoticed. "They've all sold out, every one of them," complained Jude Wanniski of Reagan's economic advisers….
. . .
     Many loyal Reaganites … embraced the new distinction. Taxes "are not revenue enhancers," declared Rep. Jack Kemp in a typical comment.
     Still, [the new term] … didn't fool most observers. "The Reagan Administration calls it 'revenue enhancement,' but the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr. of upstate New York, calls it 'raising taxes' and says he is against it," reported the Times. (See Tax Analysts, 6/30/11)
     So, Reagan didn't raise taxes after all. He merely pursued revenue enhancements.
     No, he raised taxes.
. . . 
     Another necessary condition of rational discourse is the availability of facts upon which participants can agree. To think about and discuss an issue competently and usefully, one needs to have the truth, the facts. Given the facts, one can construct a position in terms of those facts. And, in the course of debate and discussion, the best view has a chance to emerge.
     How does one go about acquiring facts? In recent years, I've encountered people who immediately express a stark skepticism: "everyone knows that there are no facts; there's just different opinions, different ways of spinning reality."
     That, of course, is an absurd and unwarranted skepticism.
     The truth is that, in the case of most issues, one can discern the facts, or at least some of the facts, with information that is available. The budding critical thinker learns, for example, about the relatively objective nature of academia, the basis of academic reputations (evidence, stronger arguments), and reasons to be drawn to opinions there that achieve consensus standing. One learns about standards of reliability within healthy expert communities—refereed publishing, replication, attainment of consensus, etc. One learns about differences in professionalism between various sources, including news sources. One learns to read far and wide, comparing reports. One learns not to "cherry pick" evidence or expertise. With such skills at hand, participants in discussions can indeed discern "the facts" that serve as the necessary background.
     For the most part, public discourse in this country has proceeded against the backdrop of the availability of objective, uncontroversial facts. Admittedly, sometimes, it takes effort to find them. There's a certain amount of distracting noise, at least for a while. Still: Did Ronald Reagan raise taxes? Yes, he did. Was Terri Schiavo in a persistent vegetative state? Well, yes, as it turns out, she wasDid Hillary Clinton keep classified information on the private server that she set up in her house? Facts is facts: yes, she did.
     What would happen if participants in discussions of issues had no way to discern these facts? Well, in that case, perhaps debate would never cease. The lack of a standard of truth or fact would mean that no view would ever come out on top and everyone would endlessly bray forth their position. It would be Babel.
     I recall the debate, more than thirty years ago, over whether one could be infected with HIV through casual contact. That debate quickly dissolved, of course, since, after a couple of years, the truth—the facts—eventually came into view, even for the staunchest of conservatives. At the time of our invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush Administration's statements to the contrary, it was unclear whether Saddam Hussein was carrying on development of WMDs. But, when we invaded the country and commenced looking desperately for the evidence of WMD production that were the stated reason for the invasion, none was ever found, a fact numerous and various news sources duly reported.
     Among rationale observers, the debate ended: no, as a matter of fact, WMDs or programs for the development of WMDs were not found in Iraq. Bush was mistaken (was he deceptive? Well, that's a different issue). End of controversy.

* * *
     Oddly, however, many Americans continued to believe that, upon invading Iraq, WMDs were found. They also believe, falsely, that the nations of the world supported our invasion and that Iraq was involved in the 9-11 attack and was in league with al-Qaeda—all demonstrably false or dubious claims.
     Here are the results of work done at the University of Maryland concerning the state of Americans' thinking in 2003:
     From January through September 2003, [Program on International Policy Attitudes] /Knowledge Networks conducted seven different polls that dealt with the conflict with Iraq. Among other things, PIPA/KN probed respondents for key perceptions and beliefs as well for their attitudes on what US policy should be. In the course of doing this, it was discovered that a substantial portion of the public had a number of misperceptions that were demonstrably false, or were at odds with the dominant view in the intelligence community.
     In the January poll it was discovered that a majority believed that Iraq played an important role in 9/11 and that a minority even expressed the belief that they had seen “conclusive evidence” of such involvement. The US intelligence community has said that there is not evidence to support the view that Iraq was directly involved in September 11 and there has clearly never been any observable “conclusive evidence.”
     In February, by providing more fine-grained response options it became clearer that only about one in five Americans believed that Iraq was directly involved in 9/11, but that a majority did believe that Iraq had given substantial support to al-Qaeda—both propositions unsupported by the US intelligence community. Other polls found even higher numbers responding positively to the idea that Iraq was involved in September 11 or had some type of close involvement with al-Qaeda. These perceptions of Iraq’s involvement with al-Qaeda and 9/11 persisted largely unchanged in numerous PIPA/KN polls through September 2003, despite continued disconfirmation by the community.
     More striking, in PIPA/KN polls conducted after the war—in May, July, and August- September—approximately half of the respondents expressed the belief that the US has actually found evidence in Iraq that Saddam was working closely with al-Qaeda. While administration figures have talked about a purported meeting in Prague between an al-Qaeda member and an Iraqi official, this does not constitute evidence that Saddam was working closely with al-Qaeda and, in any case, this purported meeting had been discredited by the US intelligence community during the period of these polls.
     One of the most striking developments in the postwar period was that once US forces arrived in Iraq, they failed to find the weapons of mass destruction that had been a major rationale for going to war with Iraq. Nonetheless, in PIPA/KN polls conducted May through September, a substantial minority of the public said they believed that weapons of mass destruction had been found. A substantial minority even believed that Iraq had used weapons of mass destruction in the war. Polls from other organizations repeated these questions and got similar results.
     In polls conducted throughout the world before and during the war, a very clear majority of world public opinion opposed the US going to war with Iraq without UN approval (see page 8 for details). However, PIPA/KN found in polls conducted during and after the war that only a minority of Americans were aware of this. A significant minority even believed that a majority of people in the world favored the US going to war with Iraq. Other perceptions of European public opinion and Islamic public opinion also contradicted numerous polls.
. . .
     The extent of Americans’ misperceptions vary significantly depending on their source of news. Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions. Those who receive most of their news from [the liberal] NPR or PBS are less likely to have misperceptions. These variations cannot simply be explained as a result of differences in the demographic characteristics of each audience, because these variations can also be found when comparing the demographic subgroups of each audience.
. . .
     An analysis of those who were asked all of the key three perception questions does reveal a remarkable level of variation in the presence of misperceptions according to news source. Standing out in the analysis are Fox and NPR/PBS--but for opposite reasons. Fox was the news source whose viewers had the most misperceptions. NPR/PBS are notable because their viewers and listeners consistently held fewer misperceptions than respondents who obtained their information from other news sources. (From Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War, 10/2/03, Program on International Policy Attitudes [PIPA] [A joint program of the Center on Policy Attitudes and the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland])
From the PIPA report
     It is not possible, of course, to carry on rational discourse about an issue—e.g., justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq—if we cannot determine the actual facts about it. Despite the right's history of distaste for non-absolutist doctrines such as relativism and skepticism, many ordinary citizens on the right (i.e., conservatives) seem to have become firm skeptics* of news media or at least most news media which they take to be liberally biased (such as, say, PBS or NPR). Unfortunately, the dominant conservative news source of our time—Fox News—is notoriously unprofessional and unreliable compared to its many "liberal" alternatives. And so many conservative Americans, these curious new anti-absolutists, believe rubbish.
     For years, many of us have feared that the levels and commonness of media skepticism among the political right has reached a point that political discussion and debate with members of that group will soon cease to be possible. How do you argue with people who have, not only their own views and arguments, but their own—demonstrably erroneous—"facts"?
     You can't. You can only shake your head.

* * *
     Judging by the current presidential election race, this crisis is now upon us. Candidate Trump routinely utters demonstrable falsehoods that his followers, of which there seem to be many, unquestioningly accept. And given their views about liberal media bias, how might these Trumpsters ever appreciate their error? That can't.
     That a skeptical crisis—an immunity from facts among a certain range of "conservatives"—is upon us is being recognized even by some members of the right:
     Back in the early 2000s, right-wing talk radio was a juggernaut that influenced American politics so thoroughly that all mainstream GOP leaders genuflected to their power. Rush Limbaugh was, of course, the king, a man so powerful that he was given substantial credit for the Gingrich Revolution in 1994 with the freshman Republican class going so far as to award him an honorary membership in their caucus.

…After 9/11 the [right-wing talk radio] format exploded with new voices both nationally and locally. Combined with the ascendance of Fox News, Drudge and total Republican control of the government, right wing media completely dominated the political landscape.
     This phenomenon had a number of bedrock assumptions but the first, and most important, was the notion that the mainstream media suffered from a liberal bias so extreme that it was completely untrustworthy.… [I.e., one could not discover the facts by watching the news, unless it was right-wing news, i.e., Fox]
. . .
     There was even a famous quote from a Bush official to reporter Ron Suskind which perfectly characterized the prevailing right wing ethos of the period. He said that reporters like Suskind lived in the “reality based community” which was made up of people who believe “solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality.” He and his cohorts on the right, however, were not constrained by such restrictions: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
. . .
     The right’s great noise machine just kept chugging along, however. And the rise of social media turned it into an even louder megaphone that simultaneously blocked out any competing information. It was this environment that has made it possible for Donald Trump to emerge. We know he is a twitter and Instagram addict and uses all social media more casually and more intimately than any presidential candidate in history....
     And today, for the first time, some conservatives in the #NeverTrump camp are seeing where their decades-long attacks on the mainstream media and the “reality based community” have led. Right-wing radio talk show host Charlie Sykes from Wisconsin gave an interview lamenting the situation with reporter Oliver Darcy who put up an excerpt on twitter. Sykes also appeared on MSNBC’s “All In” last night where he said this:
     Over the years conservative talk show hosts, and I’m certainly one of them, we’ve done a remarkable job of challenging and attacking the mainstream media. But perhaps what we did was also [to] destroy any sense of a standard. Where do you go to have any sense of the truth? You have Donald Trump come along and the man says things that are demonstrably untrue on a daily basis. My experience has been look, we live in an era when every drunk at the end of the bar has a Twitter account and maybe has a blog and when you try to point out “this is not true, this is a lie” and then you cite the Washington Post or the New York Times, their response is “oh that’s the mainstream media.” So we’ve done such a good job of discrediting them that there’s almost no place to go to be able to fact check.
     Welcome to the reality-based community. (The Danger of the Right's Noise Machine: Years of Misinformation Led to Trump's Rise, Salon, 8/16/16)

Why many Americans hold false beliefs about WMDs in Iraq and Obama's birth place (Christian Science Monitor, January 7, 2015)
Although it has been proven false, more than four in ten Americans – and more than half of Republicans – still believe that the US found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. After six years in office and the release of his long-form birth certificate confirming his Hawaii birth, one third of Republicans continue to believe President Barack Obama was born outside the US. . . . “People who think we did the right thing in invading Iraq seem to be revising their memories to retroactively justify the invasion,” said Mr. Cassino [a professor of political science]. “This sort of motivated reasoning is pretty common: when people want to believe something, they’ll twist the facts to fit it.”….

*Well, they are skeptical about news media unless the news media tell them what they want to hear. Fox News, of course, is "fair and balanced."

According to, a relatively even-handed fact checker. (See here, here, and here.)