The Burden Of Post-Factual Proof

In a series of twits, Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank, and a former executive of ExxonMobil, did the unthinkable. She explained why the leaked news that Trump would name Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State wasn’t so terrible.

The knives had already come out to slice and dice the choice, with superficial assumptions, the sort of routine quasi-informative arguments that are deeply persuasive to people who prefer not to know too much, think too hard, and appreciate any reason to persist in hating whomever they hate.

Maloney’s twits were dangerous, heresy. They suggested that Trump’s choice may not be a poor one at all, that Tillerson might be a reasonable pick. It wasn’t so much that her twits were a conclusive vindication of the choice, but that they forced one to think beyond seeking excuses to hate everything Trump is doing. If you believe with certainty that Trump is “literally Hitler,” then the last thing you want to hear is that he may not be as terrible, or at least that every decision he makes, everything he does, isn’t absolutely horrifying.

No one can force anyone to think. No one can force anyone to believe what they don’t want to believe. And the same elites who were so certain that Trump could never be elected have chosen not to believe Trump.

Bizarrely, they believe so strongly that they are willing to accept at face value the word of the CIA, the nice folks who brought you torture and extraordinary rendition, not to mention the certainty of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, without the slightest cringe of cognitive dissonance when it informed America that the Russians hacked the election in Trump’s favor. Bad for Trump? It must be true. Even if it’s the CIA.

Is the CIA wrong? Beats me. Russians were drowning in ineffectiveness up until recently, when suddenly they became evil computer geniuses controlling America’s politics. Even if it happened, did it change the election outcome? Correlation does not prove causation, unless you really, really want to believe it did.

What explains the willingness, if not the desire, to embrace every narrative that proves how evil the new president is? Certainly the politics of the media elites provides the foundation upon which public narratives are constructed. We only know the news they tell us, and their narrative is the one upon which our formative understanding is built. And the media has decided that Trump, unlike any president-elect before him, and unlike any government official ever, is a presumptive liar.

He is not just indifferent to facts; he can be hostile to any effort to assert them. On Tuesday, Chuck Jones, a union boss at Carrier Corporation,told The Washington Post that Mr. Trump was wrong when he claimed to have saved 1,100 of the company’s jobs from moving to Mexico — the real number will be closer to 730. Rather than admit error, the president-elect instead attacked Mr. Jones, a private citizen, on Twitter, saying he had done a “terrible job representing workers.”

In other words, Mr. Trump’s is a different kind of lying, though it has been coming for some time.

More curious than doubting Trump’s claim is the unqualified acceptance of a union boss’ word as “truth.” Since when did union bosses become paragons of truth? Since Trump, apparently.

And so there followed a significant shift in the media’s presumption of regularity. Anything Trump says is a presumptive lie.  When ProPublica announced the new rule of journalism, Ed Yong, science editor at the Atlantic, twitted “exactly.

No one is forced to believe anything any president says, but if the media wants to write a story that Trump’s statement is a “crazy claim,” which it may very well be, it used to be the responsibility of journalists to debunk the claim. Of course, nobody is forced to believe anything the media says either, but then, that’s where news comes from. We have an expectation that the Fourth Estate can be trusted, will be the loyal opposition to demagoguery, will counter manipulation of our understanding with facts and sound, informed opinion.

ProPublica has decided that the “burden of proof can’t be on the media.” Why not? It’s too exhausting. This president has, according to the media, no regard for truth.

Mr. Trump has changed this game. He has exploited, perhaps better than any presidential candidate before him, the human impulse to be swayed more by story than by fact. As one of his surrogates said recently, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts.”

That we’re in a post-factual society, where belief in a narrative is reality and facts are whatever we feel they are, isn’t just a Trump issue. Indeed, Trump may be the consequence rather than the cause. Remember all the credible folks repeating the campus rape stats of one in five co-eds being sexually assaulted, from the president to every mainstream media outlet around? Trump wasn’t yet a twinkle in the electorate’s eye, but the false narrative became fact to those who chose to believe.

This isn’t to suggest that Trump is to be believed. No president, or any government official down to dog catcher, should be “believed” without scrutiny, even though journalists do so happily because it makes their job much easier. And if he’s caught in a lie, then out him. Out him hard, and call him a lying liar if that’s what he is. Trump isn’t above reproach by any stretch of the imagination.

But then, neither is the media. Your manipulation of definitions (like “hate crimes”), abuse of rhetorical devices (like starting every story with the sad anecdote to indulge the logical fallacy of inductive reasoning, not to mention the appeal to authority by calling every source an “expert”), haven’t gone unnoticed. No collective group is less qualified to make substantive sense of information; you’re writers, nothing more.

Most of you have no specialized knowledge, though you believe you do. If you write tripe enough, you believe your own press releases. If you weren’t standing atop Walter Cronkite’s soapbox, you would have no more earned credibility than any other 23-year-old humanities major. And because you believe you know best, you’re the most truthy voice in all the truthiness, you get to absolve yourself of the burden of proof?

Bullshit.

24 thoughts on “The Burden Of Post-Factual Proof

  1. Agammamon

    “Chuck Jones, a union boss at Carrier Corporation,told The Washington Post that Mr. Trump was wrong when he claimed . . . ”

    That must be a weird place for a union boss – A Republican President that wants the exact same thing the union does, but he has to oppose him anyway. Because he’s a Republican (and Trump).

    “Bizarrely, they believe so strongly that they are willing to accept at face value the word of the CIA . . . ”

    Its hilarious, that. I’ve seen this elsewhere among hawkish libertarians – the people that will tell you that a DMV employee couldn’t pour piss out of a boot with the instructions printed on the bottom, that police are poorly trained and corrupt, that the War on Drugs is a massive failure responsible for millions of deaths worldwide – they’ll tell you that we *had* to invade Iraq because of WMDs and those drone strikes are necessary because *of course* everyone there was a terrorist – the government said so.

  2. Enjoin This!

    But, … but, … it’s SO much easier to stay in one’s own echo chamber. I wonder how many reporters are self-aware enough to realize they’re in an echo chamber. My experience suggests “precious few.” It takes work to separate fact from opinion, fact from conclusion, causation, proof, etc., etc. One has to think. Rigorously. Really, really rigorously. And those reporters/writers/pundits/etc. I know would rather tell a story than work on reporting facts. Witness the brouhaha at WP about “Propaganda or Not.”

    Rather than complaining, I query how to fix it. I’m teaching my children principles of rhetoric, formal logic, and proof, and I try to illustrate examples in real life. But then, I also make them pancakes for breakfast.

    1. SHG Post author

      You realize your children, while well-fed, will end up being friendless pariahs when the parents of the other children don’t want them to infect their darlings with dangerous ideas.

  3. Mr. Median

    “They have created a public debt of such appalling magnitude that our descendants, for whom we had such high hopes, will come into this world as poor as church mice.

    Shock and awe.

    What are the [hawks] doing with all the money and power that used to belong to all of us? They are telling us to be absolutely terrified, and to run around in circles like chickens with their heads cut off. But they will save us …

    What are [hawks]? They are people who will move heaven and earth, if they have to, who will ruin a company or a country or a planet, to prove to us and to themselves that they are superior to everybody else, except for their pals. They take good care of their pals, keep them out of jail—and so on.”

    Kurt Vonnegut, Strange Weather Lately

  4. Patrick Maupin

    You admit they know nothing and yet you want to saddle them with the burden of proof?

    Big meanie.

    In any case, the Carrier contretemps is a continuing source of amusement. If Trump’s estimate, presumably based on what Carrier management told him, is only 50% higher than what the union boss believes, that hardly even qualifies as hyperbole in this day and age, much less the sort of “big lie” we are supposed to believe Trump is incapable of avoiding.

    As far as Carrier themselves are concerned, it would seem they have cleverly deduced how to make and fully write off a non-cash corporate political contribution.

    1. SHG Post author

      What ultimately proves to be the case with Carrier, assuming no intervening event changes the outcome, will be. Trump isn’t president yet, and yet he’s already destroyed the world by not saving as many jobs as the union boss says. I am absolutely positive he’ll be a terrible president. They all are.

  5. Sgt. Schultz

    You know you’ve already lost this battle. That’s why you can’t have a column in the New York Times, which wants nothing more than a front page headlines: Trump Destroys Universe, Just Like We Said He Would.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        Not so sure about this. Not having a column in the NYT might be the major qualification necessary for a lucrative position in the Trump administration.

        1. SHG Post author

          It occurs to me that the big positions are being doled out to billionaires, who really don’t need the pittance to be gained from honest graft. Maybe they’re the modern day versions of Plato’s senators? Maybe they’ve made enough money, and are now going for statues and legacy? Or maybe there is never enough money. Not being a billionaire, I dunno.

          1. Patrick Maupin

            When you have a big enough outside business, a few small tweaks in the legal landscape can go a long way, and of course, you’ll know what those tweaks are even if you utilize a blind trust.

            But I’m hoping against hope it’s mostly this sort of reasoning: “That little turd offered me what??!? I don’t know anything about that! But I’m sure I can find underlings who do, and if he’s stupid enough to offer it to me, what deranged cowboy is next on his list? I’d better man up and figure it out.”

          2. anonymous coward

            I think billionaires in government is mostly about ego. In Trump’s case, appointing billionaires is aspirational, since he wants to be a billionaire, and the appointees want the adulation and prestige of a cabinet appointment. I don’t see graft, or even tweaking laws as an attraction since economic rents can be easily obtained with a good lobbying firm and some donations, without exposing oneself to a critical press.

  6. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    I forget where I saw it first, but I love the comparison of the media to the priestly caste in some ancient society. They surround themselves with pomp and circumstance, but when all’s said and done, their op-eds and thinkpieces are about as informative as digging through a dead ox’s entrails.

      1. RICHARD KOPF

        David and SHG,

        If only our modern priestly caste, such as Huff Post writers, followed their Egyptian predecessors. Back then, priests washed several times a day and they had to remove all body hair to be pure enough to approach the god. They could not wear leather sandals, not even Birkenstocks. They wore a leopard robe when serving the god Amun. Very good gig, even the part about shaving their genitalia.

        All the best.

        RGK

        1. SHG Post author

          I briefly considered being an ancient Egyptian priest, but I what would I do with my closet full of Birkenstocks?

      2. Alurkalot

        No one’s ox dies for nothing. In the best of circumstances, multiple teams of lawyers get to discuss whose ox it was, whether or not it gored or was gored, and by whom or what. At the least, there’s ox-tail soup.

  7. B. McLeod

    Well, the Democrats haven’t taken a beating like this up and down the ballot for awhile, and on top of it all, they were already picking out the new curtains for the White House. So they’re basically butthurt and humiliated, and striking out blindly at everything to do with the evil Trump.

    1. SHG Post author

      Given the way in which the Dems, and in particular, progressives and the media (redundant?), are responding to this, they’re going to need at least another beating before the realize the error of their ways.

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