Good News, Bad News and Confirmation Bias

David French reflects on the Axios report that neither President Biden nor his senior advisors believe the polls that say he’s got campaign issues. After all, how could someone as worthy as Biden lose to someone as unworthy as Trump?

I thought of 2012 when I read in an Axios report this week that “President Biden doesn’t believe his bad poll numbers, and neither do many of his closest advisers.” That belief isn’t absurd on its face. After all, polling is difficult, and there have been a number of recent polling misses.

After describing at length a handful of banal experiences for a concept that doesn’t really require much explication, David puts the pedal to the metal.

If you are a true partisan, you essentially become an unpaid lawyer for your side. Every “good” fact that bolsters your argument is magnified. Every “bad” fact is minimized or rationalized. When partisanship reaches its worst point, every positive claim about your side is automatically believed, and every negative allegation is automatically disbelieved. In fact, allegations of wrongdoing directed at your side are treated as acts of aggression — proof that “they” are trying to destroy “us.”

Or as Jonah Goldberg put it more succinctly:

Someone you know or love goes to sleep one night,” he wrote, “and appears the next day to be the exact same person you always knew. Except. Except they’re different, somehow.

Big deal, you say. Confirmation bias isn’t exactly unknown or some big mystery. After all, everybody knows that brilliant people agree with me. But there’s a level far below the ordinary confirmation bias where it’s no longer about wrapping oneself up in information that bolsters your priors and ignoring, if not rejecting, information that challenges or undermines them.

It’s easy to blame the exhausted majority for checking out. We have obligations as citizens to cast informed votes, even as we juggle the professional and domestic responsibilities of our busy lives. But we also need to ask why people are checking out, and one reason is that partisans make it so very difficult to engage.

Ironically, there’s a gap in the logic here that eludes the extreme wings as well, apparently, as David. Most of us believe ourselves to be part and parcel of that exhausted majority and not part of any crazy fringe believing either in nutjob conspiracy theories or that the world will be wonderful once unicorns prance on rainbows.

Then, as partisanship deepens, partisan subcultures can get increasingly weird. They become so convinced of the us-versus-them dynamic that they’ll eventually believe virtually anything, as long as it’s a claim against the other side. MAGA’s Taylor Swift conspiracies, in which her popularity is some sort of liberal psyop, and election denial conspiracies sprang from the same poisonous partisan well. If decades of partisanship have persuaded you that your opponents are evil, have no morals and want to destroy the country, then why wouldn’t they hack voting machines or recruit a pop star as a government asset?

And wild as some of the MAGA partisan beliefs may be, the woke fringe with their “defund the police” and “abolish prisons” aren’t less nonsensical. The most significant distinction is that while the right is bent on adoration of a vulgar, narcissistic, deceitful ignoramus, the left is more insidious in that it wraps its ideology in a bow of bettering humanity and aiding the oppressed, which certainly sounds like better reasons to be deeply misguided that being a Trump sycophant.

So what can be done about this unfortunate state of affairs where we believe too much?

George Orwell famously wrote that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” We can’t simply tut-tut against the pernicious effects of pure partisanship; we have to struggle against it, including within ourselves. I have some rules to help temper my worst partisan impulses. Among them: Expose yourself to the best of the other side’s point of view — including the best essays, podcasts and books. Also, when you encounter a new idea, learn about it from its proponents before you read its opponents.

To add to the irony, the most highly recommended comments to David’s New York Times post prove the point.

This is a very thoughtful and well written column. I must say, though, when I got to this line of Mr. French’s advice I got tripped up:

“Expose yourself to the best of the other side’s point of view — including the best essays, podcasts and books.”

Okay, I’ll bite: Can someone expose me to the “best” of the MAGA point of view, including their “best essays, podcasts, and books”? I’ll listen if there are any.

To be fair, there isn’t much good to say about the MAGA point of view, but that doesn’t mean the election of Trump spells the death of democracy, as argued nightly on MSNBC, or that old man Biden hasn’t fallen short in myriad ways to be the president who would return us to normality after the crazy of Trump.

The race for the presidency is tight, which is unsurprising given that we are left two choices reminiscent of being in a pit of feces with someone about to pour a bucket of vomit on your head, and having to decide whether to duck. If you can’t comprehend why any decent person wouldn’t be on your side, then you’re on the fringe and there is nothing that will change your mind.

8 thoughts on “Good News, Bad News and Confirmation Bias

  1. Howl

    Laugh about it, shout about it
    When you’ve got to choose
    Every way you look at it you lose

  2. B. McLeod

    Biden and his advisers don’t want to admit how glaringly unfit for office he truly is, or how fanatic and unreliable large segments of their own party have become. They cling to the last, best hope, that in the 11th hour, Trump will be just too scary. They could be wrong, and the polls could be right.

    1. Elpey P.

      Reversible sweater.

      (observation of product usage and market paradigm, not of apparel quality)

    2. phv3773

      Big battles tend to be about the middle because the fringes aren’t powerful enough to win. And the middle of the middle tends to be beneath the control of the generals. The election will be decided in a few of the ‘battleground’ states, and the races there will be decided by the ground games there. Well, maybe also how many Trump voters slink over to RFK Jr.

  3. Pedantic Grammar Police

    “your opponents are evil, have no morals and want to destroy the country”

    Of course this is true, if you are referring to the politicians who “represent” the other party. But it’s true of both parties. Our political system does a very good job of selecting psychopaths to run it.

    Our choices in the upcoming election are a perfect example. Do you want the TV star con artist, or the withered husk of a formerly corrupt politician run by a faceless cabal of far-left nutjobs? Which one represents you?

    The people who vote for the other side are a lot like you. They just allowed a different brand of propaganda to infect their thinking. If you step back and look at your beliefs, you can escape from the left/right false dichotomy and see a glimpse of the underlying reality.

    1. B. McLeod

      But what good does it do to understand the underlying reality? The choices are still the choices.

      1. Pedantic Grammar Police

        After you recognize that Trump vs Biden (or any poll rat vs any other) is only the illusion of a choice, then you can stop being distracted by that illusion and focus on choices that are real.

  4. Robert

    This has been on my mind for some time. I even wrote a science fiction novella about it in 2021. My conclusion then was that we may have to live with it burning through the population like cholera, a reset of sorts. There is no cure that I know of. People have been writing about this as long as there have been tools to mark stone or papyrus, but Conrad’s passage from Heart of Darkness has always stood out for me the most:

    “My hour of favour was over; I found myself lumped along with Kurtz as a partisan of methods for which the time was not ripe: I was unsound! Ah! but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares.”

    Enjoy the ride.

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