Post-Truth and Unreason, Part 1
“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
I could imagine no more persuasive illustration of this maxim than the response by much of the GOP base to allegations of Russian hacking in the election, which to a truly bewildering degree represents a previously-unimaginable display of uncritical party thinking.
(Note: for the purposes of this article, I’m going to take it for granted that credible allegations of intervention in the presidential election by a historically-belligerent power is a serious problem that demands a close look – if you don’t agree with that premise, all I can say is this blog probably isn’t for you.)
A useful illustration of this phenomenon is the comment thread to the Wall Street Journal article Intelligence Agencies Say Russia Ordered ‘Influence Campaign’ to Aid Donald Trump in Election. If you have the stomach for it, it’s worth reading through.
A few representative samples:
“We should have no confidence in these Obama hirelings, all of whom are masters of deception.”
“Confirms that a couple agencies are politicized. I can’t imagine being the head of the FBI, CIA, or NSA, and be subjected to having James Clapper as the President’s mouthpiece for my agency.”
“Big, fat, politically motivated, nothing burger.”
“Too bad she didn’t protect her data better.”
“Hillary supporters are looking for someone to blame.”
Here we are supposedly talking about the intelligent, reasonable conservatives, right? This isn’t Breitbart or InfoWars. But one commenter after another derisively dismisses accusations without evidence or coherent reasoning.
Similar attitudes are documented in the New York Times article “What’s the Big Deal?’ Ask Trump Voters on Russia Hacking Report“, where we learn that concerns about hacking are “sour grapes” from “a bunch of crybabies.” A Louisiana Trump supporter opines “If that’s what it took, I’m glad they did it.”
This raises a very serious question regarding the overwhelming failure of reason and evidence to prevail in this debate.
I’ve stated my core political commitments in my About page; the first is “rational, evidence-based discourse is the legitimate basis for political consensus.” Clearly what we’re observing is a breakdown of that principle to a degree we haven’t seen in decades.
Before we can think about how to address it, I think it’s important to begin by understanding what is happening and why. For that, we can learn a lot from the social sciences.
I would like to start with “the perfectly obvious” facts that I mentioned before. This, more than anything else, is the place where reason and dialog stop.
“The perfectly obvious” is a dangerously under-analyzed mode of thought which is all-too-often either unquestioningly embraced by believers, or uncritically dismissed as being unfounded by non-believers. At this point it should be, well, perfectly obvious that we can no longer afford that luxury.
How do political judgments become fixed in our minds? One way to understand this process is to consider the work of Carol Fleisher Feldman, who researched the ways that people relate to their own beliefs in an ingenious series of experiments . She found that people relate their own conclusions very differently from the way they relate to their hypotheses.
A hypothesis is generally perceived by the holder as something that exists “in the mind.” It is regarded as fluid, open, and susceptible to revision. However, once people reach a conclusion, their judgments are projected into the world and are regarded as empirical facts. They are generally perceived as fixed, stable truths about the world, perceived with a clarity and determinateness similar to our sense perception of objects in our environment. Feldman refers to the process of projecting our conclusions onto the external world as “ontic dumping.”
In other words, our conclusions are “perfectly obvious,” and they appear to consciousness as self-evident facts about the world.
That this psychological disposition has assumed a role in public discourse which now threatens to undermine the central role of reason and analysis in political discourse is, I hope, perfectly clear. To fall back to our principal example, to many a Trump supporter, it is perfectly obvious that what we’re seeing is a politicized witch hunt carried out by Democrats and establishment figures who can’t tolerate their resounding defeat at the polls.
Once political conclusions are reached, they can become extremely difficult to challenge, even with clear factual evidence. In a now-classic 2006 study, Nyhan and Reifler demonstrate in a series of experiments that many people actually become more entrenched in beliefs when they are presented with counter-evidence. The authors would later speculate on the basis of cognitive dissonance theory that people identify with their beliefs, and construe counter-evidence as personal attacks (for example, see here).
There is a great deal more to be said about this topic, many questions to be raised and answered, and a lot of research to be considered. I will return to these questions from other angles shortly.
We must, however, resist the temptation of jumping ahead to the end and formulating quick hypotheses about how to “reach” people and persuade them to take issues like climate change or Russian hacking seriously. That is a far greater problem, and the underlying social and psychological issues are extraordinarily complex.
 These findings are reported in her article “Thought from language: the linguistic construction of cognitive representations,” published in Bruner and Haste’s Making Sense; The Child’s Construction of World.