Philosophy in the Street: Reading #5


 

Post-Truth (2018)

Lee McIntyre

From the Preface

 

[1] The notion of post-truth was born from a sense of regret by those who worry that truth is being eclipsed . . . Given this context, it is impossible to achieve the kind of dispassionate neutrality that one might expect in an academic book. Indeed, to do so would be to engage in a kind of false equivalence that is the hallmark of post-truth itself. The “other side” of the post-truth debate does not consist of people who defend it─ or think that post-truth is a good thing─ but those who deny that a problem even exists . . .

 

[2] The Oxford Dictionaries define “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion then appeals to emotion and personal beliefs” . . . In 2005, Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” (defined as being persuaded by whether something feels true, even if it is not necessarily backed up by the facts) . . . When the term was coined, “truthiness” was treated is a big joke, but people aren’t laughing anymore.

 

From Chapter 3: The Roots of Cognitive Bias

Much has been written about the tremendous break­throughs that have occurred in recent years in the field of behavioral economics. Borrowing a page from the earlier experimental approach of social psychologists, in the late 1970s a few economists began to question the simplifying assumptions of "perfect rationality" and "perfect information" that had always been used in neoclassical models (to make the math work right). But what if a more experimen­tal approach could be taken?

 

[4] In his book Misbehaving: The Making of a Behavioral Economist, Richard Thaler talks about his earliest days of collaboration with Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who were already giants in the field of cognitive psychology. In their 1974 paper "Judgment Under Uncertainty," Kahneman and Tversky took the academic world by storm, having proposed three straightforward cognitive biases of  human decision making. Over the next few years, their further work on choice, risk, and uncertainty revealed even more anomalies in decision making, which had such a powerful effect on other academic disciplines that in 2002 Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics. (Tversky had already passed away in 1996 and was thus ineligible.) Kahneman claims never to have taken an economics course in his life and that everything he knew on the subject was due to Richard Thaler.

 

[5] All of a sudden, people were paying attention to cogni­tive bias like never before. Part of this involved rediscovery and renewed attention to some of the facts about human psychology that were so old no one could really be sure who had first discovered them. "Source amnesia" (when we remember what we read or heard but can't remember whether it came from a reliable source) has obvious rele­vance to the question of how we form our beliefs. Likewise the "repetition effect" (which says that we are more likely to believe a message if it has been repeated to us many times) was well known to car salesmen and Hitler's propaganda minister alike. But along with these came fresh work that revealed a number of other built-in cognitive biases. And two of the most important for our purposes build on Wason's earlier discovery of confirmation bias. These are the "backfire effect" and the "Dunning-Kruger effect," both of which are rooted in the concept of moti­vated reasoning.

 

[6] Motivated reasoning is the idea that what we hope to be true may color our perception of what actually is true. We often reason, that is, within an emotional context. This is arguably the mechanism behind the ideas of dissonance reduction and confirmation bias, and it is easy to see why. When we feel psychic discomfort we are motivated to find a non-ego-threatening way to reduce it, which can lead to the irrational tendency to accommodate our beliefs to our feelings, rather than the other way around. Upton Sinclair perhaps said it best when he observed that "it is difficult to get a man to believe something when his salary depends upon him not believing it.

 

[7] The idea of confirmation bias seems straightforwardly related to motivated reasoning in that it is customarily when we are motivated to defend the idea that one of our beliefs is right that we look for evidence to confirm it. We commonly see this mechanism at work in police detec­tives, who identify a suspect and then try to build a case around him, rather than search for reasons to rule him out. It is important here, however, to distinguish between motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, for they are not precisely the same thing. Motivated reasoning is a state of mind in which we find ourselves willing (perhaps at an unconscious level) to shade our beliefs in light of our opinions; confirmation bias is the mechanism by which we may try to accomplish this, by interpreting information so that it confirms our preexisting beliefs.

 

[8] Some of the experimental work on motivated reasoning goes as far back as the other classic findings of social psychology. In more recent work, it has been speculated that this is why sports fans from opposing teams can look at the same piece of videotape and see different things. Let's rule out for now the idea that this sort of conclusion is reached only cynically, because we have something at stake and are not willing to admit anything that might put our team at a disadvantage. Yes, this probably does happen in some cases. There are spin doctors in sports too. We see on replay that the referees gave our football team too-favorable a spot, but why would we question that when it led to the winning field goal? But as any relative of a true football fall can attest, it is often the case that the rabid fan does not "see" the play in the same way others do. I live in New England, and believe me they are fighting words to maintain that Tom Brady deflated his footballs or that the New England Patriots are cheat­ers. And this is not just because one must always sup­port the home team, right or wrong. New England fans truly cannot believe that the Patriots would be cheaters. Call it tribalism if you must, but the psychological mecha­nism behind it exists in all of us, Packers, Giants, or Colts fans alike.

 

[9] In his work on the psychology of emotion and moral judgment, David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University, has studied the effect of such "team affiliation" on moral reasoning. In one experiment, subjects who had just met were randomly divided into teams by giving them colored wristbands. Then they were separated. The first group was told that they would be given the option of performing either a fun ten-minute task or a difficult forty-five-minute one. Each subject was then placed alone in a room and told that he or she should choose which to do— or decide by a coin flip— but that in either case the person who entered the room afterward would be left with the remaining task. What subjects didn't know is that they were being videotaped. Upon exiting the room 90 percent said that they had been fair, even though most had chosen the easier task for themselves and never bothered to flip the coin. But what is absolutely fascinating is what happened next. When the other half of the subjects were asked to watch a videotape of the liars and cheaters, they con­demned them— unless they were wearing the same color wristband.' If we are willing to excuse immoral behavior based on something as trivial as a wristband, imagine how our reasoning might be affected if we were really emotion­ally committed.

 

[10] Motivated reasoning has also been studied by neu­roscientists, who have found that when our reasoning is colored by affective content a different part of our brain is engaged. When thirty committed political partisans were given a reasoning task that threatened their own candidate— or hurt the opposing candidate— a different part of their brain lit up (as measured by a functional-MRI scan) than when they were asked to reason about neutral content. It is perhaps unsurprising that our cognitive biases would be instantiated at the neural level, but this study provided the first experimental evidence of such differential function for motivated reasoning.' With this as background we are now ready to consider two of the most fascinating cognitive biases that have been used to explain how our post-truth political beliefs can affect our willing­ness to accept facts and evidence.

 

From Chapter 4: The Decline of Traditional Media

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.

—George Orwell

 

[11] It is no secret that one of the recent facilitators of the "in­formation silo"— which has fed our built-in predilection for confirmation bias— is the rise of social media. That story cannot be told, though, without first coming to grips with the decline of traditional media. In its heyday, what is today called the American "prestige press" (the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal) and network television (ABC, CBS, and NBC) were the main sources for news. "In 1950, the average daily total paid circulation for U.S. daily newspapers was 53.8 million (equivalent to 123.6 per cent of households)." Think about that for a minute. That is over 100 percent. So some households were subscribing to not one but two newspapers. "By 2010, the average daily total paid circulation of U.S. daily newspapers was about 43.4 million (equivalent to 36.7 per cent of households)." Think about that too; that means a loss of readership of almost 70 percent. Over at the televi­sion networks, since the 1950s the news has been delivered each evening by an anchorman for half an hour on a nationwide broadcast. Walter Cronkite sat at the big desk at CBS from 1962 to 1981 and was often cited as "the most trusted man in America."

 

[12] Many think of this as the "golden age" for news. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the competition from TV networks had caused many smaller newspapers to go out of business. This "left most major American cities with a de facto monopoly paper, one which was better, richer, and more serious than those papers that had existed some twenty years earlier."' And on television? Because they were expected to broadcast only half an hour of news a day, the networks could put most of their effort into investigative reporting. Other than the occasional (and terrifying) alerts saying "we interrupt this broadcast to bring you a special bulletin" that portended war or assassination, the news was confined to its own niche, so that TV stations could profit from their entertainment programming.

 

[13] Although there wasn't much news on TV, this turned out to be a blessing for the news divisions, because they were not expected to make any money. Ted Koppel explains:

Network executives were afraid that a failure to work in the "public interest, convenience and necessity," as set forth in the Radio Act of 1927, might cause the Federal Communications Commission to suspend or even revoke their licenses. The three major networks pointed to their news divisions (which operated at a loss or barely broke even) as evidence that they were fulfilling the FCC's mandate. News was, in a manner of speaking, the loss leader that permitted NBC, CBS and ABC to justify the enormous profits made by their entertainment divisions. (“Olbermann, O’Reilly and the Death of Real News”─ Washington Post, Nov. 14, 2010)

 

[14] This began to change with the appearance of the CBS news show 60 Minutes in 1968, which (after its first three years) became the first news show in history to turn a profit. Suddenly a lightbulb went on at the networks. Although it did not change the model or expectations for TV news immediately, network executives began to see that news could be profitable.

 

[15] Still, the golden age of broadcasting persisted right through the 1970s, but then the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 led to a conundrum. The public was suddenly hungry for more news, but how could this be accommodated without disrupting the hugely profitable entertainment broadcasts? Johnny Carson's Tonight Show over at NBC was a beast. CBS had all but given up by running a late movie during that time slot. ABC was running prime time reruns. Then someone had an idea:

The ABC television network at the time decided to try something different by moving the daily Iran briefing to the late evening. This was also a marketing decision: ABC had no late-night programming against Johnny Carson's venerable talk show on its rival NBC, and news programming was, by comparison, cheap. ABC filled the evening slot with a new program called Nightline devoted solely to coverage of the [hostage] crisis. Each night, ABC would splash the screen with "America Held Hostage," followed by the number of days of captivity. The anchor (usually the veteran ABC newsman Ted Koppel) would then fill the time by interviewing experts, journalists, and other figures associated with the crisis. (Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise [2017].)

 

[16] This was very successful, and the program survived long after the end of the hostage crisis a year later. But still the question remained: would anyone want to watch more news than that? Next into the pool was CNN in 1980, which was something of a gamble. All of a sudden there would be twenty-four hours of news programming to fill. Whereas Koppel could parade a stream of experts to talk about Iran, how many experts were there and on how many newswor­thy topics? On the viewer's side, would they be willing to treat the news as a twenty-four-hour buffet and graze in and out whenever they felt like it, rather than waiting for the next edition of the newspapers or their "evening meal" broadcast with the network anchors? Were they ever. Al­though CNN was criticized for providing "watered down" coverage as compared with the broadcast networks, it was almost immediately a success. In 1983, a New York Times business section story reported on CNN's first profits.

 

[17] Throughout the 1980s and beyond, CNN's viewership grew, as a series of crises drew people to cable news: the Challenger space shuttle blew up, Tiananmen Square hap­pened, the Berlin Wall came down, and finally there was the Gulf War. Of course, there were also complaints about bias, but these had been a persistent theme for decades for newspapers, broadcast, and cable news alike. Lyndon Johnson hated the coverage that the networks gave him during the Vietnam era. Nixon's vice president Spiro Agnew dismissed the Washington press corps as "nattering na­bobs of negativism." There were eternal rumblings from the right that the news reflected a persistently "liberal bias," but there was no alternative until the late 1980s.

 

[18] Talk radio had already been on the air for thirty years before Rush Limbaugh came along, but, as Tom Nichols explains in his book The Death of Expertise, Limbaugh did something new: "[he set] himself up as a source of truth in opposition to the rest of American media." Feeling that the rest of the media was "in the tank" for liberals like Bill Clinton, Limbaugh sought to give voice to the rest of America. And he was wildly successful.

Within a few years of his first broadcast, Limbaugh was heard on more than six hundred stations nationwide. ... [Limbaugh] built a loyal national base of followers by allowing them to call in and express their support. The calls were screened and vetted; according to a manager at one of Limbaugh's early affiliates, this was because Limbaugh felt that he was not very good at debate. Debate, however, was not the point: the object was to create a sense of community among people who already were inclined to agree with each other. (Nichols, p.146)

 

[19] People listened to Limbaugh's show not to learn new "facts," but because they felt alienated from what they perceived to be the political bias of the news coverage they were getting from newspapers and TV. And besides, until the debut of call-in radio, the media had always been uni­directional: someone else was telling them what was true. Limbaugh's show allowed people to have their own voices heard and participate in a community. Before anyone in the media was even talking about confirmation bias, Rush Limbaugh had already discovered it. And it made him a juggernaut.

 

[20] By now, others were realizing the potential market share for partisan news coverage. MSNBC was founded in July 1996. Fox News came soon after in October 1996. Both saw themselves as alternatives to CNN. You will find people to this day who are unwilling to accept that MSNBC is partisan. In its first few years, it was decidedly less so, featuring conservative commentators like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham as regular contributors. At some point, however, MSNBC settled into its own (sometimes uncomfortable) niche for a liberal perspective on the news. Fox News— which was the creation of conservative media consultant Roger Ailes—displayed no such ambivalence:

The arrival of Fox was, in its way, the ultimate expression of the partisan division in how people seek out sources of news in a new electronic marketplace. What Limbaugh tried to do with radio ... Ailes made a reality with a network. Had Ailes not created Fox, someone would have, because the market, as talk radio proved, was already there. As the conservative author and Fox commentator Charles Kruthammer likes to quip, Ailes "discovered a niche audience: half the American people.  (Nichols, p.153)

 

[21] Fox has taken partisan news coverage to a new level. The day after the tragic shooting of twenty elementary school students in Newtown, Connecticut, Fox News ex­ecutives sent a directive to their producers not to allow anyone to discuss gun control on the air." The practice of Fox executives seeking to slant the day's news toward conservative talking points was in fact well known." This cannot help but affect news content. A 2013 study found that 69 percent of Fox News guests were skeptical of climate change, compared to 29 percent in the Los Angeles Times and 17 percent in the Washington Post. Another study found that 68 percent of Fox News stories reflected personal opinions, compared to only 4 percent at CNN." As a result, with no discernible line drawn between hard news and partisan opinion, hard-core Fox News viewers can perhaps be forgiven for believing and spreading some of the misinformation they have learned. Indeed, one 2011 study found that Fox News viewers were less well informed than those who did not watch any news . . .

 

[22] Some are willing to dismiss the entire work product of Fox News as the godfather of "fake news." (One does not have to listen long to criticism of the network to hear some wag make the too-easy joke that it should really be called "Faux News.") The problem of "fake news" and its relationship to the post-truth phenomenon is an enormous topic that we'll discuss in the next chapter. I bring it up now only be­cause some commentators have claimed that "fake news" started not with Fox but with satire.

 

[23] In a 2014 Pew survey that asked Americans to name their "most trusted" news source, there was a predictable partisan split. Among self-identified conservatives, Fox News led with 44 percent. With liberals, it was network broadcast news at 24 percent and a more or less three-way tie for second place between public television, CNN, and ... Jon Stewart's The Daily Show." But wait. The Daily Show is comedy. Before he retired as "anchor" of The Daily Show in 2015, Jon Stewart himself said that he reported "mock" news. His job was to get laughs, not dig for facts. Amid growing concern by "real" news people during his tenure that many young people were nonetheless getting their news from his show, Stewart defended himself by saying "if your idea of confronting me is that I don't ask hard-hit­ting enough news questions, we're in bad shape, fellows."

 

[24] Others are not willing to let Stewart . . . off so easily. In a re­cent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times entitled "The Left Has a Post-Truth Problem Too: It's Called Comedy," Stephen Marche argued that "the post-truth condition, in which Trumpism has flourished, has its roots in left-wing satire . . . As Marche himself notes in his piece, "in one sense ... political satire is the opposite of fake news. Satirists rip away the pretenses of journalism to reveal what they believe to be true. Fake news sites use the pretenses of journalism to spread what they know to be false." Yet Marche argues that despite their differing intentions, the result is the same: "Political satirists, and their audiences, have turned the news itself into a joke. No matter what the content of their politics, they have contributed to the post-factual state of American political discourse."

 

The Problem of Media Bias

[25] We have already seen how the traditional media declined in competitive terms once a more partisan opinion-based model grew up to challenge it. What I would like to address now is whether it also declined in its quality and commitment to the values of good journalism. With the rise of cable TV "news" shows in 1996, many in the traditional media began to blanch. They did not want to be confused with that! Thus, in both network TV coverage, on CNN, and in the "prestige press" newspapers, they sought to distinguish themselves by placing even more emphasis on "objectivity." The Fox News slogan of "fair and balanced" coverage was surely intended to mock the traditional news media. It's not that Fox probably saw their own coverage as any more balanced; rather, they thought that they were the balance. The other media were too far left, so they balanced things out on the right. But since the traditional media could never accept the idea that they were actually biased toward the left, they resolved to show that they really could be "fair and balanced" in their own coverage, so they started to report "both sides" of any controversial issues.

 

[26] Far from increasing objectivity, this had the ironic effect of lowering their commitment to providing accurate news coverage. In an environment in which partisans are desperate to get their story out, one does not succeed in upholding the highest standards of journalistic integrity (the most important of which should be telling the truth) by giving partisan shills a platform to air their grievances. Yet this is exactly what happened. The mantra of objectivity was reflected in a resolve to provide "equal time" and a reflex to "tell both sides of the story" even on factual matters. While this may have been a reasonable or even laudable goal when it came to opinion-based topics, it proved to be a disaster for science coverage. By allowing "equal time," the media only succeeded in creating "false equiva­lence" between two sides of an issue even when there were not really two credible sides.

 

[27] We have seen how science deniers have figured out how to exploit media worries about objectivity. No longer do they need to take out full-page ads to get their story out. All they have to do is bully the media into believing that if "other research" exists on scientific topics but they aren't covering it, it must be because they are biased. Journalists took the bait and started to cover both sides of "controversial" issues like climate change and vaccines, even if the controversy had been generated only by those who had something financial or political at stake. And the consequence for the general public was utter con­fusion over what amounted to a media-abetted campaign of disinformation.

 

[28] In 1988, President George H. W. Bush promised to fight the "greenhouse effect" with the "White House effect" long before climate change became a political issue. Over the next few years, however, global warming became deeply partisan. The oil companies had started doing their own "research," and they wanted the media to cover it. Simultaneously, they were contributing money to and lobbying government officials. We now understand that all of this was merely "manufactured doubt" meant to obscure the fact that the world's climate scientists had all but reached consensus on the fact that climate change was occurring and that human activity was responsible for it. But too much money was at stake to let this issue be left to the scientists. And as long as there were "skeptics" out there, the media felt duty-bound to report climate change as a disputed topic . . .

 

[28] They saw it on the news! By now the media had abandoned its job of "telling the truth" in favor of "covering their ass" by showing that they were not biased, which played right into the hands of those who were seeking to create confusion on factual matters through nothing more than bogus skepticism. Why did the media allow it? In part, it may have been due to lazy reporting. As one commentator put it:

Objectivity excuses lazy reporting. If you're on deadline and all you have is "both sides of the story," that's often good enough. It's not that such stories laying out the parameters of a debate have no value for our readers but too often, in our obsession with ... "the latest," we fail to push the story, incrementally, toward a deeper understanding of what is true and what is false.

 

[29] But this can have horrible consequences, for if you provide a counter-narrative of falsehood to something that is true, it allows motivated reasoning to take root. Political shills were exploiting the media, and the media were misleading their viewers. But there is another angle as well: profit. In an increasingly competitive media environment, net­works may have been looking for a "story," which required some degree of drama. If there is one true thing that Donald Trump said in his book The Art of the Deal it is that the media loves controversy more than truth. How can one justify such an accusation rather than conclude that it was all just an anomaly about an admittedly complex subject? Because it happened again, on the subject of the alleged link between vaccines and autism, based on the bogus re­search of Dr. Andrew Wakefield in 1998.

 

[30] Here the drama was even higher. Sick kids and their grieving parents! Hollywood celebrities taking sides! Maybe a conspiracy and a governmental cover-up! And again, the media failed utterly to report the most likely conclusion based on the evidence: Wakefield's research was almost certainly bogus. He had a massive undisclosed conflict of interest, his research was unreproducible, and his medical license had been revoked. This was all known in 2004, at the height of the vaccine-autism story. Later, when definitive word came out that Wakefield's research had been a fraud and a hoax, the damage had already been done. Years of split-screen TV debates had taken their toll. Vaccination rates had plummeted and what had once been a nearly eradicated disease—the measles—later had an outbreak among eighty-four people across fourteen states.

 

[31] If you think that the print media were blameless in all this, you would be mistaken. In a 2004 study entitled "Bal­ance as Bias: Global Warming and the US Prestige Press," Maxwell Boykoff and Jules Boykoff found that the norm of "balanced reporting" had caused the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal to seriously mislead the public on climate change. The problem here was not any so-called political bias. It was instead what the researchers call "information bias," which is when the news gathering and reporting rou­tines of journalists result in coverage that is distorted from the truth. In short, "[information] bias is the divergence of prestige-press global-warming coverage from the general consensus of the scientific community." But how could this happen? How could it be that adhering to the journalistic values of objectivity, fairness, accuracy, and balance could lead one away from the truth? The answer lies in succumbing to the pressure to achieve "balanced reporting" by including information provided by partisans who have a stake in pushing the reporter toward something other than the truth. This creates a "denial discourse" that can give undue credibility to fringe opinions: "Balanced reporting has allowed a small group of global warming skeptics to have their views amplified." The problem is really quite simple. If you make a recipe with just one rot­ten ingredient, the whole dish will taste rotten.

 

[32] Balance aims for neutrality. It requires that reporters present the views of legitimate spokespersons of the conflicting sides in any significant dispute, and provide both sides with roughly equal attention. But there is a danger because balance is often a substitute for fact-checking. Thus, the situation is ripe for exploitation by ideological "experts" who have a stake in how a particular scientific issue gets reported. Did this happen with the issue of global warming? It should be no surprise that it did . . .

 

Implications for Post-Truth

[33] The guardians of traditional journalistic values are in something of a no-win situation these days. As they watch their market share erode in the face of the increasing popularity of opinion-based, sometimes unedited, content they are taken to task for being biased even when they are doing their best to uphold the truth. If they call the president a liar (even when he is lying), they are criticized. If they disregard the contribution of "skeptics" on scientific debates, they are accused of telling only one side of the story. Is it any wonder that some in the mainstream press and television networks wish they could go back to the "good old days" when journalistic values were championed and their authority was respected?

 

[34] What they get instead is an onslaught of criticism. Donald Trump has taken to calling any media report he does not like "fake news." In his campaign rallies he called the press "among the most dishonest people on earth." And it is working. In the latest Gallup poll it was reported that Americans' trust in the mass media has now sunk to a new low: from a high of 72 percent in 1976 in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate crisis and Vietnam, it has now dropped to 32 percent.

 

[35] This is all just another step on the road to post-truth. Since the audience for news now consists of so many par­tisans, the line between traditional and alternative media has blurred, and many now prefer to get their news from sources that adhere to questionable values for truth telling. Indeed, many cannot even tell these days which sources are biased. And if one believes that all media are biased, perhaps it makes less difference to choose an information source that is biased in one's favor. Those who have provided charts that attempt to measure the reliability of various media sources since the election have been met with threats of bodily harm.

 

[36] The rise of social media has of course facilitated this informational free-for-all. With fact and opinion now presented side by side on the Internet, who knows what to believe anymore? With no filters and no vetting, readers and viewers these days are readily exposed to a steady stream of pure partisanship. With the reputation of the mainstream media at its nadir, those with a stake in dis­tributing propaganda no longer need worry about getting others to tell their side of the story anymore. Now they have their own media outlets. And if that fails, there is always Twitter. If the media is the enemy, then Trump can get his message directly to the people. Who needs fact-checking when people can hear di­rectly from the president of the United States? The challenge to reality is complete.