Splitting hairs or Splitting Reality?

I would encourage any American who sees themselves in the independent middle between the two major U.S. political parties to read Farhad Manjoo’s TRUE ENOUGH: LEARNING TO LIVE IN A POST-FACT SOCIETY.  I had mentioned the book in a blog a few weeks ago:  True-ish, Truthiness, and True Enough

“In this book I’ve explored how modern communications technology has shifted our understanding of the truth.  I argue that new information tools haven’t merely given us faster and easier access to the news, but that they’ve altered our very grasp on reality.  The pulsing medium fosters divergent perceptions about what’s actually happening in the world – that is, it lets each of us hold on to different versions of reality.”  (p224)

Manjoo gives examples from recent political events to show that “reality is splitting” for liberals and conservatives in America.  He examines some common political beliefs of the left and right, offers what evidence he could find from his research about “the truth” of the situation and then comments on how both the left and the right choose to believe what they want to believe and whom they want to believe no matter what the evidence might show.  His claim is that the modern media exacerbates the problem as partisan commentators repeat partial or distorted truths, or harp on one truth while ignoring everything else that is known about a situation.  And in the modern information age where everyone quickly becomes overwhelmed by the amount of information and the number of voices, people more readily turn to listen to those that are espousing views they already agree with.  People aren’t searching for the truth, they are looking for evidence that confirms what they already believe.   Thus on the right many choose to believe that John Kerry was not a war hero, on the left they believe that Bush stole the election from Gore, and a sizeable group of American conspiracy theorists still believe that the American Government or military staged the 9/11 attacks using missiles in order to justify going to war with Iraq.   In each case, when evidence is used to pick apart the beliefs held, “believers” hold to what they believe and don’t trust the evidence offered even when they can’t refute the evidence.   This is the sense in which “reality splits” and people see what they want even while looking at the same evidence.  Manjoo offers some psychological and sociological reasons from research studies  as to how the human mind works  regarding what we choose to believe and why; the bottom line is we really do pay more attention and give more credence to those things which reaffirm our already held beliefs. 

“Selective exposure, selective perception, the cult of fake experts, and the end of objectivity in the news: these are merely pistons in what has become, today, a powerful engine of propaganda, one that drives all the recent examples of our society’s unfettered departure from ‘the reality-based world.’”   (p 227)

Among the sociological findings regarding our selective listening:

  1. “We’d rather listen to the other side’s flimsy attacks on our side than our side’s flimsy attacks on theirs.”  (p 43)   This has an interesting effect in campaigns: our voting decisions seem wiser when the opposition presents weak arguments for its side.    Saturation type advertising can be counterproductive if it isn’t presenting compelling reasons for independent voters to change their minds, but might work to keep the party faithful, loyal.   However, Manjoo points out that liberals and conservatives react differently to campaign advertising according to studies.  Republicans  prefer to hear even flimsy messages that support their ideas  rather than listen to the weak arguments of Democrats, while the Democrats find the flimsy arguments of Republicans to be convincing evidence to vote Democratic. 
  2. “Republicans and conservatives are more ideological in their political posture…” (p 46).    Studies show Republicans prefer selective exposure – they don’t want to know both sides of the argument and prefer to hear only the view they agree with.  I’m guessing this is true because the conservative mind by nature tends to eschew change, so they want to know what is right with their ideas and aren’t looking to change them, whereas “liberals” by nature are more open to (or looking for)  new ideas and so are also less ideological bound and more willing to explore new/different ideas.  (see my blog What Biology Says About Your Politics)
  3. Studies show news anchors and “experts” can sway public opinion 3-4 percentage points on an issue.   Thus the battle to make networks more conservative or liberal can have an effect on elections.    But also, “…’reality’ splits when people selectively expose themselves to different facts, or when they interpret the same evidence in divergent ways.” (p 107)  So choosing to watch only one “biased” network will cause one to have a totally different view of reality than those who watch other networks.
  4. Studies show “each of us thinks that on any given subject our views are essentially objective…  then we think that reasonable people ought to agree with us.  And to the extent that people disagree with us, we conclude that they are not reasonable – they’re biased.”  (p 152)
  5. Studies in education show  “That American society prizes style over substance…” (p 116).   I consider this to be one of the most negative factors in American politics.  We continue to confuse entertainment with substance and so will continue to be attracted to entertaining/stylish/attractive candidates over people with substantive ideas who aren’t as good looking.   (Yesterday’s news: Connecticut GOP chooses former World Wrestling Entertainer Linda McMahon as their senate candidate). 
  6. Studies show that “Society works better  when people trust one another.” (p 222)  Unfortunately now we have “particularized trust” – we trust only those who agree with our point of view and so we are willing to blind ourselves to the negative aspects of the political views we hold.

Manjoo’s descriptive tour of America notes the effects of video news releases (manufactured “pseudo-news”; stories told from a point of view – even sales pitches – but presented as “news”; PR firm created videos intended to influence/deceive but offered as objective information).    Not only has it become easier to create news stories and releases, but the effect of millions of blogs/tweets/txt messages/etc means messages even false or pernicious ones spread the word at the speed of light.   This only furthers peoples’ distrust of information that they don’t like or don’t agree with which further enables people to hold to different realities.   In the end Manjoo sees the current effects of the information/communication age continuing for years to come.

What Biology Says About Your Politics

Two articles that deal with one’s political views and biology.  The first was comes from Ted.com  and features psychologist Jonathan Haidt who spoke on The real difference between liberals and conservatives.   Haidt identified five primary categories of moral values:  1) Harm/Care  (includes compassion),  2)Fairness/Reciprocity, 3)In-group/Loyalty, 4) Authority/Respect, 5) Purity/Sanctity.   He then looked at studies which show which of these values  those who are socially/morally liberal or conservative honor the most.  Interestingly cross cultural studies throughout the world show the same basic patterns.   Both liberals and conservatives highly value the same ideals surrounding Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity.  These items might be somehow basic human values – the values which have allowed humans to socialize and form cities and nations.  But conservatives much more highly value Loyalty, Authority and Purity than do liberals. 

Haidt says that change and progress – which require paying less honor to loyalty, authority and purity – are driven by people who have a different set of values.   He uses the information to say that instead of liberals and conservatives seeing each other in an adversarial fashion, they might come to see the value in what they each contribute to society and to being human.  Liberals drive change, improvement, technology because they feel less loyalty to what is, to who is in power, to what others consider good or valuable.  Conservatives work to keep humanity together by defining limits of acceptability.  Both contribute to us being more human and better social beings.

As one small aside –  though social conservatives much more highly value purity than do liberals, Haidt notes that while this may be true when it comes to sex, contemporary liberals have come to form their own sense of purity – what we put in out bodies (right foods, drinks, etc) and liberals can be extremely puritanical when it comes to politically correct foods and drink.

 The second article connecting politics and biology was aired on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition 19 September 2008:  Could Political Views be Driven by Biology?    In a study done of people with strong political convictions, University of Nebraska researcher John Hibbing said his team could quite accurately predict political affiliation by the way people reacted to alarming images and sounds.  Conservatives reacted more strongly to threats than did liberals.  Interpreting the data proves a bit trickier.  The transcript of the audio article reads:

Hibbing and his colleagues found that they could predict what a person’s political beliefs would be based on how strongly the person’s body responded to the alarming images and sounds, according to a report in the journal Science.

“Those people who seemed to have a stronger reaction to threat were more likely to favor things like military spending, the death penalty, the Patriot Act,” says Hibbing.

He doesn’t think this study means that conservatives are essentially scaredy-cats.

“I think it’s just as easy to say that liberals are naive, and they don’t get it. They don’t understand it’s a dangerous world,” Hibbing says.