There is something amiss, pathological, about the current crop of GOP presidential candidates. They seem ungrounded by reality, adrift in conspiracy theories. What's up with that?
Everyone is asking the question. So here's a theory up the flag-pole: For more than 30 years, Republicans have preached distrust of government, science, and education; they have been supported in this by right wing media, think tanks, and influential figures in popular culture. As a result a bias of distrust in government, education, and science has taken hold in broad swaths of the GOP electorate. The problem with that, recent studies suggest, is that distrust of government and science and education makes us especially susceptible to conspiracy theories. It takes our motivated reasoning to pathological levels.
We are all guilty of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias. We are very good at making up stories to explain the world, to make sense of it. We can do this almost instantaneously. And we are tenacious about hanging on to these stories once we have committed to a narrative. Researchers say it's worse when emotions are involved. You know, like mass shootings; like the safety of our children. That is human nature. We all make up facts to support our beliefs, as needed, and we will ignore inconvenient facts, as needed. See e.g. Michael Gazzuniga. Everybody does it.
A recent study from the University of Iowa found that this confirmation bias applies even to financial traders...they will hang onto their initial assessment of value even as contrary evidence comes in, even as it is clearly costing them money.
Conspiracy theories are just an extreme example of this tendency. They too, are part of an effort to gather facts and create frameworks to protect and bolster our worldviews. And now there is a new study [pay wall] published in the American Journal of Political Science. The study is described by David Roberts at VOX. Three political scientists (Miller/Saunders/Fahrhart) reported on the effect of trust, or lack of trust, on our belief systems. They found that a lack of trust (in science, the government, education etc.) is strongly correlated with conspiracy theories. In other words, those who are highly engaged in politics but have a low trust level are prime candidates for adhering to conspiracy theories.
A lack of trust in government, of course, has been a hallmark of Republican political rhetoric since before Newt Gingrich. The most extreme manifestation of this is the "Freedom Caucus" in the House that has managed to bring down the speakership of John Boehner. "Lemmings with suicide vests," Devin Nunes described them as reported in Ryan Lizza's current article in the New Yorker. Trump and Cruz and Huckabee and Rubio are not far behind on the crazy scale.
The problem is not restricted to conservatives. Take the anti-vaccination movement which is correlated with a liberal world view. Take liberal blogger Sarah Pope who is being lampooned here by Samantha Bee.
"They have an amazing ability to ignore scientific consensus," says the vaccine expert in the video. And so they do. Just like the climate change denialists, the Freedom Caucus Republicans in Congress, or the majority of the GOP candidates for president this year.
The spread starts on blogs like Popes', goes viral on Twitter, and replicates itself wherever progressives congregate. I had been looking for patient zero, and I have found her. And then, when it jumps hosts into a CELEBRITY it goes airborne, putting millions at risk; you can catch it from an iPhone, over soy lattes, even at a toddler DJ class.And being educated, smart, or well informed is no antidote.... Pope very clearly has a deep distrust of scientists and politicians. According to the Miller/Saunders/Fahrhart study, this makes her a prime candidate for the vaccine conspiracy theories... and her level of knowledge makes it worse!
The fact that her blog has 40,000 followers makes her a dangerous "Very Serious Person."
Back in July, Henry Farrell wrote "A Brief History of Very Serious People," arguing that certain people have undue influence over the beliefs we form--whether crazy or good:
Everyone co-exists in a social system that tends to value, heavily reinforce and widely disseminate some people’s beliefs while disparaging, heavily discounting, and tending to limit the circulation of certain other people’s beliefs. This bias is not random, but instead reflects and reinforces existing power structures and asymmetries. People whose beliefs are reinforced and widely circulated so that they are socially and politically influential, even when they are manifestly wrong, are Very Serious People. The system provides them with no incentives to admit error or perhaps to understand that they have erred, even when their mistakes have devastating consequences.
Being a Very Serious Person is about occupying a structural position that tends to reinforce, rather than counter, one’s innate biases and prejudices. Put slightly differently, the Very Serious Person theory is one that is at least as much about collective structures of opinion as it is about individuals. We all err, sometimes very badly. The theory says that VSPs face less incentive either to second guess their errors as they are making them, or to think through their errors after they have made them, because collective structures reinforce their tendency to think that they are right in the first instance, and their tendency to think that they ought to have been right (if it weren’t for those inconvenient facts/specific and contingent circumstances that meant that things didn’t go quite as predicted just this once) in the second.There is a certain essential utility to this process of course:
Individual biases, together with a certain degree of pigheadedness can have advantages for group problem solving, as long as people have a minimal capacity to come around to recognizing the advantages of a better perspective, however grudgingly, and (my addition) as long as collective structures of decision making do not systematically entrench certain kinds of bias.
This is the advantage of democracy when it works; it harnesses mulishness and rancorous dispute, to reveal the information that is latent in the disagreements between our various perspectives on the world (which are inextricably intertwined with our value judgments). However, when certain people’s perspectives are privileged, the value of democracy is weakened. Their perspectives will continue to prevail, even when they are wrong. Weak arguments that they make will be treated as strong ones, while strong arguments made by their opponents will be treated as weak ones.The problem with the GOP of 2015--as manifested by their abysmal crop of presidential candidates--is that conservative decision making in the U.S. has for the last 35 years systematically entrenched a harmful bias against science and government, the very conditions that incubate crazy conspiracy theories. As Peter Beinart points out in Haaretz yesterday: "Before Donald Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric, there was Anne Coulter."
Conservatives in America over the last 35 years have, in Farrell's words: established systems around them that magnify that bias against science and government, reinforced it, and reflected it, creating vicious feedback loops of self-satisfied yet consequential ignorance. The name of this system sounds like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage, Fox News, and the Republican Freedom Caucus.
It's the feedback loop Samantha Bee describes in the video clip, above.
And the system has been selling distrust. Distrust of government, distrust of science, distrust of teachers... And it has given us a bunch of conspiracy theory nut jobs running for president.
And, no, it's not just politics as usual. We are all susceptible to confirmation bias... but we are not all under the thrall of conspiracy theories. We don't all make shit up equally.
Take this chart from the New York Times: this is a compilation of lies told by politicians. "How do you tell when a politician is lying?" goes the meme. Answer: "when his lips are moving." It turns out that for Trump and Carson and Cruz that is close to the truth:
Yes, all politicians lie, but if we look at the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, it's clear there is something amiss. This is not chance--it's the result of entrenching an anti-government, anti-science, anti-education bias that has made these people into crazy conspiracy nut jobs.
There is something pathological about it.
Here is Devin Nunes (Congressman from California--east and south of Fresno) as reported by Lizza:
Nunes, who is the chairman of the House Committee on Intelligence, told me that the biggest change he’s seen since he arrived in Congress, in 2002, is the rise of online media outlets and for-profit groups that spread what he views as bad, sometimes false information, which House members then feel obliged to address. ....“I used to spend ninety per cent of my constituent response time on people who call, e-mail, or send a letter, such as, ‘I really like this bill, H.R. 123,’ and they really believe in it because they heard about it through one of the groups that they belong to, but their view was based on actual legislation,” Nunes said. “Ten per cent were about ‘Chemtrails from airplanes are poisoning me’ to every other conspiracy theory that’s out there. And that has essentially flipped on its head.” The overwhelming majority of his constituent mail is now about the far-out ideas, and only a small portion is “based on something that is mostly true.” He added, “It’s dramatically changed politics and politicians, and what they’re doing.”Yes, there is something pathological in todays Republican party. What will it take to break the fever? Some trust.