2018: The year of confirmation bias, escalated

This is the time of the year for media year-end appraisals–best sports moments of 2017, or whatever. I’m not going to do one of those; my memory’s not good enough. But as I’ve thought about this last year, I did come up with maybe one way of understanding the sadly troubled state of our union.

2017 was the year of not just confirmation bias, but the ways in which confirmation bias escalates, each wrong conclusion leading to worse ones. You start with ‘would a plane hitting a building cause it to collapse?’ and end up with ‘no airplanes hit the Twin Towers; President Bush did it, or ordered it done.’ You start with a nagging question, and end up a full-on Truther. You go from ‘how did Shakespeare write those plays?’ to ‘Shakespeare didn’t write those plays.’ You do it by ignoring all evidence that tends not to confirm your conclusion. Nothing makes a conspiracy theorist angrier than telling him ‘there’s no evidence for that.’ And there is some mean troll-fun in saying that. But acknowledge this: when you troll a conspiracy theorists, you are not, actually, being fair. There is, always, at least some some evidence to support even the fruitiest theory. Plus, also, a preponderance of evidence that contradicts it. Confirmation bias is at least a first cousin to conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theories, in the age of Trump, rule. He loves ’em. He takes Alex Jones seriously!

I’ve seen it with friends. It starts with ‘Donald Trump, a candidate for President? Hilarious!’ Then, ‘geez, he’s pretty good on the stump; he might win.’ Then, ‘this is terrible. He can’t become President, can he?’ Then, ‘he’s the Republican candidate, and the alternative is Awful Hillary.’ Then, ‘Trump gropes women, but Hillary orders people murdered, so. . . ‘ Then, ‘Donald Trump is the Republican candidate. So I guess I’ll have to vote for him.’ And suddenly, Donald Trump, the vulgarian, the serial sexual assaulter, the most amazing liar in the history of American politics, the almost-certainly-crooked businessman, becomes maybe not so bad after all, plus maybe even kind of refreshingly candid. A guy who tells it like it is. And he’s our President, so we’d best defend him.’

Not all Republicans reasoned this way. I know a lot of lifelong, committed conservative Republicans who have become as ferociously anti-Trump as I am. National Review, maybe the leading conservative journal, has become the center for the NeverTrump resistance. I admire the principled stance Mitt Romney has taken towards Trump. More recently, Nicolle Wallace, who was one of the top members of the John McCain Presidential campaign was driven to ask “Are Republicans dead inside?”

What drove her there was the recent revelation that the House Intelligence Committee, chaired by hard-core Trump tovarisch Devin Nunes, has not only tried to derail the Russian investigation–which falls under that committee’s purview–but has formed a Republicans-only study group, a partisan sub-committee of the sub-committee, to investigate the FBI. Which has recently emerged, in the fever-dreams of Fox News’ Sean Hannity, and others, as treasonous. Yes. The FBI.

Here’s the evidence. During the 2016 election, an FBI agent named Peter Strzok had an affair with Lisa Page, an FBI attorney. Both of them were working on the Robert Mueller Russia investigation. Apparently, a big part of their relationship involved exchanging snarky texts about the election. They dished on Hillary Clinton, on Chelsea Clinton, on Bernie Sanders (who they both made fun of repeatedly). And they had a lot of joy at the expense of Republican candidate Donald Trump. And that’s the problem.

One text seems particularly ominous:

I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office for that there’s no way he gets elected—but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40 …

Insurance policy! See! There’s a Deep Space, black ops contingency plot to overthrow Trump! Proof!

Nonsense. As the invaluable Lawfare blog puts it:

Strzok was reacting to the argument that there was no point getting worked up because Trump was bound to lose. He argued in response that the odds against a Trump victory offered no reason to be complacent and gave an example: The odds are also very much against you dying before the age of 40, but you probably bought insurance at that age because dying with a young family would be such a disaster; the expense is reasonable even if the event is unlikely. For the same reason, in Strzok’s view, horror at the prospect of a Trump presidency is reasonable even though the prospect is remote.

Which is, far and away, the most sensible and rational way to understand an admittedly ambiguously worded text. Which he sent at 2 a.m. To his also-married girlfriend. Probably from the home he shared with his wife. Not conditions, in other words, that would lend themselves to clarity of expression.

At the same time, of course, a Special Prosecutor’s investigation should be impartial, and perhaps more importantly, should appear impartial. Strzok and Page worked on the Mueller investigation. The same day Mueller found out about their relationship and the accompanied anti-Trump texts, they were both reassigned. To the FBI’s HR department, which was surely intended to be punitive.

There’s another side to this. Strzok was also part of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. What Republican conspiracy theory wouldn’t find a way to drag Hillary Clinton into it?

Anyway, with this tiny molehill as foundation, the Strzok/Page affair, conservative media has constructed a mighty mountain of conjecture and speculation, now verging on certainty; the FBI can’t be trusted, and the Mueller investigation–I’m not kidding–is a attempted coup d’etat. Yes. Jesse Watters, on Fox News: “But the scary part is we may now have proof the investigation was weaponized to destroy his presidency for partisan political purposes and to disenfranchise millions of American voters. Now, if that’s true, we have a coup on our hands in America.” Of course, this only echoes what Trump tweets constantly; the Mueller investigation is a witch hunt, unfair, biased against him.

Still. A coup. Because two of the people in the Mueller investigation, as part of an affair, had fun texting back and forth. Inappropriately? Absolutely. Irresponsibly? No argument. Which is why, the second Mueller found out about it, he kicked them off his team. But man, it got taken seriously by Republicans. Andrew McCabe, Deputy Director of the FBI was hauled in before the House Intelligence Committee yesterday and grilled for over seven hours. I have a feeling they weren’t asking about his golf game. It was all Strzok and Page and Mueller.

Evidence of an FBI conspiracy? A liberal Democrat FBI conspiracy? A few anti-Trump texts. Sent back and forth by two people who also texted equally nasty stuff about Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Oh, and one of the agents involved was also on the email investigation. Evidence against the existence of such a conspiracy? Mueller got rid of them. Immediately. Plus he’s a Republican. So is his boss over in the Justice Department. Plus, of course, it’s nuts.

That’s how confirmation bias works. You ignore all evidence that contradicts what you already believe. Also, you get all your information from sources that you agree with. Contrary evidence is not welcome.

I do it, too. So do you; so does everyone. It’s a natural tendency for everyone. Which is why it is so freaking essential. Granted that objectivity is impossible; it’s still an ideal for which we should always, always strive. We should listen to each other, try to converse, make an effort to read articles we’re unlikely to agree with, try to understand sympathetically the points of view of all our brothers and sisters on this planet. Which we can’t ever do, but heck, we sure should try.

But don’t we have an equally sacred obligation to laugh at conspiracy theories? And at this President? Because there comes a point where there’s just so much evidence that you pretty much have to come to a conclusion, and not just any conclusion, but the only one the evidence supports. Trump’s a bad President. Mueller’s investigation is fair, and unbiased. And if he’s fired, Congress should take it seriously. Which this Congress probably won’t, but that’s a different thing entirely.

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