Tuesday, September 15, 2009
True believers and confirmation bias.
In the 1976 book The Psychic Mafia, M. Lamar Keene coined the phrase "True Believer Syndrome". In the original context, it dealt with people who continued to believe in a psychic's powers even after the psychic had been shown to be a fraud, even admitted in public to being a fraud.
What a quaintly 20th Century concept this is.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan is given credit for the saying, "You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts."
Sadly, Mr. Moynihan is dead and his wisdom looks to be on its last legs as well.
People from every part of the political spectrum are convinced in conspiracies that look mad to the outside world. Orly Taitz, pictured here, is Queen of the Birthers, the people certain that Barack Obama isn't a citizen and therefore isn't actually president. In general, most people who believe any of the 9/11 conspiracy theories are from the left wing, though that isn't 100%, as many people who hate government hate it no matter what party is in charge. For example, Lyndon LaRouche's world view makes Queen Elizabeth, Dick Cheney and Al Gore all out to be horrible villains, and no one has yet successfully explained the logic of that threesome to me. With luck, no one ever will.
The original phrase true believer syndrome came from the study of psychics, and similar strongly held belief systems form around ideas from "alternative medicine". Whether the belief is from the stand point of New Age methods of healing or from the belief in the power of prayer held by some Christians, the need to believe is so strong that every success that coincides with a treatment or a prayer intervention is clearly due to that act, while failures are chalked up to not enough faith.
Either way, the believers can't lose. The patients, on the other hand, aren't so lucky.
In the modern world of conspiracy theories, people demand the right to their own facts. Any debunking can be ignored as coming from a biased source. To conservatives, people on the left are moonbats or libtards, either crazy or stupid. To liberals, people on the right are wingnuts or morans, either crazy or stupid. (Cropped out of this iconic picture is the "GO USA" sign in the left hand of Mr. Mullet with the Flag Doo-Rag.)
It's time to admit that not everyone on the other side of an argument is either crazy or stupid.
I blame the media in part. The media loves shrill like nobody's business. If there had been just general booing and catcalling during Obama's speech on health care, it wouldn't have nearly as interesting as it became when Joe Wilson shouted out "You lie!" in a voice loud enough to be heard. That supposedly objective people have disproven his claim means nothing to his supporters. As soon as someone contradicts a belief of a true believer, the gainsayer loses all claim to neutrality.
But if I had to point to the major cause for the shattered nature of our society, I would go with the Internet. It's so easy to decide in what part of the 'Net you want to spend your time. The same way that the 'Net lets folks with odd interests like My People and Our Agenda know we are not alone in the world, it also lets people get only the information that will confirm their beliefs, not the information that could make them have doubts. This is confirmation bias. It has always existed, but the Internet makes it worse than ever by being easier than ever.
Here I am, trying to be fair, but I am on the left wing side of most issues. I'm not saying I will never change, but given my age, major change seems unlikely right now. One of my major problems is that those who deny science have much more sway on the conservative side of the ledger than they do on the liberal side. That's a deal breaker for me.
Here's a video from the CollegeHumor website comparing how imperial stormtroopers feel about the destruction of the Death Star to American's feelings about 9/11. I saw it first on the Facebook page of my friend Jeremy Gross. I post it in part because I found it funny, but also because we should know that even a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there were true believers and confirmation bias.