Why Rational People End Up In Echo Chambers
By Daniel Tippens
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, many have been searching for explanations for his victory. Some anti-Trumpers cite sexism or nation-wide xenophobia, a distaste for the establishment, and so on. Some Trumpers point to a distaste for politically correct culture, dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s economic policies, and Clinton’s email scandal.
But one thing that has really drawn my attention in this election is that despite the unprecedented media assault on Trump, he still won. Fact checkers eagerly painted a portrait of Trump’s ignorance, while the press documented numerous instances of “racism or misogyny,” disregard for ethical standards, and a disconcerting lack of political tact. Numerous news outlets explicitly endorsed Hillary and condemned Trump. Beneath every article about Trump, for example, the Huffington post added a disclaimer:
Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the US.
Social media picked up where the press left off, retweeting and sharing just about every anti-Trump article from New York to L.A. Indeed, I have never seen a barrage of this magnitude against a candidate, and yet the Trump train still continued to speed along the tracks.
Some said that this attention to Trump, while negative , actually benefited him, because, as it is said, “any publicity is good publicity.” I don’t buy this, however, since the very same people who claim that the negative media attention paid to Trump benefited him will, in the same breath, contend that media’s focus on Hillary’s email scandal and the FBI’s investigation into it hamstrung her campaign.
As far as I am concerned, the media’s effect on the presidential candidates’ campaigns was minimal to non-existent — at best indirect — if we are judging their influence by the number of voters whose minds were changed. The most popular explanation for this is confirmation bias; that voters have been cocooning themselves in a bubble of like-minded people and ignoring all the arguments against their views. Trump said that he would bomb the families of ISIS and that he wants to deport millions of people? Even if he did say those things, the media is probably taking it all out of context. Clinton committed a Federal crime? Surely, that’s an exaggeration, given that she hasn’t been arrested.
So the allegation is that we shut out views, simply because we don’t like or agree with them, embed ourselves in communities of those of like mind, because it is comfortable, and are inherently averse to contrary evidence. And of course, it is held that this is all tragically irrational. In deciding who is the best of two candidates, surely one should examine all the evidence for and against them, and not shut out people or information that contradicts our pre-existing views.
While studies have shown that people tend to be somewhat irrational, I am skeptical that this explains our inclination to cocoon ourselves. Instead, I would argue that cocooning and succumbing to confirmation bias is actually the result of a more (though not entirely) rational process than everyone seems to think, and that this may be an even greater cause for alarm. If irrationality was a large part of the problem that led to Trump’s election, education could solve it, at least in theory. But if people are behaving rationally, then only changing the conditions under which rationality is practiced could work, and unfortunately, I don’t know how this would even begin.
At the height of the public discussion over the health effects of smoking, tobacco companies put together their own teams of scientific researchers to investigate the issue. What resulted was the widespread dissemination of bunk scientific studies, designed to show that smoking doesn’t cause health problems. Similar industry-related “research” has been done with respect to the health effects of sugar and genetically modified organism (GMO’s).
But academically based scientists, who do not receive industry funding, have also done things that have raised eyebrows. Relatively new scientific fields, like psychology, cancer research, or dietetics have rushed to publicize discoveries and make prescriptions which, in very short time, have been rescinded or entirely reversed. The scientific consensus on what sort of diet maximizes health has changed drastically over the past several decades. Flossing, as it turns out, doesn’t prevent cavities, despite the fact that dentists have been telling us that it does. And until recently, medical researchers were convinced that radiation therapy is always useful in the treatment of cancer, which no longer appears to be the case.
Add to this the recent and well-publicized reports of significant – even, one might say, massive — replication failures in psychology and medical research, not to mention the widespread perception, backed up by survey data, that academics are overwhelmingly Left-leaning in their political orientation, and academic science has begun to hemorrhage credibility. Taken all together, then, the phrases “scientific studies show” and “experts agree that” have lost a lot of epistemic authority with the general public.
We find a similar problem with the mass media, which has become increasingly partisan. Pretty much every popular outlet is known to promote one political viewpoint or a narrow cluster of viewpoints at the expense of the others. Things weren’t always like this. Editorial standards for objectivity — or at least the semblance of objectivity, used to be strictly enforced — and so mass media outlets enjoyed a significant influence over public opinion. In the 1970’s, Walter Cronkite was considered “the most trusted man in America,” and Huntley Brinkley won a Peabody award for outstanding, mature, and intelligent treatment of the news. In 1956 an American National Election study found that 66% of Americans believed that newspapers were fair, but in 2013 only 36% thought so. Like industry-based and academic science, then, media outlets are now increasingly perceived as having goals other than seeking the truth. Phrases like “The New York Times reports that” have also lost what epistemic authority they once had.
Liar Detection and Cocooning
So, let’s return to the presidential election. Suppose that we have a voter named “Joe” who is prepared to do some research on the candidates, so that he can decide for whom to cast his vote come election day. Joe is aware of the fact that many media outlets propagate their political ideologies, and that the scientific community has any number of non-truth-related reasons to promote particular conclusions. As such, in doing his research, he cannot simply trust the judgments of the experts whom he encounters. Also imagine that Joe works 40 hours each week and has a wife and two kids, which means that he cannot verify these judgments – he cannot chase down every piece of counter-evidence and every counterargument that is offered. So, how does he decide whom he should trust?
First, Joe forms some moral, political, and factual beliefs based on what he thinks is his last bastion of reliable evidence: his personal experience. If he lives in a rural, largely evangelical county in the lower Midwest perhaps he hasn’t seen a good reason to believe that he should be concerned about transgendered bathroom access or that climate change is a pressing issue. So, he begins with those beliefs he already has on these subjects, which are justified by the strongest evidence that he has available to him: his own observations and valuations.
After doing this, Joe checks to see which media outlets promote the same views. He (likely unconsciously) tests which sources are reliable by seeing whether the source’s views line up with the beliefs he has formed on the basis of his experience and prior valuations. In other words, Joe engages in liar detection.
In ordinary life, we call someone a liar (or in the absence of malicious intent, ignorant), when they consistently make statements that we have strong pre-existing reasons to believe are false. When Joe sees The New York Times constantly reporting on the latest in the transgender bathroom wars or the apocalyptic consequences of climate change, Joe spots what he takes to be either ignorance or lies.
When you discover that someone is ignorant or a liar, you don’t trust them or go to them for information. You shut them out, which is exactly what Joe will do. Conversely, when Joe sees that his personal experience and valuations are also endorsed by Townhall and Fox News, he will take these sources to be propagators of truth and return to them for information about the election, throughout the campaign.
As you can see, Joe has now cocooned himself. He will only go to conservative outlets to get his news. Is this irrational? I don’t think so. If you, legitimately, find yourself in a skeptical situation and your most reliable source of knowledge is your own personal experience and valuations, then that is the best foundation upon which to form your beliefs and base your actions.
Now, I don’t want to give American voters too much credit. I think that people have taken some amount of joy in having a reason to cocoon themselves. Like somebody who is told that he needs to stop dieting for health reasons, this can be a welcome surprise – an excuse to stop putting in the effort that a diet demands of him. Many of us have relished in the opportunity to insulate ourselves in echo-chambers and have likely jumped on that opportunity more hastily than is warranted.
But to me, the cocooning phenomenon should be no surprise, and not because we are inherently irrational, but because we have created a situation in which there are no institutions that voters universally trust. The most venerable authorities have compromised their reputations and have forced voters to engage in widespread liar-detection. If we want to prevent cocooning, we need to change the conditions under which rationality is practiced. We need to bring back the Cronkites and Brinkleys, and re-establish trust in some of the news media. Only then can voters evaluate presidential candidates in a more objective way. I would like to think we are moving in this direction, evidenced by things like The New York Times, after having their readers accuse them of biasing their reporting, issuing a rededication to objectivity in the wake of Trump’s election:
As we reflect on the momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you. It is also to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly. You can rely on The New York Times to bring the same fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team.
Maybe Trump’s election will spur other news outlets to follow suit. But until this happens, we will remain reasonable people within a room of mirrors, listening only to those who will largely agree with us, and being largely rational in doing so.
Categories: Election Roundup