Links and Comments: Two from Today’s NYT

First, fascinating essay by Michael P. Lynch (author of just-released The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data): Trump, Truth and the Power of Contradiction.

How is it Trump can say completely contradictory things, and no one seems to care? It’s all about confirmation bias.

Blatant contradiction puts the responsibility back onto the shoulders of the listener. If I simply deny what I earlier affirmed and act as if nothing has happened, then you are left having to decide what I really meant. And psychology, as well as common sense, tells us that human beings are prone to “confirmation bias.” That is, we tend to interpret evidence so that it conforms to what we already believe.

Because, given that a candidate, such as Trump, might say opposite things at different times, leaves different listeners the ability to respond to whichever version they prefer to accept:

…when a person says something as well as its opposite, his listeners can infer that he really believes whichever statement they wish him to believe.

A familiar idea, from our internet-fragmented bubbles:

It is only natural that we’ll hear those voices that are most similar to our own, shouting what we already believe, and as a result Google can find you confirmation for almost anything, no matter how absurd.

(Anti-vaxxers, unite!)


Second, Nicholas Kristof: A Confession of Liberal Intolerance

The idea is that universities, in particular, do not represent conservative values and ideas nearly so often as they do ‘liberal’ ones.

This theme has popped up before, and I confess I’m sympathetic to the response quoted here, “Much of the ‘conservative’ worldview consists of ideas that are known empirically to be false.” That is, for example, conservatives/Republicans seem wed to economic policies that have proven not to work; to reverse the angle, the many in this country aligned to empirically false ideas about the age of the Earth and of the human species, or who do not understand evolution or climate change, are not liberals, they are conservatives. Why would anyone expect such conservatives to be common in our universities, where learning and truth, as opposed to ideology, presumably prevail?

Put another way: education, the exposure to new ideas and challenges to “common sense”, is itself a liberal idea. Conservatives, at the least the religious ones, are more likely to stay at home, lead their churches, protect their children from outside ideas that would challenge scripture through home-schooling, and so on. Or perhaps attend explicitly religious colleges.

Still, Kristof gamely thinks there is an issue here. The essay ends:

Should universities offer affirmative action for conservatives and evangelicals? I don’t think so, partly because surveys find that conservative scholars themselves oppose the idea. But it’s important to have a frank discussion on campuses about ideological diversity. To me, this seems a liberal blind spot.

Universities should be a hubbub of the full range of political perspectives from A to Z, not just from V to Z. So maybe we progressives could take a brief break from attacking the other side and more broadly incorporate values that we supposedly cherish — like diversity — in our own dominions.

Perfectly valid point, yet I have to wonder: how often in history have ‘conservative’ claims turned out to be true — based on some kind of *empirical* evidence, not force of ideology — against challenges to orthodoxy, i.e., liberal claims? It seems to me that the entire history of human understanding of itself, and of the universe, is about overturning status quo ideas based on primitive knowledge, with ‘liberal’ ideas based on reality… which has a liberal bias.

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