Today’s Fantasy vs. Reality Watch

Items today about

  • How Americans feel so negative about the economy, despite actual statistics;
  • How Christian Nationalism is working in Wyoming — the usual evocations of concerns that are not real;
  • How to determine truth, with an aside about science-fictional futures, and the competing attraction of conspiracy theories.

This item goes with the theme of yesterday’s post.

NY Times, Paul Krugman, 15 May 2023: Why Are Americans So Negative About the Economy?

…there are now huge gaps between what people say about the economy and both what the data says and what they say about their own experience. And we have some new information on what lies behind these gaps.

It’s partly about where Americans get their news, and the nature of news to be biased toward bad news, no matter how incidental compared to broad positive trends.

Partisanship surely explains much of this divergence. A newly published study shows that who holds the White House has huge effects on views of the economy; this is true for supporters of both parties, although the effect appears to be about twice as strong for Republicans. The study also finds, however, that these changes in reported views don’t appear to have any effect on actual spending — that they reflect “cheerleading,” as opposed to “actual expectations.”

Beyond that, there’s good reason to believe that media reports about the economy have had a strongly negative bias. One thing that has gone really, really right in America lately is job creation, yet the public consistently reports having heard more negative than positive news about employment.

So where does all this leave us? America hasn’t yet brought inflation back to prepandemic levels, and we may yet have an economic hard landing. But so far, at least, we’ve had a stunningly successful recovery from the Covid shock.

While many Americans tell surveys that things are terrible — which says something about how people respond to surveys and where they get their information — this doesn’t contradict that positive assessment.


Here’s another on Christian Nationalism.

NY Times, guest essay by Susan Stubson, 21 May 2023: What Christian Nationalism Has Done to My State and My Faith Is a Sin

The writer is from Wyoming. Without trying to summarize her entire piece, I’ll quote a sample passage.

In last year’s elections, candidates running on a Christian nationalist platform used fear plus the promise of power to attract votes. Their ads warned about government overreach, religious persecution, mask mandates, threats from immigrants and election fraud. A candidate for secretary of state, an election denier named Chuck Gray, hosted at least one free screening in a church of the roundly debunked film “2,000 Mules,” about alleged voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. (He won the general election unopposed and is now next in line to the governorship.)

None of those concerns were real. Our schools largely remained open during the pandemic. Businesses remained open. The border is an almost 1,000-mile drive from my home in Casper, and the foreign-born population in the state is only 3 percent. Wyoming’s violent crime rate is the lowest of any state in the West. Wyoming’s electoral process is incredibly safe. So what are we afraid of?

We see the same themes over and over. Fear. Power. Government overreach and other imaginary threats. That debunked film. “None of those concerns were real.”


And a couple more for today about truth, and conspiracy theories.

Salon, Richard Eckersley, 21 May 2023: How do we know what is true? In an age of war, pandemic and conspiracy theory, it’s not easy, subtitled “To survive this crucial century, we need to solve the problem of truth. That may be our biggest single challenge”

Long piece with examples of the difficulties of learning the truth, given sometimes conflicting media reports about various topics. The Nord Stream pipeline sabotage; the Ukraine war; the COVID pandemic; conspiracies to take over the world. Again, the angle about why to be skeptical about the media:

To seek to understand the truth about these matters also reveals how badly mainstream politics and media are failing us. For the most part, they are not interested in the truth, only in promoting a narrative that serves a limited and self-interested agenda.

With interesting examples of public surveys and likely futures and preferred futures. And a key point with science fictional futures:

Our situation represents what I have called “the demise of the official future,” meaning a loss of faith in the future that leaders have promoted and claim they can deliver. This “futures gap” stems from political and journalistic cultures that are overly invested in the status quo, unable to see beyond their limited and constrained boundaries and horizons. Mainstream political and media players face a growing need to manage differently the cognitive dissonance between how they think about the world and their work, and the emerging realities of life today and its existential challenges, instead of largely ignoring the latter, as they have generally done.

I would say that science fiction writers held a kind of consensus about the nature of the future up through the 1950s. A future of expanding progress, exploration of space. The consensus began to dissolve in the 1960s. Much more about that at another time.
This writer concludes,

So how do we know what is true in today’s world? The answer is that we do so with great difficulty, and can only do so by being skeptical, tolerant, open-minded, vigilant and determined.

(And conservatives are only the last two of those things.)


Salon, Christopher T. Conner, 21 May 2023: How did conspiracy theories explode in popularity? It all boils down to narratives, subtitled “‘Alternative,’ unscientific narratives like QAnon are more popular than ever. A sociologist explains what happened”

This goes to my long-acknowledged understanding that humans think in terms of stories, never mind whether they’re true or not. Or even plausibly real or not.


The last three years have revealed a strange, fundamental truth about American society: we do not exist in a world where we all perceive the same reality. Rather, we exist in a universe of competing beliefs about the nature of the world. And for myriad reasons — including the fundamental way that the internet shapes our reality and provides alternative “facts” to every conceivable scenario — there is no shortage of sources that bolster these competing worldviews.

Hence, we’ve seen a rise, or at least acknowledgement, of “alternative beliefs” — ranging from election outcomes, folk cures for COVID, and even fantastical beliefs about Jewish space lasers. Some blame social media as the source of the rise of extremist beliefs. But, what if those with these views, and the divisions that stem from them, always existed? What if they would have likely existed even without being supercharged by social media?

The article reprises many familiar ideas — e.g. conspiracy theories exploit real feelings of suffering in society; “Conspiracy theorists offer simple solutions to social problems, while science often does not typically offer comparably compelling narratives that might thwart these ideas.” And concludes,

There is some hope though. There is a younger crop of technologically knowledgeable academics working their way to holding the keys of power. Others, like myself, have been willing to embrace all kinds of technological innovations — from working with popular news outlets to adding sound effects to my courses. Now is an optimistic time for sociology, and perhaps what is needed is an innovative sociology. One that will teach students and the public about the social realities of others in new and compelling ways — ones that are both critical but also aimed at providing hope, agency, and optimism.

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