How Humans Select Particular Stories Over Reality

As I mentioned in Thursday’s post, I keep finding books in my library that could be considered straight-out philosophy (e.g. on ethics and morality) or at least philosophy-adjacent (some of the more abstruse physics and evolutionary texts, in the way they inform our apprehension of the nature of reality) than I’d thought to find. There is not a sharp division among these fields of thought. By the same token, it’s not that difficult to find correspondences, if not quite metaphorical alliances, between current news stories, and between them and the great philosophical concepts.

In modern parlance, these examples are about people in silos.

David French, NY Times Opinion, 28 Jan 2024: When the Right Ignores Its Sex Scandals

Let me share with you one of the worst and most important recent news stories that you’ve probably never heard about. Late last month, the Southern Baptist Convention settled a sex abuse lawsuit brought against a man named Paul Pressler for an undisclosed sum. The lawsuit was filed in 2017 and alleged that Pressler had raped a man named Duane Rollins for decades, with the rapes beginning when Rollins was only 14 years old.

The story would be terrible enough if Pressler were simply an ordinary predator. But while relatively unknown outside evangelical circles, he is one of the most important American religious figures of the 20th century. He and his friend Paige Patterson, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, are two of the key architects of the so-called conservative resurgence within the S.B.C.

The essay goes on with details of the Pressler and Patterson cases. Both men now disgraced. But here’s the point to make, in the second paragraph.

All of these facts are terrible enough, and it’s important to write about them even if we can only bear witness to the injustice. But the coverage, or lack thereof, of Pressler’s fall also helps explain why we’re so very polarized as a nation.

The American right exists in a news environment that reports misconduct on the left or in left-wing institutions loudly and with granular detail. When Weinstein fell and that fall prompted the cascade of revelations that created the #MeToo moment, the right was overrun with commentary on the larger lessons of the episode, including scathing indictments of a Hollywood culture that permitted so much abuse for so very long.

Much of this commentary was good and necessary. Hollywood deserved the indictment. But the coverage on the right also fit a cherished conservative narrative: that liberal sexual values such as those in Hollywood invariably lead to abuse. In Christian America, it was more ammunition for the sense that a righteous us was taking on a villainous them.

Yes, there are bad people everywhere, on both sides of the political spectrum. Yet:

How does a typical conservative activist deal with this reality? By pretending it doesn’t exist. Shortly after the Pressler settlement was announced, I looked for statements or commentary or articles by the conservative stalwarts who cover left-wing misconduct with such zeal. The silence was deafening. If you mainly receive your information from right-wing sources, the odds are good that you haven’t seen this news at all.

Right? Similarly with

the minimal right-wing coverage of Fox News’s historic defamation settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, the largest known media defamation settlement of all time. I consistently meet conservatives who might know chapter and verse of any second-tier scandal in the “liberal media” but to this day have no clue that the right’s favorite news outlet broadcast some of the most expensive lies in history.

This isn’t the kind of selective ignorance in which news consumers choose or pretend not to know something they are well aware of. Rather, it’s more like a cultivated ignorance, in which news outlets and influencers and their audiences tacitly agree not to share facts that might complicate their partisan narratives.

Of course, the dynamic is even worse when stories of conservative abuse and misconduct break in the mainstream media. Conservative partisans can simply cry “Media bias!” and rely on their followers to tune it all out. To those followers, a scandal isn’t real until people they trust say it’s real.

Partisan news sources choose which stories to feed their followers. More to the point: conservatives, especially, live in a bubble in which stories that impugn their narrative of grievance and hope for a return to an idealized past are simply tuned out. They never hear about them.


I’m beginning to suspect that the faithful, especially the evangelical Christian fundamentalists, simply never hear about how full of holes their holy text is. I’ve read that most people, and especially believers, don’t actual read the Bible, let alone closely. It’s so much simpler to live a life in which every complex question can be simply assigned to the Bible. “If God said it, I believe it.” Taking the extremely naive notion that the Bible is the word of God. Never mind centuries of research that indicates that the Bible was written by many people over thousands of years, then translated and re-translated and selected and edited and translated again. Even Thomas Paine, one of America’s “founding fathers,” who bothered to read the Bible closely, pointed these things out — see his The Age of Reason, published in 1796, which I reviewed here. And online resources documenting the contradictions and incoherencies of the Bible are easy to find, e.g. here: The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (I have the book).

The latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer has this article by S.T. Joshi: Cherry-Picking the Bible (I can’t find a non-subscriber link at the moment.) He’s reacting to the election of Mike Johnson as Speaker of the House, who said “Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That’s my worldview.”


OK, Mike, let’s do that.

First, one assumes–or hopes–that Johnson does not fully ascribe the scientific principles of the Bible, which would require him to believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth, the Earth is flat, and so on. On the social angle, the Tenth Commandment (which, like all the other commands, are directed only at men, because they were the only ones in ancient Jewish society who had any moral agency) decrees that wives are the property of their husbands. There is also the problem of the Sabbath. If one ascribes to the Bible’s prohibition of “work” on the Sabbath–a prohibition that is to be enforced by the death penalty (Exodus 31:15)–then one would be obliged to execute every football player in the NFL, not to mention many other athletes, business people, and other individuals who earn a living on that fateful day.

With further observations about marriage, slavery, and witches. Do the faithful who adhere to the Bible simply not understand how many claims in the Bible have turned out to be untrue? How many of its moral strictures no longer apply? (And except for a tiny minority of extremists, are in fact ignored even by the faithful.)

The Bible is so much better understood as a compilation of texts from primitive humanity who had only intuitive ideas about the nature of the universe. The only reason people defer to it is because it’s the oldest such text that has survived into print. As if no one else in all humanity since then has learned anything better.

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