Thursday, July 26, 2018

On Evidence and US Politics. The M&M Theory

My many flaws do not include irrationality.  If anything, I'm too boringly granola-conscious, brain-addicted and robotic in my writing, and too conscientious not to double-check sources when I write about something*.

So it has been a hard lesson for me to finally understand that rational arguments and proper interpretation of evidence have almost no role to play in American politics which is as tribal as the rooting for a football, basketball or baseball team.

1.  Here's a parable of what I found yesterday while surfing some Trump supporters' Facebook pages:

Think of opening a bag of M&Ms (or Smarties, for some of you) and spreading them out on a saucer.  This is what you would see:

Now think of those candies (sweets) as different news items or different research findings.  That they are different colors is intended to suggest to you that some of them are well liked by the right, some by the left, some by everyone and some by no-one and so on.  Let's say, for instance, that the brown M&Ms are articles about the presumed horrible perfidy of one Hillary Clinton.

Your job is to create a summary of all the M&M messages you see and that job is one of a propagandist who is supposed to create the impression that Hillary Clinton is the cold vampire bitch from hell, the most criminal human being who has ever lived.  How do you accomplish that?

By taking another saucer and by carefully putting all brown M&Ms on it but no M&Ms of other colors.  Then you go around the room (at, say, a cocktail party) and show the plate of Hillary Clinton's crimes to everyone there.

And it would look convincing, because the existence of the other M&Ms is completely disguised from the casual viewer.

My example fails in that most of us already know that M&Ms come in different colors, while in reality many consumers of political information don't know about the other news, the  presumed horrible perfidy of other politicians, the fact that research conclusions do not all support one political ideology, and so on.

In reality propaganda is much easier than the M&M test I made up.

Once someone is convinced that all M&Ms out there are brown, it will be extremely difficult for anyone to bring into the room a few M&Ms of a different color.  That will be interpreted as fake news, fake information, an attempt to confuse.  In the case of Hillary Clinton, thirty years of brown M&M horror stories from the American political right makes the refusal to accept alternative evidence almost ossified.

And this is what I saw on the Trump supporters' Facebook pages:  The lack of all evidence about anything but the equivalent of brown M&Ms, though those were better interpreted as hate of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and the general belief that everything the US left says is a lie.

Before I get too excited about this finding I must note that the left does this, too, though the rigor of the lefty propaganda is less, so far. 

When I say that the left does it, too, I mean that we all tend to focus on those news, conclusions and examples which we find either most outrageous or most supportive of our views, and those are the ones we are going to post on Facebook or re-tweet on Twitter.

The overall effect of this is to make it impossible to see how common or frequent some particular events actually are.  An additional effect of this is that the right will only talk about brown M&Ms while the left talks about, say, orange M&Ms (to honor the perfidy of Our Dear Leader).

2.  If that first part of the post smacks of both-sides-do-it, this part will correct it.

Let's return to the M&M example.  Remember that in real-world politics people don't know what colors might be in the whole bag of M&Ms or how many of each color the bag contains.  All they see is what politicians, pundits and journalists show them, and that selection is easily affected by propaganda intentions.**

Suppose now that, you, the assigned propagandist, decide to cut out some small circles out of cardboard and paint them brown.  You add those fake M*Ms to the real brown ones on the saucer of brown M&Ms, and, presto, Hillary Clinton is guilty of even more crimes!  She should be locked up, the crooked woman!

Now this, the creation of fake findings and news, really is much more common on the US right and, in particular among the new Alt Right.  Once people who consume the right-wing news are familiar with the evil brown M&Ms, they are not going to ask to examine the cardboard ones, either.

3.  Let's add several complications to the simple theory I tell above.  One of them is that we now consume our news in different political bubbles, where one bubble shows only brown M&Ms and the other bubble shows, depending on the particular media outlet, either a random sampling of all colors or only, say, yellow M&Ms.

Remember that in reality the contents of the whole bag are actually unknown. Different people are therefore trying to estimate its likely contents from different data samples, many biased by cherry-picking and some even fraudulent.  What this means that we no longer can arrive at an agreement about how reality might look, even in the statistical sense.

Yet another complication arises from tribalism:  If the "wrong" expert offers evidence which conflicts with the tribal ideology, then that expert's testimony will be rejected without any attempt to analyze it.  This, by the way, is true across the American political spectrum.  It's not always bad to discount a message if its bearer is, say, Alex Jones, with a long history of lies.  But it's not good if we require tribal purity in almost all cases before even examining the supposed evidence.

This post is a simple one, and the actual analysis of evidence as well as the assumptions different people start from also offer major complications.  Still, pointing out the brown M&M problem is the first required step to fix the broken political conversations.


*  This doesn't mean that I don't fail.  I often do, but I almost always try (though I did retweet a fake news item recently, mea culpa).

** The weirdest example of that I have ever come across was a manosphere Facebook page which collects information on violent crimes women have committed, without collecting any information on crimes men have committed or even mentioning the general framework of all crimes.

The stories on that site were from all over the world, and the number of such stories was therefore huge.  Commenters on the site all agreed on the horrible aggression of women and on the terrible damage women do to the society, children and, especially, men.  That roughly ninety percent of all violent crimes are committed by men then becomes something almost invisible.

I say "almost," because it's hard to believe that anyone could ignore all other evidence in the daily news, unless those news, themselves, are assumed to be fake.