Doing a little Village Square-ish reading with True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo, who writes for Salon.
I’m intrigued by his distinction between 2 cognitive methods we use for forming our opinions: A central route – which undertakes a direct investigation of facts – and a peripheral one where you rely on the evaluation or even social cues of experts or people you trust. We tend to choose a peripheral route to save time or when the information is too complex for us to understand on our own. It’s when we use Consumer Reports. And we’re living in a world with increasingly complex information and increasing hyper-specialization.
He uses an example that puts the lie to a common belief of liberals – a whopping 30% of Americans believe this: Vote fraud was involved in George Bush’s re-election in 2004. The discrepancy between the exit polling and the ultimate results – which had been such a dependable cornerstone of our election process until 2000 – raised suspicions and got people with some level of expertise investigating. Apparently the problem is that with such a complex set of data points you can’t be only sort of qualified to understand this; you have to be the expert. Apparently many smart people were led astray by sort-of-expert analysis that lacked a full understanding of the variables – fanned by underlying partisan sentiment and the normal array of human imperfection. Here’s one example: An analysis by a math expert zeroed in on the fact that Bush got twice as many votes in a rural Florida county than there were registered Republicans. I personally remember the case she made – it was dispassionate, solid, well thought through. But the analyst was from Utah, therefore apparently entirely unfamiliar with Dixiecrats, the masses of southerners who essentially left the Democratic party after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act but never bothered to change their registrations.
The real experts – after months and months of tedious analysis that the rest of us are simply incapable of completing – determined that there was a sampling error with Bush voters being far less likely to consent to the exit polling at all. Problem is, many credible sources repeated the alternative semi-expert reasoning, including Robert Kennnedy Jr. in a well-argued oft-cited Rolling Stone piece and even President Bill Clinton.
Manjoo writes: “The honest debate on the exit polls is difficult – nearly incomprehensible, actually, to most Americans. There are portions of it that would test the mettle of statisticians. As you plow deeper into the matter, then, the line between comprehension and ignorance begins to blur, and the central route can’t hold. You begin to care not about what’s being said but about who’s saying it, and how. You start to look at all the peripheral cues.”
In a world swirling with more information than ever before, who can blame us for processing that information with peripheral cues from people we think might know best. Otherwise we’d spend our days researching everything. And with more partisanship than has ever before existed, we tend to rely on the experts – or more often the self-proclaimed experts – in our own political tribe.
So here we are, operating under two completely different versions of reality, much of which isn’t actually real.