On my last post, Silent Cal and That Old-time Republican Religion, I led off with:
Right Wingers are in the habit of believing whatever they need to believe to justify whatever it is they want to do.
The left is hardly immune from this.
Among the temptations besetting us members of the Reality-based Community is the temptation to believe that because we respect the facts we have got those facts.
And we do. Some of them, some of us, some of the time. But we need to remember that along with the facts we have got other things.
Prejudices. Vanities. Bad memories.
Hopes. Dreams. Illusions. Passions and desires.
All these things get in the way of our seeing the world for what it really is and tend to lead us into believing it’s what we wish it to be. They lead us into ignoring the facts we have or that there are there for us to obtain. They lead us into selectively choosing facts to support our version of reality. They lead us into misinterpreting and even misrepresenting facts. They lead us into thinking that things that aren’t facts are.
You remember how in the last few weeks before the election half the Village Press Corps went to war against the New York Times’ Nate Silver because he had the geeky arrogance to insist that the numbers---the facts on hand---tended to show that what was happening in the world at large was very different than what was going on in the world as journalists and pundits were describing it to themselves and each other at the backs of the campaign busses and around the lunch tables of their favorite DC watering holes. Liberals and Democrats all along the left coast of Blogtopia [Editor’s note: credit as always to skippy] rallied around Silver. But it didn’t require much cynicism to see that many of Silver’s stalwarts were only on his side because in his version of the world the President was on his way to winning re-election. They trusted Silver’s math because it proved what they wanted it to prove not because they’d tested it themselves and found it worked. Most of them couldn’t have begun to do the math themselves.
They didn’t have the facts.
They had faith.
I should say we, because I’m talking about myself as well.
We know math works, but that doesn’t mean we know how to do it ourselves. We have faith, though, that people like Silver who do it for a living know what they’re doing. When they show us their results, we trust that they didn’t forget to carry a 1 or misplace a decimal point and we trust that if they did goof up other people who can do the math will pipe right up to correct the error.
Something else we have. Trust.
We trust in the experts or at least trust that there is such a thing as expertise. We trust the professionals. We trust the scientists, mathematicians, historians, doctors, and engineers.
We have favorites. Favorite writers, favorite teachers, favorite journalists, pundits, analysts, and bloggers.
We trust that they are smart and know what they’re talking about because we trust ourselves to recognize smart people to trust.
We assume that their opinions are based on facts and their interpretation of those faces is correct, and then we take a perilous leap.
We accept their interpretations and opinions as facts.
We have friends. Smart friends. They wouldn’t be our friends if they weren’t smart, right? So we trust that when they tell us about something they know, it has a basis in fact. We have relatives and coworkers, and some of them are smart and we trust what they tell us and some of them are idiots and we know to distrust everything they try to tell us, even when all they’re telling us is the time of day.
Our intellectual relationship with reality is filtered and buffered. Our knowledge of the facts is often, at best, second-hand, more often third, fourth, and fifth-hand.
Generally, people don’t argue the facts. Or with the facts or to get at the facts. We don’t even argue ideas. We argue in favor or our opinions. We champion what we already believe, and it’s usually the case that we believe something because it confirms something else we need to believe, usually that “I’m right to think what I think and live as I live.”
Read a blogger or a pundit approvingly citing a “new study” and you’re probably reading a sentence that should have been written more honestly as “Here’s a study that proves everything I already know about how the world works, so there!”
Or to put it another way. We’re in the habit of believing what we need to believe in order to justify what we want to do.
But beyond that, an awful lot of what we know we know we don’t really know. There isn’t even anything there to know. It’s just something we think. It’s something we picked up somewhere and let stick in our heads, and we continue to think it only because we haven’t thought about it since we first thought it---we’ve never bothered to re-submit it to any tests against the facts---or because it’s convenient to think it. It’s as I just said. It confirms something else we know we know.
I just finished reading Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden--from 9/11 to Abbottabad by Peter Bergen. It’s a pretty good book, well-written, informative, factual, or at least I trust that it is factual. Bergen has a good reputation as a journalist. His previous books on al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were well-received and, as far as I know, haven’t been shown up as bunk. And Manhunt tracks with other things I’ve read on the subject, including Mark Bowden’s The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, which I read just before starting Manhunt.
So, I was reading along with interest, trusting I was getting the facts, enjoying the book as history, journalism, and an adventure story, when I ran headlong into this, Bergen’s explanation for why a Democratic President seemed as aggressive and determined about the use of force as only Republican Presidents are supposed to be:
Perhaps [President Obama’s] views on national security had to do with when he came of age. Obama was the first major American politician in decades whose views about national security weren’t deeply informed by what he did or didn’t do in Vietnam. Too young to have served in Vietnam as the senators John McCain and John Kerry did, he was also too young to have avoided service in Vietnam as Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush had. For Obama, Vietnam was a nonissue, and it is possible this fact contributed to his greater use to his willingness to use military power in comparison to an older generation of Democrats. It took Clinton two years to intervene in Bosnia, which was on the verge of genocide, whereas it took Obama only a week or so to intervene in Libya in the spring of 2011, when dictator Moammar Gadhafi threatening large-scale massacres of his own population.
Two things pulled me up short here.
A flash of memory and a longstanding prejudice.
End of Part One. Part Two is here.