The outcry over Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct and the #metoo and #balancetonporc condemnations have dominated the news. It is puzzling that the condemnations of Weinstein and his behavior have not affected Donald Trump, who was accused by many of groping or worse. The outcry over Weinstein has not affected Trump’s ardent supporters.
Politically, those who prefer candidate X admire the person based on certain affinities. And, in many situations, no matter what that person does, the admiration will remain. Preference for X is not based solely on facts, so it will not change if the facts change. And that is what is puzzling.
Do you believe that the planets revolve around the earth? Do you believe that the earth is flat? For many centuries, these “facts” were generally accepted. Anyone who contradicted these facts was ostracized, if not worse.
Over time we have come to believe that the sun is the center of our system and that the earth is round. But how did the general public change from one set of beliefs to another? What facts persuaded people to believe one paradigm instead of another? A set of facts was presented which showed that the previous hypotheses were wrong, that our beliefs were based on inaccurate facts. New evidence was more convincing. But the change was not radical. People’s beliefs were not easily overturned by the new facts. In some cases it took centuries and violence against the heretics.
The latest Nobel Prize winner for economics, Richard Thaler, works in the field of emotional economics, in which one of the central ideas is something he calls “confirmation bias.” Instead of consumers opting for rationally choosing products based on pricing – the basis of all supply and demand – Thaler believes that people choose products based on emotions. When people buy something, Thaler posits, they select because it appeals to them regardless of rational thinking. Emotions, in other words, often trump our logic.
We read the newspapers and columnists who confirm what we believe. We listen to people who have similar opinions. We continue to buy the same product even when a similar product is offered at a lower price.
How do paradigms shift? The simple answer is that it took a long time for these fundamental beliefs to change. It did not happen overnight. Just as I hold certain beliefs based on given facts, I will not easily change those beliefs if contradicting facts are shown to me. I do not change my perceptions easily in spite of what I see. Once I have a point of view, it is not easy to change, no matter how the facts may change. (The most flagrant personal example being that I believe I will one day win Wimbledon in spite of my age and aching shoulder.)
Arguments over fake news are arguments about how facts presented correspond to our beliefs. If facts contradict our beliefs, we can easily call them fake, even if they are objectively true. If false facts correspond to our beliefs, then we accept them as confirmation of our bias. Thaler’s point was that although beliefs should be based on facts, they are not always.
At a recent press conference, the press spokesperson for President Trump scolded a journalist for asking Trump’s chief of staff, General John Kelly, what was perceived to be a rude question. “If you want to go after Gen. Kelly, that's up to you. But I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, that's something that's highly inappropriate," she said.
In other words, whatever Kelly said - in this case he was critical of a Florida Congresswoman - could not be called into question. The facts behind his attack – which a video showed he was wrong – did not matter. Because Kelly had been a four-star general, we had to believe whatever he said. We had to believe him because of who he was.
Weinstein’s condemnations have not moved Trump supporters. Kelly’s standing has not been affected by his false attacks on the Congresswoman. Not criticizing Trump for many of his unacceptable acts because he is president just as not criticizing Kelly because he was a four-star general are examples of confirmation bias. In both cases, people believe in their righteousness despite opposing facts.
There may still be people who believe the earth is the center of the universe and flat. Hopefully, they are not in positions of power, at least not in democratic countries where facts should trump emotions.