Tag Archives: Bias

Donald Trump and the Truth Bubble, Part 1 – The Misinformed

“Wherever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government.” — Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, 1789

Thomas Jefferson’s support of a free press and education for the common people — including entry to the highest levels of instruction (i.e. a college or university) — was based on the belief that a knowledgeable, well-educated citizenry was necessary for the preservation of democracy. One of his greatest fears was that the people would cede power to the government through sheer ignorance and lack of understanding.

So what happens when the process of educating and informing American citizens starts to break down? Can the checks and balances put in place by the Founding Fathers hold up in the face of a full blown idiocratic meltdown?

These types of questions were pretty far from my mind last summer when I started tracking the progress of Republican and Democratic presidential candidates using data from Politifact. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to see if there was a way to use this data to better understand the path to a successful nomination.

As a refresher, the 2016 Presidential campaign officially began in March of 2015 when Ted Cruz announced his intention to run for office. He was eventually joined by sixteen other Republicans, six Democrats and a miscellany of Libertarians, Socialists and Green Party candidates – the largest presidential primary field in American history. At the time, Hillary Clinton was considered the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination but there was no clear frontrunner on the Republican side. Pundits couldn’t decide if the large Republican field reflected that party’s depth of talent or its lack of cohesiveness.

With the participants off and running, I was interested in seeing whether or not a politician’s truthfulness would be reflected in their strength as a candidate or whether there were other factors involved. My first analysis consisted of looking at Poliifact’s “truth-o-meter” and seeing if I could tease out any meaningful differences between candidates. The following chart shows each candidate’s average rating (where 5 = True, 4 = Mostly True, 3 = Half True, 2 = Mostly False, 1 = False, 0 = “Pants on Fire”) and their “skewness”, which was my attempt at getting at the asymmetry (lean more true, lean more false) of their responses. Size represents the number of times Politifact checked statements by the candidates. I included a few outside sources of information (Facebook, emails, blogs) and politicians (Biden, Obama) for reference. (Responses as of September 18, 2015.)

politifact-candidate-ratings-v1

Here’s the same chart (same time period) with just the two current candidates:

politifact-candidate-ratings-v2

I had two takeaways from this exercise. The first was that candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson had about as much credibility as a chain letter from your cranky uncle. The second was that — based purely on my evaluations of truthfulness and believability – the most likely pick for the Republican nomination was probably going to be someone like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush … two Republican candidates with relatively high levels of positive (true) Politifact ratings.

As we now know, pretty much everybody got this wrong. How did this happen? Throughout the campaign commentator after commentator expressed their concern with Trump’s rather dubious relationship with the truth. New York Times columnist David Brooks stated that Trump “is perhaps the most dishonest person to run for high office in our lifetimes” while political writer David Frum said that Trump’s mendacity is “qualitatively different than anything before seen from a major-party nominee.” Politico awarded Trump’s campaign misstatements their 2015 Lie of the Year and, in May of this year, Politico reporters analyzed a full week of his speeches and found that the orange one made nearly one false or misleading statement every five minutes.

Summarized from the Atlantic:

“PolitiFact recently calculated that only 2 percent of the claims made by Trump are true, 7 percent are mostly true, 15 percent are half true, 15 percent are mostly false, 42 percent are false, and 18 percent are “pants on fire.” Adding up the last three numbers (from mostly false to flagrantly so), Trump scores 75 percent. The corresponding figures for Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, respectively, are 66, 32, 31, and 29 percent.”

Far from hurting him in the polls, however, Trump’s dishonesty is viewed as a positive feature by his supporters. An NBC, Telemundo, and Marist College poll taken last December suggests that more than seven in ten Republicans believe Trump “tells it like it is.” Since “telling it like it is” seems to be synonymous with lying out of one’s ass, many have speculated that the underlying cause of Trump’s success springs from his ability to give voice to the concerns of the typical conservative voter.

Perhaps.

Or perhaps there is just a large swath of the American electorate who can no longer tell the difference between fact and fairytale.

Among Trump supporters …

Of course, the left has its own set of conspiracy theories and American’s penchant for kooky ideas doesn’t seem to conform to any political boundaries. However, the statements above continue to be voiced by the candidate himself and that is unusual.

I get it. People are angry and frustrated and Trump gives them a voice. But instead of speaking with or compromising with their fellow citizens they are willing to throw bombs in the hopes that the country that rises out of the rubble is more suited to their tastes. Is that really what Jefferson and the Founding Fathers wanted for their republic? Mob rule?

Certainly, some people would say it is. In a letter to William Stephens Smith after Shay’s Rebellion in the 1780s, Jefferson famously stated that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Many people on the far right like to toss out this quote whenever they feel that American society needs a kick in the pants.

However, it should be noted that this particular quote is frequently taken out of context. Earlier in that same letter, Jefferson wrote that:

“the people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part [of the population] which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive.”

Notice Jefferson’s use of the phrase “well-informed” in this situation (also used in the opening quote for this article). He is describing something that is absent from the discontented participants of the rebellion. They are not well-informed and their misconceptions have fueled their anger — leading them down the path to revolt. He’s not surprised by the fighting because a free people are passionate about their liberty and will fight to maintain it (thus the “blood of patriots” line). But he is also saying that their actions spring from a place of ignorance.

This sounds eerily familiar to our current situation. Ignorance is no longer seen as a negative, but a sincere sign of authenticity. Many of Trump’s most ardent supporters seem unable to process basic information, preferring conspiracy theories and “satisfying stories” to expertise and careful deliberation. No wonder people are angry … they are both blind and deaf to the truth.

Roger Cohen of the New York Times puts it succinctly:

“A know-nothing tide is upon us. Tribal politics, anchored in tribal media, has made knowing nothing a badge of honor. Ignorance, loudly declaimed, is an attribute, especially if allied to celebrity. Facts are dispensable baggage. To display knowledge, the acquisition of which takes time, is tantamount to showing too much respect for the opposition tribe, who know nothing anyway.”

It would seem a simple thing to set these people straight. In fact, if we look at the full paragraph of Jefferson’s “blood of patriots and tyrants” quote, we see that he outlines a solution plainly (highlighted):

“The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty … What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

Jefferson obviously felt that having a well-informed citizenry (via education and the free press) would eliminate or at least reduce the majority of these types of conflicts. But the path to enlightenment isn’t always so easy. A 2000 study by political scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that citizens with incorrect information can be divided into two groups, the misinformed and the uninformed.

“The difference between the two is stark. Uninformed citizens don’t have any information at all, while those who are misinformed have information that conflicts with the best evidence and expert opinion … the most misinformed citizens tend to be the most confident in their views and are also the strongest partisans. These folks fill the gaps in their knowledge base by using their existing belief systems. Once these inferences are stored into memory, they become ‘indistinguishable from hard data.'”

In other words, you can’t simply “set them right as to the facts” because they already have fake facts embedded in their heads. To make matters worse, another study found that attempts to correct people’s misconceptions often caused them to hold on to their opinions more tightly. This defensive processing (the “backfire effect”) allows politicians like Trump to fill people’s heads with nonsense while keeping them fully engaged and politically active. He is their friend and savior … the only person willing to tell them the truth.

Writing in FiveThirtyEight, Anne Pluta states breaks down the incentive to deceive people:

“For most politicians, it doesn’t make sense to use precious resources to try to move or dissuade people from their incorrect positions — especially if this misinformation supports the political actor’s policy positions or legislative goals (as it does in Trump’s case).”

So if some politicians are actively working against the establishment of a well-informed citizenry, how can we apply Jefferson’s remedy? We will explore this remedy – and why it is struggling during this election — in the next sections.

Part 1 – The Misinformed
Part 2 – The Captive Press
Part 3 – The Politicization of Education
Part 4 – The Information Virus

Updates:

Who’s Your Filter? (Nate Silver Edition)

“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard

Back in 2010, I wrote a short post about some of the problems associated with getting all of your news and information from biased sources. It was essentially a call for people to hone their critical thinking skills and take steps toward establishing a more reality-based approach to decision-making.

Unfortunately, people don’t like challenging their existing beliefs very much because it can be pretty uncomfortable. They prefer sources of information that support their established worldviews and generally ignore or filter out those that don’t. In our modern society, this confirmation bias supports an entire ecosystem of publishers, news outlets, TV shows, bloggers, and radio announcers designed to serve up pre-filtered opinion disguised as fact.

For many people, the glossy veneer of the news entertainment complex is all they want or need. As David McRaney so succinctly states in his blog:

Whether or not pundits are telling the truth, or vetting their opinions, or thoroughly researching their topics is all beside the point. You watch them not for information, but for confirmation.

The problem with this approach is that — every now and then — fantasy runs into cold, hard reality and gets the sh*t kicked out of it.

This was what happened during the 2012 Presidential election cycle. Talking heads on both ends of the political spectrum had spent months trying to sway their audiences with confident declarations of victory and vicious denials of opposing statements. By the week of the election, the conservative media in particular had created such a self-reinforcing bubble of polls and opinions that any hints of trouble were shouted down and ignored. Pundits reserved particularly strong venom for statistician Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight blog in the New York Times had upped the chances of an Obama win to a seemingly outrageous 91.4% the Monday before the election.

The furor reached its peak with Karl Rove’s famous on-air exchange with FOX news anchor, Megyn Kelly, and rippled through the conservative echo chamber after the polls closed. There was a lot of soul searching over the next few days, with many people taking direct aim at the conservative media for its failure to present accurate information to its audience. This frustration was summed up clearly by one commenter on RedState, a right-leaning blog:

“I can accept that my news is not really ‘news’ like news in Cronkite’s day, but a conservative take on the news. But it’s unacceptable that Rasmussen appears to have distinguished themselves from everyone else in their quest to shade the numbers to appease us, the base. I didn’t even look at other polls, to tell the truth, trusting that their methodology was more sound because it jived with what I was hearing on Fox and with people I talked to. It pains me to say this, but next time I want a dose of hard truth, I’m looking to Nate Silver, even if I don’t like the results.”

It was a teachable moment and Nate Silver — no fan of pundits — suggested that the fatal flaw in the approach taken by most of these political “experts” was that they based their forecasts less on evidence and more on a strong underlying ideology. Their core beliefs — “ideological priors” as Silver calls them — colored their views on everything and made it difficult to read such an uncertain situation correctly. It was time for something new.

In his book, The Signal and the Noise, Silver elaborates on the work of Philip Tetlock, who found that people with certain character traits typically made more accurate predictions than those without these traits. Tetlock identified these two different cognitive styles as either “fox” (someone who considers many approaches to a problem) or “hedgehog” (someone who believes in one Big Idea). There has been much debate about which one represents the best approach to forecasting but Tetlock’s research clearly favors the fox.

Tetlock’s ideas as summarized by Silver:

Fox-Like Characteristics Hedgehog-Like Characteristics
Multidisciplinary – Incorporates ideas from a range of disciplines Specialised – Often dedicated themselves to one or two big problems & are sceptical of outsiders
Adaptable – Try several approaches in parallel, or find a new one if things aren’t working Unshakable – New data is used to refine an original model
Self-critical – Willing to accept mistakes and adapt or even replace a model based on new data Stubborn – Mistakes are blamed on poor luck
Tolerant of complexity – Accept the world is complex, and that certain things cannot be reduced to a null hypothesis Order seeking – Once patterns are detected, assume relationships are relatively uniform
Cautious – Predictions are probabilistic, and qualified Confident – Rarely change or hedge their position
Empirical – Observable data is always preferred over theory or anecdote Ideological – Approach to predictive problems fits within a similar view of the wider world
Better Forecasters Weaker Forecasters

Nate Silver also prefers the fox-like approach to analysis and even chose a fox logo for the relaunch of his FiveThirtyEight blog. As befitting a fox’s multidisciplinary approach to problems, his manifesto for the site involves blending good old-fashioned journalism skills with statistical analysis, computer programming, and data visualization. (It is essentially a combination of everything we’ve been saying about data science + data-literate reporting.)

Nate Silver’s Four-Step Methodology for Data Journalism
This approach is very similar to the standard data science process.

  1. Data Collection – Performing interviews, research, first-person observation, polls, experiments, or data scraping
  2. Organization – Developing a storyline, running descriptive statistics, placing data in a relational database, or building a data visualization.
  3. Explanation – Performing traditional analysis or running statistical tests to look for relationships in the data.
  4. Generalization – Verifying hypotheses through predictions or repeated experiments.

Like data science, data journalism involves finding meaningful insights from a vast sea of information. And like data science, one of the biggest challenges to data-driven journalism is convincing people to actually listen to what the data is telling them. After FiveThirtyEight posted its prediction of a possible change in control of the Senate in 2014, Democrats have reacted with the same bluster as Republicans did back in 2012. At about the same time, economist Paul Krugman started a feud with Silver over — in my view — relatively minor journalistic differences. Meanwhile, conservatives gleeful at this apparent Leftie infighting continue to predict Silver’s ultimate failure because they still believe that politics is more art than science.

This seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what Silver and others like him are trying to do. Rather than look at how successful Silver’s forecasting methodology has been at predicting political results, most people seem to be treating him as just another pundit who has joined the political game. Lost in all of the fuss is his attempt to bring a little more scientific rigor to an arena that is dominated by people who generally operate on intuition and gut instinct. I’m certainly not trying to elevate statisticians and data journalists to god-like status here but it is my hope that people will start to recognize the value of unbiased evaluation and include it as one of their tools for gathering information. When it’s fantasy vs. reality, it is always better to be armed with the facts.

Update:

Who’s Your Filter?

One of the ways in which people deal with information overload is to use a filter to screen out unwanted information and eliminate the amount of time spent on non-essential topics. Filters can take many forms but one of the most common is simply the “trusted source” — a person or an organization that has passed some internal test for trustworthiness. Everyone takes advantage of these personal filters because they provide shortcuts for many of our day-to-day activities.

Sore throat? Ask your sister the nurse. Problem with your PC?  Call up your buddy the software engineer. Car on the fritz? Invite your gearhead uncle over for a beer and friendly consultation.

People simply do not have the time to become an expert on every single subject and they also don’t have the time to vet every single source. They need a way to cut through all the BS and get information that allows them to take action. They find someone they trust who seems to know what they’re talking about and — boom — they’ve got their filter.

The problem with any filter is that there is always an element of bias involved. Your uncle may be great with cars but maybe he’s also a Ford guy who can’t stand GM and thinks BMWs are over-priced toys. No matter how well-meaning he may be, his opinions will color his advice — which could lead you to a different decision than if you were an expert auto mechanic and doing the research yourself.

This is the main complaint that people on the right side of the political spectrum have with mainstream media. They feel that the types of events that are presented and the way these events are covered reflect the liberal bias of the reporters and commentators telling the stories. The standards of journalism are supposed to prevent this kind of bias by requiring journalists to double-check claims, verify the reliability of sources and issue corrections if necessary. By casting doubt on the ability of the mainstream media to follow its own code of ethics, the right has reduced the number of people who feel comfortable using these news outlets as trusted sources of information. This has opened up the doors for a whole new slate of  alternative news filters. Of course, these organizations and their sources have their own biases and — in the case of bloggers — are not even required to follow standard journalistic practices of impartiality.

A prime example of the issue of source bias was on display during the controversy surrounding Shirley Sherrod and the speech she made to the NAACP that led to her firing from the USDA. Blogger Andrew Breitbart released an edited video clip of the speech that appeared to implicate Ms. Sherrod as a racist. After a firestorm of criticism, she lost her job … and then some bright bulb actually watched the whole video. Sherrod was exonerated and the White House, FOX news, Bill O’Reilly and others who had relied on Mr. Breitbart as their filter were forced to apologize.

Mr. Breitbart himself has not issued an apology and, as a political activist, is probably not required to do so. In an interesting turn, right-wing commentator Ann Coulter places the blame squarely on Mr. Breitbart’s own trusted filter:

“I think Breitbart ought to reveal his source, because he was set up. This was a fraud. The person who sent the edited tape has to know what the full speech said, and whomever sent only that segment to Andrew Breitbart is the one who should apologize to Shirley Sherrod.”

Certainly someone along the chain of information exchanges made the crucial edit that altered the tenor of her speech. Who is ultimately responsible, then, for errors that creep into these kinds of stories? Unfortunately, with the erosion of trust in the journalistic profession and the explosion of non-traditional news sources, the consumers of the information are themselves responsible. In a sense, we are all journalists now.

Update:

  • August 8, 2010 – There is an interesting article that touches on the difference between activists and journalists in the context of the WikiLeaks scandal here: http://reason.com/archives/2010/08/06/julian-assange-wikijournalist
  • November 2, 2012 – A good review of the movie “Hating Breitbart” discussing some of the changes going on in the media (link: http://reason.com/archives/2012/11/02/hating-breitbarts-post-partisan-message). I liked the author’s quote: “Internet-empowered journalism isn’t a Cosmic Cube-style weapon that will once and for all lay waste to all bullshit artists residing in low and high places. No, the new media that Breitbart helped operationalize are more like an over-the-counter Super Soldier Serum that helps us all fight for truth and justice as we define those terms.” The only problem I see with this metaphor is that being a superhero is a 24/7 job. Are we all going to be ready when the bat signal appears in the sky? Or are some of us going to sleep in?