Friday, January 13, 2012

Cognitive Dissonance in Action … Again

Note: I wrote this post in early December but apparently never actually posted it.

Readers of this blog may remember my post Cognitive Dissonance in Action published in August 2011. In that post, I talked about the phenomenon of people refusing to modify their own view of events in light of incontrovertible facts or perhaps accepting as “true” a version of facts from a substantially less-qualified source than from a much more obviously qualified and trustworthy source. As I said in the conclusion to that post:

Cognitive dissonance is a problem when it comes to science. It is a problem when it comes to history. And it is really a huge fucking problem when it gets in the way of our political and legal system. How can we have a proper debate about the deficit and debt ceiling if the Tea Party refuses to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that default would be bad? How can we have rational discussions about energy policy if Republicans, despite almost all evidence to the contrary, refuse to believe in global warming? How can we have a discussion about the proper role of religion in the public sphere or the rights of minority religious views if people like the author of the email that prompted this diatribe post continues to believe that the Founding Fathers said things that they simply did not say?

To once again quote Daniel Patrick Moynihan …: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” So long as we, as a society, cannot come to terms with and agree upon certain basic facts, we will have a really hard time making decisions about the best policies for the future of America.

Saturday night and Sunday, I had another encounter with cognitive dissonance that I thought worth sharing.

This past weekend we had lots of family and friends come to town for my nephew’s bar mitzvah (mazel tov!). Included in that group was one particular very dear family friend. When we’re together (which, unfortunately, isn’t very often anymore), we like to argue discuss politics. Let’s just say that his views and mine are not exactly in sync. But we have fun engaging with one another in these discussions. Let me also just note that he has both a razor sharp wit and intellect. This is a person who, when he says something, even something with which I instinctively disagree, I give due consideration and weight to the ideas that he expresses.

But as it was a celebratory weekend, I decided to try to avoid talking politics (and that went for a relative who one of the subjects of my post The Election Is Over — Now What? the day after the 2008 election). Yeah, I know. Not exactly my nature to shut up about politics. Generally speaking, I’d say I managed to accomplish that goal. I didn’t bring up politics with either of these people though I did get into relatively brief conversations (they both started it … really!) with each of them. And it is one of those conversations that led to this post.

The family friend (who has not lived in Indiana for at least 25 years) was asking about several of the Indiana races in 2008. I think that he was particularly interested in the Lugar-Mourdock race. He also asked about the likelihood that Dan Burton could (finally) be ousted. During the conversation, he commented that he thought Rep. Burton was one of the dumbest members of Congress (a sentiment that I certainly did not disagree with). But then my friend said that another of the dumbest members of Congress was Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona), the Congresswoman who was shot in the head last January. I asked him why he said that and he told me that Rep. Giffords had asked Gen. David Patraeus “whether the United States had done an environmental impact study on the war in Afghanistan.” This was not a claim that I’d ever heard before and so I had no idea how to respond. Thankfully, our discussion moved on to things other than politics.

But this claim, the suggestion that Rep. Giffords thought that we should have performed an environmental impact study on the war, bothered me. I would have to agree with my friend’s general sentiment that such a question was not a very good one (though I’m not sure that I would generalize it to paint Rep. Giffords as one of the dumbest members of Congress). Thus, I kept thinking about that quote. Did she ask that question? If so, in what context? And if not, why did my friend think she had?

So, when I got home, I decided to do a little research. Guess what? That’s right. The query to Gen. Patraeus that my friend attributed to Rep. Giffords isn’t accurate. Here is a clip of Rep. Gifford’s statement and question followed by Gen. Patraeus’ answer:

Transcript of the relevant portion of Rep. Giffords questioning (from Snopes):

There's been a lot of attention back in the United States on what's happening with the BP oil spill, and we all know the largest user of energy on the planet is actually the United States Air Force and the DoD is the largest user of energy in the United States, and I really want to commend the work done on the behalf of DoD and also what's happening in the field with our energy, but it's an area that I just really want to focus on, and I know a lot of questions have been asked, but in the last few years supply lines have been increasingly threatened either by enemy action or through international crises, and in places like Kandahar, where we have a large presence, we've been plugged into a very unsustainable and really an incapable grid system.

We know that a major part of the upcoming Kandahar offensive will include some serious repairs and upgrades to the energy system which will include small-scale solar and hydropower systems and also some solar-powered street lights. I'm just curious whether or not there's plans to utilize any of those same technologies at our bases around Afghanistan, and wouldn't that greatly reduce our need for fuel?

Hmm. That’s a different question she’s asking, isn’t it? Not quite “have we done an environmental impact study?” Both Snopes and Politifact have much more complete explanations of the exchange between Rep. Giffords and Gen. Patraeus together with some information about the charge that Rep. Giffords was asking something other than what she did, in fact, ask. Both pages are worth reading to see just how stories like this one come to be. In fact, it appears that the charge that Rep. Giffords asked about an environmental impact statement (or that we “put more emphasis on less environmentally damaging methods, like stabbing or clubbing enemy forces in order to minimize the carbon output”) came from a satirical post.

So what, I hear you asking (well, not really…) does that have to do with cognitive dissonance?

The next morning, when I saw that family friend again, I explained that what he’d told me about Rep. Giffords just didn’t “feel right” to me and that I therefore stayed up the night before to research the issue. And then I told him what I’d found. His response was … interesting. First, he told me that he too had researched what Rep. Giffords had said (though not the night before) and, he said, he’d watched the video of her asking Gen. Patraeus about an environmental impact study and she did, indeed, ask that question. I told him that I’d also watched the video and that she did not, in fact, ask such a question. I also explained that both Snopes and Politifact had debunked the claim as well as documenting where it came from. His response was that Snopes couldn’t always be trusted (implying, though not saying, that it erred on the side of liberals) and that he’d never heard of Politifact. I suggested that his information might have come by way of a chain email, but he said that he doesn’t read chain emails. I suggested that I’d be happy to send him the information that I’d found (including the video) and he said that he’d send me his information. But then, a few minutes later, he said that we’d just have to each accept our own understanding of the events.

So here we have quite a disconnect … and an example of cognitive dissonance. Somehow, at least in his memory, he recollects having watched the video and having seen something that simply isn’t there. I don’t care how many times you watch that video, you’re not going to find Rep. Giffords asking about an environmental impact study. But compare what he believes that he heard Rep. Giffords say with these excerpts from the text of the chain emails quoted by Snopes and Politifact:

Poster-child for what is wrong in Washington, DC Our Arizona 8th District US Congressional representative, the Hon. Gabrielle Giffords, in a meeting of the House Armed Services Committee, asked General David Petraeus the following question: “General Petraeus, what are you doing to reduce carbon emissions in the war on terror?” Wow. I had to read, and re-read this several times to believe it.

What Google says about Rep. Giffords: Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Az) took Afghan Commander, General David Petraeus, to task for what she characterized as “willful disregard of the environmental impact of our war effort.” “There is no policy, no plan to minimize carbon emissions in our military activities,” Giffords charged. “Bombs are dropped and bullets are fired without considering the environmental impact.” Giffords insisted that she was “not demanding an immediate halt to current military operations in the Middle East. I'm just saying that battle plans should include an environmental impact assessment as a regular part of the process before attacks are launched.”

She also suggested that the Army “put more emphasis on less environmentally damaging methods, like stabbing or clubbing enemy forces in order to minimize the carbon output.”

In other words, the question that my friend “heard” Rep. Gifford ask in the video is not in the video at all (because she didn’t ask that question) … but it is in the text of the chain emails that are going around on this issue. Query just what kind of research he could have actually done that would convince him that he had in fact “seen” her ask that question? Maybe he didn’t read the charge in a chain email; perhaps he heard someone make the charge or read it in a different publication. Nevertheless, the point remains that he believes something was said that wasn’t and he believes that he saw and heard said something that wasn’t. Hence cognitive dissonance. He has put aside the fact of what the video actually reveals and replaced that in his memory with the false “facts” and memory that support the worldview that he wants to believe.

Once again, this is but a tiny example on a relatively insignificant issue. But this is a very, very smart man. So you have to wonder what other facts he and others set aside when inconvenient and what false facts replace those in order to confirm an existing understanding of the world or an issue? As I think I’ve repeated … well … repeatedly on this blog, we can’t make good societal and political decisions unless we do so on the basis of facts … real facts … not those that have been skewed to support a particular political argument or point of view. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

Whether Rep. Giffords is a smart legislator or not isn’t the question; but we can’t criticize her for saying things that she didn’t say. And we can’t make our own decisions on issues of public policy on the basis of things that never happened.

Finally, I don’t know if the friend in question ever reads this blog. If so, I hope he doesn’t take offense at what I’ve written. My goal is not to criticize him; rather, my aim is to point out an endemic problem that manifests in dramatic ways in our political discourse. And, by demonstrating that this problem is not limited to those of lesser intelligence or who don’t pay close attention to issues and the world around them, perhaps we can all recognize that we need to be careful with our perception of the facts upon which we make our decisions. We need to continue to discuss and even argue about the issues and which policies are good or bad, but in so doing we must be sure that facts that we cite are accurate. And when confronted by evidence that what we believed to be a “fact” may be inaccurate, then we need to reexamine our understanding and positions on the issues, rather than dismissing or even changing those inconvenient facts.


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At Saturday, January 14, 2012 12:05:00 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Found your blog while researching the SB 251 bill and I must say "Where have you been my whole life?!" LOL. Great writing and research, not to mention spot on opinions. I think you are the male me. Keep up the great blog. You have now been bookmarked.

At Monday, January 16, 2012 10:45:00 AM , Blogger MSWallack said...

Thanks for the kind words. That's the kind of feedback that gives me motivation to keep writing.


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