We cannot agree on simple facts and so cannot reform America

Summary:  Our gullibility and trust have made us susceptible to propaganda.  After a generation of this, Americans no longer see the same world.  This makes broad coalitions difficult.  There are two types of possible solutions.

“Divide et impera” (Divide and conquer)
— attributed to Julius Caesar

Other posts in this series:

(2)  Our minds are addled, the result of skillful and expensive propaganda, 28 December 2011
(3)  More use of the big lie:  shifting the blame for the housing crisis, 29 December 2011

Years of intense propaganda have divided us into tribes, each clutching to its distinguishing beliefs about basic facts (the Republican Presidential debates are little but this kind of display, a test of allegiance).  Political debates in America today beach themselves, like dying whales, on these reefs of disagreement about the shape of the world and the value of pi. These act as shackles on us, preventing the formation of the broad coalitions which are IMO our only way forward.

A generation of well-funded and skillful propaganda has welded these shackles on tightly.  They will not come off quickly (for an example see this post, and the comments).  My guess is that we will leave that task  to our children.

But necessity drives us forward despite the shackles, shuffling slowly if we wish to recover America.  How can we do so?  I suggest that we look for common values on which we can agree despite our different weltanschauung (wide world view).  Perhaps on these we can build a policy consensus allowing us to advance.  Our world views may have diverged too far for any useful consensus.  In that case perhaps the window of reform opens only following severe conflict or other social troubles.

A record of these conflicts

You can see these clashes clanging among the 17 thousand comments on the FM website.  Some discuss the future, about which we can only guess.  Some discuss values, where disagreement is inevitable.  But most discuss simple things about the present and past.

Here are some examples.  All of these are discussed in some depth on the FM website.  This is a list of inaccurate statements (some are misrepresentations, some outright myths), with an explanation in parenthesis.

  1. The social security trust fund backs your SS benefits (write yourself an IOY for a billion dollars; now you can pay the mortgage!).
  2. There are legions of people who deny the fact of global warming (just stating the problem in this fashion displays near-total ignorance of the debate).  I could give dozens more of these, but they’re discussed in depth elsewhere (see section 7 here).  In brief, to the warmista true believers:  scientists are always right — except when they question AGW dogma; then they’re fools.
  3. Obama is a radical leftist anarchist non-citizen Moslem (inexplicably running what looks like Bush Jr’s third term).
  4. The US is bankrupt (said by people who do not know what the word means), just like Greece (except for near-total lack of similarity).
  5. Tax cuts usually increase government revenue (except that in practice they seldom do).
  6. US healthcare is the best in the world (except for those who have little access to it, and for many who do)
  7. European healthcare in our peer nations is a dysfunctional hell hole system (which produce health outcomes much like ours)
  8. Since WWII foreign armies often (even usually!) defeat locally based insurgencies  (except for the near-total record of defeat).
  9. The US is on the verge of inflation — or even hyperinflation (excerpt for the waves of debt deflation washing across the US).
  10. We must fear the confidence fairies and invisible bond vigilantes!
  11. Keynes recommended constant government deficits (except that he said the opposite).
  12. High savings and a strong currency are always good things (except they’re often seen in weak nations)
  13. The US dollar has crashed under Obama’s care, unlike the strong dollar seen during Republican Administration (the numbers show the opposite).
  14. US taxes are so high that they’re slowing growth (except that they’re low vs our past).
  15. US is so highly regulated so as to greatly slow economic growth (except for the years of faster growth before the great 1978-2000 deregulation wave)

For more information

See the FM Reference Page Information & disinformation, the new media & the old

Some posts about propaganda:

  1. Successful propaganda as a characteristic of 21st century America, 1 February 2010
  2. More propaganda: the eco-fable of Easter Island, 4 February 2010
  3. The hidden history of the global warming crusade, 19 February 2010
  4. Forensic analysis of propaganda: “Michelle Obama Keeps Socialist Books in the White House”, 19 February 2010
  5. A note about practical propaganda, 22 March 2010
  6. About the political significance of the conservatives’ health care propaganda, 23 March 2010
  7. The similar delusions of America’s Left and Right show our common culture – and weakness, 26 March 2010
  8. Programs to reshape the American mind, run by the left and right, 2 August 2010
  9. Why Conservatives are winning: they use the WMD of political debate, 28 April 2011

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16 thoughts on “We cannot agree on simple facts and so cannot reform America

  1. I have to disagree with #7, FM.

    European healthcare systems may be dysfunctional hell holes, but their health outcomes (and customer satisfaction) are superior in every way to our capitalist utopia of a healthcare system.

    Here’s my source: “U.S. scores dead last again in healthcare study“, Reuters, 23 June 2010 — “Americans spend twice as much as residents of other developed countries on healthcare, but get lower quality, less efficiency and have the least equitable system, according to a report released on Wednesday.”

    1. Thanks for the note. These were stated in the form “Myth (reality)”. Obviously that was not clear (bad writing by the author!); I’ve tweaked the text to make this more clear.

      European healthcare systems are not dysfunctional, as your article proves. Most (eg, Germany, France, Swiss) operate as well as ours but at 1/3 the cost.

  2. I think the problem is, despite supposedly being for competition and getting the best deal, Americans generally are happy getting poor service. Of the four levels of customer satisfaction- 1) more than expected, 2) what I expected, 3) less than I want but not enough to go elsewhere and 4) poor I should never come back- most Americans appear happy with #4 but keep coming back.

    For example why must the U.S. spend 50% of the world’s defence budget with another 25% spent by it’s allies to be safe?

    Why is the U.S. satisfied with spending more on education and health care than anyone else and getting the same or inferior results.

    Why do most Americans think they live in the country with the most freedom but don’t seem to notice that it has a huge jail population, an administration that feels it has the right to assassinate and torture based on memos from underlings and that almost every government agency has a SWAT team ready to use force to enforce it’s regulations?

    I think the latest GOP debate sums this up. With the exception of Ron Paul would you trust any of the remaining six candidates with sitting on your school board? They are fighting for the right to try to guide the world’s biggest economy and most powerful military in an era of decline and the major topic is the immigration status of a gardener. The rest of the debate was devoted to exposing each other as liars.

    Americans accept poor service gladly including President of the U.S. This will be the cause of the downfall.

  3. I think you’ve got #2 backwards, unless you can find fault with any of the measurements and reasoning that supports anthropogenic global warming. I think you’ve confused a scientific process with may different sources of data and different analysis converging on a true result with the politics swimming around that result. The main debate is about how much warming and how fast, not whether it exists at all. There have been some scientists who have published papers with alternate climate models but those have been torn apart on analysis, including papers from Andy Dessler and Roy Spencer.

    The so-called “skeptics” do not seem to accept evidence if it contradicts their preconceived beliefs making them more legitimately “deniers”. Much of the kerfluffle has been in the suggestion that somehow climate scientists are all falsifying their data and running get-rich-quick schemes with the “green” power companies. That isn’t properly an argument about the science, it’s intensely political. I think there is a certain contrarian streak and a “what the heck do those elitists know” along with everyone’s natural tendency to want a special insight or secret knowledge about how the world works that helps drive the anti-AGW politics.

    John Timmer who writes for Ars Technica and is a practicing biologist has written some decent articles about this issue. Of course climate science is a little outside his wheelhouse but he can read and does spend a lot of time familiarizing himself with other disciplines so I think he likely has a good BS detector.

    1. Five things you should know about climate change
    2. Climate change: cloudy, with a chance of competing realities
    3. Simplified model in recent climate paper doesn’t even conserve energy
    1. You have committed a gross reading FAIL. Let’s replay the tape from the post:

      “2. There are legions of people who deny the fact of global warming”

      This is a myth: there are not legions of people who deny the fact of global warming. There is a lunatic fringe, like flat earthers or birthers. The mainstream debate about global warming concerns its cause, magnitude, and forecasts. Your point perfectly exhibits my point: “just stating the problem in this fashion displays near-total ignorance of the debate.” Thank you for providing additional evidence, in addition to the legion of other examples in the FM website.

    2. The articles by John Timmer that you cite are obviously irrelevant to my point (that few people deny that the world is warming). But more interesting, they do not well support your point either. Note articles two and three, which discuss a debate in the scientific literature. Timmer likes one side, but the relevant information in his article is that there is a debate — and hence two sides. This is the key messages of the posts about climate science on the FM website:

      1. There are large areas of debate among scientists working in climate-related field (which involves many fields).
      2. We need substantially increased funding — and procedural reforms (ie, greater adherence to existing rules) — to resolve these important questions.

      Due to intense propaganda, intelligent and educated people can read volumes about the cliamte science and remain ignorant about the issues debated. Or, as with MT, can read about the debate and yet remain unaware of its existence. So I recommend reading articles in which scientists directly talk with one another. Such as:

      1. About the the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, a discussion between Douglas J. Keenan and two Best authors — Richard Muller [BEST Scientific Director] and Charlotte Wickham [BEST Statistical Scientist]
      2. A discussion between two eminent climate scientists: Gavin Schmidt (Wikipedia) and Roger Pielke Sr. (Wikipedia)
  4. It may prove worthy of note to observe that virtually all of these myths and fairytales are promulgated by high-profile well-funded conservative right-wing sources like Fox News and the Heritage Foundation.

    For the sake of fairness, we should probably mention some of the more toxic myths and fairytales beloved of the left:

    1. Nuclear power is disastrously dangerous and has resulted in countless fatalities from lethal nuclear accidents (except that the actual data show that only a handful of people have died from direct radiation exposure in accidents in nuclear plants, and the evidence clearly shows that even catastrophes like Chernobyl and the Fukushima reactor meltdowns have produced only mildly elevated statistical increases in certain types of cancer in the affected regions).

    2. Genetic engineering has produced lethal “frankenfoods” which poison millions of innocent women and children, leaving a trail of death across the planet (except that not a single case of toxicity or poisoning by genetically modified foods has yet been identified by scientists).

    3. “Colony collapse disorder” threatens the entire ecosystem of the world due to the possible extinction of worldwide bee populations, which in turns threatens all flowering plants on earth, all due to rampant abuse of pesticides by greedy giant corporations (except that scientists have not yet identified the cause of “colony collapse disorder”).

    4. Violence against women in America has increased exponentially, due to the rampant proliferation of pornography made possible by the internet (except that the actual statistics show that in America, overall violent crime has plummeted over the last 20 years, but domestic violence abuse by women against men has risen markedly over the past 15 years. Meanwhile, studies have shown absolutely no link between male consumption of prognography and violence against women).

    5. America is a genocidal imperialist nation of crazed warmongers whose sole purpose is to subject foreign populations to murderous invasions and widespread torture and ethnic cleansing (except that America’s war record is distinctly mixed; our record in the Phillipines is very bad, but our record in WW I was reasonably good; overall, the results of American military intervention in WW II, particularly in Germany and Japan, were amazingly good…but our record of intervention in Vietnam was terrible. South Korea, however, owes its entire existence and its current thriving economy and democracy to U.S. intervention…while the results of our 2003 Iraq invasion have been dismal).

    1. Thank you for adding to the list,. This is an especially broad-minded comment coming from someone of leftish beliefs. I will add a reference to this in the post!

  5. Just like lay advocates of anthropogenic global warming.

    Say Anything“, Paul Krugman, op-ed in the New York Times, 25 October 2011 — Excerpt:

    Over the last couple of days, I’ve been getting mail accusing me of consorting with Nazis. My immediate reaction was, what the heck? Then it clicked: the right wing is mounting a full-court press to portray Occupy Wall Street as an anti-Semitic movement, based, as far as I can tell, on one guy with a sign.

    At the same time, the claque is claiming that OWS is responsible for a crime wave. To believe this, you have to believe not only that a few thousand non-violent protestors are deeply straining a police force with 35,000 officers, but that all the rapists and murderers in the outer boroughs are saying, “Hey, the police are busy chasing hippies! Let’s party!” Oh, well.

    My first thought was that OWS must have the right really rattled. And there’s probably something to that. But actually, this is the way the right goes after everyone who stands in their way: accuse them of everything, no matter how implausible or contradictory the accusations are. Progressives are atheistic socialists who want to impose Sharia law. Class warfare is evil; also, John Kerry is too rich. And so on.

    The key to understanding this, I’d suggest, is that movement conservatism has become a closed, inward-looking universe in which you get points not by sounding reasonable to uncommitted outsiders — although there are a few designated pundits who play that role professionally — but by outdoing your fellow movement members in zeal.

    It’s sort of reminiscent of Stalinists going after Trotskyites in the old days: the Trotskyites were left deviationists, and also saboteurs working for the Nazis. Didn’t propagandists feel silly saying all that? Not at all: in their universe, extremism in defense of the larger truth was no vice, and you literally couldn’t go too far. …

  6. Denial In Depth“, Paul Krugman, NYT, 29 October 2011 — Opening:

    Columbia Journalism Review has a takedown of a “study” from American Enterprise Institute purporting to show that inequality hasn’t increased, after all. What’s striking is the way AEI doesn’t even resort to the usual practice of concocting misleading numbers; it just flat-out lies about what various other peoples’ research, like Robert Gordon’s work, actually says.

    … What I found myself thinking about, however, is the way the inequality debate illustrates some typical features of many debates these days: the way the right has a sort of multi-layer defense in depth, which involves not only denying facts but then, in a pinch, denying the fact that you denied those facts.

    Here’s the article he points to: “The Myth of Income Equality, Courtesy of AEI“, Ryan Chittum, Columbia Journalism Review, 26 October 2011 — “New CBO data show what (almost) everybody already knows”. Opening:

    This post by James Pethokoukis, who recently hopped over to AEI from Reuters, shows how to combine the worst tendencies of Slate (contrarian shtick), Business Insider (misleading, hyped headlines), and think tanks (paid-for spin), and puts it in internet-friendly listicle format:

    “5 reasons why income inequality is a myth — and Occupy Wall Street is wrong”

    This, at least the first part of it, is false in a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me kind of way, which is the whole point. That kind of headline draws you to read the post, which proceeds to give seemingly sound (but ultimately misleading) evidence for why inequality isn’t growing in order to plants seeds of doubt about whether that whole inequality thing is really a problem.

    You’re probably not going to take the time to poke holes in it, so I will. A deeper look at this post shows that the body is nearly as flawed as the headline. …

  7. What caused the financial crisis? The Big Lie goes viral.“, Barry Ritholtz, Washington Post, 5 November 2011 — Excerpt:

    One group has been especially vocal about shaping a new narrative of the credit crisis and economic collapse: those whose bad judgment and failed philosophy helped cause the crisis. Rather than admit the error of their ways — Repent! — these people are engaged in an active campaign to rewrite history. They are not, of course, exonerated in doing so. And beyond that, they damage the process of repairing what was broken. They muddy the waters when it comes to holding guilty parties responsible. They prevent measures from being put into place to prevent another crisis.

    Here is the surprising takeaway: They are winning. Thanks to the endless repetition of the Big Lie. A Big Lie is so colossal that no one would believe that someone could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. …

    Click and read the rest. It’s a powerful reminder of how far we’ve fallen, that so many lies are totally refuted yet widely believed.

  8. Right-wing press demands liberal media repeat Occupy shooter’ smear“, Salon, 19 November 2011 — “How a disturbed would-be presidential assassin became another bizarre conservative meme.” Ending:

    But because of a bad bit of reporting — bad but understandable — ABC initially said that police suspected Ortega-Hernandez had spent time at the Occupy DC encampment, before heading out to shoot the White House. Police may have suspected that, but there’s been no evidence whatsoever that it’s the case. (He seems to have more of a connection to Oprah than Occupy, but no one is calling him the “Oprah shooter.”)

    The truth has not dissuaded Fox News from repeatedly referencing Ortega-Hernandez’s completely imaginary time spent at the Occupy camp. The NRA’s radio show did the same.

    But the fact that it is now known that there has never been any evidence linking Ortega-Hernandez to any Occupy event anywhere has not stopped conservatives from … crying about liberal media bias against conservatives. John Nolte at Big Journalism says: “the MSM is working overtime to make sure no narrative is created from the suspected White House shooter’s connection to #OccupyDC.”

    Right, because … there’s no connection. Except that some guy at Occupy San Diego said something stupid and regrettable about feeling sympathy for the crazy guy who shot at the White House. Which is, as “connections” go, a stretch!

    So here we have a wholly invented right-wing meme based on fantasy and one out-of-context line from a now out-of-date news story, repeated endlessly in an attempt to unfairly smear a political movement they despise, and the fact that responsible media outlets aren’t repeating the smear is an example of the nefarious leftist media conspiracy. Sorry the New York Times isn’t repeating this particular lie, guys!

    I for one wonder why the media ins’t investigating the shooter’s connections to the University of Texas College Republicans.

  9. When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality?“, David Frum, New York Magazine, 20 November 2011 — “Some of my Republican friends ask if I’ve gone crazy. I say: Look in the mirror.” Excerpt:

    Extremism and conflict make for bad politics but great TV. Over the past two decades, conservatism has evolved from a political philosophy into a market segment. An industry has grown up to serve that segment — and its stars have become the true thought leaders of the conservative world. The business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel).

    As a commercial proposition, this model has worked brilliantly in the Obama era. As journalism, not so much. As a tool of political mobilization, it backfires, by inciting followers to the point at which they force leaders into confrontations where everybody loses, like the summertime showdown over the debt ceiling.

    But the thought leaders on talk radio and Fox do more than shape opinion. Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.

    1. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority.
    2. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors — is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action ­phony doomed to inevitable defeat.
    3. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.”

    We used to say “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” Now we are all entitled to our own facts, and conservative media use this right to immerse their audience in a total environment of pseudo-facts and pretend information.

    When contemplating the ruthless brilliance of this system, it’s tempting to fall back on the theory that the GOP is masterminded by a cadre of sinister billionaires, deftly manipulating the political process for their own benefit. The billionaires do exist, and some do indeed attempt to influence the political process. The bizarre fiasco of campaign-finance reform has perversely empowered them to give unlimited funds anonymously to special entities that can spend limitlessly. (Thanks, Senator ­McCain! Nice job, Senator Feingold!)

    Yet, for the most part, these Republican billionaires are not acting cynically. They watch Fox News too, and they’re gripped by the same apocalyptic fears as the Republican base. In funding the tea-party movement, they are ­actually acting against their own longer-term interests, for it is the richest who have the most interest in political stability, which depends upon broad societal agreement that the existing distribution of rewards is fair and reasonable. If the social order comes to seem unjust to large numbers of people, what happens next will make Occupy Wall Street look like a street fair

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