Scandals, consistency, and cognitive dissonance

My post on the Lincoln Bedroom non-scandal has drawn some response, which leads me to some general reflections on the problem of disagreeing with your side’s view of such controversies.

First, the good news:

Matt Yglesias finds my post “convincing”. Since Matt, like me, would rather believe a charge against Bush than disbelieve it, having convinced him reassures me. Matt then adds a useful reflection on the underlyilng problem: The party that doesn’t serve the interests of the rich is going to have a harder time raising money, and may wind up sailing closer to the wind in doing so.

Volokh Conspirator Randy Barnett, with whom I have clashed on occasion, offered a generous link with words of praise, for which I am duly grateful. A couple of conservative readers emailed their approval as well.

Anything that helps keep communication going between Right Blogistan and Left Blogistan ought to be counted A Good Thing, so the (not very substantial) intellectual effort and (nontrivial) emotional effort that went into the post have been well repaid.

Now the bad news: None of the writers I linked to as having repeated the (in my view unfounded) charge that Bush had been caught doing just what he’d criticized Clinton for doing responded in public. [Correction: See the Crockmeister’s carefully-reasoned post here, which makes the case that the line between Clinton’s behavior and Bush’s is thin.]

One sent a short, polite, witty note saying that he was standing his ground. From the others, only silence (as far as I can tell; for some reason my TrackBack works very imperfectly, so I might have missed a response). I’ve had not a single email saying “Yes, I too dislike Bush, but it’s a good thing for his critics to defend him from unfounded accusations.”

So, aside from Matt, I don’t have any evidence of having convinced anyone of anything. (Presumably Randy and my conservative correspondents had a predisposition to believe what I said.) And I had several emails disagreeing with me, thougn none of them seemed to me to raise any valid objection. (Some said, more or less, “Bush is a member of the hereditary aristocracy, and has the unfair advantage that his college buddies can help raise bucks for him.” That’s true, but it doesn’t in my view make the charge of hypocrisy stick.)

None of them my correspondents seemed to think it a good idea for Bush’s critics to be critical of Bush criticism and try to pass along only valid criticisms. One said explicitly, “You have a pretty good batting average, but it just went down some.”

Batting average for what, I might ask? For agreeing with my friends? For taking the position you’d guess I would take?

Predictability is good in a watch, bad in a blogger. If you already know what I think about an issue before reading what I have to say, why bother reading it? And why should I bother writing it? (That’s part of the reason I link to only a small proportion of the Kevin Drum or Brad DeLong items I find convincing and informative: “Kleiman agrees with Drum” isn’t really man-bites-dog news, is it?)

We should all be largely predictable (to those who have bothered to understand the texture of our thinking beyond crude categories such as “liberal” or “hawk”) in what we have to say on the issues. And to some extent ideology determines what sort of behavior a person thinks is scandalous. I, for example, am unshocked by leaks of classified information, because I think they mostly serve the public interest, but think that much of what counts as routine political fundraising ought to be prosecuted as bribery and extortion. So I will be more prone, given an agreed set of facts, to see money-in-politics scandals as real, and less prone to see leaks scandals as real, than other people.

But on the facts themselves — whether there existed a blue semen-stained dress, whether Valerie Plame was an undercover officer of the CIA before senior people in the White House blew her cover, whether the story about John Kerry’s affair with an intern had any factual support and what operatives were involved in spreading that report, whether Halliburton’s directors have been vindicated in their judgment that the huge going-away present they voted Richard Cheney as he assumed the Vice Presidency would be a profitable investment for Halliburton’s shareholders — there’s no good (normatively compelling) reason why my judgments ought to match my preferences.

The same is largely true as we move from fact to interpretation: Questions of the form “Is A a case of B?” or “Is C analogous to D?” or “Does testimony E tend to support charge F?” — as questions of those forms apply to (purported) political scandals — ought to be subject to relatively ideology-free analysis. Even for (purported) gaffes, waffles, flip-flops, and lies, questions of the form “Does document U embody proposition V?” or “Is speech W inconsistent with op-ed X?” or “Does website Y contain false statements of ascertainable fact?” can usually be resolved in ways that don’t require the observer to take a position on the merits of any public policy.

So it seems to me that, where there is a legitimate rather than a manufactured controversy, an ideal blogger would depart from the factual claim or interpretation favorable to his side about half the time. Surely, as his “batting average” for toeing the party line approaches .900 he and his readers ought to start to worry.

Exception: If you profess to have chosen your political affiliation not on the basis of general ideas about what constitutes the public good but on a judgment about the character of the leading figures in the two parties, then it would be reasonable for you to expect that the other party has a higher proportion of scoundrels among its leadership. (Unless your evidence of character depends on your belief that only a scoundrel could adopt positions that disagree with yours.)

But if you’re a Democrat because you’re a secularist who likes environtmental protection and would prefer a more equal distribution of income, or a Republican because you believe in school vouchers and lower taxes, then you have NO RATIONAL BASIS for the belief that the leaders of the party that espouses your beliefs will be less scoundrelly than their rivals. (In the Jerry Ford era, before the Bush-Robertson-DeLay crowd took over the Republican party, I, as a lowly Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill, had the uncomfortable impression that Republican officeholders, on average, were of somewhat better moral character than Democratic officeholders.)

On the other hand, speaking descriptively rather than normatively, social and cognitive psychology offer excellent reasons (starting with cogntiive dissonance) why my judgments will in fact closely track my preferences, unless I’m extremely mindful and scupulous about attempting to untrack them.

But that’s A Bad Thing. I should be embarrassed by it. If I can’t control it in private, I should at least try to control it in public. (For example, by not making election predictions: I know in my gut that John Kerry is going to win this year, but that tells me something about my gut, not about John Kerry’s actual chances of winning.)

Those who engage in politics professionally have at least some excuse for pretending to believe all the scandals about the other side and none of the scandals about their own side. But journalists, inlcuding bloggers, have the opposite professional obligation: they should try to be intellectually honest. Even a blogger who is strictly an amateur in financial terms is still practicing journalism, which is a profession — an instance of what MacIntyre calls a “practice” — with internally-generated norms, which reflect its underlying purpose and are therefore morally binding on those who engage in it.

Someone who writes — other than in an official “spokesman” role — not to reflect his view of truth in the hopes of enlightening others, but to push a “line” in the hopes of persuading people of things he has ulterior partisan motives for wishing them to believe, is, in my view, acting unprofessionally and dishonorably.

Intellectual honesty, in this sense, is well short of fairness and balance. I don’t think every blogger has an obligation to try to make his posts some sort of importance-weighted equal-probability sample of the true things that could be said about the world, or about politics and public affairs. Selection of things to write about is legitimately more a matter of taste and personal preference than the evaluation of evidence. (There’s an interesting argument about how far selectivity can extend without becoming intellectual dishonesty, but that’s another argument.)

Again, I do not hold myself up as a paragon: I am more aware of the effect of my prejudices on my opinions than is consistent with my pride, and no doubt less aware than would be consistent with the evidence.

But I do think we should all acknowledge the obligation to call ’em as we see ’em, and to try to close the gap between how we see ’em and how they actually are.

We’re all, after all entitled to our opinions, but not to our own set of facts.

“Although reason is common to all, the many act as if each had a private source of truth.” –Heraclitus

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

One thought on “Scandals, consistency, and cognitive dissonance”

  1. Bush and the Lincoln Bedroom, epilogue

    Mark Kleiman is disappointed that he didn't get much public feedback from his post of 3/10 about why Bush's White House and Camp David sleepovers for friends and fundraisers were

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