Monday, January 13, 2014

Life Inside The Bubble

Inside the bubble, global warming is a hoax.

Inside the bubble, the great financial crisis of 2008 was caused by Fannie and Freddie and government policies foisting home ownership on unworthy deadbeats and scoundrels.

Inside the bubble, our economy is being throttled by too-high taxes, crushing government debt, and oppressive regulation.

Inside the bubble, Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim.

Inside the bubble, Benghazi was a scandal of immense proportions, and its "coverup" a conspiracy.

Inside the bubble, the IRS targets and punishes Tea Party affiliated groups at the behest of the administration.

Inside the bubble, Obamacare is a government takeover of health care that can never work, and is even now beginning to implode.

These are all matters of faith inside the bubble. But occasionally the bubble's beliefs are tested in ways that are hard to dismiss. Inside the bubble, Mitt Romney was destined to win the presidency in 2012. And Mitt, living in the bubble himself, was as shocked as anyone that it didn't come to be.  Election night video shows a stunned and bewildered Romney trying to wrap his head around what just happened, as if he'd had no idea what that day would bring. Why didn't he?

The bubble makes fools of the most (presumably) capable persons. Aides inside the Romney campaign said they believed they'd win decisively. Romney fancied himself a "numbers guy," and was certain to the end that he'd prevail. So sure, in fact, that he hadn't even prepared a concession speech. But ultimately his numbers were wrong—an indictment, by the way, of his managerial competency—and the election wasn't even close.

While Romney and his campaign were coddled in the bubble, those of us who followed the best polling analysis available had little doubt about what would transpire come election day. And let's be clear: This had nothing to do with our guy versus your guy. It had nothing to do with who should win or who we'd like to win. It was all about who would win, based on a clear-eyed, emotionally detached, rational grasp of the data that was available to everybody, but was somehow beyond the ken of those inside the bubble.

Romney wasn't alone in his cluelessness. The entire right—and especially its media organ, Fox News—was sure the polls that consistently showed Obama ahead were "skewed," but that they'd be unskewed soon enough when the official returns came in. They weren't, and they weren't.

Remember Karl Rove giving the nod to Romney, and Dick Morris, George Will, Larry Kudlow, and Michael Barone punditizing a Romney landslide? You can imagine the average Fox viewer thinking it a done deal. If you got your information from Fox, you had no idea what was about to happen. Remember a distraught Rove at the Fox desk on election night recoiling from Fox calling Ohio for Obama?

And by the way, why should anybody have trusted Rove's objectivity in the first place? Don't laugh. Of course the bubble isn't about objective analysis. But consider: As the head of American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, Rove had nearly two hundred million dollars of Super PAC "skin" in the game on the Republican side. And yet there he was, Fox's preeminent election analyst. Such conflict of interest would be strictly prohibited at any real news network. By way of contrast, NPR's Michele Norris took a leave from her host chair with the All Things Considered news program because her husband took a job with the Obama campaign. She has not been, and will not be, reinstated.

That fateful election night I did what any rational person would do: I went to bed. I sometimes stay up late to watch election returns, but on election night 2012 I went to bed early, before a single important state had been called. That's because I knew what the outcome would be when I woke in the morning. Please realize that my knowing had nothing to do with zeal or blind faith or a revelation from God or the conviction that what should happen (by my lights) would happen. And my knowing had nothing to do with my pleasure that my guy would win and your guy would lose, although there was surely plenty of that. My certainty was, rather, entirely about solid data and expert analysis, and the consequent understanding that the data unambiguously predicted a clear Obama victory.  In fact, by election day, even though most reporters and pundits said the race was too close to call, Nate Silver's Five Thirty Eight blog was forecasting a 92% probability that Obama would win the electoral college!

Nate who? If you have to ask, you might be in the bubble. (Which is not to say Silver is unknown on the right; far from it.) Nate Silver, along with a number of other leading edge polling analysts such as Sam Wang (who was in the early vanguard in 2004), is one of the new breed of statistical geeks who's been revolutionizing the field of probabilistic poll aggregation. Silver, who got his start in sports statistics (and has recently returned there to resume his first and apparently true love), has a monumentally impressive record of forecasting election results. Silver correctly predicted the outcome of 49 of 50 states in the 2008 presidential election, and all 35 Senate races that year.  In 2012, Silver correctly predicted all 50 states in the presidential race, and 31 of 33 Senate races.

Because the bubble has a hard time evaluating expertise objectively, we need to make one thing abundantly clear: This is not about blindly glomming onto Nate Silver because of his stellar past record of successful predictions which, after all, could have been just lucky. That would be like thinking Peter Lynch was an infallible stock picker due to the impressive returns of the Fidelity Magellan fund in the early 1980's. Lynch was smart to get out while he was on top, because his method—which was always much more art than science—was in any case substantially pushed along by the prevailing market winds, and was unlikely to be sustained over the long term.

Silver, by contrast, is all about science. Hunches and intuition, reading tea leaves, partisan or emotional attachment to any candidate: these are all eschewed in favor of cold hard data and its algorithmic elucidation. Ever the antithesis of the opaque oracle, Silver publicly explained his methods and models in great detail, for all to see and understand—if they wanted to. The bubble yawned.

It's easy to see why Silver's models had such predictive power. In a presidential election, there are many—perhaps one to two dozen—independent polling organizations working in any given state, especially in the battleground states. Each organization releases a series of state poll results whose movements can be viewed and analyzed over time, and aggregated in a statistically coherent manner with all the other polls in the same state to provide an extremely powerful assessment of how the state's electorate is likely to vote.

Gone are the days when intuition played an important role in election forecasting. With Karl Rove you get someone who thinks he can "read" the electorate; with Nate Silver you get someone with a demonstrated and transparent ability to read the data, with great precision—and who describes his method straightforwardly. In point of fact, Romney was consistently behind in Silver's forecast in all the battleground states through the late summer and fall of 2012, and whenever Obama's position wavered a bit (such as after the disastrous first debate) it always recovered, and was trending stronger from a solid base in the final days. In Silver's models, Obama surged from a 70% probability of winning 10 days before the election, to a 92% probability very early on election day. There was never a point where the outcome was strongly in doubt, even though the national popular vote polling gave a naive impression of a tight race. Silver, of course, was making predictions state-by-state with an eye to the electoral college. And the partisan poll "skew" imagined by Romney and the right was never more than a mirage of wishful thinking. (What, you think professional pollsters don't know how to do their job? All of them?)

I've described Nate Silver's methods and results at some length to demonstrate by comparison how experts—and, similarly, news sources—are chosen inside the bubble, where it's us against them, our team versus yours. The bubble says that you have your experts (who, by definition, we don't trust), and we have ours. And this posture makes it practically impossible to present actual evidence on just about anything to someone inside the bubble, since by definition your experts are suspect, or worse—because they're yours!  There's no objective standard inside the bubble for gauging authority, which ends up instead being not a function of knowledge and expertise but of ideology.

Meanwhile, outside the bubble, we evaluate our experts more rationally. I don't particularly care who Nate would like to be president, and his model has nothing to do with his personal preferences. What I do know is that on close inspection he seems to know his stuff, and his statistical model that yields probabilities is objective, data driven, and remains consistent over time. Sure, his success is a validation of his expertise; but more importantly, it's an expertise I'm free to probe to whatever depth I want. This is how people who think evaluate information sources and experts.

The point of this digression into the 2012 election is to contrast life inside and outside the bubble, and to lay the groundwork for a deeper look at the bubble and its denizens. Outside the bubble, we knew in advance (to a high probability) who would win—and that knowledge had nothing to do with whom we were rooting for. (No doubt plenty of free-thinking Romney supporters outside the bubble understood what was coming.) Inside the bubble, Fox News viewers were blissfully unaware of the rude awakening that awaited. Here's the point, which I intend to demonstrate substantively: The election epitomizes how poorly Fox viewers, and consumers of other right wing media, are informed on an extraordinarily wide range of topics. As we will see, many academic studies have confirmed this extraordinary information gap.

I have often told my Fox-watching acquaintances that they are poorly served by their choice of where they obtain information. The problem is compounded by the fact that for many of them, Fox is essentially their only information source. They're left with a view of the world that is routinely distorted, always incomplete, and often just plain wrong. It's disheartening that the long term progression of journalism in this country has ultimately led to such an unfortunate and, for many, unexpected result. Who would have thought, back in the days of the "big three" broadcast news organizations, that a major news outlet would arise that was captive to a partisan political agenda and cultural ideology? The traditional meaning of journalism, as a principled quest for truth in the service of the public, has become thoroughly perverted. And many of the alternative "news" sources on the right are even worse than Fox—rabidly partisan and ideological with the thinnest veneer of reportage that's invisible to all but the truest true believer.

Things go badly wrong from the outset when you select information sources amenable to your own politics or ideology—a mistake that ensures you'll be told what you want to hear, not what is. Most engaged persons outside the bubble have a more cosmopolitan suite of information sources, and a healthier and more accurate understanding of what's going on in the world around them. Persons inside the bubble are akin to a captive populace fed propaganda from authoritarian state run media, with the sad distinction that their ignorance is chosen voluntarily.

It's easy to see, then, why Fox viewers generally don't "believe in" climate change, even though the scientific consensus on the matter is overwhelming. But then, Fox viewers tend to be passive propaganda receptacles; they're inherently suspicious of anything that originates outside the bubble, including science itself. The sad reality is that a substantial fraction of our citizenry will never accept the validity of climate change until Fox News deigns to tell them it is so, because that is the near absolute standard by which they gauge truth and falsehood. For its part, Fox makes every effort to sow doubt and confusion on the subject, apparently because it's profitable to do so.

It's a disturbing reality that even persons of obvious high intelligence have become willfully entrapped in an intellectually vacuous black hole, and over time not just their access to information, but their ability to think critically and independently, is eroded. Isn't that what propaganda is all about? This, it seems, is one of the great dysfunctions of our time, and it threatens not just our ability to govern ourselves, but also to live in a healthy and comprehending relationship to the larger world.

Would that it weren't so. Among major news organizations, Fox News has the singular capacity to make people stupid. A provocative claim, I know, and I suspect the cause and effect runs in both directions. But consider:

After the 2010 mid-term elections, researchers at the University of Maryland studied the relationship between news sources and levels of misinformation among voters. In general, as you would expect, voters who were exposed to just about any news source were better informed than those not exposed to any news source. The glaring exception was that on a variety of important election issues (the stimulus and the economy, health care, climate change, the TARP program, the auto bailout, and others), persons who frequently watched Fox News had significantly higher levels of misinformation than those who never watched it. Incrementally higher levels of exposure to Fox News resulted in incrementally higher levels of misinformation. The report was published by, a project managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland.

An earlier,  2003  University of Maryland PIPA study examined three misperceptions (defined as such based on U.S. intelligence community conclusions) about the Iraq war: that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks and/or provided substantial support to Al-Qaeda; that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq; and that most of world public opinion favored, or at least did not oppose, the U.S. going to war with Iraq. The study found that persons who obtained most of their news from Fox held more misperceptions than those who obtained their news from other media outlets. From the report:
"The extent of Americans’ misperceptions vary significantly depending on their source of news. Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions. Those who receive most of their news from NPR or PBS are less likely to have misperceptions. These variations cannot simply be explained as a result  of differences in the demographic characteristics of each audience, because these variations can also be found when comparing the demographic subgroups of each audience."
Rates of viewers holding one or more misperception were ranked by news source: Fox: 80%, CBS: 71%, ABC: 61%, CNN: 55%, NBC: 55%, print media: 47%, NPR: 23%.

A 2011 survey by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that Fox viewers were more misinformed than persons who didn't watch any television news at all! A 2012 follow-up confirmed the result.

Another 2011 survey, this one by the Kaiser Family Foundation, looked at Americans' understanding of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which had been enacted into law a year earlier. Kaiser is a respected non-profit research and information organization focusing on health care issues in the U.S. The survey included a ten question "quiz" designed to determine whether Americans knew which of certain provisions were in the law, and which were not. Considering the three major cable news networks, 39 percent of MSNBC viewers got 7 of 10 questions right, compared to 35 percent of CNN viewers and 25 percent of Fox viewers.

In the Kaiser survey, 32 percent of Democrats got high (7 of 10) scores on the quiz, compared to 18 percent of Republicans. The authors point out that those who "like" the law score higher than those who don't, but do not advance an opinion on the direction of causality. (Do you dislike the law because you don't understand it, or do you not understand it because you dislike it?) Although the authors do not say this, it seems obvious that Fox, in mounting a systematic and sustained attack on the ACA, powerfully affects viewer opinion from both directions. On the one hand, the constant negative coverage can create a tone and context that suggests to viewers that they should not like the law, and so they're disinclined to understand it. On the other, biased, incomplete, or misleading coverage by Fox can leave viewers poorly informed in ways that negatively affect their opinion. It's a serious problem that persists to the present day: A large number of Americans have been systematically deprived of accurate information about the ACA by their news sources and by their politicians.

The misinformation campaign against the Affordable Care Act began long before the law was enacted. An August 2009 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll underscored some amazing beliefs about the bill. A large percentage of Americans, regardless of news source, were poorly informed about the provisions of the bill, but Fox viewers were the worst by a substantial margin. For example, 72 percent of Fox viewers believed the ACA would give coverage to illegal immigrants, whereas only 41 percent of CNN and MSNBC viewers held that misperception. Fox viewers believed the bill would lead to a government takeover of health care by a whopping 72 percent, compared to 39 percent for CNN/MSNBC. (Of course, the ACA merely mandates insurance coverage, which must be purchased from private insurers.) Sixty-nine percent of Fox viewers believed the ACA would use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, versus 40 percent of CNN and MSNBC viewers. And let's not forget about those notorious "death panels." Seventy-five percent of Fox viewers believed the law would allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing health care to the elderly, compared to a mere 30 percent of CNN and MSNBC viewers. None of these misbeliefs was ever in the draft legislation, and obviously none were in the final bill that became law. Think back to the summer of death panels and inflammatory town hall meetings, with Fox news in the thick of it fanning the flames. This is the proper role of a major news organization?

Speaking of fanning the flames, remember the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy? A 2010 study by researchers at The Ohio State University was entitled "FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTES TO SPREAD OF RUMORS ABOUT PROPOSED NYC MOSQUE."  The researchers looked at public belief in certain false rumors, such as whether the backer of the proposed mosque was a terrorist sympathizer; whether the Muslim groups behind the project had ties to radical anti-American and anti-Semitic organizations; whether the mosque near Ground Zero was scheduled to open on September 11, 2011, in celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks; and whether the money for the proposed Islamic cultural center was coming primarily from foreign financial backers associated with terrorist organizations in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Key findings in the report were:
  • Viewers of Fox News had greater exposure to the false rumors than non-Fox viewers
  • People who watch Fox News believe more of the false rumors than those who do not
  • People who use CNN and NPR believe fewer false rumors
  • Newspapers are uniquely effective at getting accurate political information to their readers
  • Conservative talk radio use was also associated with more rumor exposure
  • Use of network broadcast TV news is associated with lower rumor exposure
  • Belief in rumors about the proposed mosque in NYC was not only significantly associated with opposition to the  NYC mosque project, but also associated with opposition to the building of mosques generally

I said that Fox viewers are poorly informed on a wide range of topics. Here's a big one. Fox viewers, and bubble dwellers in general, are notorious global warming deniers, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is happening. The right-wing media has conducted a long and relentless propaganda campaign aimed at casting doubt on the scientific consensus. In a 2011 study published in The International Journal of Press/Politics, researchers at American University (Washington D.C.), George Mason University, and Yale University examined "The Nature and Impact of Global Warming Coverage on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC." The report's abstract can be read here.

The study found that "Fox takes a more dismissive tone toward climate change than CNN and MSNBC. Fox also interviews a greater ratio of climate change doubters to believers." [The ratio is grossly distorted and unrepresentative of scientific opinion when you consider that polling consistently shows that around 98% of climate experts accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change -mb] From the abstract: "An analysis of 2008 survey data from a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults finds a negative association between Fox News viewership and acceptance of global warming, even after controlling for numerous potential confounding factors. Conversely, viewing CNN and MSNBC is associated with greater acceptance of global warming." Much has been written about conservative media and political attacks against climate science. A good place to read more is climate scientist Michael E. Mann's book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.

Imagine that a series of serious academic studies concluded that readers of The New York Times were systematically misinformed, even to the point of being more poorly informed than people who consumed no news at all! I suspect the Times's editors, who'd been laboring under the assumption that their paper is one of the world's premier information sources, with the highest editorial standards, would promptly go out and shoot themselves. But not Fox. Inside the bubble, universities and foundations can be readily portrayed as part of the liberal establishment, against which Fox serves as a heroic and necessary bulwark. The critical studies can be worn as a badge of honor. Thus does the bubble protect itself: As a self-defined authority with unquestioning followers, the bubble by definition admits of no evidence or criticism from outside, and it disparages society's most learned and informed intellectuals and experts, in and out of academia, as unworthy "elites."

The bubble's dismissal of authority is circular and self-referential. Fox viewers know I'm wrong about Fox, and about the bubble's incomprehension of today's most important problems, precisely because Fox tells them so. They see no point in looking elsewhere for answers, or for confirmation of their beliefs. Any critical thinking skills they once may have had have withered away. Mention any of the world's great journalistic enterprises (again, The New York Times is a good example) and they will roll their eyes dismissively—or worse—in a display of uncomprehending ignorance. Fox has helpfully advised them to steer clear of such "biased" and unreliable outlets, and they're happy to do so. Any critique of Fox is refuted by appealing to Fox. The "logical" chain is tight, circular, and impenetrable—a characteristic, I might add, that's highly reminiscent of religion.

Bubble dwellers are on comfortable ground when they're deriding media outlets such as The New York Times (which, likely as not, they've never actually read), but they're apprehensively uncertain about less familiar sources, and generally assume the safest approach is to steer clear of any information that hasn't been explicitly blessed inside the bubble. They will generally avoid such information for fear of being tainted, or because they might not know how to refute it—and then what? Bubble dwellers think that discerning truth comes down to the mere choosing of sides, not active mental engagement that seeks to understand objective reality. Lacking an intellectual ethic of expansive inquiry and independent critical thought, and unequipped to gauge the quality or reliability of information they encounter, they find it best to withdraw into the comfort and safety of the bubble, and let the bubble do their thinking for them.

I'm reminded of when I suggested to one acquaintance, a bubble dweller who's a voracious reader, that she might enjoy Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss. It's a monumental biography (a second volume will follow) by a renowned biographer, historian, and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist whose accomplishment and integrity count for nothing inside the bubble; a book that's deeply researched and extraordinarily detailed. I expect it to be the definitive Obama biography. The book is neither political nor ideological, nor was my recommendation. But my acquaintance recoiled with a deer-in-the-headlights look: "How can we know [it's true]?"  What a frightening prospect for a bubble dweller. If the book explains that Obama was born in Hawaii (it does)—then what? If the book explains that neither Obama nor his father is or was a Muslim—then what? Best to not go there. And yet my acquaintance happily and uncritically accepts Dinesh D'Souza's pop psychology take on Obama as canonical truth.

The other night I was flipping through the channels, and settled for a while on Fox News. Greta Van Susteren was interviewing a surgeon, who told of operating on a patient even though he was unable, at the time, to determine whether the woman had successfully acquired insurance coverage. This vacuous anecdote, which is apparently what qualifies as news on one of our major networks, was another of Fox's incessant attacks on the Affordable Care Act. Was it illustrative of some pervasive problem? We were not told. Regardless of whether even that single anecdote was being accurately reported, let us stipulate that with a major overhaul in the national insurance markets there are bound to be glitches like the one described, especially in the early going. So what?

The Fox viewer is subjected to such vapid fare with mind numbing repetition, night after night, week after week, month after month. The intellect becomes dulled, thought processes shut down, and all that remains is background noise that bathes the passive recipient: Obamacare is a failure. Despite its shallowness, the message has been incorporated, the ideology reinforced, and the bubble has done its work.

Is this any way for an advanced society to conduct its affairs? A large fraction of that society apparently thinks so. Another person I know admitted she "loves" Fox, and implied the academic criticism described here more or less amounts to nit picking. She says she prefers to look instead at the "big picture," but if Fox viewers are systematically misinformed, that big picture as rendered by Fox is a poor depiction of reality—which, after all, is precisely the problem. Apparently she doesn't see the contradiction. That's as good an illustration as any of life inside the bubble.

Copyright (C) 2014 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved