Beyond Cherry-Picking

A recent essay from The New Republic addressed a question that constantly bedevils me: why do people firmly believe things that are demonstrably false?

I’m not talking about questions that are simply unprovable, like “is there a God?” I’m talking about aspects of our common experience about which there is ample data from credible sources. The linked article, for example, looks into the widespread belief that America’s economy is struggling, when all of the data confirms the opposite.

In the article, Timothy Noah dubs the journalism tracking such unsupportable beliefs as the “Folklore Beat,” and provides examples:

Covid vaccines are unnecessary. Foreign aid constitutes two-thirds of the federal budget. Donald Trump won the election. Schoolteachers are trying to turn your children gay or trans. Little green men visited Area 51, and the military doesn’t want you to know.

Noah is impatient with the media’s tendency to report respectfully on the people espousing those beliefs.

I’ll grant that when misconceptions acquire a large following (though seldom a majority one), that’s news. But is it really necessary to hand a megaphone to every street-corner blowhard in America? News organizations don’t do this because they believe what the blowhards say. They do it because they’re sensitive—too sensitive, if you ask me—to any accusation that they’re out of touch with John Q. Public. And while it’s certainly necessary to document ways in which macroeconomic data fails to capture the complexities of everyday life, particularly with respect to economic inequality, how many times do I have to hear some uninformed fool expound on how President Joe Biden is mishandling the economy? He can’t prove it; he’s not trying to prove it; he just feels that way, and we mustn’t disrespect feelings.

When it comes to the economy, polling continues to show much of the public unhappy with Biden’s performance–although, as Noah notes, “the Wall Street titans on whom Biden wishes to raise taxes maintain a higher opinion of Biden’s economic stewardship than the public at large.”

Perhaps that’s because the rich watch economic matters more closely.

Speaking of the rich, Morgan Stanley recently quadrupled its prior estimate of GDP growth for the first six months of this year, and doubled its GDP growth prediction for October–December 2023, signaling that its economists no longer anticipate a recession. But only a paltry 20 percent of respondents to a CNBC  survey released the same week agreed that the economy was excellent or good. Other polls have returned similar results.

The New Republic essay enumerated the truly excellent economic facts of life–employment and paychecks up, inflation down, manufacturing returning to the U.S., etc.–and then considered reasons for the public’s evident dismissal of excellent economic news.

As with so many aspects of American life today, the answer turns out to be partisanship.

In 2016, Gallup polled voters on the economy one week before the election and one week after. During the week preceding the election, with President Obama in the White House and Hillary Clinton widely expected to win, only 16 percent of Republicans thought the economy was improving, compared to 61 percent of Democrats. One week after the election, fully 49 percent of Republicans suddenly thought the economy was improving, compared to only 46 percent of Democrats. Note how much greater this post-election swing was for Republicans: 33 percentage points, compared to 15 for Democrats….

How does voter opinion differ according to party identification on Biden’s handling of jobs and unemployment? So much so as to render the 47–48 percent figure meaningless. Among Democrats, 84 percent approve, in rough approximation to objective reality. Among Republicans, only 15 percent do.

Inflation? Only 5 percent of Republicans approve of how Biden handled that, as against 71 percent of Democrats. If the judgments of both remain less favorable than on jobs and unemployment, that’s because inflation, though greatly diminished, remains above the Fed’s target level of 2 percent (though if you ask me, 3 percent inflation is pretty low).

The inescapable conclusion is that when you ask somebody whether the economy is doing well, you won’t get an answer about the economy. You may not even get an answer about that individual’s personal experience (which may or may not reflect broader economic trends as compared to one, two, or 10 years ago). Most of the time, you’d be better off just asking, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” Because these days, that determines how people—especially Republicans—feel about pretty much everything. If the man on the street sounds like a blowhard, hyper-partisanship explains why. The rest is just noise.

Partisan polarization has overwhelmed reason. Tribalism now dictates interpretations of reality. And of course, thanks to the Internet and social media, it’s easy to find “evidence” to support your preferred version of even the most unlikely “facts.”

Welcome to Never-Never Land.


  1. Honest question. Do you really think linking to the New Republic is something your readers want? Is that true journalism? I’m not going there. Thanks away. See you all tomorrow.

  2. “When it comes to the economy, polling continues to show much of the public unhappy with Biden’s performance–although, as Noah notes, “the Wall Street titans on whom Biden wishes to raise taxes maintain a higher opinion of Biden’s economic stewardship than the public at large.”

    President Biden is still WISHING to raise taxes on those Wall Street titans who maintain that higher opinion of him than the public at large who are struggling to buy foods at steadily rising prices from week-to-week and medications with rising costs between filling prescriptions. I received that nice COLA on my Social Security checks but have less money in my bank account and a more than half empty freezer compartment in my refrigerator. I have dropped items from my regular shopping list and have regressed to a “beans and weenies” level menus. I’m “cherry picking” my grocery shopping and letting my gas tank get near empty before putting gas in my tank. Today I am hoping I can afford the prescription renewal I just messaged to my doctor. This is how the real world of the majority of Americans are living today; we have dropped from low-middle class level to low level and fighting against that poverty level future. I can’t even guess what the poverty level families are doing for food and medication; doing WITHOUT is my best guess.

    I don’t blame President Biden; it is those Wall Street titans whose corporations are price gouging the public since the first decent COLA in many years was given in hopes of benefiting the American people and the economy.

    “As with so many aspects of American life today, the answer turns out to be partisanship.” The slim MAGA majority in the House and the slim MAGA minority elsewhere in government are still in power after the 2020 election. Maybe that is why Trump insists he won???

  3. I came across a piece written by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker which addresses this topic. I’d encourage anyone to Google her name and it’ll pop up under her bibliography, That’s what you think: why reason and evidence won’t change our minds.

    Why do we ignore the facts? It’s our sociability, in a few words. We’re wired to want to be in good stead with others in our group. Very interesting and supported by a number of studies.

  4. Professor, your article points to the fact of polarization as the prime problem in America today. How that has come to be is no longer relevant because it is a fact of life now, as certain as the sun rising in the east. So, the question is what to do about it?

    I suggest that we begin as individuals, recognize the polarization within ourselves first, and not engage in those behaviors that deepen the divide. Among your friends and acquaintances of like mind, do not promote discussions that deepen polarization. Admit that there are reasonable people on the “other” side who have legitimate concerns on any particular subject, and listen deeply to them even if you disagree with their perspective. When you disagree, it is the policy or the program, not the person that your argument is with.

    The way out of our polarized present is to not engage with more polarizing acts. If our democracy is going to survive we must find a way out of our current predicament, and what we are doing is not working. This might be a way out.

  5. Things are great for the top 20%. Biden wants to ensure the comfortable and affluent stay that way. As for the remaining underclass,unless they’re in Ukraine, Biden couldn’t care less.

    I doubt if Biden has been inside a grocery store in 40+ years.

  6. I am a daily reader and have never commented. The question re: objective prove able facts had alwyaovexed me as well but there is objective and there is perception. I have three college educated children in their late twenties— all democrats and if push come to shove, voters for Biden but…Housing is unaffordable. Healthcare— unless you work for a corporation—is unaffordable. Rights for women have been diminished. Food seems expensive relative to the hourly wage. People feel poorer and young people feel more cynical and less hopeful at creating a future. Don’t get me started on climate.

  7. Biden did state the U.S. taxpayer would pay for the pensions of Ukrainian political executives.

    Ukrainian Political Executives = Win.

    Seniors such as JoAnn = Lose.

    It will be good to get a new administration and thus send Biden back to his basement.

  8. I have to agree with Ian. I believe that people base their views on what they themselves are experiencing. If you are on a fixed income the economy looks pretty dismal. If you have a great deal of income things look great.

  9. The New Republic speaks to the Democratic tribe or tribalism on the center-left. I find it to be barely readable.

    I don’t think the economics are as good as the NR claims. The military-industrial complex and Big Oil are doing well due to price gouging at the pumps and the Ukraine War. We are threatening Niger and China, so there’s that.

    Paychecks are being supported by increased credit card borrowing. The Oligarchs are doing well, but the working class is struggling with housing costs, groceries, and energy.

    Another little covered item by the news is tax sales of local property. Our sheet has grown substantially because people cannot afford the 10% increase in property taxes. Based on a scan of the addresses, I would venture to say it’s people with a fixed income who sit around watching Fox News tell them how bad Bidenomics really is — it’s a war economy.

    The nationalistic march toward bringing advanced manufacturing back to the USA is a major bonus and a good thing for the USA at the expense of developing countries abroad.

    Also, bank stocks took a hit, so not sure why we are applauding that sector. Plenty of holes in Bidenomics.

  10. Hey professor, since tent-cities have been developing across the nation and within walking distance of DT Indianapolis, why not not ask the residents of said tent-town their thoughts wrt Never-Never Land?

    If things are so great, why are there so many tent-towns flourishing?

  11. Copied and pasted from Factcheck Posts article 2/23/23: “President Joe Biden said in April 2022 that some of the funding in a Ukraine aid package that Congress later overwhelmingly approved could be used to pay pensions for Ukrainians amid the ongoing war with Russia. That is not a new development, as several viral tweets have misleadingly claimed in recent days.”

    People such as Marjorie Taylor Greene who stated that is one reason why President Biden should be impeached. Ian, please connect that more than 16 month old information with the prices at Kroger and CVS today after the 2023 COLA and MAGA Freedom Caucus members such as MTG, et al, believe President Biden should be impeached due to that one item in the Ukraine Aid package. Are you cherry picking MAGA’s viral posts and Tweets for information.

    People who base their views on what they are experiencing must be comparing it with what those with a great deal of income have or they wouldn’t be aware their position is dismal. Of course we know our on situation intimately and can only read and research further for information on the economic level of others. Awareness of economics and partisanship polarization allows cherry picking (making decisions); being aware of differences means people are paying attention and making decisions.

    “As with so many aspects of American life today, the answer turns out to be partisanship.” My small, isolated neighborhood was highly Republican in 2016 with their forest of Trump yard signs, no Trump yard signs in 2020 but no idea what that means regarding their politics. Seeing their properties on my daily walks, I see what remains the same level of upkeep and maintenance and the lack thereof so their economics do not appear to have changed due to the blatantly evident partisanship polarization.

  12. Sheila. “Partisan politics has overwhelmed reason.” Some of the responses today strongly support that statement. Not James Todd though. Thanks James.

  13. Todd; your comment, “Paychecks are being supported by increased credit card borrowing. The Oligarchs are doing well, but the working class is struggling with housing costs, groceries, and energy.” brought to mind a news item this morning.

    Adam Schiff announced that the U.S. credit card debt has reached the level of $1 BILLION. Yesterday I saw a news post that the movie “Barbie” has hauled in $1 BILLION world-wide. We see news of economics being a problem world wide; the “Barbie” movie profits make me wonder about a cognition level and connection to economic problems and partisanship polarization and this nation’s support of Donald Trump.

  14. Theresa – spot on!

    I recently read a piece that cut to the chase: “The difference between lying and not caring about the truth” – the latter is what is killing our world….

  15. I can tell you why many believe the economy is a disaster, because food prices have doubled in the past 20 months or so, fuel prices have doubled, and it affects those who make the least, the most!

    They look for answers, and they might not be the most informed folks in the world, but they are very susceptible to the bait and switch reasoning and propaganda that swamps social media.

    Everything is still indelibly linked to fuel. Fossil fuels drive the cost of metals, food, healthcare, and production costs. So goes fuel prices, so goes everything else!

    Pay does not keep up with the rising cost of life. When you have interest rates continuing to climb, making it very difficult to purchase a vehicle that usually is overpriced anyway, people are going to have a bad view of the economy.

    I mean, a pound of grapes at $4.99 a pound? Ground beef, $6.99 a pound, eggs four or $5 a dozen, milk, $4.50 a gallon, trucks with 140,000 miles selling for 15% below brand new? Shortages of diabetic medications, which affects a majority of Americans. And unfortunately many of these folks are struggling and susceptible to being gas lit. Gullible is not the sound of the local water cooler, but it definitely affects people’s opinions on their quality of life.

    Kind of like, the fake USPS stamp ads that permeate social media. 50% off? Forever stamps? But people are looking for a deal to stretch a buck, and get taken advantage of. That alone will, as you say, will give someone a jaundice view of everything.

    Taxation without representation? Absolutely. Because government, whether federal or local, cannot figure out how to be frugal with other people’s money. So the taxes constantly climb and affect those who can’t afford it.

    Purchase food, or transportation, or pay your taxes, or fill your prescriptions, or keep a roof over your head, or, you get the picture.

    The wealthy have it, and they don’t want anyone else to get it! But they absolutely positively want those that can’t afford it to support their opulent lifestyle.

    There might be more money floating around, there might be more wealth being manufactured, but the average person is not seeing it! Therefore, anything that can explain why, is acceptable information. Even if it’s a lie!

  16. there will be headlines,and no context. most like trumps burps.
    the drop of inflation, because of the feds move to increase intrests rates. inflation has fallen.
    one reason why MS has forecast the GDP to such a rapid growth,profits. the prices havent come
    down. the profits continue. its been a boom year for the wall street greed. its been a shithole
    for average Americans. the cheap intrests rates produced untold growth for those who invest,
    in every aspect of the working class,to ream more out of us. the investors seek to pay off and
    sell or, ? just continue a profits journey that no one mentions. seems the working class doesnt
    see the economy for what morgan stanley has achived. only more homeless people, marginal
    living between failure and above water. yea Biden sure is struttin down wall street with
    Obamas strut. just a small note, here in NoDak, seems a few billions of your infrastructure money
    just bought a buncha cheap canadian asphault for our American roads. seems the fall out
    of America first didnt ring loud enough here like steel? yea, im out of 30% my average annual
    work. thanks Biden…

  17. Why are we professing shock at how Republicans ignore BLS’s statistic of over 13 million new hires since Biden with his new New Deal took charge? Or substantial wage increases? Or his reversal of Trump’s historic increase in our national debt with a 1.35 trillion decrease in such deficit? We should not be shocked that trained seal Republicans deny reality since, after all, their politicalization of education (woke indoctrination), medicine (Fauci, socialist) etc. should have conditioned us to their insistence that Democrats are lying about such a booming economy. If it doesn’t fit their view of how things should be it didn’t happen. Case closed.

    Our task? Keep the good times rolling, even for those who deny they are good.

  18. Lester, the piece to which you refer does seem to hit the nail on the head!
    And, yes, tribalism determines one’s perception of reality.
    Speaking of Covid, at least in Florididia the rate of new cases has tripled since the end of May. School starts here tomorrow, and who knows where that will take the rate, but Shakespeare can’t be taught here, in the usual way.

  19. Before Covid hit I wondered how people can believe certain things. During the long period of isolation I studied the cognitive sciences on how the brain works and how beliefs become fixed in the mind. Many politicians and people in Trump’s camp have also studied these subjects. Like studying how propaganda works. To simplify to the point of absurdity, If I can make a person think A-B and C are true them must believe D is also true. Master manipulators are skilled in these areas.

  20. The comments make the case. Right wingers would be funny if their mob mentality weren’t so dangerous.

  21. John Sorg, if you cherry pick the data at some point gas prices have doubled. Indiana, in 2008, gas prices spiked above $3 a gallon. After the recovery got underway, all the way up until 2014 gas prices bounced in and out of that above $3 a gallon. We’re back into that above $3 a gallon range. Of course with climate killing policies in place the oil market went out of kilter under Trump, until one day the price of a barrel of oil went negative (you had to pay somebody to take your product) and it scared the living sh*t out of producers to the point that it took a long time ramp up production again. So yes, technically you can say gas prices have doubled from a manipulated over subsidized market, but not from the long term free market trends.

    As for soft pedaling news, that’s a terrible problem. It makes me so mad when the headline reads “Trump Says Election Stolen” instead of “With No Evidence, claims of Stolen Election”. The emphasis is always on the lie and not that IT IS A LIE!

  22. Seasonal produce prices are down as the harvest season is upon us. Items such as eggs, just purchased for $2 doz. just 2 days ago, have come down. The price increases in foodstuff are reflective of fuel and transport costs rising as well as vendors continuing to justify price increases caused by the effects of the pandemic and blaming it on wage pressures. Profiteering is rampant in consumer goods and fossil fuels. The latest increases get blamed on refineries not being able to operate efficiently in extreme heat (or extreme cold as well?). It seems there is always some reason for increases while corporations report record profits.

    The President is not responsible for corporate policy decisions. Yesterday, on NPR, a Heritage Foundation spokeswoman state that the Biden administration needs to stop regulating businesses, especially in matters of environmental concerns, because many “scientists” think that the climate changes are not as dire as reported and the corporations will self-regulate due to market conditions. The name of those scientists were not provided when asked and we all know how large corporations have self-regulated so well in the recent past.

    Indiana gas prices are up to above the national average due in no small part to the increase in gas taxes our illustrious General Assembly put in place this summer, in a state with a huge budget surplus. $.33 per gal. is now the law.

    If the Congress had not approved the massive tax break for the wealthiest, maybe things might be cheaper. That being said, big business always seems to find a way to make the consumer pay for their overhead costs while profits and executive pay continue to go into obscenely high levels. Of course, the middle and low income households pay more. What exactly do people think that the President, no matter who s/he is can do about it, other than regulate, especially when dealing with branches of government doing everything in their power to block any actions?

    Fanning the flames of polarization makes for huge profits for media corporations. Think about the kind of money spent on campaigns at all levels. There is no end to the fund-raising now. Campaigning is a 24/7/365 reality with no break between actual elections.

    And guess who pays for it all?

  23. Let’s be clear – “The failed polices of liberalism” is a very old Republican meme. After almost a century of fighting the New Deal, it has become an article of faith for many.

    A Democrat is President, ergo, everything is lousy. A Republican is President, all is good.

    Of course, lazy (or fearful) reporting leads to just repeating what each side says. I do remember a John Oliver bit on climate change. He put three people on on side of the studio and squeezed ninety-seven on the other to show the real “both sides” of the scientific views on anthropogenic climate change.

    Also, mislabeling exacerbates things. Saying “misinformation” instead of damned “lies” leads one to think that it is no big deal. So is the term “polarization”. It is not the case that “each side moved to the extremes”. The Republican Party has been taken over by extremists. You can disagree with some (or all) policies on the left, but the Democratic Party has not been taken over by extremists. It isn’t “both sides”, which the term “polarization” implies.

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