Don’t Argue With The True Believers

A recent column by Frank Bruni addressed an issue to which I often refer: the growing gap between GOP rhetoric (and presumably, belief) and that fact-based thing we call reality.

Bruni wrote:

When it comes to manipulating the information space, getting inside people’s heads, creating alternative realities and mass confusion — he’s as good as anyone since the 1930s, and you know who I’m talking about,” said Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the 2021 book “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.” Rauch characterized the stolen election claims by Trump and his enablers as “the most audacious and Russian-style disinformation attack on the United States that we’ve ever seen” and questioned whether, under a second Trump administration, we’d become a country “completely untethered from reality.”

A post to Daily Kos elaborated on that lack of a tether, quoting Stephen Colbert for the often-repeated line that “Reality has a well-known liberal bias,” and pointing to the myriad ways in which reality deviates from the preferred Republican version.

Trump really did lose in 2020. But it goes far beyond Trump and and his 30,000+ lies. Slavery really was an unredeemable horror for Blacks. Anti-abortion laws really are killing women. Gender dysphoria really exists. Same-sex marriages really work. Racism really is systemic in the United States. Jews really don’t control the world (if we did, we’d do a better job!). The economy really is doing much better under Biden than under Trump. The Earth (which really is 4.5 billion years old, give or take) really does revolve around the sun.

The post also linked to an article in the Atlantic–behind a paywall–in which the author, son of a preacher, told of the congregation’s outrage when his father’s successor preached a sermon about Christians’ obligation to protect ‘God’s creation’ from climate change. Although many Christian denominations acknowledge the reality of climate change and the need to address it, in churches like his father’s, climate change denial is part of being a “real” Christian.

Fundamentalist Christians used to avoid politics. No more. In fact, in a very real sense, for many of them, being Republican has become their version of being Christian.

The reverse is equally true: large numbers of dyed-in-the-wool Republicans have transformed what was formerly a political identity into a quasi-religious one. Political lies and conspiracy theories have morphed into something akin to theological doctrine. The absence of proof–the lack of any empirical or factual support–is irrelevant. (You can’t prove the existence  or non-existence of God in a laboratory, either.)

I asked a psychiatrist friend to tell me what happens when such people come face to face with well-documented evidence debunking their beliefs. Evidently, the four most likely reactions are: denial (true believers simply deny the facts or dismiss them as false or biased); cognitive dissonance (they experience the discomfort that arises when a person holds conflicting beliefs); resort to confirmation bias (true believers seek out information that supports their original beliefs, or provides an excuse to discount the evidence before them); and what is called the “backfire effect,” in which they become even more entrenched in their preferred version of reality.

Least likely is a change of opinion to accord with the evidence.

Instead, these “true believers” perceive the contradictory information as an existential threat to their identities or world-views, a threat that is much more likely to trigger a defensive response than a change of opinion.

Recent headlines report that some 25% of Americans now believe that the FBI was responsible for the January 6th insurrection. Those Americans are the true believers;  I would characterize such a political opinion–a conviction so divorced from reality and contrary to all available evidence– as quasi-religious. However we characterize such departures from reality, however, we need to understand that those who cling to these beliefs are unmovable. Time spent arguing with them, or showing them evidence to the contrary, is time wasted.

The only way Democrats will win elections in 2024 is by voting in sufficiently large numbers. Poll after poll shows that large majorities of voters agree with Democratic policy positions, and that rational Americans outnumber the true believers.  The problem is: far too many of the inhabitants of the real world–for one reason or another–fail to vote.

We don’t need to waste time trying to convert the denizens of never-never land. We need to put all of our efforts into getting out the vote.


The Next Group To Come Out

The gay rights movement triggered the most rapid social change in my adult lifetime.  When I was young (granted, back in the Ice Age), homosexuality was viewed as a form of mental illness, and gay people were largely closeted. Today, 70+ percent of Americans  are accepting of same-sex marriage and supportive of equal rights for LGBTQ Americans. (Leaving the culture warriors with only lesser-understood trans children to demonize…)

Political scientists and sociologists will confirm that the main reason for this rapid turn-around  was a politically potent act: coming out. Coming out took incredible courage when that effort began– friends of my sons were thrown out of their homes, vilified by their “Christian” families, fired from their jobs. But coming out changed perceptions: suddenly, people realized that Aunt Gladys and her long-time roommate weren’t just roommates, that the doctor they trusted, the mailman who delivered their packages and so many other people they knew and cared about were–gasp!– gay.

And attitudes changed.

Atheists need to gather up our own courage, and follow in the footsteps of the gay community. I had a friend–now deceased–who used to insist that, until atheists made their presence known (a la the LGBTQ community), Americans would never see pious religious hypocrisy for what it is.

Perhaps–just perhaps–this recent guest essay in the Washington Post is a beginning. Titled “America doesn’t need more God. It needs more atheists,” the author made her case.

My (non)belief derives naturally from a few basic observations:

The Greek myths are obviously stories. The Norse myths are obviously stories. L. Ron Hubbard obviously made that stuff up. Extrapolate.

The holy books underpinning some of the bigger theistic religions are riddled with “facts” now disproved by science and “morality” now disavowed by modern adherents. Extrapolate.

Life is confusing and death is scary. Naturally, humans want to believe that someone capable is in charge and that we continue to live after we die. But wanting doesn’t make it so.

Child rape. War. Etc.

And yet, when I was younger, I would never have called myself an atheist — not on a survey, not to my family, not even to myself.

Being an “atheist,” at least according to popular culture, seems to require so much work. You have to complain to the school board about the Pledge of Allegiance, stamp over “In God We Trust” on all your paper money and convince Grandma not to go to church. You have to be PhD-from-Oxford smart, irritated by Christmas and shruggingly unmoved by Michelangelo’s “Pietà.” That isn’t me — but those are the stereotypes.

And then there are the data. Studies have shown that many, many Americans don’t trust atheists. They don’t want to vote for atheists, and they don’t want their children to marry atheists. Researchers have found that even atheists presume serial killers are more likely to be atheist than not.

The author focused much of her essay on how she and her husband raised their children, teaching them to distinguish fact from fiction — which she points out is harder for children raised religious. Her children “don’t assume conventional wisdom is true and they do expect arguments to be based on evidence. Which means they have the skills to be engaged, informed and savvy citizens.”

She then shares data showing that fewer Americans than ever report a belief in God–and yet, are reluctant to call themselves atheists.

Among religious Americans, only 64 percent are certain about the existence of God. Hidden atheists can be found not just among the “nones,” as they’re called — the religiously unaffiliated — but also in America’s churches, mosques and synagogues.
“If you added up all the nominal Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. — those who are religious in name only,” Harvard humanist chaplain Greg M. Epstein writes in “Good Without God,” “you really might get the largest denomination in the world.”

She readily acknowledges the good done by good religious people, but then enumerates the injustices done by bigotries masquerading as religious belief: discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, control over women’s bodies, abstinence-only or marriage-centered or anti-homosexual sex education,“Don’t say gay” laws, laws denying trans kids medical care, school-library book bans and even efforts to suppress the teaching of inconvenient historical facts.

And when religion loses a fight and progress wins instead? Religion then claims it’s not subject to the resulting laws. “Religious belief” is — more and more, at the state and federal levels — a way to sidestep advances the country makes in civil rights, human rights and public health.

If you are as tired of performative piety as I am, you should really click through and read the entire essay. And if you are an atheist, you should definitely consider “coming out.”


That Pesky Thing Called Evidence

The World’s Worst Legislature is barreling toward the session’s finish line, and the Republican super-majority shows no sign of moderating its war on public education, despite recently emerging evidence that several of the most enthusiastic proponents of vouchers have disturbing conflicts of interest, not to mention overwhelming evidence that privatizing schools leads to poorer educational outcomes.

Of course, Indiana’s lawmakers are impervious to evidence of all kinds. (Look at Indiana’s gun laws, disregard of environmental impacts…the list goes on.)

I know my periodic posts on the subject are the equivalent of “whistling in the wind,” but as the research continues to pile up, I find it hard to restrain myself.


In the Public Interest recently shared  “a clear and concise breakdown of the problems of vouchers,” written by a Professor of Education Policy at Michigan State University, and  titled “There is no Upside.”

Here’s the lede:

What if I told you there is a policy idea in education that, when implemented to its full extent, caused some of the largest academic drops ever measured in the research record?

What if I told you that 40 percent of schools funded under that policy closed their doors afterward, and that kids in those schools fled them at about a rate of 20 percent per year?

What if I told you that some the largest financial backers of that idea also put their money behind election denial and voter suppression—groups still claiming Donald Trump won the 2020 election? Would you believe what those groups told you about their ideas for improving schools?

What if I told you that idea exists, that it’s called school vouchers, and despite all of the evidence against it the idea persists and is even expanding?

The article followed up with a compilation of independent analyses drawn from both the research community and “on the ground” reporting by journalists. You need to click through for the details, but here are the “top level” findings:

  • First, vouchers mostly fund children already in private school. Seventy to -eighty percent of kids using vouchers were already in private school before taxpayers picked up the tab.
  •  Among the relatively few kids who did use vouchers to leave public schools, test scores dropped between -0.15 and -0.50 standard deviations.
  • The typical private school accepting vouchers “isn’t one of the elite, private schools in popular narrative.” The typical voucher school is “small, often run out of a church property like its basement, often popping up specifically to get the voucher.”
  • Understandably, many  kids leave those sub-prime schools. (In Wisconsin, about 20 percent of kids left their voucher school every year and most transferred to a public school.)

Then there is the issue of transparency and oversight.

All of the above evidence should already tell you why it’s critically important that states passing voucher laws also include strong academic and financial reporting requirements. If we’re going to use taxpayer funds on these private ventures, we need to know what the academic results are and what the return on government investment is.

And of course, we don’t.

Then, of course, there’s discrimination.

We know that in Indiana, where one of the largest and lowest-performing voucher programs exists, more than $16 million in taxpayer dollars went to schools discriminating against LGBTQ children. Similar story in Florida—and that includes kids whose parents are gay, regardless of how the children identify.

Given the fact that Indiana’s legislature is advancing other discriminatory measures aimed at the LGBTQ community–especially several ugly measures  targeting trans children–I’m sure our lawmakers consider that documented bigotry to be a feature, not a bug.

The article also traces connections I’d not previously been aware of between the most active voucher proponents and far-right organizations engaging in efforts to suppress votes and reject the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Interestingly, the article doesn’t highlight one of my main concerns: that vouchers are an end-run around the First Amendment’s Separation of Church and State. Here in Indiana, over 90% of voucher students attend religious schools, a significant percentage of which are fundamentalist. The children who attend overwhelmingly come from the corresponding faith communities. Even the religious schools that don’t actively discriminate do not and cannot provide the diverse classroom environment that prepares children for  citizenship in increasingly diverse  America.(Most don’t teach civics, either.)

It also doesn’t address how vouchers disproportionately hurt rural communities.

The article concludes:

So there you have it: catastrophic academic harm. A revolving door of private school failures. High turnover rates among at-risk children. Avoiding oversight and transparency. Overt, systematic discrimination against vulnerable kids and families. Deep and sustained ties to anti-democratic forces working in the United States today.

That’s school vouchers in 2023.

That’s the “system” Hoosier lawmakers want to greatly expand–with funds stolen from the state’s already under-resourced public schools.

It’s indefensible.


Misinformation Matters

A good friend of ours, originally from Canada, left his faculty position in Indianapolis and moved to Ottawa to assume a position as President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies, or CCA.

Knowing my preoccupation with media and misinformation, he has shared some intriguing research from an expert panel appointed by the CCA. That research delved into the effects of misinformation on science and health, going beyond the typical hand-wringing over the extent of misinformation and its potential harms, and looking instead at the nature and extent of quantifiable damage done by widespread dissemination of patently wrong information.

As a news release explained

Considerable and mounting evidence shows that misinformation has led to illness and death from unsafe interventions and products, vaccine preventable diseases, and a lack of adherence to public health measures, with the most vulnerable populations bearing the greatest burden. The Expert Panel on the Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation estimates that misinformation cost the Canadian healthcare system at least $300 million during nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.

While combatting misinformation is a complex and long-term challenge, the report details several measures that have shown promise. Ensuring that accurate health and science information is widely accessible and is communicated honestly, understandably, and by trusted messengers can help insulate people from misinformation. Identifying, labelling, and debunking misinformation can also be effective, as are measures that better equip individuals to sort through the increasingly complex information environment, particularly the promotion of critical thinking and media and science literacy in school curricula.

You can access the entire report here.Some of the findings struck me as particularly significant, especially the description of when, why and how people come to accept what the panel calls “misinformation” and I would probably label conspiracy theories and lies.

Misinformation is designed to appeal to emotion and–as the report notes–intended to exploit our “cognitive shortcuts.” We are all susceptible to it, especially in times of crisis.

Science and health misinformation damages our community well-being through otherwise preventable illnesses, deaths, and economic losses, and our social well-being through polarization and the erosion of public trust. These harms often fall most heavily on the most vulnerable.

The research found a number of outcomes directly attributable to the spread and acceptance of misinformation; they included: Illness, poisoning, and death from unsafe health interventions and products; Illness and death from communicable and vaccine-preventable diseases; money wasted on disproven products and services; susceptibility to further and potentially more insidious forms of misinformation; increased healthcare and societal costs; and Inaction on or delay of public policy responses.

Misinformation contributes to a lack of adherence to public health measures and to vaccine hesitancy, which can result in vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, increased healthcare costs, and elevated risk to the health and well-being of vulnerable populations. Misinformation also amplifies social divisions, which have resulted in overt conflict and violence, often directed at racialized communities. Furthermore, the consequences of science and health misinformation are not borne equally — for instance, negative health impacts during the COVID-19 pandemic have been found to disproportionately affect the well-being of racialized and other underserved communities, exacerbating existing inequalities.

Where possible, panel members put numbers to these generalized descriptions, estimating that widely circulated misinformation about COVID-19 had cost the Canadian healthcare system “at least $300 million in hospital and ICU visits between March 1 and November 30, 2021.” That number did not include the costs of outpatient medication, physician compensation, or long COVID.

And for obvious reasons, the panel was unable to estimate what it called “broader societal costs.” Those included such difficult-to-quantify effects as “delayed elective surgeries, social unrest, moral injury to healthcare workers, and the uneven distribution of harms borne by communities.”

The negative consequences of misinformation are–obviously–not confined to citizens of Canada. In the absence of credible, trustworthy information that is widely trusted and accepted, it proliferates. In the U.S., political data confirms the harm: the MAGA folks who rejected vaccination (evidently believing it to be some sort of nefarious liberal plot) died of COVID in far larger numbers than the independents and Democrats who trusted the science.

The question is: what can be done to counter the confusion and reduce the damage sowed by purveyors of propaganda and inaccurate information? One answer is clearly education, especially science education.  (That conclusion supports concerns over the metastasizing  voucher programs that are sending students to private, predominantly religious schools–many of which have been found to teach creationism in lieu of science).

When citizens don’t inhabit the same evidence-based reality, both individual and social health are compromised–sometimes fatally.


It’s The Culture..

Every morning when I sit down at my computer, I’m confronted with headlines from the various news sources to which I subscribe: The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post…and through the day, a mind-numbing number of others. I don’t know anyone with the time and/or inclination to carefully read all the available news and opinion, and I certainly don’t–like most consumers of media, I scan the headlines and click on those that promise some measure of enlightenment or moderately important/relevant information.

But occasionally, a headline is so weird, I have to read the article. That’s what lured me to a report in The Week titled (no kidding) “Did Theranos Lose Afghanistan?”

Theranos, as you probably know, was the much-hyped startup company founded by Elizabeth Holmes–young, very good-looking and evidently one really smooth talker. She claimed the company had invented a new kind of blood testing technology that was going to save both time and money. Lots of people invested in it.

The most generous interpretation of what came next was a discovery that the technology didn’t work; a less-generous interpretation is that Holmes intentionally perpetrated a fraud. A jury is currently hearing evidence on the latter interpretation.

So what–if anything–does this audacious scam (if that is, indeed, what it turns out to be) have to do with Afghanistan? Well, the article does point out that General Mattis, late of the Trump Administration and the Afghan war, was on the board of Theranos and a major cheerleader for the company.

But the real connection was a cultural one.

Like the Afghanistan debacle, Theranos is a horror story of wishful thinking, credulous media, and celebrity impunity. Whether or not intentional deception was involved, both episodes display the dishonesty and incompetence of interlocking tech, finance, media, and military elites.

Mattis’ role in both sorry spectacles–the war and Theranos–illustrates the moral rot that infects far too many of the figures lionized by a media chasing eyeballs and clicks rather than the information required by a democratic citizenry.

Mattis denies any wrongdoing, claiming he was taken in, too. Even if that’s true, his role is discreditable. Mattis’ association with the company began in 2011, when he met Holmes at a Marine Memorial event in San Francisco. According to author John Carreyrou and other journalists, he immediately began campaigning for military adoption of Theranos’ ostensibly innovative bloodtesting technology. Mattis was not deterred by the lack of FDA approval and mounting doubts about whether the technology actually worked. After his retirement in 2013, Mattis also ignored legal advice that it would be improper to join the board while the company was seeking procurement of its products for use in Afghanistan.

It would be a mistake to single out a few “bad actors,” however. The problem is systemic–a widespread, “baked-in” disinclination to either provide or accept evidence that is contrary to what one wants to believe.

The article focuses on the impunity enjoyed by what it calls the American ruling class “until their conduct becomes literally criminal,” and it points out that the same people who make decisions in Washington sit on boards in Silicon Valley and appear on the same few cable channels. When the projects they promote go south, they continue to be celebrated and compensated as authors, management consultants, and respected pundits.

There’s a word for this governing hierarchy: kakistocracy, governance by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens.

Which gets us back to culture.

In today’s America, celebrity is more valued than competence. A loud voice commands far more attention than an expert opinion. Purveyors of ridiculous conspiracy theories overwhelm the conclusions and cautions of reputable scientists. This is the culture that in 2016 gave us an embarrassing, mentally-ill buffoon for President, the culture that elects  equally embarrassing crazies like Marjorie Taylor Greene. It’s the culture that leads thousands of people to ingest a horse de-wormer and reject the expertise of epidemiologists and medical professionals.

It’s a culture that threatens to overwhelm those of us who want to live in the reality-based community.