Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Lies, Damned Lies, and Conspiracy Theories: Again, Daniel Kahneman

“…when people believe a conclusion is true, they are also very likely to believe arguments that appear to support it even when these arguments are unsound.”
—Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

I used the above quote to briefly illustrate my claim that Daniel Kahneman’s book helps people think more clearly. Two New Year’s holiday WaPo op-eds, one each from a conservative and a liberal, both sober, on Hillary Clinton’s fall, concussion and blood clot provide an interesting case in point.

The first two paragraphs of the conservative op-ed neatly sum up the adversarial perspective.

“The new year began not with a cannonball off the “fiscal cliff” but with an outbreak of conspiratorial cynicism.

“This time it’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose fall and concussion, followed by a blood clot between her brain and skull, has prompted an embarrassment of theories. The gist: That woman will do anything to avoid testifying about Benghazi.”

The insinuations and outright accusations were discredited as further details emerged, but the truth should have been obvious in the first place: Clinton could not avoid testifying forever short of permanent incapacitation or worse; and, again we turn to the (sober) conservative perspective, “it is unlikely that doctors or a hospital would assist a secretary of state — or anyone — in concocting a fake affliction”.

I can think of three possible reasons why Charles Krauthammer, John Bolton, the less famous Richard Grenell—I have the (sober) liberal op-ed to thank for these names—and a good number of other (most surely) conservative luminaries who should know better in the first place to engage such quickly-disposed-of nonsense:

1)    They say it to please their audience.
2)    They say it because they are waging war by other means.
3)    They really believe it.

Now, 1) alone will not be good for a pundit’s peace of mind unless he’s of the Dick—now that’s a name that will disappear when the Boomer generation takes leave—Morris variety, so he’ll convince himself, at a minimum, that 2) is the case. Given the ever-present appetite of conservative hawks for dirty wars, that should not be too hard. But it would be even easier for him if 3) were to be the case, wouldn’t it? And nothing in the behavioral sciences says that 1) through 3) are mutually exclusive.

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