Suppose you're a liberal who doesn't trust FOX News. One day you're at the airport, waiting for a plane, ambiently watching the TV at the gate. It's FOX News, and they're saying that a mass shooter just shot twenty people in Yankee Stadium. There’s live footage from the stadium with lots of people running and screaming.
Do you believe this?
I'm a liberal who doesn't trust FOX News, and sure, I believe it. The level on which FOX News is bad isn't the level where they invent mass shootings that never happened. They wouldn't use deepfakes or staged actors to fake something and then call it "live footage". That would go way beyond anything FOX had done before. Liberals might say things like "You can't trust FOX News on anything, they are 100% total liars", but realistically we still trust them quite a lot on stuff like this.
Now suppose FOX says that police have apprehended a suspect, a Saudi immigrant named Abdullah Abdul. They show footage from a press conference where the police are talking about this. Do you believe them?
Again, yes. While I've heard rare stories of the media jumping in too early to identify a suspect, "the police have apprehended" seems like a pretty objective statement. And once again, faking a police conference - or even dubbing over a police conference so that when the police say some other name, the viewers hear "Abdullah Abdul" - is way worse than anything I've ever heard of FOX doing. Even if I learned of one case of them doing something like this once, I would think "wow that's crazy" and still not update to believing they did it all the time.
It doesn't matter at all that FOX is biased. You could argue that "FOX wants to fan fear of Islamic terrorism, so it's in their self-interest to make up cases of Islamic terrorism that don't exist". Or "FOX is against gun control, so if it was a white gun owner who did this shooting they would want to change the identity so it sounded like a Saudi terrorist". But those sound like crazy conspiracy theories. Even FOX's worst enemies don't accuse them of doing things like this.
It's not quite that this would be *worse* than anything FOX has ever done. I assume FOX helped spread the story that Saddam Hussein was connected to 9-11 and had WMDs, just like everyone else. That's probably a bigger lie (in some sense) than one extra mass shooting in a country with dozens of them, or changing the name and ethnicity of a perpetrator. Certainly it did more damage. But that's not the point. The point is, there are rules to the "being a biased media source" game. There are lines you can cross, and all that will happen is a bunch of people who complain about you all the time anyway will complain about you more. And there are other lines you don't cross, or else you'll be the center of a giant scandal and maybe get shut down. I don't want to claim those lines are objectively reasonable. But we all know where they are. And so we all trust a report on FOX about a mass shooting, even if we hate FOX in general.
In a world where FOX was the only news source available, this kind of thing would become really important. People would need to understand that FOX was biased while also basically being able to accept most things that it said. If people went too far overboard and stopped trusting FOX just because it was biased, they might end up in a state of total paralysis, unable to confirm really basic facts about the world.
What’s the flipped version of this scenario for the other political tribe?
Here’s a Washington Post article saying that Abraham Lincoln was friends with Karl Marx and admired his socialist theories. It suggests that because of this, modern attacks on socialism are un-American.
Here is a counterargument that there’s no evidence Abraham Lincoln had the slightest idea who Karl Marx was.
I find the counterargument much more convincing. Sometimes both the argument and counterargument describe the same event, but the counterargument gives more context in a way that makes the original argument seem calculated to mislead. I challenge you to read both pieces without thinking the same.
A conservative might end up in the same position vis-a-vis the Washington Post as our hypothetical liberal and FOX News. They know it’s a biased source that often lies to them, but how often?
Here’s a Washington Post article saying that the 2020 election wasn’t rigged, and Joe Biden’s victory wasn’t fraudulent. In order to avoid becoming a conspiracy theorist, the conservative would have to go through the same set of inferences as the FOX-watching liberal above: this is a terrible news source that often lies to me, but it would be surprising for it to lie in this particular case in this particular way.
I think smart conservatives can do that in much the same way smart liberals can conclude the FOX story was real. The exact argument would be something like: the Marx article got minimal scrutiny. A few smart people who looked at it noticed it was fake, three or four people wrote small editorials saying so, and then nobody cared. The 2020 election got massive scrutiny from every major institution.
The Marx article, if you read it extremely carefully with all the knowledge you gained from the debunking, doesn’t confidently assert a connection between Lincoln and Marx (except in the headline and subtitle, which are usually written by someone else). The reporter uses phrases like “that might be because Lincoln was regularly reading Karl Marx” (in a sentence where you’re expected to think of the hedging as a colloquialism), and “It’s nearly guaranteed that, in the 1850s, Lincoln was regularly reading Marx” (the evidence being that Lincoln had been known to read a newspaper that Marx had been known to publish in). It says that Marx sent letters to Lincoln - but fails to mention that a US President gets thousands of letters from everyone and there’s no evidence Lincoln read Marx’s. It says that a US ambassador told Marx’s Communist group that Lincoln appreciated them - but fails to mention this was as part of a form letter, little different from the “JOE BIDEN THANKS YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT” spam emails I get sometimes. It’s hard for a naive person to read the article without falsely concluding that Marx and Lincoln were friends. But the article does mostly stick to statements which are literally true.
There were some historians who praised the Marx article and said nice things about it. But they were all explicitly socialist historians, and they were all studying time periods other than the one containing Lincoln and Marx. So this probably doesn’t completely discredit all expertise. Meanwhile, actual statisticians and election security experts said pretty clearly they thought the election was fair, even when this was in their domain of expertise.
Finally, the Marx thing was intended as a cutesy human interest story (albeit one with an obvious political motive) and everybody knows cutesy human interest stories are always false.
All of this is a lot more complicated than “of course you can trust the news” or “how dare you entertain deranged conspiracy theories!” There are lots of cases where you can’t trust the news! It sucks! It’s completely understandable that large swathes of people can’t differentiate the many many cases where the news lies to them from the other set of cases where the news is not, at this moment, actively lying. But that differentiation is possible, most people learn how to do it, and it’s the main way we know anything at all.
As in journalism, so in science.
According to this news site, some Swedish researchers were trying to gather crime statistics. They collated a bunch of things about different crimes and - without it being a particular focus of their study - one of the pieces of information was immigration status, and they found that immigrants were responsible for a disproportionately high amount of some crimes in Sweden.
The Swedish establishment brought scientific misconduct cases against the researchers (one of whom is himself "of immigrant background"). The first count was not asking permission to include ethnicity statistics in their research (even though the statistics were publicly accessible, apparently Swedish researchers have to get permission to use publicly accessible data). The second count was not being able to justify how their research would “reduce exclusion and improve integration.”
While these accusations are probably true on their own terms, I think any researcher who found that immigrants were great would not have the technicalities of their research subjected to this level of scrutiny, and that the permissioning system evolved partly out of a desire to be able to crush researchers in exactly these kinds of situations. I think this is a pretty common scenario, and part of a whole structure of norms and regulations that makes sure experts only produce research that favors one side of the political spectrum. So I think the outrage is justified, this is exactly what people mean when they accuse experts of being biased, and those accusations are completely true.
But: have you ever heard an expert say, in so many words, that immigrants to Sweden definitely don't commit more crime than natives?
(I think people do say this in the US, but only because it's true-ish in the US; Sweden and the US have very different immigrant and native populations)
I believe that in some sense, the academic establishment will work to cover up facts that go against their political leanings. But the experts in the field won't lie directly. They don't go on TV and say "The science has spoken, and there is strong evidence that immigrants in Sweden don't commit more violent crime than natives". They don't talk about the "strong scientific consensus against immigrant criminality". They occasionally try to punish people who bring this up, but they won't call them "science deniers".
This seems like another example of the "FOX won't make up terrorist attacks" point. There are a lot of ways that experts and the academic establishment are biased and try to muddy the discussion in favor of their preferred political side. But this is a game with certain rules. There are lines they'll cross, and other lines they won't cross.
And that means you can trust the experts on some things, same as you can trust FOX on some things. The reason why there’s no giant petition signed by every respectable criminologist and criminological organization saying Swedish immigrants don’t commit more violent crime than natives is because experts aren’t quite biased enough to sign a transparently false statement - even when other elites will push that statement through other means. And that suggests to me that the fact that there is a petition like that signed by climatologists on anthropogenic global warming suggests that this position is actually true. And that you can know that - even without being a climatologist yourself - through something sort of like “trusting experts”.
(before you object that some different global-warming related claim is false, please consider whether the IPCC has said with certainty that it isn’t, or whether all climatologists have denounced the thing as false in so many words. If not, that’s my whole point.)
Last year I explained why I didn't believe ivermectin worked for COVID. In a subsequent discussion with Alexandros Marinos, I think we agreed on something like:
1. If you just look at the headline results of ivermectin studies, it works.
2. If you just do a purely mechanical analysis of the ivermectin studies, eg the usual meta-analytic methods, it works.
3. If you try to apply things like human scrutiny and priors and intuition to the literature, this is obviously really subjective, but according to the experts who ought to be the best at doing this kind of thing, it doesn't work.
4. But experts are sometimes biased.
In the end, I stuck with my believe that ivermectin probably didn’t work, and Alexandros stuck with his belief that it probably did. I stuck with the opinion that it’s possible to extract non-zero useful information from the pronouncements of experts by knowing the rules of the lying-to-people game. There are times when experts and the establishment lie, but it’s not all the time. FOX will sometimes present news in a biased or misleading way, but they won’t make up news events that never happen. Experts will sometimes prevent studies they don’t like from happening, but they’re much less likely to flatly assert a clear specific fact which isn’t true.
I think some people are able to figure out these rules and feel comfortable with them, and other people can’t and end up as conspiracy theorists.
I’m not blaming the second type of person. Figuring-out-the-rules-of-the-game is a hard skill, not everybody has it. If you don’t have it, then universal distrust might be a safer strategy than universal credulity.
And I’m not saying that anything about this is good. Obviously the good solution is that people stop lying and presenting misleading information.
But I think it’s important for these two types of people to understand each other.
The people who lack this skill entirely think it’s crazy to listen to experts about anything at all. They correctly point out time after time that they’ve lied or screwed up, then ask “so why do you believe them on ivermectin?” or “so why do you believe them on global warming?” My answer - which I don’t think is an obvious or easy answer, it’s a bold claim that could be wrong, is “I think I have a good sense of the dynamics here, how far people will bend the truth, and what it looks like when they do”. I realize this is playing with fire. But listening to experts is a powerful enough hack for finding the truth that it’s worth going pretty far to try to rescue it.
But also: some people are better at this skill than I am. Journalists and people in the upper echelons of politics have honed it so finely that they stop noticing it’s a skill at all. In the Soviet Union, the government would say “We had a good harvest this year!” and everyone would notice they had said good rather than glorious, and correctly interpret the statement to mean that everyone would starve and the living would envy the dead.
Really savvy people go through life rarely ever hearing the government or establishment lie to them. Yes, sometimes false words come out of their mouths. But as Dan Quayle put it:
Our party has been accused of fooling the public by calling tax increases 'revenue enhancement'. Not so. No one was fooled.
Imagine a government that for five years in a row, predicts good harvests. Or, each year, they deny tax increases, but do admit there will be “revenue enhancements”. Savvy people effortlessly understand what they mean, and prepare for bad harvests and high taxes. Clueless people prepare for good harvests and low taxes, lose everything when harvests are bad and taxes are high, and end up distrusting the government.
Then in the sixth year, the government says there will be a glorious harvest, and neither tax increases nor revenue enhancements. Savvy people breath a sigh of relief and prepare for a good year. Clueless people assume they’re lying a sixth time. But to savvy people, the clueless people seem paranoid. The government has said everything is okay! Why are they still panicking?
The savvy people need to realize that the clueless people aren’t always paranoid, just less experienced than they are at dealing with a hostile environment that lies to them all the time.
And the clueless people need to realize that the savvy people aren’t always gullible, just more optimistic about their ability to extract signal from same.