Slip of the Tongue
Updated: Jun 3, 2019
You can’t find a parking place in the international news parking lot as it is filled with Mueller Report vehicles. It’s like watching lions taking down a large wildebeest. Among the feeding frenzy, this passage in a NYT story titled A Portrait of the White House and Its Culture of Dishonesty jumped out:
“Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then the president’s deputy press secretary, told reporters that the White House had talked to “countless members of the F.B.I.” who supported the decision to fire the director—but she later admitted to investigators that it was not true. Her comment, she said, was “a slip of the tongue” made “in the heat of the moment” and not founded on anything.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/18/us/politics/white-house-mueller-report.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage
Slips of the tongue founded on nothing more than a burst of emotions is not uncommon. This raises the question of whether our emotional hard-wiring is only a slip of the tongue once facts show an evidentiary trail of dishonesty and lies.
It’s not just politicians and their press secretaries who construct their reality, narrowing down the messy, noisy world into bite-sized bits to consume. We all are in the reality construction business. How we go about the construction—let’s call it the engineering aspect—reveals the architects who script the construction with an adroit use of images, words, and sounds. Is the reality we embrace founded on nothing but emotions defensible? If so, how is it defended? Does one back down when pressed, calling it a “slip of the tongue”?
Social media has intensified the power struggle over thought and belief empires recruiting members. At the heart of the conflict is whether the last five hundred years of the Enlightenment and the role of science has exposed a fault line in this process. We are in an age of disillusionment. Large number of people take unkindly to having their constructed reality called “delusional”. How did we reach this point? Can we find a way through the constructional civil war waging across the globe? Niels Bohr’s view at the turn of the 20th century was influential in establishing anti-realism at the heart of the quantum world. With our tools we detected and measured quantum states. The measured reality was not an independent reality but a product of our tools, intervention and measurement. The post-modernists misapplied Bohr’s view of the quantum world to explaining events in the classical world. What is also missing is recognition of how our cognitive biases distort the way our measurement and processing of the classical world works in practice.
In the last sixty years we’ve learned a great deal about the role of cognitive biases that number in the hundreds, and how we use them to filter the bewildering amount of information we consume each day. Availability bias, confirmation bias, anchoring bias, and framing are common examples of the hundreds of cognitive filters that we automatically select and use to process information plucked from the vast sea of competing information. Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on cognitive biases and wrote a best-selling book titled Thinking Fast and Slow (2011). Kahneman’s ideas and research in biases have yet to make major inroads into the general public. He recognized the intractable, relentless nature of cognitive biases in distorting reality. You’ve likely heard someone say they aren’t biased. That’s self-deception and ego launching a pre-emptive attack. Unfortunately, as Kahneman has written, no one is immune even though they are aware of bias and how they work.
Sometimes biases or rules of thumb are useful, and other times they lead to category mistakes. A customer stumbles out of a bar at 3.00 am having consumed half a dozen pints of beer, we call him a taxi. We refuse a ride home if he insists on driving. The bias is going to lead us to the correct conclusion in most cases. When we see three black teenagers walking on a street at 3.00 a.m. a cop may assume criminal intent and stop and frisk them. This bias is one we seek to control in the police as it creates a presumption of guilt based on race. Biases are reflexive actions to a perceived threat and the set of responses to deal with the threat.
Returning to the Mueller Report, when learning of the appointment of Mueller as special counsel, Trump was reported to have said: “‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.’” This response less than twenty-four hours after the release of the redacted report has over eight million returns on Google. The most powerful official in the world is expressing his fear of a threat. Exploring the inner workings of how threats engage our emotions is instructive.
How we locate and respond to threats defines our group identity and the tools that group employs to avoid and counter threats. Our entertainment is a surrogate for tracking threats and learning how to deal with them. A good example is the 8th season of Game of Thrones. Millions of people will tune in. Creationists, Evangelist, atheists, secularist, heretics, rebels, thinkers, prisoners, politicians, children, and madmen. Each person has a threat trigger set by a combination of norms, culture, beliefs, temperament, family and environment. It’s the hair-trigger we fear; the hair-trigger targets appear embedded in the daily news. Social media has made taking a shot cheap inexpensive. Digital warriors turn their verbal machine guns on their enemies from gaming rooms to Twitter feeds.
The British philosopher David Hume wrote of the preemptive role of passions—our emotions—as the driving force behind the source of human activity and behavior. Our rational mind came into play as the facility to give a rationale or justification of pursuing a desire, act of revenge, hatred, anger or jealousy. We are hot-blooded. The cooling agent of the rational mind often falters.
If you doubt the role of emotions in a modern context, drive on the expressway in Thailand for a couple of hundred kilometers and you will discover the ghost of Hume with a Cheshire cat’s smile as daredevils in pickups and cars dart in and out of lanes and onto shoulders, cutting in front of others at high speed with no signals. If self-driving comes to pass, future generations will wonder how we ever allowed such irrational human beings behind the wheel of a car, motorcycle, pickup or truck.
Our emotional nature is thought of as irrational unless the brakes are applied. That’s where logic, reason, analytical analysis, probability theory, and game theory give its users an edge in controlling the wobble of the unhinged mind. The nature of emotions can lead to irrational decisions. If there is no evidence backing the decision, the alternatives are admitting it was based on nothing or doubling down on conspiracy or God as explanations. No amount of scientific evidence will change the mind of a person who is a climate change denier, anti-vaxxer, birther, flat earther, or creationist. The default in the endless search for the cause of an event is usually God or a conspiracy. This is very human. That deep seated fear of threats beyond our control and unexplained by some agency strikes at the heart of our vulnerability. We are exposed to threats. It is the nature of reality and life itself. The cultural wars on this battlefield have been waged for centuries. Technology has given the rational actors new and effective tools. The legacy of Trump’s administration is to dismantle the scientists’, engineers’ and coders’ vision of the world, and return to a time when common sense and God provided the answer.
Our modern political zeitgeist is a contest between the two positions that have not been resolved in quantum physics between the realist and anti-realist. Attacks on Trump are attempts by the realists to expose, humiliate, convert, or destroy anti-realist model of decision-making. They aim their fire at the emotive language and symbols backed by nothing but feelings or beliefs. In this feelings-first perspective, the evidence-based message of the realist is to be rejected; it may be irreverent and must be regulated, shunned, ignored or discarded. Feelings-first is not limited to those supporting Trump. The protection of feelings as the basis of social policy also has a sizeable following among those who identify with the left side of the political spectrum.
Being under siege—from blacks, immigrants, gays, gun-control advocates, pro-abortion feminists—who form the brigades who assault their feelings or beliefs, find a renewed energy and commitment. The merits of a logical argument based on evidence are irrelevant. The call for the anti-realists to confess their shame is processed as a wish to extinguish a social and political space they believe rightly belongs to them. Few of them will say, I didn’t have that information before, now I must update my knowledge about the Trump administration. Or your facts have persuaded me to see my opinion has been proved to be wrong. No assembly of facts can ever translate into annulling or amending their beliefs. They don’t compromise. The realists revise, update and compromise their model of the world as new technology and evidence brings the lived in a world into greater focus. A realist accepts he or she lives in a provisional, shifting reality where facts change, and reality must adjust to the new information. The anti-realist believes this is an illusion as new instruments of measurements fail to address the disagreement over the fundamental nature of reality.
The clash of these two worldviews is reflected in the news and entertainment business. Fox News as a proxy for the anti-realists. The ratings suggest a large, loyal viewing audience. Fox has had a long winning streak in the rating wars with many weeks as number #1 for news. Whatever one thinks about Fox news, as a platform for rational, logical, reasoned argument supported by independent evidence, one would look elsewhere. The frustration for realists is the role of Fox news, the White House, the Senate and US Supreme Court to tip the scales in favor of decisions based on ‘nothing’ but feelings. The is the dark side of irrationality, a worldview where evidence is secondary to impulse and feelings. It is in this place where we are the most dangerous to ourselves and others. The difference in perspective leads to a different mindset. Evidence-based reality leads to innovations like the GPS, AI, and the internet, while irrational, biased anti-reality leads to the burning of crosses on the lawn of a black church.
The past thirty years has eroded trust in shared, communal institutions to reflect their worldview. The lack of faith in these institutions and systems is built on perceived bias against their anti-realist position. The political mechanism to select and empower leaders is broken in many countries. Personalities distract from what is at stake. What system of governance will replace the ones falling from America, Turkey, Poland, Hungry, Brazil, Thailand, and anywhere else? Whatever emerges will have enormous pressure to identify, study, evaluate, plan and manage thousands of small policy details.
Climate breakdown is an example of realists and anti-realists colliding on the nature and quality of the governance. The anti-realists are manning the barricades, as technology creates more innovations transforming medicine, robotics, genetics, self-driving vehicles, AI and new communication networks. The range and speed of these changes aren’t emerging out of a feelings-first culture. They are the products of a rational, scientific, logical approach. The anti-realists are threatened as their alternative based on tradition, faith and belief is losing ground.
The USA has been leading a movement to devalue institutions, scientists and scientific process, and ignore the applications of big data gathering, analyses and evaluations beyond surveillance, resource exploration, and profit-making ventures. Can they work together? Or perhaps events on a planetary scale as climate breakdown force people to work together because they have no choice. Not to rain on anyone’s parade, I believe we may be too divided. If you’re a fundamentalist your core belief is structured by ideas of heaven, rapture, sin and salvation, and the last thing you are likely do is co-operate with an infidel and their godless theories and science. One ray of hope is gaining ground among realists and anti-realists, where feelings and logic converge: it’s over wealth and income inequality.
Rousseau predicted that once the right economic driver was in place, the social and political system would be controlled by a tiny elite who’d order everyone else around, depriving them of resources. This would increase people’s fear of death, exclusion, marginalization and poverty. There is little evidence that massive accumulation of wealth into the hands of a few individuals or families advances the interests or needs of billions of people. It’s not what other animals do or how they live. It should be of no surprise that such inequality causes the feelings-first person to feel resentment and anger. Many of the realists also feel these emotions. How is that battle to be waged? By using emotionally charged feelings as the basis for decisions or a rational system based on expertise, planning, evidence, and evaluation to designed to addresses the causes of our feelings. If you are searching for a reason why millions of people join social and political movements to support the likes Trump and Brexit, look to the emotions being played out. For the anti-realists, it was the realists who delivered and supported this new world of massive inequality and unfairness. The anti-realists are more vulnerable to finely-tuned emotional messages from the hyper-wealthy who blame a global elite for their plight. Like Gollum talking to Sméagol in Lord of Rings, the anti-realists are two divided personalities in conflict, “Love Master, hate master.”
I want this essay to pull a few people into an expanded circle of thought and its connection with human feelings. The realists have set up a global scientific process connecting minds and methods that work well in understanding the classical world of reality. In Alice and Wonderland nothing is as it seems. Like the quantum world, neither logic or reason can fully explain what is going on. Alice’s world seems to be superimposed on our own. We rush to find sanctuary in our rational, logic, and predictable classical world. But Alice’s world won’t go away. And Alice’s reality sits on top of the old analytical and logical one. The Mad Hatter says, “I’m fucked.” But only on Thursday afternoons when unicorns feast on hot dogs and green tea. There is no rational answer how or why we’ve been swallowed up in Wonderland while still using a smartphone and GPS. But it has happened.
There comes into a person’s life a special moment. It’s that instance, when you discover that circumstances and fast-moving events are beyond your control and there is little you can do to defend yourself against oblivion.
You might reply like the President of the United States, “I’m fucked.”
To which the correct reply, “It’s time for green tea.”