Sunday, October 05, 2008

Less is More

Here's another guest post I did for the political blog "The Moderate Voice". It was published there Sunday morning. I'd add a link, but the post seems to be technical toast at the moment.

Just a few days ago, I was forwarded an email that claimed to have definitive proof that Barack Obama was a socialist. It contained a single quote, in which, supposedly, Obama says government must redistribute income more equitably. The implication was intended to be that Obama’s guiding philosophy is to take our money and give it to others until his notion of equality was satisfied.

As it turns out, has already debunked this email chain. Obama never said it at all, and the fake quote is a WSJ reporter’s summary of Obama arguing for government-funded health care and education. You can decide for yourself whether or not health care and education equals socialism.

The fact that an attacking email chain is untrue is not particularly noteworthy. Indeed, has an article about how such chains are almost always untrue.

More interesting is the root idea of the email, an idea shared by left, right, and those in between.

Namely, the email wished to ignore lots of data that they could use to understand Obama’s beliefs about government and tried to ferret out the hidden truth with less data. Want to know whether Obama is a socialist? Don’t read his issue proposals, listen to his speeches, or look at his voting record. Instead, ignore all of that complicated data with specific ideas and look for some single, special piece of evidence that reveals the Truth.

Using less data instead of more of course makes no sense unless you think all of the other data is unreliable, and, moreover, that you can find the real truth, not by a rigorous search and analysis, but by simply finding something to confirm what you already believe. If you don’t already think Obama is a socialist, there’s not much to be gotten from the false quote.

A similar process occurred just a few weeks ago (though it seems like a political eternity now) in the rumors that Gov. Palin’s daughter was the real mother of Gov. Palin’s youngest.

For that to be the case, one had to take just a small sample of the evidence available, and then completely underestimate what would be required for the entire scenario to be real. If one only looked at the appropriate data, the rumor seemed rather plausible.

However, all the other facts that would have needed to be true as well (medical records falsified, medical staff silenced, gubernatorial staff clueless as well as many participating in the lie, other state governors befuddled and deluded) were extremely unlikely as a whole, and required much more evidence to overrule. Of course, 2 or 3 days later the rumor was dispelled and we all went on to our next biased judgment.

We now have a repeat of this process with the associations between Ayers and Obama. We know there are some associations between the two, such as serving on an educational board together, a fund-raising event, and some conversations, when Obama was still serving in Illinois. Ayers is a past bomber, so is this evidence that Obama secretly harbors Ayers’ beliefs?

To make this work, one again needs to think that less is more.

We need to think that we can learn more about the real Obama by ignoring years of his statements, records, accomplishments, and associations, and imagining what might be, what seems likely to be based upon our prior beliefs, and this small sample of evidence we are now focused upon. Any suggestion that Ayers = Obama depends upon confining our data just to Ayers and Obama.

After all, Obama also served on the same Board with other people, and he surely had fundraisers with even more in his years as a politician. Maybe Obama secretly thinks whatever those other fundraisers think, too. It’s just as reasonable if you select your data sufficiently. You’d end up with a hundred secret Obamas, each of which is in secret sympathy with all of them.

Even if one can make the Ayers connection special, there’s still a problem. You want to think that Obama is going to reveal himself and start doing Ayers-the-terrorist-inspired actions.

But why hasn’t he been doing these things already and why will he only start doing them now? Maybe a great conspiracy that the two have been planning for over a decade? Unlikely, to say the least. Which means that Obama’s probably already been doing the sort of thing he’d like to continue doing. The Ayers-inspired Obama is the same Obama we’ve had around for years.

In short, when making judgments, one cannot just estimate what is likely to be true based upon the evidence sitting in your lap. You have to fit it into a whole story of the world. This complicates our lives. It forces us to see people as typically full of contradictions and associations that do not tell a consistent story.

But that’s closer to who we are.


Precie said...

Yes, but that's sooooooo much work. And that level of context requires sooooooooo much additional research and digging.

Who has the time? "Snapshot" judgments are ever so much easier.

{says P with tongue firmly in cheek}

pjd said...

You’d end up with a hundred secret Obamas...

I'd still rather have a hundred secret Obamas than one overt Palin.

Your commentary is spot on. This is, of course, nothing new in politics. But the Gingrich/Rove/FOX continuum has helped to legitimize the process of dumbing down data to the point that nuance became a four-letter word in the Bush v Kerry campaign. Simply the existence of more than one facet to the personality has come to be looked on as a flaw rather than a considerable benefit.

And even that, of course, is all about branding. McCain and Palin are branding themselves as anti-government. Yet their position on the bailout (oh, sorry, "rescue") and the financial industry collapse is that more government oversight is needed.

So it's really about branding. In politics, branding the other guy as something undesirable can be as potent as branding yourself as desirable. Often even moreso.