A Good Storyline

June 2006

Here are several lessons to draw from the (George W.) Bush years:  First, successful politics and successful governing are two different things, and the former does not necessarily imply the latter. Success in politics means success for your side – for one political candidate or party over another; success in governing means success for the country. Second, success in politics requires a good storyline – a narrative that “explains” things to people in a way that they can understand and that puts your side in a positive light.

And there’s a third lesson to draw from the Bush years:  Reality is the ultimate arbiter of success in governing, but not necessarily in politics – at least not in the short-term, where most politics is conducted.  A storyline that serves as the basis for policy, and actions based on that policy, is likely to have negative, and possibly disastrous, consequences if it diverges too far from reality.  But the political measure of a “good storyline” is the extent to which it gets people to support your side or cease their support for your opponent, and a storyline can diverge quite far from reality – in fact, it can be manifestly false – and still be successful politically.  Smear tactics and whisper campaigns provide some notorious examples.[1]  Such tactics appeal to our emotions, deftly circumventing our reasoning.  And the more strongly we feel about something – the more partisan we are – the more successful a storyline targeted to our emotions is likely to be.  It’s as if the sheer strength of our feelings partially blinds us to any contradictory empirical evidence in front of our eyes.  We simply don’t see it because we don’t want to.  And a clever Machiavellian political operative can help us not see what we don’t want to see and see what we do want to see.

Recent research has put a scientific imprimatur on this oft-noted partial blindness of partisans. In 2004, psychologists at Emory University conducted brain imaging of self-described committed Republicans and Democrats, half Bush supporters and half Kerry supporters, while they considered a series of statements damaging to each candidate.  “None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,” reported Drew Westen, the lead researcher. “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.”[2]  Or, as John Tierney quoted Westen as saying, “ ‘The moral in politics is that you really have to make conscious efforts to avoid self-deception.  It makes it pretty hard to learn anything if your brain is telling you that every fumble by your team was actually a bad call by the referee.’”[3]

It makes it even harder if the politicians and their political operatives are all eagerly encouraging the deception.  Our current political climate is replete with such political operatives and pundits, capitalizing on people’s need to have their own partially blind narratives corroborated.  Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and a host of other strong personalities in our “political discourse” make their livings making people in their “base” feel good by telling them what they want to hear.  Such pundits don’t always bother to check the “facts” they spout to audiences of millions.  Nor do they admit that there may be any validity to anything people on the other side are saying.  Mostly, they rant.  This makes people feel good.  If you’re angry about something, hearing a high-profile pundit publicly express the same anger appears to validate that anger; and the more in-your-face that expression, the more validated a lot of people seem to feel.  Having Ann Coulter tell you how to talk to a liberal if you must,[4] confirms your feeling that liberals are indeed beneath talking to.  But while this may be entertaining and emotionally satisfying political theatre – to say nothing of making these pundits rich – it does nothing to improve our understanding of the issues.

Not all pundits are like this, of course.  There are some who have very thoughtful things to say and who are willing to acknowledge good points made by those on the other side and to criticize statements made (or actions taken) by those on their own side. But this latter group isn’t as loud and in-your-face and thus not as entertaining or emotionally satisfying, so their audience share may be relatively smaller.

The tendency of people to form narratives and to become emotionally invested in them was noted (for example, by Kathleen Hall Jamieson[5]) well before the recent work by the Emory University researchers.  Once formed, such narratives act as sieves.  Facts that do not fit the fervently believed story are allowed to fall through and thus be ignored; facts that support the story are kept in and focused on – a process that might be thought of as the unconscious analog of a mostly conscious activity called “cherry-picking.”

People don’t do this in a vacuum.  We do it within communities of like-minded people who reinforce the way we think and act.  In fact, we often seek such communities of people who share our religious, political, or ideological views.  It’s much easier to maintain a relatively simple narrative in a confusing world in the company of others who share the same narrative.  A community of like-minded people makes one’s own beliefs seem reasonable, even if they may seem unreasonable to everyone outside the community.  A community of like-minded people provides an “echo chamber” in which our beliefs seem to be “everywhere” and thus “correct.”  This echo chamber effect seems to be particularly prominent in religious and ideological communities.  While the rest of us were horrified by the mass suicide of the members of the Jonestown cult in 1978, the members themselves were surrounded by people who were all doing the same thing.  While (most of) the rest of the world is horrified and outraged by the actions of Al Qaeda, the members of this group are surrounded by like-minded people who reinforce each other’s deeply held and extraordinarily dangerous beliefs.

It’s not hard to find additional examples of the partial blindness of partisans, several of which I noted in a previous essay:[6]  American socialists who revered the Soviet Union or Communist China managed to ignore or rationalize away the fact that these were totalitarian societies in which there was essentially no freedom – an empirical fact that was hard to miss unless you really tried hard to miss it. Liberals in the 1970s and ‘80s didn’t seem to notice that welfare never really broke the cycle of poverty, that society was handing out welfare checks to the children of women who themselves had been on welfare. This too was a glaring fact that didn’t fit the then-current liberal narrative.

For their part, conservatives don’t seem to notice (or prefer to ignore) the fact that “power corrupts” applies just as easily to big business as to big government.  The examples of government carrying out very popular programs quite efficiently and of private sector corruption and inefficiency are among the facts that don’t fit their narrative, and so have been left out.  There are some problems, in fact – pollution abatement is a classic case – that the private sector simply doesn’t have the right incentive structure to solve, whereas the public sector (government) does.  This too is left unmentioned in the conservative narrative.  “… government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” was one of those slick political catch phrases whose validity fades on closer inspection.[7]

But each of these partisan narratives, if partially blind, still has something worthwhile to say.  Interest in communism grew out of the observation that unfettered capitalists could and did seriously exploit labor.  Although it’s clear that communism was the wrong answer, the problem itself remains.  Similarly, the welfare system so reviled by conservatives grew out of the Great Depression and the observation that poverty can happen to people through no fault of their own – that there is a big dose of luck in life – along with the liberal conviction that a good society should provide a safety net for its citizens.  On the other side, the conservatives’ distrust of big government was in part a reaction to what happened in the communist bloc countries when centralized (and unchallenged) governments took over all sorts of functions that were much better left to the private sector. Whole countries of depressed people dependent on inept and corrupt governments were the result.

There is empirical evidence for parts of all of these narratives.  There is evidence that capitalists have exploited labor; but also evidence that communism isn’t a viable economic system, and that communist countries have tended to have totalitarian governments.  There is evidence that some percentage of people on welfare were truly down on their luck, and got off the system reasonably quickly; but also evidence that some percentage of people on welfare became dependent on it, that the welfare system didn’t break the cycle of poverty and may have in fact helped to perpetuate it, and that changing people’s behavior would probably have a greater chance of breaking the poverty cycle than simply giving people checks. There is evidence that big government bureaucracy can become bloated and corrupt and do things very inefficiently that the private sector has just the right incentives to do far more efficiently; but evidence too that government programs can sometimes work more efficiently than private enterprises.  And there is evidence that the private sector can become corrupt and has all the wrong incentives to carry out certain public functions that the government can do far better.

But surely the two sides of a debate can’t both be correct. True. Sweeping generalizations and grand prescriptions rarely fit all circumstances. The devil, as they say, is in the details. If parents use “tough love” on problem kids, in some cases the kid will shape up and get his act together as a result; in other cases the kid will rebel, cut off all contact with his parents, and make a further mess of his life.  The answers would be much clearer if all kids acted the same way, but they don’t.  Neither do recipients of welfare; neither do government programs; neither do corporations.  The world is a very messy, confusing place in which simple narratives are very comforting, and in such a confusing (and dangerous) world, comfort is no small thing.

For most people, in fact, emotional comfort is probably the main thing.  Our narratives appear to make sense of complex situations, and that gives us the illusion of clarity.  We have our narrative; we “understand.”  And we feel better.  For example:  We’re in a war; we’re the good guys; they’re the bad guys.  God is on our side.  (And, of course, there is a God to be on our side.)  This particular narrative was quite popular with the American people (many would argue that it bought Bush a second term in office).  It seemed to “work” – at least, for a lot of people, at least for a while.

For ideological partisans, it’s more about ideas or opinions than emotional comfort.  A narrative is a story about the way things are.  But people also have opinions about the way things should be.  The liberal conviction that society should provide a safety net for its citizens isn’t a fact, it’s an opinion; just as the conservative conviction that the government shouldn’t take on responsibilities that people should take on for themselves is an opinion, not a fact.

The problem comes when our feelings about the way we want things to be or our convictions about the way things should be cloud our ability to make unbiased assessments of empirical evidence about the way things are.  Scientists recommend double-blind testing for precisely this reason – to prevent the researcher from consciously or unconsciously “finding” the result he wants.

It’s particularly hard to avoid self-deception within communities of like-minded people. The echo chamber effect that rings in our ears – yes, our narrative is correct, is correct, is correct! – makes it harder to hear any nagging doubts in one’s own head that maybe it’s not entirely correct.  The feeling of solidarity with brethren in the cause (whatever that cause may be) is so much more comforting than the lonely path of critical thinking – to say nothing of the angry cries of “traitor” that may ensue if you state any doubts aloud.

And finally, for political partisans, it’s mostly about power.  People or political parties whose primary goal is to get and/or keep power will do what it takes towards that end.  Seeking unbiased answers to important questions won’t necessarily further their goal, but encouraging the rest of us to uncritically believe their relatively simple narratives well may.  As the Emory University researcher so aptly put it, “The moral in politics is that you really have to make conscious efforts to avoid self-deception.”  And the lesson of the real world of politics and ideologues is, sadly, that all the powers-that-be will try to undermine your efforts.

I think it’s safe to assume that many politicians and pundits know when the stories they tell us are filled with half-truths and untruths and spun “facts.” As the techniques to manipulate people – by adeptly playing on their emotions and by controlling the flow of information – become ever more sophisticated, politicians and their operatives haven’t hesitated to use them.  And that is a worrying trend, because it isn’t clear that people’s ability to withstand this manipulation is increasing apace.

There is a tendency to say, “Oh well, both sides do it,” and to leave it at that.  But there is nothing to guarantee that the “ethically challenged” tactics used to manipulate us are used to equal extents by opposing political sides (although, in the interests of being seen as “fair and balanced” these days, this is rarely noted). Nor is there anything to guarantee that the partial blindness of partisans to the inadequacies in their narratives necessarily occurs to equal degrees on both sides of a political or ideological divide – or, for that matter, that the “dueling narratives” are necessarily always equally inadequate.

In the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, The University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) conducted a survey that asked people questions for which there were verifiably correct answers.  The percentage of respondents whose perceptions were at odds with the facts was substantially greater among Bush supporters than among Kerry supporters.  For example, the PIPA analysis noted that “despite an abundance of evidence that world public opinion has opposed the US going to war with Iraq, only 31% of Bush supporters [vs. 74% of Kerry supporters] are aware that this is the case, and only 9% [vs. 69% of Kerry supporters] are aware that Kerry is a more popular candidate than Bush in world public opinion.”[8]

After his decision to attack Iraq – and particularly after the weapons of mass destruction, which were the original stated reason for the war, could not be found – George W. Bush began spinning a simple tale of America the Good fighting the evil of terrorism in Iraq and trying to implant democracy in that part of the world.  As in many narratives, there are some elements of truth to hold onto.  Yes, Saddam Hussein was a horrible tyrant.  Yes, everyone’s glad he’s out of power.  Yes, most of us would agree that terrorism is evil.  Yes, it’s true that there are terrorists in Iraq (at least, there are now).  Yes, a democratic Iraq would probably be best in the long run.  But the holes in this simple narrative – the many questions it leaves unanswered, the many things that don’t really fit together or have subtly shifted (about which other essays have already been written) – are so numerous that it isn’t clear whether there’s more to the narrative or to what has been left out of it.

As I’ve watched the run-up to the war in Iraq and the war itself unfold and grind on, it has seemed to me that there’s a shadow war being fought alongside the actual war. This shadow war is a war between reality and the stories we would like to be true.  And in this shadow war, there’s no question which side will win.  Reality always wins out in the end.

This is not to say that we will ultimately “lose” the war in Iraq.  I don’t know just how things will end there, or what point in time we should use to define “the end” of that story.  I do know that the way reality has unfolded so far bears little resemblance to the story we were originally told  (of how Americans would be regarded as liberators, how we would rebuild Iraq easily with Iraqi oil money … well, we’re all familiar with that story).

Our tendency to believe what we want to be true may be strongest when we are the most scared or weary.  Americans were demoralized after the war in Vietnam, economic “stagflation,” and the Iranian hostage crisis; Ronald Reagan came along and gave us “morning in America.”  A lot of people wanted desperately to believe him.  A lot of people have wanted desperately to believe Bush; some still do.  And in wanting to believe him, they’ve been unwilling to examine the story he’s been telling.  It’s not clear that he himself has examined it.  And therein lies the danger. The problem comes if our storyline diverges too far from reality, and we aren’t bothering to check. Wanting something to be true, after all, doesn’t make it true.

Why does this matter?  The more biased we are, the less willing we are to make sure that our narratives don’t diverge too far from the empirical evidence.  And the more our narratives diverge from the evidence, the more dangerous they can become – particularly if the narrative is being told and believed by someone with the power to affect the lives of thousands or millions (or billions) of people.

In the extreme, as Sam Harris points out in The End of Faith, narratives that are completely divorced from empirical evidence – that are unverifiable – can be very dangerous indeed, particularly in the age of advanced weapons and communication technologies in which we now live.  By all accounts, Osama bin Laden truly believes that Allah wants him to do what he is trying to do to the “infidels.”  And, by all accounts, he and his co-believers are trying to get their hands on nuclear weapons and wouldn’t hesitate to use them to kill as many “infidels” as possible. In Osama bin Laden’s simple narrative, of course, they’re the good guys, we’re the bad guys, God is on their side (and, of course, there is a God to be on their side).

Like all religious narratives, bin Laden’s religious narrative is unverifiable.  We cannot gather empirical evidence to support the contentions of any religion – the story it tells – over those of another.  Did Jesus rise from the dead after he was crucified?  Are Islamic martyrs rewarded by virgins in heaven?  Is there a God?  No amount of empirical data will get us any closer to answering those questions – although, still we try to find empirical support for our religious beliefs.  But we do it by the same kind of “cherry- picking” to which political partisans often resort. (The single person left alive after a plane crash thanks God for saving him, but doesn’t ask why the others were allowed to die.)  We can argue forever about whose interpretation of the Koran is correct, or whose interpretation of the Bible is correct, or which religion is correct, but no amount of arguing or discussing will prove the verity of any purely religious beliefs, whose “truth” or “falsehood” cannot be verified. No one is going to be able to convince bin Laden that his narrative is wrong by showing him any empirical evidence from the world we live in.

But that’s a very extreme case, you may say.  Yes, it is.  But it is different only in degree, not kind.  Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims who believe that homosexuality is a choice and a sin have caused no end of misery and suffering – and, under the Islamic theocracy in Iran, death – to gay people. And the more passionately they hold these beliefs, the more blind they are to the possibility – more a probability as the evidence accumulates – that homosexuality is not a choice, but that some people are simply “wired” differently.

But we don’t have to look only to religious narratives for examples in which serious harm can be done by this partial blindness of partisans.  The aftermath of our toppling of Saddam’s regime – the part that still grinds on – is a sobering example of just how much harm can be done when a powerful politician takes actions based on beliefs unencumbered by reliable empirical evidence.  While reality so far in Iraq bears little resemblance to the simple narrative we were originally told, it bears a striking resemblance to the scenarios that experts on Iraq predicted would unfold if we didn’t prepare sufficiently for “winning the peace.” In fact, the events that have unfolded – the infiltration of foreign terrorists, the rise of sectarian violence, the quick metamorphosis of the “American liberators” into the “American occupiers” in the eyes of the Iraqis – hew so closely to the scenarios that were predicted by those who know Iraq that they could have been scripted by the experts themselves.  Whether one thinks we should or should not have gone to war in Iraq – or that, in the end, it will have been worth it or not – there is substantial evidence that the Bush administration took the action with a stunning lack of preparedness for the aftermath based on a lack of understanding about what we would have to deal with once we toppled that regime.  It isn’t that the information wasn’t available; but the Bush administration apparently did not avail itself of it – or perhaps simply let it slip through the sieve of its narrative.  Tens of thousands of deaths later, we are still dealing with the consequences.

Nor is it hard to find striking examples at the other end of the left-right continuum (although the most striking examples come from several decades ago when the left was more dominant).  There were, after all, people on the far left in this country cheering on Mao Tse-Tung during his Great Leap Forward in China and then during his Cultural Revolution a few years later, as the Chinese people were practically (and perhaps literally) eating the bark off the trees, things got so bad.  But those facts just didn’t fit the narrative, and it was, after all, the narrative that was important.

Our narratives can give us great comfort – a feeling that life has meaning, a sense of control and “understanding” in a confusing and unsettling world, a feeling of solidarity with our fellow ideologues or co-religionists.  But in the end, they can and do have real and potentially very serious consequences to other people.  The more disconnected they are from empirical evidence, the more potential they have to do serious damage.  And the more technologically advanced and interconnected the world has become, the truer this seems to be.  It is, after all, the ability to take actions based on beliefs unfettered by reliable empirical evidence that can do the harm – as we are currently witnessing on the wide screen of the real world as this epic performance, “The War on Terror” or “The Fight Against the Infidels,” plays out.  But that is, of course, just one (particularly striking) example.

This human tendency to consciously or unconsciously cherry-pick the facts to fit the narrative might be thought of as a “meta-problem” – a broader problem behind so many more specific problems; a problem which makes all the myriad specific problems so much more difficult to resolve.  If we could resolve this meta-problem – change this behavior – it would be so much easier to resolve a whole lot of specific problems, to say nothing of preventing them from ever arising in the first place.

The stakes, I believe, have never been higher.  Some kinds of damage, born of a refusal to admit uncomfortable or politically or ideologically inconvenient facts, can take a very long time to undo.  Some kinds can never be undone.  On an individual level, none of the people killed by religious fanatics following the dictates of their unverifiable religious narratives can be brought back to life.  Nor can those who’ve lost their lives in Iraq because of the unwillingness of the Bush administration to consider facts that didn’t fit its simple narrative.

On a national level, the identity of Iraq as a nation is far more at risk than it would have been had the Bush administration been willing to rethink its pleasant but wildly simplistic narrative in light of the facts that others tried to make plain.  And, within our own nation, too, the stakes are high.  As we try to implant democracy in Iraq, our own democracy is imperiled.  It is well to remember that democracy can “go bad” – if people don’t put into it what a good democracy requires – if they don’t pay attention, if they allow themselves to remain ignorant, if they blindly hold onto comforting stories that aren’t true or uncritically believe such stories told to them by others – even if it’s the president of the United States.

And finally, the stakes are perhaps highest on a global level, where the failure to take actions – based on beliefs that are not only unencumbered by reliable empirical evidence but well fortified against it –may do the most damage of all.  As the scientific community becomes increasingly convinced that global warming spurred on by human activity is indeed happening, it is more and more difficult not to be alarmed as we watch President Bush largely ignore the accumulating empirical evidence because it doesn’t fit his narrative.  In the end, if we cannot deal with a reality that doesn’t mesh with what we want to be true, we will all suffer the consequences – whether we are Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, Christians or Muslims or Buddhists or Jews, ordinary people or the president of the United States.  Reality will ultimately trump any story, so it makes sense to invest our energies in trying to make reality as good as possible rather than spinning as good a story as possible.

This means being able to assess empirical evidence with as little bias as possible.  But to do this, we must be willing to examine and re-examine the narratives we hold dear.  And to do that, we must be willing to look beyond the short-term good of our “tribe” or party (or self) to the longer-term good of our nation (and, ultimately, look beyond that to the good of the world). Politics may be a zero-sum game, but governing is not.  Good governance requires that we care more about the nation than about our “tribe” or party.

But herein lies the second meta-problem:  We get to govern only after we’re elected, and getting elected requires politics – and for that, as we have seen, ignoring or denying facts that don’t fit the narrative can work quite well, for a while – but at a very high price indeed.  In the end, it may leave the nation bankrupt.  As the PIPA analysis soberly noted, there are “risks in succeeding in getting elected [or pursuing policies] based on false beliefs. … the cohesion of society can be damaged by a persisting and fundamental division in the perception of what is real, undermining pathways to consensus and mutual sacrifice, and making the country increasingly difficult to govern.”[9]  Yes, I worry about terrorist threats from without.  But I worry more about this kind of crumbling from within, if we base our actions on unexamined and ultimately illusory stories.  That, I believe, is the much deeper source of peril.

In the upcoming 2006 and 2008 elections, the temptation for progressives to fight fire with fire – to compose a storyline aimed solely at political success – will be great indeed.  After all, progressives won’t be able to govern if they cannot get elected, and that’s what political success is all about.  But the Bush administration has provided us all a cautionary tale.  Getting elected is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for successful governance.  Yes, success in politics requires a good storyline.  But success in governance requires an empirically based storyline, and one that is flexible enough to change as new data become available.

To be politically successful, a storyline must be reasonably simple and understandable and have broad appeal.  But to be the basis of successful governance, it must be well grounded empirically – and that requires asking the tough questions about policies:  Is this working?  If not, why not?  Ultimately, it requires being truth-seeking rather than power-seeking.  A storyline based on that ethos would be a very good storyline indeed.


[1]  Examples in American politics, unfortunately, abound.  For a nice overview, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whispering_campaign.

[3]  John Tierney, New York Times, February 4, 2006: Available online at: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C03E7D9163EF937A35751C0A9609C8B63

[6] The examples given in this paragraph and the following paragraph are taken from my essay, “My Parabolic Theory of (Almost) Everything: Assessing the Liberal/Conservative Divide,” with only minor modifications.

[9]  Kull et al., 2004. “The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters.”  The PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll. October 21, 2004. Note: A google search with the keywords “2004” “Bush” and “Kerry” brings up the PIPA site.  Clicking on the first option there brings up a pdf file of this report.  (There is no obvious link directly to the report.)

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One comment on “A Good Storyline

  1. […] to be particularly susceptible to the confirmation bias of those who create them[2], as I discussed in another essay several years ago, a bit of which I’ve excerpted […]

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