Lies, Politics, Dissonance

Sometimes, I wish America had British libel laws. This sort of dishonesty masquerading as "scholarship" makes me furious:

Mr. Corsi has released a new attack book painting Senator Barack Obama, the Democrats' presumed presidential nominee, as a stealth radical liberal who has tried to cover up "extensive connections to Islam" -- Mr. Obama is Christian -- and questioning whether his admitted experimentation with drugs in high school and college ever ceased.

Significant parts of the book, whose subtitle is "Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality," have already been challenged as misleading or false in the days since its debut on Aug. 1. Nonetheless, it is to make its first appearance on The New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction hardcovers this Sunday -- at No. 1.

The Times does a solid job of undermining many of Corsi's claims, such as this little lie:

In exploring Mr. Obama's denials that he had been present for the more incendiary sermons of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Mr. Corsi cites a report on the conservative Web site that Mr. Obama had attended a sermon on July 22, 2007, in which Mr. Wright blamed "the 'white arrogance' of America's Caucasian majority for the world's suffering, especially the oppression of blacks."

Mr. Obama, however, was giving a speech in Florida that afternoon, and his campaign reported he had not attended Mr. Wright's church that day.

William Kristol, a columnist for The New York Times, had cited the same report in a column, and issued a correction.

Despite these factual flaws, I have no doubt that the book will be extremely successful, and not only because it's already a bestseller. I think the real damage done by texts like this is their mere existence. By making an accusation - even if the accusation is clearly wrong - the book gives its proponents a claim to defend. As a result, the airwaves are soon filled with pundits "debating" the merits of the book: the lie has been turned into an issue that seems worthy of debate.

At such moments, our fancy cognitive talents actually become a disadvantage, since they allow us to justify practically any belief. We use the brain as an information filter, a way to block-out disagreeable points of view. Consider this experiment, which was done in the late 1960's, by the cognitive psychologists Timothy Brock and Joe Balloun. They played a group of people a tape-recorded message attacking Christianity. Half of the subjects were regular churchgoers while the other half were committed atheists. To make the experiment more interesting, Brock and Balloun added an annoying amount of static - a crackle of white noise - to the recording. However, they allowed listeners to reduce the static by pressing a button, so that the message suddenly became easier to understand. Their results were utterly predicable and rather depressing: the non-believers always tried to remove the static, while the religious subjects actually preferred the message that was harder to hear. Later experiments by Brock and Balloun demonstrated a similar effect with smokers listening to a speech on the link between smoking and cancer. We silence the cognitive dissonance through self-imposed ignorance.

The point is that it doesn't really matter if the claims in this book are debunked. If you want to believe that Obama is a dope smoking Muslim Marxist, the brain will find a way.

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I'm going to filter out the troubling fact that a talented American journalist is longing for British-style libel laws.

Give me the dissonance, so long as we have writers who are free to call "foul!" without fear of being sued. Good journalists are static-subtraction-buttons and libel laws are bad for journalists.

Of course, I don't really want British libel laws, but I do get rather annoyed at the ability of publications and publishers to print falsehoods with impunity. And then, when the authors are confronted with their errors, to complain that critics are "nitpicking"...I don't want a lawsuit, I just wish there was some countervailing incentive to balance out the financial incentive that printing intentional mistakes will help the company sell a few more books.

But you're absolutely right: the best possible recourse, and the only practical recourse, is journalists calling "foul"...

There is also the mirror to your final statement that if an individual believes strongly enough in something they will ignore any factual evidence against it.

I'm not saying that the book mentioned contains anything in it that is factual or not (I have not read it nor am I planning to), I'm merely pointing out that the opposite is true: if you want to see Obama as the savior of American politics, your brain will find a way to ignore anything that might speak contrary to your position.

This is true of anything, not just in politics. We believe what we want to believe and cognitively we find evidence to support our belief and minimize, mitigate or ignore that which causes disequilibrium with our beliefs.

Don't despair, Jonah. Take solace in the fact that its basic nature will ensure that people on both sides of a debate will employ and be abused by such rumors and deceptions more or less equally (Unless you think that one political group is more likely than another to either employ or be victimized by such behavior).

Our system is superior to the British because it takes into account human behavior, it doesn't try and override it. Free speech is the solution to the problem of free speech. The British system ultimately gives rise to the question of who watches the watchers.

More generally, certainly you could find someone better than a politician to use as an example. Politicians, of any stripe, are far more likely to be the perpetrators of this behavior than the victims.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 14 Aug 2008 #permalink

NYTimes article:

Several of the book's accusations, in fact, are unsubstantiated, misleading or inaccurate.
For instance, Mr. Corsi writes that Mr. Obama had "yet to answer" whether he "stopped using marijuana and cocaine completely in college, or whether his drug usage extended to his law school days or beyond." "How about in the U.S. Senate?" Mr. Corsi asks.
But Mr. Obama, who admitted to occasional marijuana and cocaine use in his high school and early college years, wrote in his memoir that he had "stopped getting high" when he moved to New York in the early 1980s. And in 2003 The State Journal-Register of Springfield, Ill., quoted him responding to a question of his drug use by saying, "I haven't done anything since I was 20 years old."
In an interview, Mr. Corsi said "self-reporting, by people who have used drugs, as to when they stopped is inherently unreliable."

Note the moving of the goal posts? The original claim is not that Obama still uses drugs (which would be subject to libel) but that he has not denied still using drugs. When this is shown to be false, the claim is shifted.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 14 Aug 2008 #permalink

Shadows and reflections hold no real color.

By lee pirozzi (not verified) on 14 Aug 2008 #permalink

I am fascinated by this discussion - most particularly what is considered an outrage and what isn't.

To paraphrase: the point is that it doesn't really matter if the book is a best-seller. If you want to believe that Obama is a dope smoking Muslim Marxist, the brain will find a way.

The best way to improve the situation is to expose the book for what it is. All that negative publicity for Expelled demonstrated what is possible.