George Will writes, “The strongest continuous thread in America’s political tradition is skepticism about government.” That means when government makes a claim, citizens respond with doubt. They routinely discount it, regard it as weakly supported, partially true, or plainly a lie. They naturally try to explain why government engages in deception so frequently, which makes them look for motives government officials may have to avoid telling the truth. This search for motives leads government’s supporters to call skeptics conspiracy theorists.
A germane cartoon shows two stick figures in conversation. The hapless fellow on the left comments the government’s official account of 9/11 is full of holes. The second guy cuts him off after eleven words, unwilling to listen, and adding insincerely that hearing the remark “breaks my heart.” He urges his friend to take a second look, to be careful if you think you have uncovered a lie, because you become especially subject to confirmation bias. The more he talks, the more you see how the non-skeptic suffers from the same logical weaknesses as the people he criticizes. The conversation shows what happens when dogged self-assurance, and a pushy, almost automatic unwillingness to listen inform virtually all efforts to find the truth about important public events.
Most notably, he does not pause to consider evidence, or listen to his friend’s reasoning.
The cartoon’s last frame confirms the non-skeptic’s smugness. To conclude his loquacious, condescending broadside, he informs God he would like to file a bug report, to track a known glitch in human reasoning: the mind’s tendency to seek confirmation of established beliefs, and to discard contradictory evidence. Yet the speaker acts immune to the bug. If confirmation bias affects everyone, though, why would it not affect our smug friend? Why would someone who asserts his position so self-confidently not point to his own arguments about conspiracy theories as an illustration of confirmation bias? Doesn’t his canned criticism of conspiracy theories count? He declares with certainty that his own beliefs are true, and that opposing beliefs are “complete fictions.” He seems just as sure of himself as the people he mocks.
Most notably, he does not pause to consider evidence, or listen to his friend’s reasoning. He cuts his friend off, sure that whatever he wants to say about 9/11 is nonsense. How does he know arguments that challenge the official version of events on 9/11 are insupportable? He doesn’t say. He merely belittles other people’s beliefs. On this flimsy foundation, he simpers that his heart breaks because his friend cannot distinguish between what is true and what is false. He dismisses all arguments he labels conspiracy theories – throws them into the same discard pile. Why bother to look at evidence for each one, if they all fit the same pattern? When you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. They all come from the same source: that “known glitch in human reasoning.” They all result in false beliefs.