Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Why fact-checking Palin doesn't work

Let's say that you've been dieting, working out, trying to drop a few pounds. Perhaps 175lbs is your target weight. You step on the scale one morning and it reads 175lbs. Great! You step off the scale and go about your day.

But, what if the scale had read 177lbs? What does the average person do then? What would you likely do? Step off the scale, let it reset, and then step back on, weighing again. And, as you do get some variance from the everyday bathroom scale, it might very well now read 175lbs, in which case you go about your day happy, or it might read something else, in which case, step up again.

This is an aspect of attributional bias - a cognitive bias that affects the way we see causality and judge effects. We tend to stop questioning once we arrive at the answer for which we were looking.

And this is why fact-checking Palin won't, for a vast majority of her supporters, make any difference. Yes, even as egregious as her bumbling, dissembling public comments are.

Because the genius of the Palin pick for the McCain campaign wasn't her experience, because she has none, but how comfortably she fit into a narrative niche that the Right had ready and waiting. They were ready for a tough, maverick social conservative who also looks great in a skirt, lives up to her womanly duties and won't talk down to them.

There are those who can be swayed. My mother was in town recently, declaring herself a former McCain supporter but now undecided, and this shift was due mainly to discoveries about Palin's beliefs, particularly her stand against abortion in every situation, even incest, rape or the health of the mother (she supports abortion in the latter only in the case of imminent danger to the mother's life).

But the rest? Those still, today, supporting her despite the revelations since her nomination probably can't be moved. Their logic, their narrative is hard-wired. They will find a way around every Palin-trocity sent their way, they will keep stepping on that scale until they see the weight they want.

There was an example I used to use with my composition students, taken, as was my wont, from a book more pop-culture than lit. In Jurassic Park, the mathematician Ian Malcolm repeatedly stresses to the dino-keepers that, despite their best efforts, life will find a way to push forward. They respond that their computer monitoring system, which counts the dinosaurs every day, prevents this; they check on their dinosaurs every day. But, as Macolm points out, the system stops counting when it reached the expected number of dinosaurs. Malcolm asks them to take that restriction off, to allow the system to count beyond the expected number. And, lo and behold, many, many more dinosaurs than expected show up. They've got a big problem.

I used to tell my students after this story, "Keep asking questions, or your going to leave a bunch of dinosaurs running around." But, as satisfying as I find wrangling Palin's rampaging dinos, her supporters don't care. They are done asking questions. They've reached their precise number of dinosaurs and weigh 175lbs on the button.

Frankly, they wouldn't recognize a T-rex if it bit them on the ass.

Salon: The fungible candidate

And, just for fun: The Sarah Palin Digest


the beige one said...

So, what are you advocating here?

JJisafool said...

I don't think I was.

I never promised to be positive.

the beige one said...


Deni said...

Well, the point does seem to be that it is a waste of time to try to pint out the obvious lies to the kool-aid drinkers. Which it probably is.

But we do need to keep fact-checking her and McCain to the (as one recent study found) 18% of the voting population that is considered "persuadable."

JJisafool said...

McCain's the better target, to my mind. Mainly because the hits actually score points.

Deni said...

Oh, I completely agree with that.

the beige one said...

also down with that.