Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Rigged thinking

Skepticism often requires maneuvering your way through equal and opposite pitfalls.  As I frequently say to my classes, gullibility and cynicism are both signs of mental laziness -- it is as much of a cognitive error to disbelieve everything you hear as it is to believe everything.

The same is true of reliance on authority.  It certainly is inadvisable to believe without question anything an authority says (or believe it simply because (s)he is an authority); but dismissing everything is also pretty ridiculous.  Stephen Hawking, for example, is a world-renowned authority on physics.  If I refused to believe what he has to say on (for example) black holes I would be foolish -- and very likely wrong.

So categorical thinking tends to get us into trouble.  It's an excuse to avoid the hard work of research and analysis.  It is also, unfortunately, extremely common.

Which brings us to "everything the government tells you is a lie."

Distrust of the government is in vogue these days.  "The government says..." is a fine way to start a sentence that you're expecting everyone to scoff at, especially if the piece of the government in question belongs to a different political party than you do.  That spokespeople for the government have lied on occasion -- that they have, sometimes, engaged in disinformation campaigns -- is hardly at issue.  But to decide that everything a government agency does or says is deliberately dishonest is sloppy thinking, not to mention simply untrue.

It also has another nasty side effect, though, which is to convince people that they are powerless.  If the Big Evil Government is going to do whatever they damn well please regardless of what voters want, it leads people to believe that they're being bamboozled every time they vote.  And powerless, angry, frustrated people tend to do stupid, violent things.

Which is why the whole "the election is rigged" bullshit that Donald Trump is trumpeting every chance he gets is so dangerous.  For fuck's sake, the election hasn't even happened yet; one very much gets the impression that this reaction is much like a toddler's temper tantrum when he doesn't get the piece of candy he wants.  Trump can't conceive of the fact that he could compete for something he wants and lose fair and square; so if he loses (and it very much looks like he's going to), the election must be rife with fraud.

Scariest of all was his suggestion in last night's presidential debate that he might not concede the election if Clinton wins.  As CNN senior political analyst David Gergen put it:
More importantly, many in the press, as well as others (I am among them) were horrified that Trump refused to say he would accept the verdict of voters on November 8.  No other candidate has ever taken the outrageous position that "if I win, that's legitimate but if I lose, the system must be rigged."  It is bad enough that Trump puts himself before party; now he is putting self before country.
[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

In fact, actual voter fraud in the United States is so rare as to be insignificant with respect to the outcome of elections.  A comprehensive study by Justin Levitt, a constitutional law scholar and professor of law at Loyola University, found 31 cases of credible voter fraud out of one billion ballots cast in the past sixteen years.  A separate study by Lorraine Minnite, professor of political science at Rutgers, came to the same conclusion.  Further, she found that irregularities in elections were almost always due to innocent human error rather than a deliberate attempt to throw the election.  Here are four examples Minnite cites:
  • In the contested 2004 Washington state gubernatorial election, a Superior Court judge ruled invalid just 25 ballots, constituting 0.0009 percent of the 2,812,675 cast. Many were absentee ballots mailed as double votes or in the names of deceased people, but the judge did not find all were fraudulently cast. When King County prosecutors charged seven defendants, the lawyer for one 83-year old woman said his client “simply did not know what to do with the absentee ballot after her husband of 63 years, Earl, passed away” just before the election, so she signed his name and mailed the ballot. 
  • A leaked report from the Milwaukee Police Department found that data entry errors, typographical errors, procedural missteps, misapplication of the rules, and the like accounted for almost all reported problems during the 2004 presidential election. 
  • When the South Carolina State Election Commission investigated a list of 207 allegedly fraudulent votes in the 2010 election, it found simple human errors in 95 percent of the cases the state’s highest law enforcement official had reported as fraud. 
  • A study by the Northeast Ohio Media Group of 625 reported voting irregularities in Ohio during the 2012 election found that nearly all cases forwarded to county prosecutors were caused by voter confusion or errors by poll workers.
It's easy to say "the system is designed to screw voters!" or "the election is rigged!"  It's not so easy to answer the questions, "What evidence do you have that this happens?" and "How would you actually go about rigging a national election if you wanted to?"  (If you want an excellent summary of the argument that the risk of hackers or other miscreants affecting the outcome of an election in the United States is extremely small, check out the CNN article on the subject that just came out yesterday.)

So what we have here is one more example of baseless partisan rhetoric, which has as the unsettling side effect making people on the losing side feel like they've been cheated.  Which, I think, is why we're seeing a serious uptick in threats of violence by people who don't like the way the election seems to be going -- from the woman at a Trump rally who cited "rampant voter fraud" and said, "For me personally, if Hillary Clinton gets in, I myself am ready for a revolution" to Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke who tweeted, "our institutions of gov, WH, Congress, DOJ, and big media are corrupt & all we do is bitch. Pitchforks and torches time."

To reiterate what I said at the beginning; it's not that I condone, agree with, or like everything government has done.  Nor do I think that government officials (or whole agencies) are above doing some pretty screwed up stuff.  But to say "government sucks" and forthwith stop thinking -- or, worse still, threaten violence because of that simplistic view of the world -- is not just wrong, it's dangerous.

1 comment:

  1. If Trump supporters want to burn it to the ground you'd think they'd be enlisting the help of Canadians instead of suggesting there be a wall between us. #justsayin #1812