Monday, July 03, 2006

She's Got Us Pegged

A friend recently sent me this tidbit from an editorial in the Wall Street Journal by Peggy Noonan:
Everyone should stop spinning. Because America is now a country composed of people who know better than anything how to deconstruct spin. It's our great national talent.
(Believe it or not, she's referring to Barbara Walters on Star Jones.) Here's how I responded:

This claim, which ends the piece, really stands out because it's so false.

First, I don't know if America is better (or worse) at spotting spin than a lot of other countries. (That's globalization for you.)

Second, the way people are built is to believe things that support their biases and be suspicious of things that don't. One person's spin is another person's truth.

Finally, this kind of claim, even if Noonan believes it, is a pretty old come on. You flatter the reader by complimenting her discernment and discrimination. People want to feel in the know, so buttering them up makes them more likely to agree with your argument.

By the way, telling people to stop spinning? It won't stop because 1) most "spinners" don't believe they're spinning and 2) people want to be "spun." They just don't like it when the spinning is the kind they identify as spinning.

So what is our great national talent? You got me. Capitalism? Jazz? Hamburgers? Football?

PS The same friend notes Neal Stephenson's answer to what America does best. Four things: Music, movies, microcode (software) and high-speed pizza delivery.

PPS Here is a link to a short piece on the physiological basis for confirmation bias that I mentioned in the comment section.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Lawrence King said...

You wrote:

Second, the way people are built is to believe things that support their biases and be suspicious of things that don't. One person's spin is another person's truth.

This is true to some extent. Do you think it's completely true? If we ask "Is Israel an imperialist aggressor or a victim of repeated terrorism," is it necessarily the case that no objectivity is possible?

Is some objectivity possible? For example, I might make the following objective rule: If some incident happens in Northern Ireland, and 100% of the people on Side One think they are right, and 80% of the people on Side Two think they are right, then probably Side One is right. After all, self-interest ought to impel the folks on both sides to be jingoists, so if 20% of those on Side Two are not being jingoists then that side must be objectively in the wrong.

1:00 AM, July 03, 2006  
Anonymous Paul K said...

Sorry-but how does snout-counting equal objectivity? I understand using voting to determine outcomes (sometimes there has to be a winner and a loser) but what has it to do with truth?- maybe if you believe we have generally rational populace then on average, the majority opinion will be prove to be "right" (however that gets defined)-but even then thats only on average. It seems "groupthink" would be elevated under such a view.
I think the point Peggy Noonan really meant to make (how's that for spin?) is not that people of different persuasions have different perceptions of the truth (duh)but that it is currently accepted that all or nearly all politicos. leaders, and those humble spuds, the commentators are deliberately spinning (read "lying") to get there point across. There is currently (compared to say 40-50 years ago)less of a willing suspension of disbelief into the objectivity of the speaker. (Hell this blog owes its genesis to an effort to undermine/show the falsity of one icon's claims of objective journalism)
Whether this a good thing or a bad thing is probably a subject for a longer post.

8:02 AM, July 03, 2006  
Blogger LAGuy said...

LK:

I'm not saying people can't be objective. I'm not saying people can't be convinced by argument. I'm merely saying if you're on one side of a debate, you'll tend to seek and out respond more favorably to arguments on your side. (There's actually recent physiological evidence on this.)

Ironically, you're probably better qualified to judge something fairly if you don't particularly care about the subject.

The problem with the 100/80 argument is you have to look at where they got their beliefs to begin with. Imagine two peoples, A and B, who fight over disputed land. The A people are taught from birth that the B people are evil and want to take their land. The B people are given a liberal education and are told to look at both sides of an argument. The A people are more likely to be unanimous on the land issue, but, no more likely to be right.

PK:

Noonan sure seems to be claiming we as a people are good as seeing through spin. Whether she believes this or not, I question if it's true. Many on the left think Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are all spin, while many on the right think they're truth-tellers amidst the spinners of the MSM.

Are we even more cynical today regarding politicians? I question that, as well.

10:49 AM, July 03, 2006  
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