BS and Politics

Searching for the words “BS Detector” and “Trump” uncovers this blog post.

Interesting set of observations, except for one flaw:  it presupposes, implicitly, that Trump spouts a uniquely large amount of BS and that his supporters are extraordinarily gullible.  I don’t think this is the case.

The world is full of self-claimed BS detection artists trolling others to somehow accidentally “expose” themselves:  in the entertainment universe alone, we have seen Penn and Teller, Bill Maher, and Sascha Baron Cohen, among others go to sometimes tasteless extent to bait their putative enemies to exposing themselves as gullible simpletons and ignoramuses.  We have seen many falling for the the infamous “Dihydrogen Monoxide” hoax.  We have seen academic research showing politically active and more “knowledgeable” voters more readily believing untruths that happen to be merely consistent with their existing beliefs.

All these underscore one thing:  people are more gullible when they hear things that they consider “truthy.”  People are not blank slates:  they believe certain things are more likely to be true than not.  When the readily available data confirm their beliefs, they are more likely to believe what they see to be “true” even when the evidence is inadequate.  When the data is incompatible, they need more to be convinced than if they were truly blank slates.  There is nothing wrong with this:  this is simply true mathematically–it is very easy to demonstrate how this works in terms of probability theory.  The existing beliefs are, after all, accumulated from their life experiences and are, in a sense, “right.”  Humans are designed to learn things faster and more efficiently rather than more accurately and more slowly, and drawing on the existing body of more or less “right” information already present in the brains to supplement the new data to help draw conclusions makes good sense, in this context.

The problem is that priors for various subsets of population, this existing knowledge in their brains, increasingly diverge from one another (I noted this in a previous post.  What “intuitively” makes sense for one group makes absolutely no sense to those without the same priors.  2008 election showed this in form of the political Rohrshach test that was Barak Obama:  for many, especially of the younger, more liberal segments, he was “inspiring” and “transformative,” all on the strength of very scanty information, while for others, especially those are older and more  conservative, he seemed “foreign” and “untrustworthy,” again without much data to corroborate.  2016 is showing another version, with much the same demographic divide, in the person of Donald Trump.

Trump’s appeal, to those who like and trust him (which is quite different from “believing” him), is predicated on his ability to call others’ sanctimonious BS in a shrill and exaggerated fashion.   This makes good sense for those who don’t buy into the conventional politicians’ BS, while constitutes an act of blasphemy for those who do.  For those who do buy into the sanctimonious BS of their own favorite politicians, in fact, Trump’s attacks themselves constitute BS–which they are, in fact. Everyone has sacred cows.  Their droppings are BS to the nonbelievers…but not so the believers.

I do not propose that calling BS on everyone to be a good idea.  In fact, all of politics is an act of gilding calves and calling it golden, of creating idols and BS in form of conventions and rituals through which we do business.  The problem today is not so much that we have idols, just that we happen to be lacking unifying idols.  Each tribe, increasingly mutually exclusive, has its own idols and are insistent on calling others’ (and only others’) idols BS.  We need false gods we can all believe in, in other words.


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