Some time back I wrote a short blog entry on how we inevitably—or all-but-inevitably—construct narratives to make sense of facts. The climax of the entry came in the final paragraph:

In all eras, stories from media outlets have reflected the narratives that those outlets wish to promulgate (for instance, during World War II). It seems to me that in the 1990s, the growth of cable news added a market element in: consumers could choose who they wanted to get their news from. And then of course in the last fifteen years or so, social media has encouraged the formation of echo chambers. Fake news flows inevitably out of this situation. Once the echo chamber has been formed, all that is needed to satisfy our itching ears is a tiny narrative to fit into the larger one. The factuality of the incident is less important than the narrative resonances that it evokes.

Recently on social media, a friend shared a story that struck me as odd. It purported to relate the experience of a friend’s younger sister. It was related that this middle school girl had rejected the advances of a boy at school, who then made a threat against her life, which was found to be credible (he had a gun). It was then related that the girl’s own friends criticized her for not accepting the boy’s requests for a date, which (so they are said to have claimed) put the whole school at risk.

This struck me as odd for several reasons:

  1. It was clearly not a first-hand account (the sister-of-a-friend-of-a-friend).
  2. It’s difficult for me to imagine any girl’s friends behaving in this way.
  3. It creates a shockingly tidy illustration of female disempowerment and victim-shaming.

I therefore commented: “(Does this really seem like it could happen? ‘You should have gone out with a boy who threatened you?’ This feels like one of those posts that tell lies to sow discord.)”

The ensuing exchange was civil but unsatisfying. First I was asked whether I denied that women were sometimes threatened by men who felt rejected. (No, I didn’t.) Then another person shared her first-person (and therefore highly credible) experience of school authorities failing to address her own serious situation. That story was tragic in its own way, though it didn’t involve her friends criticizing her in the same way as the friends of the girl in the original story—the point I had intended in question.

Seeking comfort in abstraction, my final comment was, “Again I’m not saying that these things cannot or do not happen, but that we should be careful what stories we spread. (The social media rumor mill is essentially what gave us our current president, right?) After the election I wrote this:” — followed by the paragraph I quoted above. Then a person new to the exchange commented that, in any event, it was the kind of story that could have happened, and that that was the important thing.

I did not reply that that was the very sort of thinking I was objecting to in the first place. I do not know whether she read my paragraph or not, but upon reflection I did conclude that it was a bit dense, and that I might have done better to make explicit things that I had left implicit. (In fact, re-reading the post after a year and a half, it seems I simply got bored of writing it toward the end, or ran out of time on a Friday afternoon.) Hence this blog post.

An uncontroversial starting point, I believe, is that our ideas about reality are shaped by what we believe is possible, and by what we believe is typical. Moreover, our conceptions about reality are largely in narrative form—yes, ontological to some extent, even partially mathematical for some people and some parts of life, but by and large it’s narrative that does the heavy lifting. The question becomes then: what is possible narrative? What is a typical narrative? Unsurprisingly, my willingness to believe a narrative in strongly conditioned by what I believe to be a possible or typical narrative. The more atypical the story—according to my evaluation of atypicality—the more dubious I will be.

The biases introduced by our beliefs about possible and typical narratives are not unassailable. Watergate challenged Americans’ conceptions of possible narratives about the president of the United States. The results of the 2016 presidential election ran so counter to my narratives about electoral politics that I still sometimes find the results hard to believe, even though I do not doubt their factuality.

Nevertheless, our ideas about possible and typical narratives cannot be altered by experiences that we do not have, or that are not attested by extremely credible witnesses. (Example: my ideas about Frenchmen will never be challenged if I never interact with Frenchmen. If a person whose testimony I trust tells me about a polite and humble Frenchman, my ideas about typical Frenchmen narratives can be challenged.)

I will now show my cards as a believer in critical-realism. This is an approach to epistemology, the science of how we know things. In the first place, I believe that there is a reality external to myself (that’s the ‘realism’ part). I also believe that my beliefs about reality are true. But I am aware of the possibility that I am mistaken, and I believe that I am responsible to try to correct my beliefs when possible (that’s the ‘critical’ part). I’m certainly bothered by the possibility of not having true beliefs, but my responsibility is to make the best judgments with the evidence I have. A scientific example: I would love to know whether dark matter is real or not, but I am only responsible for the data to which I actually have access.

When I come across a provocative Facebook story, then, it would be nice to know whether it is true or not, but what is more important is whether I can responsibly accept the story as being true. To do that at all credibly, I need be fairly self-aware about my beliefs about possible and typical narratives. In the bigger picture, I need to be asking (routinely, really), “Why do I believe that such-and-such narrative is possible or typical?”

Of course, when I see a provocative story, I have an immediate inclination either to believe it or to disbelieve it. Very rarely do I think to myself in a disinterested way: “Huh, I wonder whether that is true or not?” I must then put my gut reaction under the microscope. Why do I think like that? Am I being appropriately skeptical, or conversely, do I need to rethink my beliefs about what is possible or typical?

I’ll illustrate this with a provocative example of my own, and then use that example to talk about how tribalism encourages us to be epistemologically unvirtuous. I find myself consistently baffled by police shootings. My typical inclination, to be honest, is to trust the police account in absence of other evidence. I do not believe that most police are looking to shoot people. I believe that they believe that it is a terrible thing to do, which will ruin their lives in numerous ways, no matter the judicial outcome. Thus for me, “a policeman wantonly shoots an unarmed civilian” is a possible narrative—people are evil, after all—but not a likely narrative. But I need to put that under the microscope. The fact of the matter is, I know very few policemen (one, sort of) and very few people who interact with the police much (none, really, aside from traffic violations). Should I be more skeptical of governmental authority? Am I ignoring important victim testimony? Do the recently publicized police shootings represent typical realities, or are they merely the expected outliers from a country of more than three hundred million people? These are the questions that trouble me.

I predict, dear reader, that you have already formed an opinion of me, and that is the second focus of my example. Our propensity to believe or disbelieve narratives is a strong indicator of group membership. If I’m skeptical of a story with someone from group X as a perpetrator, you might guess that I’m a supporter of group X. If I’m credulous about stories of group Y being victimized, you might guess that I’m a supporter of group Y. This is the weaponization of epistemology.

Now, there’s a sense in which it’s fair to draw conclusions about people on the basis of their willingness or unwillingness to believe certain stories. One ought not treat a Holocaust denier, or someone who denies that the Moon landings took place, as intellectually honest people. In those cases, the preponderance of the evidence forces us to conclude that there is something pathological or immoral in the reasoning of doubters—something unvirtuous.

I am speaking, however, about instances where the facts are unclear: narratives related at second- or-third-hand, and cases in which we are asked to draw conclusions about people’s motives. Speaking to the latter, I believe that both Bush, in deciding to invade Iraq, and Obama, in deciding to withdraw from Iraq, were both acting in what they considered to be the country’s best interest; and I believe this in spite of the fact that these decisions were surely the worst foreign policy blunders of the last thirty years—rank them as you will, according to your politics. Obviously, people will more engrained political opinions will be more skeptical of the motivations of one leader or the other.

The more frequent case, of course, is when we are presented with a clickbait-y story about a person from group X disparaging a person from group Y—whether it be a racial group, a political group, an entire gender, or what have you. If we like or share it, we’re seen as partisans of group X against group Y If we express skepticism, we’re seen as partisans of group Y against group X. And once someone is identified as a partisan of group X, it’s clear that they’re horribly biased and not worth listening to anyway: far better to listen to the loyal supporters of group Y. You might be concerned about how Facebook orders your feed, but that’s merely a computer doing more efficiently what all of us have a natural propensity to do: to listen to people who agree with us. (Facebook isn’t doing it to irritate us, but because people will use their site more if they enjoy the content more.) It’s reflected in the newspapers you read and the television you watch. This is how echo chambers form.

It is secondary to my purpose here, but I will observe briefly that this makes us trivially easy to manipulate. I read with interest the finding that the overwhelming strategy of ‘the Russians’ and their fake social media posts was to sow racial discord. I have not viewed their posts, but it’d be easy to write a few of my own. “Muslim city councilman suggests imposing sharia law” “Preschool teacher rejects mixed-race applicant” “Child protective services takes child away from foster parents because of Scripture memorization class” — And if those didn’t provoke divisive reactions, then I could certainly forge a few of those as well and bring some people onto the bandwagon.

This has been an overly long explanation of what, under different circumstances, would be a blindingly obvious thing to say: the veracity of a particular anecdote is important. If a story serves to reinforce our pre-existing beliefs about the world, then that should give us pause and make us examine it more closely. It’s not determinative one way or another: perhaps our pre-existing beliefs are true, or at least accurate in this instance. But in the absence of clear facts, we should be very sensitive to the danger of simply reinforcing our pre-existing beliefs. And, even more importantly, we should be careful of making a sociological badge of our biases.

And again, it is secondary to my purpose, but worth saying: even if we are justifiably committed to certain beliefs about the world, e.g., that men routinely either implicitly or explicitly threaten with violence women they are pursuing romantically, then it is all the most important to be scrupulous about our facts. Very few things can be as damaging to a cause as the revelation that particular incidents have been manufactured to garner sympathy for the cause.

The immediate practical steps to take are clear enough: don’t post, don’t share, don’t like.

The older I get, the more skeptical I become. I have almost decided to disbelieve everything negative that I haven’t witnessed personally. Whether or not I can actually put that into practice, it would certainly be worth my adopting as a motto: “You don’t have the complete facts. You don’t have a statement of both parties’ perspectives. Indeed, it’s not even necessary for you to have an opinion about these proceedings.” The immediate implication is that many vile actions will go uncondemned by Adam Baker. If this seems to you a problem, then I can only reply that thirty-odd years of Adam Baker’s condemnations have not had the salutary effect on the world that one might have expected. Further, my moral convictions are not shaped by (or ought not be shaped by) picturesque anecdotes of wrongdoing and stupidity. If racism is wrong, I ought to be able to figure that out without a Facebook post. And finally, there is quite a bit wrong going on in front of my own eyes (in my own heart as well); it’s not as if there would be a shortage of things to condemn in this life, but for the news and social media.

More positively, I will close with a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien, which feels very appropriate to me in this era of constant derision and scorn.

“For myself, I find I become less cynical rather than more—remembering my own sins and follies; and realize that men’s hearts are not often as bad as their acts, and very seldom as bad as their words.”

It’s very, very easy for me to believe ill of people I have never met. It’s very easy for me to dismiss bias against groups with which I have substantial experience. Can I get to the point where I would no sooner believe slander of a stranger, than I would of a close friend? Not that I would never believe, but that in charity I would use the same standard of proof? (“That’s a very serious accusation, and I’m going to have to see some convincing proof to believe it.”) I’m not there yet; I hope to be someday.