Category: philosophy

*Yes* obstruction: ‘Active information avoidance’ and the Mueller Report

It is one of the great ironies of modern politics that Donald Trump is associated with popularising the term “fake news” to western audiences. Heck, on a number of occasions he claimed to have coined the phrase himself. (At one point he even claimed to have invented the word “fake.”)

That claim turned out to be, yes, well, you know what it turned out to be.

It’s so obvious, it’s not even funny.

And speaking of obvious, here is the final paragraph — the FINAL CONCLUDING PARAGRAPH COMPRISING THE ‘CONCLUSIONS’ SECTION — of the Mueller Report:

Surely this is the killer bit:

…if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we were unable to reach that judgement.

After 400+ pages, it’s quite an in-your-face ending. All that’s missing is a Mic Drop GIF.

Pic: giphy.com

And yet…

What is it that some people can’t see?

I guess what we have here is a case of “active information avoidance.”

Active information avoidance is the term psychologists use to describe how people knowingly choose to avoid, ignore, or downplay information that they are aware (a) is available and (b) is materially relevant. People engage in active information avoidance when they choose not to look at something that makes them feel bad.

Active information avoidance helps us to understand that the idea that humans are, by default, rational self-interested decision-makers is actually a myth. In reality, most humans default to irrational (but still self-interested) decision-making. It’s the psychology of echo chambers, groupthink, false consensus effects, and confirmation bias. And it’s really hard to get rid of.

One example is the ‘ostrich effect‘, where investors literally avoid logging into their online share data when they know the stock market is ‘down’, but log in more frequently when the stock market is ‘up’.

A second example is more common — when middle-class people avoid eye-contact with poor people they encounter begging on the street. Prosperous people also commonly avoid visiting poor areas of town for similar reasons — to avoid finding out how poor the poor really are.

The reality is that most people are prone to active information avoidance, especially when there is a risk that new information might debunk their worldview or threaten their sense of themselves.

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.com

Active information avoidance helps people to preserve their sense of safety, righteousness, and certainty. We are all prone to it.

So maybe that’s why US Attorney General William Barr chose to selectively quote that last Mueller paragraph in his infamous four-page teaser trailer the other week. You know, the one where he quoted the “does not conclude/does not exonerate” bit and then implied that Mueller was making some kind of philosophical point about underdetermination.

And maybe that’s why Trump himself was so quick to summarise “DOES NOT exonerate” to mean “TOTAL exoneration.” In philosophy-of-science terms, we might consider this “Not-X-is-equal-to-Total-X” stance as consistent with an extreme form of “fallibilism” — the idea that no belief is ever justified; that every claim to truth is liable to be the opposite of true.

Instead of invoking Game of Thrones imagery, he could have just tweeted the Duhem-Quine thesis.

(Or maybe he’s simply just a liar. Who knows?)

Psychologically, the ultimate range of crowdsourceable ideas is wide open. Because of active information avoidance, it can include virtually anything. We shouldn’t be surprised to see black-is-white argumentation in modern politics. In fact, we should probably be surprised if we don’t see it.

But one thing about active information avoidance is that it can’t last forever. In most cases, it is self-defeating. Information, by definition, has utility — the term information is reserved for ‘counsel from fact’ that is useful, that resolves uncertainty, that leads to better decisions. When people avoid information, they avoid something that has utility. In theory, at least, they should ultimately fall behind those who are good at facing up to things — as when the people who have their medical check-ups ultimately fare better than those who avoid them.

You never know. Maybe this is the tipping point. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s an illusion.

Yep, maybe it’s fake (thank you, sir).

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