Changing minds is an uphill battle

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E minus 92 – Over a year ago, we suggested in this space that – contrary to what some people have claimed about political arguments – facts do matter. Resolving differences of opinion, 4/15/19.

If decisions get made that aren’t supported by the facts (whether knowable at the time or revealed by subsequent developments) . . . the consequences may be disappointing or even disastrous. So in the longer run, facts certainly do matter – and smart people will try to figure out what the relevant facts are before committing to support politicians and their policy proposals.

Readers responded along the lines that leftists (Side A) typically ignore the facts, even though conservatives (Side B) respect them. For example:

One can’t deal with the extreme left by being polite, as they refuse to listen to facts of the real sort and remain convinced that Donald Trump is evil. They will use “ends justify the means” strategies to get their way, and that includes welcoming illegal aliens to vote against Republicans. We can look forward to dire consequences if this behavior continues. – SAFE director

This entry will revisit the issue by reviewing several recent efforts to counter Side A misinformation. The results achieved by Side B weren’t overly impressive, but consider this: was some alternative available that would have yielded better results?

1. HCQ controversy – Ever since the president saw fit to tout the potential use of an anti-malarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, to treat Covid-19, his critics have gone out of their way to characterize such use as ineffective and perhaps dangerous. In this vein, Delaware’s leading newspaper recently ran a USA Today story that purported to be news reporting but was actually a thinly veiled attack on the president. Virus drug hunt slowed by “desperation science,” Marilyn Marchione (USA Today), News Journal, 7/9/20.

Then you’ve got politics, as with hydroxychloroquine, which President Trump “relentlessly promoted” while Dr. Anthony Fauci was counseling a “prove things first” approach. “For three months, weak studies polarized views of [HCQ] until several more reliable ones found it ineffective for treatment.”

This wasn’t a complete account, as was clearly explained in a contemporaneous opinion column. Notably, the findings of an anti-HCQ study had been hastily withdrawn by the UK medical journal Lancet after it became evident that there were major problems with the underlying data. Also, the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit had reported good results (death rate cut in half) from using HCQ to treat Covid-19 patients if the treatment was begun shortly after hospitalization. Can [HCQ] help Covid patients early on? We need more science and less politics, Dr. Marc Siegel,,

We submitted a letter to the editor on the issue, with gratifying results. The News Journal published Dr. Sigel’s column, which they might otherwise have missed, and also our letter (on the second try). Science involves trial and error, News Journal,

SAFE’s modest efforts notwithstanding, this controversy lives on. Thus, Big Tech recently saw fit to block the dissemination of a video by a group of healthcare professionals who were advocating for HCQ as a treatment for Covid-19. Agree or disagree with “America's Frontline Doctors,” but Big Tech shouldn't be deciding for you, Michael Austin,,

Facebook and Twitter, the two most widely used social media platforms, have both been removing and censoring any mention of the video, flagging it as “false information.”

Hmm, wonder why it always seems to be conservative views that are squelched in this matter. Where in the First Amendment does it say that “free speech” may be limited by a panel of left-leaning fact checkers? And why are Twitter et al. somehow immune from having to justify their disapproval of the supposedly objectionable material?

Here’s how Google CEO Sundar Pichai supported the censoring in a previously-scheduled congressional hearing on Big Tech that took place last week. Raw, 8/1/20. We don’t find his reasoning convincing, how about you?

Mr. Pichai claimed that Google permits “robust debate” about the causes of COVID-19, but said the AFD video “could cause harm in the real world” by claiming that “something [HCQ]” could be a proven cure that doesn’t meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. When someone says something on YouTube that contradicts the CDC, in other words, Pichai indicated that “we would take that down.”

Rep. [Greg] Steube [R-FL] was not satisfied with this answer, challenging Pichai on his false claim that Google and YouTube support “freedom of expression,” even as they censor “doctors who are giving their opinion,” and providing real-world examples of cases where their protocols worked and were effective.

For what it’s worth, the doctors involved look serious and professional. Check out this group picture taken in front of the US Supreme Court. Doctors fight against social media censorship to take down left-wing misinformation, Kristine Javier,, 7/31/20.

Dr. Stella Immanuel (a black woman of faith from Houston) is reportedly somewhat eccentric, however, and Joe Biden chose to label her as a “crazy woman” while ignoring all the other doctors touting the merits of HCQ. Biden slams Trump for promoting false COVID-19 claims from crazy woman, NBC News,,

In the video, Immanuel, a licensed pediatrician from Houston, claims to have effectively treated 350 COVID-19 patients with hydroxychloroquine out of her medical clinic, but declined to provide data. She also, in the video, refers to doctors who declined to treat patients with hydroxychloroquine as "good Nazis" and "fake doctors," and called published research "fake science."

2. Barr hearing – Having given up on impeaching the president for the time being, House Democrats served notice at the start of July that they would like to begin an impeachment investigation of the attorney general. Among his supposed offenses: using the powers of the Department of Justice to violate the civil rights of peaceful Black Lives Matters protestors, seek to end the criminal prosecution of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and “harass, intimidate and attack” the presidents’ political opponents.” Desperate Democrats introduce resolution to impeach AG Bill Barr,, 7/1/20.

On July 28, Mr. Barr appeared before the House Judiciary Committee chaired by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) for a long sought hearing. Judging from the general tenor of the event, he was well prepared to respond to a broad range of questions. House Democrats weren’t about to let Barr talk, which would have allowed him to make his case. Their strategy was to bombard him with accusatory questions while repeatedly invoking the “reclaiming my time” mantra to ensure he would have no opportunity to answer them.

If House Democrats had been seeking information about the activities of the Department of Justice, one would think they would have wanted Barr to answer their questions. But the real objectives, according to one observer, were to create video footage for campaign ads and get under Barr’s skin. Dems swarm Bill Barr, Byron York, Washington Examiner,

AG Barr was allowed 5 minutes to present an opening statement, which in our view was well reasoned, balanced, and thoroughly professional. There was nothing in it to warrant a disinclination to consider his ensuing testimony. Transcript

House Republicans objected to the Democrats' tactics, but to no avail. Tensions soar as Jim Jordan rips Democrats for repeatedly interrupting Barr, Madison Dibble, Washington Examiner,

Barr maintained an affable demeanor, although it must have required some effort, but observed dryly that it had been his understanding that this would be a “hearing” and he was the witness who had been called to testify. He also asked for a five-minute break at one point, which Rep. Nadler declined to declare.

TV viewers were free to stop watching, and no doubt many of them (including your faithful scribe) did so. Should House Republicans and the witness have ended the bogus hearing by walking out? Such a move would probably have backfired, but it would certainly have been justifiable.

Perhaps the most profound issue that didn’t get objectively discussed was the nature of the civil unrest that had been unfolding in Portland (among other places) night after night for the past two months. Barr maintained that this activity was not a legitimate form of protest, but rather a violent attack on the nation as represented by its property (the courthouse) and employees (people inside).

His view was supported by a shocking video, which was shown during the House Republicans’ time. Hearing video (4h, 50m, starting around the 16-minute mark),,

See also 13 images of the chaos created by “violent anarchists” in Portland, Virginia Allen,,

For their part, Rep. Nadler et al. insisted that the protests were mainly peaceful, and federal security personnel had been brought in – against the wishes of the Portland mayor and Oregon governor – to inflame the situation and thereby attempt to create a campaign issue for the president.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supported this view afterwards by defending her own previous likening of federal agents in Portland to “storm troopers” and deriding AG Barr’s testimony. Nancy Pelosi: William Barr “was like “blob” during testimony, Madison Dibble, Washington Examiner,

The peaceful protest interpretation struck us as manifestly absurd. See also Barr rightfully defends federal response to dangerous rioting, as House Democrats attack him, Hans von Spakovsky & Cully Stimson,,

The immediate situation in Portland now seems to be on the way to resolution, with Oregon state police finally being sent in to do the job that the city police weren’t allowed to do and protect the federal courthouse so that a heightened federal presence in the area won’t be required. Chad Wolf, acting DHS chief: We will be in Portland until we're sure courthouse is secure, David Sherfinski, Washington Times,

More generally, however, Side A’s lack of support for the police and calls for reduced funding levels will probably continue around the country until November or beyond. The long-term consequences could be serious, and the social factions most severely affected will be the very communities of color that Side A claims to support. What a tragedy!

3. Cruz interview – A debater during his college years (at Princeton), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is generally up for adversarial discussions. See, e.g., his “tax reform” debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), video (83 min.), 10/18/17.

When Chris Cuomo recently challenged Cruz to appear on his CNN show re the proposed extension of the federal “plus-up” of unemployment insurance benefits, however, the invitation was declined. Why? Cruz had already done a CNN interview on the subject, very little (15 seconds out of 7 minutes) of which had been aired – presumably because Cruz had won the encounter. CNN’s Cuomo tries to call out Sen. Ted Cruz; It doesn’t end well, Josh Bernstein,, video (5:51),
7/27/20. Enjoy!

Note: The UIB plus-up was enacted in the CARES Act, which became law on 3/27/20. It expired on July 31, and with negotiations on the next coronavirus relief bill currently bogged down it’s unclear what – if any - federal UIB unemployment benefits will apply in the future. SAFE is on record as opposing an extension. Letter to Congress from 28 conservative groups (led by Americans for Prosperity),

4. Reflections – We stand by our previous conclusion that facts matter, in the sense that they ultimately determine outcomes and human beings care about outcomes. No fatalism here, “Que sera, sera” simply isn’t our song.

It’s true, however, that people often ignore the facts when they are discussing controversial topics (just about anything these days). And while Side A partisans may be the worst offenders, as one might conclude from the foregoing examples, it’s unclear why Side B folks should be immune from the disease. So whatever is afoot here, let’s start with the premise that we’re all human beings and it probably works both ways.

A recent article suggests an interesting perspective, namely that the human mind is wired to solve problems – but not for the purpose of determining the optimal answers, as one might think. Why facts don’t change our minds, Elizabeth Kolbert,,

Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate. Cooperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in cooperative groups.

If the object of the exercise is staying in synch with the people in our faction, whoever they may happen to be, then various characteristics of human thought – such as confirmation bias, the reluctance to reconsider our beliefs, or mob behavior – start making more sense than they otherwise would.

Also, in practical terms, presenting the “facts” won’t win many arguments because the natural tendency will be to discount them. To change minds, it’s necessary to engage at a deeper level. What persuasion is really about, Lee Carter,,

It’s not about appealing to your base or preaching to your choir. It’s about engaging with someone who doesn’t yet know you, agree with you, or sometimes even like you. It’s about the very difficult challenge of overcoming your audience’s human instinct to stick to their existing position. It is about giving people a reason to listen and then providing them with the right information in the right way so they can alter their existing point of view.

Can we do these things? Perhaps not, but we should try. Because if issues ultimately don’t prove amenable to reason, then the only way to resolve down may be force – which as history shows can get very ugly.


#I don’t see much hope of educating the rabid left on the other side of the argument, nor the corporate boards willing to buy peace by going along with them. – SAFE director

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