Thursday, September 16, 2004

Sokal at CBS

As a corrollary to yesterday's post on people not looking for disconfirming information, look at how biases make people suckers.

The recent CBS fraud, where some huckster tricked CBS into publishing fake memos on Bush's National Guard Service, shows how bias makes you vulnerable to cognitive jujitsu where someone takes advantage of your blindness to make you do something you rather would not have.

It seems that either Dan Rather, or CBS, had some liberal bias and/or personal animosity against Bush Jr. Since they all "knew" that Bush shirked his National Guard service, they were easily taken in by a fake memo that supported this "fact". You can see this mental softness in this revealing headline from the liberal New York Times: "Memos on Bush Are Fake but Accurate, Typist Says"

On the other hand, a memo that claimed Bush served exemplarily, for example, would have been scrutinized much more thoroughly.

Right-wing readers were much more skeptical of CBS/Rather's claims, and so had incentive to find something that disconfirmed the memos. Lousy typography, dubious formatting, inarticulate signatures made easy targets. Once people started looking for disconfiming evidence, lots began turning up, and "experts", who had perhaps supported CBS, began to back away from their claims. CBS could have asked the experts to find potential inauthenticities in the documents but they did not, they only asked them to confim authenticy.

We don't know who fed these documents to CBS. It may have been cooked up by Kerry partisans who just want Bush to look bad. It could have been cooked up by Bush partisans who preyed on Democrat (and mainstream media) cognitive weaknesses and fed them the memos as bait. If it was Democrats, they have committed fraud. If it was Republicans, they've executed a hoax.

This reminds me of the Sokal hoax, where he feeds a humanities journal an "article" that was just a mix of mumbo jumbo and far-left platitudes. It was published.


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