Our National Intelligence Is Broken

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S1: The following program may contain explicit language and.

S2: It’s Friday, August 21st, 20 20 from Slate. It’s the gist. I’m Annie Duke, sitting in for Mike Pesca, in case you don’t know who I am. I’m a former world champion poker player, cognitive scientist and author of Thinking and Bets and my new book, How to Decide Out in September.

S3: I’ve recently been playing some pandemic, some poker with Mike, where he’s been sorting out his spiels for the JESTE and, well, I’ve been taking his money. So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about tribalism in America, the way that were divided into these political tribes, and it feels like those tribes are getting smaller and smaller and smaller. So there’s just so many more opportunities for us versus them. And I think about the politics when I was growing up in it, it feels like, yes, there were there were Republicans and Democrats and they were for certain things and against other things and against each other and for their own tribe. But we had this broader identity as Americans united together that seems to be falling away. So last night, Joe Biden got his chance to really define himself for the American people. What what kind of candidate was he going to be? And you could feel so, so deeply. At least it felt to me in in what he was saying, that he was trying to redefine us to talk about this broader identity that we might have as Americans.

S4: While I’ll be a Democratic candidate, I will be an American president. I work hard for those who didn’t support me as hard for them as I did for those who did vote for me. That’s the job of a president to represent all of us, not just our base or our party. This is not a partisan moment. This must be an American moment. With the calls for hope and light and love, hope for our future, light to see our way forward and love for one another. America is just a collection of clashing interests of red states and blue states, we’re so much bigger than that. We’re so much better than that.

S3: You can hear in what what Biden’s saying is this idea that it’s not red versus blue, that particularly as we’re fighting this common enemy of coronavirus and foreign interference in our elections, that we need to sort of allow that to get in the background and to come together as one country under the banner of this tribe, which is America. But you know that that type of talk from Joe Biden, of course, is quite on brand. He’s always sold himself as a unifier. What I thought was much more interesting and much more powerful during this week where we’ve been watching this Democratic National Convention was Bernie Sanders speech on Monday night, as I think back to 2016 and I think about what happened. It’s true that. Trump was a divisive figure in the Republican Party and of course, there were some anti Trump ers at the time, but it also felt like the party was able to unite around him regardless to rally around him as Republicans and particularly defining themselves as anti Hillary Clinton. And they came out and they voted for him. But in the Democratic Party, we know that the Democratic Party was split between the progressive wing on one side and the liberal and more moderate wing on another. And of course, Bernie Sanders was the leader of that progressive wing. And as we went into that election, it didn’t feel like Sanders was doing anything to bring that divide together. He did endorse Hillary Clinton, but it didn’t feel particularly full throated. It didn’t feel like he was saying, yes, I’m a progressive, but it matters that we’re Democrats. It matters that were, let’s say, anti Trump, as the Republicans had defined themselves as anti Clinton. And I think that that split probably had some effect on whether Clinton won. So I was really interested to hear what Sanders was going to come out and say on Monday. And I thought it was really interesting because it feels like he did a big 180. Really turned it around to try to do basically what Joe Biden did last night, which is define this broader identity to bring us together. And we can hear that in his speech.

S5: Under this administration, authoritarianism has taken root in our country. I and my family and many of yours know the insidious way authoritarianism destroys democracy, decency and humanity. As long as I am here, I will work with progressives, with moderates and, yes, with conservatives to preserve this nation from a threat that so many of our heroes fought and died to defeat.

S6: What you can hear and what he just said is, yes, there’s a progressive wing, there are liberals, there are moderates, there are even conservatives. And I will work with all of them because we need to define a broader identity of authoritarianism versus anti authoritarianism. So you can hear him so clearly trying to stitch back together those partisan divides that in some ways, frankly, I mean, even in the primary he’s responsible for, but he seems to be trying to undo it, to redefine us in this broader tribal identity, this broader political identity, which is anti ism.

S3: And I, for one, was very happy to see that because I’ve been thinking about the destructiveness of how we’re dividing into these smaller groups. On the show today, I spiel about how we figure out what to believe in a covid-19 world. But first I talked to Dave Ambarvale, a psychology professor at NYU who’s an expert in how partisanship drives our beliefs about the world. I ask him to come on the show because I wanted to understand how on earth wearing a mask became so politicized. That conversation is up next.

S7: And so I saw this poll that was taken back in June that I personally found astonishing. According to The Wall Street Journal, if you were to look at the people who were unlikely to wear a mask, they were 12 times more likely to be Trump supporters than people who were wearing masks. Now, obviously, if we think back to June, this was prior to Trump going to Walter Reed with a mask on. This was when he was really projecting a lot of anti mask discourse. So I find this very confusing for the reason that I think that everybody’s intuition is that there is information that exists out in the world. And if it’s objective, particularly if it’s scientific information about, for example, the effectiveness of masks that clearly who you support as president or what party you belong to or these other things wouldn’t enter into the way that we might think about choices around, for example, our physical health. But obviously, this poll shows us that that’s not true. So I just want to start off by saying to you, like, what the hell is going on?

S8: OK, first of all, do we expect that in 2020 we come up with terms like a.. Maskers? So basically why we couldn’t have seen that coming is because, first of all, we didn’t really anticipate the pandemic. But second of all, I think you’re right in your intuition that we would have expected everyone, you know, across the political spectrum to want to do what they could to help minimize their own risks of catching the virus or passing it on to their family and friends and colleagues. So what we see here is a really powerful case of political identity shaping our beliefs about something really basic and foundational that should normally have nothing to do with politics.

S7: So, you know, and obviously in this particular case, this really kills. So we saw at the Democratic convention, you know, one of the things that happened on Monday night was a family whose father had died of covid because he believed it was a hoax, because he didn’t believe the science and instead he believed what he was being told by Trump. This has real consequences. You know, that seems somewhat confusing because I don’t really understand how somebody thinks this is a hoax. I mean, there’s actually people dead.

S8: That powerful thing about the pandemic is it’s providing real world consequences to beliefs. So when we’re debating, you know, how big Donald Trump’s crowd sizes are in his inauguration, whether it was bigger or smaller than Obama’s, that doesn’t really matter in terms of any real consequence. And so if you lie about something like that or you convince people who are your supporters to believe it, it doesn’t really have any consequence. But suddenly we’re dealing with a real virus and the virus doesn’t care what your partisan affiliation is, it cares whether or not you’re close to somebody or whether you breathe in the same air from somebody who’s infected with it. And so this is why we’re now seeing these serious, real world consequences of partisanship. It’s almost like taking a black light to a room, you know, those dirty, grungy hotel rooms. No, no, no. Yes, yes. And so this is American partisanship were that dirty hotel room politically. And basically the pandemic’s taking is the black light revealing all the the gunk and disease.

S7: You know, your work is very much in the space and kind of what’s happening to the brain when people are thinking in this way. So can you just explain how it is that partisan identity actually short circuits our ability to reason about information objectively?

S8: Yeah. So what I think is happening and I have a number of publications on this as a scientist, I’ve been studying it to try to make sense of what’s going on, because when I opened the news, it seems crazy to me as it does to you. But if you look through the last 30 years of political science and social psychology, communications, research and neuroscience, what you can see is clear. Evidence that we don’t always update our beliefs in a rational way, certainly we do most of the time. You know, if I go out for dinner and I don’t like what I’m tasting, I won’t order it again. With politics, it can be a little bit different because many people have a really powerful political identity, you know, as a Democrat or Republican, for example. And what that does is it motivates them to believe things that make them feel good about that identity in the same way that a sports fan, you know, sitting in a stadium back when we actually had fans in stadiums, they always think the ref is biased because they always think that their team is virtuous. And so any call against their team is seen as unfair. And so their minds are twisting and interpreting information in a way that affirms their identities. And so this is what’s happening when partisans turn on the news or read the newspaper or drill into their favorite partisan website.

S7: It’s despite the real world consequences. And I guess, I mean, to quote Orwell, the evidence of their eyes and ears.

S8: Yeah. And this is what political leaders and Trump is is a particular case of this. They are telling you to deny the evidence of your eyes and ears and believe something entirely different. And the crowd size issue was from his very first presidential press conference. And that type of attitude has followed us for the last three and a half years where he’s continually telling people to ignore the facts of reality and what they can see and hear and otherwise interpret for themselves.

S7: Do you think that there’s a possibility kind of on that note that it has a little bit less to do with whether Trump wore a mask one day and more to do that enough time passed where it became a thing that Democrats do?

S9: Yeah. So what you’re touching on is a part of partisanship, which is called affective polarization, which means not that you disagree with the other side, but you just simply don’t like the other side. And so if mask’s became associated in people’s minds with Democrats, then people might on the on the right, Republicans might not want to wear them because they feel like that’s a Democratic thing to do or I’m going to be pressured to do it by Democrats. And I don’t want to concede that to them. And I don’t like them. So I’m just going to do the opposite. And so we’ve seen in the last few years a lot of beliefs and behaviors that are harmful to the self that are designed just to snub or insult the other side. And so part of the attitude towards Mars might be explained by that.

S7: Would that also explain why people are actually literally getting into fistfights, which seems to sort of an objective observer to be somewhat odd if someone’s wearing a mask? I think it does no harm to you, not the way that we think about harm. Right, that you’ve got a mask on you be you, whatever it’s like you’re also wearing pants that I don’t like. I don’t care. And I don’t like your hairstyle, does it? I don’t need to get in a fist fight with you about it. But when it comes to mask wear and we’ve seen a whole bunch of stuff and I’m not talking about the cases where someone’s like locked out of a store or they’re asked to leave. Right. These are just cases where you’re sort of walking around and you see somebody with a mask and all of a sudden you’re in a fistfight with them like that in the same space.

S9: Yeah, I think the issue you’re touching on here is that masks are now symbols of identity in the same way that a red mega hat is a symbol of identity. And there’s been lots of fights and attacks based on people wearing Red Megahed because that’s a symbol of your identity, become a symbol of Trump supporters. Identity masks have become a symbol of opposition to Trump. I think he said something similar himself before he wore one that if you wear one, it was kind of symbolizing that you were against him. And so people take their marching orders from those types of comments and they see these things as symbols. And that leads to increasingly conflict. And what you pointed out is that even violent conflict. And so the fact that people are fighting over a hat or a mask, especially mask, which is designed to keep you safe. And as you know, the the reason we wear masks is not even really to keep ourselves safe. It’s to save other people around us. So if someone’s in the store next to you and they mask on, they’re mainly doing it for you is mainly a symbol of altruism. So the notion that you would then attack somebody who’s doing something to minimize your risk is the most extremely absurd thing I’ve heard about. But it does speak to the degree to which these have become symbols of identity, and it reveals the depth of of negative aspect of feelings that people have towards the other party.

S7: It seems to me that part of what activates this hyper partisanship is language that is hyper partisan. And it feels to me that that’s really coming out of populist movements. Right. That sort of sitting in the world of populism, that if we think about more traditional politicians who are thinking about uniting that we’re not. Getting that same kind of language, so I’m wondering, is that a necessary ingredient to take something really that seems pretty mundane, a piece of cloth that you put over your mouth and turn it into something so incredibly controversial?

S9: So the language that we use is really powerful and this is something we’ve studied. In fact, I have a couple of papers on this with Billy Brady, where we found that when people are talking about political issues, all kinds of political issues, you know, gun control, climate change, same sex marriage, when they use moral emotional terms in their tweets, they’re more likely to get shared. And so that’s really rewarding. Your tweets go viral. But when you look at who’s sharing them, when you use that type of language, it turns out to be associated with the creation of echo chambers, that the only people retweeting it when you use that language are people who are on your side of the political spectrum. And when we looked at political leaders, we looked right before the year before the last election. We found that, for example, Donald Trump use that language very powerfully. And in fact, he seemed to have use it in a way that was able to get his message out very widely and truly go viral, much more than Hillary Clinton. And part of it is that he’s using that language and it’s going viral. It’s getting his message out. But it but we know from all those other studies that it seems to be divisive and in its consequences. And so if people are talking about vaccines that way, my prediction is that that’s how it would unfold. It would make the issue of vaccines polarized and divisive. And again, there’s no need that it should be because anti vaccine attitudes aren’t currently very polarized. But all it would take, I think, is a few powerful, influential people who are political leaders to talk about it that way, that it would might rally their side to their position, but it might turn off and alienate people who are different than them.

S7: This this feels very much a little bit like a Kafka trap to me in the sense that, you know what what you said was that these kind of hyper partisan messages, particularly ones that have language that’s really morally, emotionally heightened, like hate, despise, and and those types of messages, these are the ones that actually are getting the clicks. Right. So that’s what’s being reinforced. And I guess that you can also sort of say that in terms of activation of a base, the more that you can activate your base and I kind of think about that in the same way as activating your social media feed. Right. Which is like getting your things to go viral. I imagine it’s also very similar that you can get more activation of your base the more that you’re kind of digging into the partisanship. So it’s very hard to kind of break those cycles. And I just wonder if if these fistfights are going to turn into things that are much more significant and over much more significant things than mass or maybe continue with things that are seen as sort of settled and insignificant as a mass. But it’s going to be more than a fist fight.

S1: Yeah, I saw. I agree with you. So there’s the part of human nature, which is what I study. Right. Which is our group business. And that’s not going anywhere. And so we’re always going to have the potential to form coalitions and engage in group conflict that’s baked into our the way our brains are wired. And so then the issue is what environment do you drop us into like a lab rat? Right. You drop them in and they’re pushing on the lever to get food. You take a group set of humans and you drop them into a cage. What type of information are they getting and what are they getting rewarded for and what parts of their nature are getting triggered and reinforced? And so I think that is the issue right now. We have an economy, especially online, that rewards divisiveness. And so right now, the economy is one that reinforces the parts of human nature that are not the ones that benefit democracy. And I think of democracy and civil discourse are incredibly fragile things. And basically we’ve put the parts of human nature that oppose them on steroids.

S7: OK, so I’m going to I’m going to offer you a creative hack. What if aliens came down and attacked the planet? And let’s just say they’re aliens that are pretty hard to beat, like they’re a bad enemy, but they are beatable. It’s just going to be, like, really hard. Do you think that that would solve part of this problem? Would that bring us together as Americans or the world as humanity and maybe override some of these partisan divides as we were trying to fight this enemy that was invading us? Like in some ways, as far as this is concerned, would we be better if aliens came and attacked us?

S1: Yeah, I think, you know, as long as they don’t decimate us, I think we’d be better if it creates what’s known as a common identity. And you wouldn’t want that just for the country. You’d wanted it for humanity as a whole. And basically what you just described is the Port of Independence Day, which is one of my favorite sci fi movies. And when you watch it, you feel yourself getting a sense of connection to people in other countries. He’s hoping that they can all somehow pull together to solve the alien invasion. So I think you’re right that there’s like dozens and dozens and dozens of studies on that, that if you create a common enemy and a common goal, those are powerful, too powerful factors that bring people together to cooperate. So and that’s also the plot of one of my favorite comic books, The Watchmen, that it was designed to stave off a nuclear war, that they created this attack on New York by by an alien. And so I think that that is a classic sci fi trope, but the psychology behind it is rock solid. So I think that would help. The question is, could we sustain it? Could we create systems and institutions of cooperation that will keep it going? And I’ll just say one thing hopeful is that we have done a really good job of that since World War Two. Right. You know, we’ve had nuclear weapons for a long time, atomic weapons and nuclear weapons that could have decimated humanity. And we’ve created a lot of interdependence, common goals, shared economies. We take it for granted now. But institutions like the United Nations World Health Organization, International Monetary Fund are designed to bring people together and create independence. So we don’t have these global catastrophes. And if you look at intergroup conflict, the deaths from intergroup conflict have gone dramatically down in the last 60 or 70 years around the world. If you look at the evidence for this, there’s some good data suggest that we have done it. We haven’t been perfect and it feels like we’re backsliding, but we can do it and we’ve made significant progress. So that gives me hope that humans can pull together and do this.

S7: OK, so my my takeaway is, if we want people to wear masks, we should have aliens invade the planet. Yeah.

S1: If you or we can do like they did in Watchmen and create a faux alien invasion there, we can do like that.

S7: The Orson Welles thing.

S1: Yeah. We should update one of the world’s.

S7: Thank you so much for this conversation. It was it was so incredibly helpful and insightful and has helped me to clarify this confusion that I’ve had about why people aren’t wearing math and I don’t know, actually outside of an alien invasion, that it’s created a whole lot of hope for me. But at least I feel like I have a better understanding of what’s going on. Well, it’s fun chatting about it. Thank you.

S3: And now the spiel with the pandemic, we’re asking individuals to make decisions about their own risk every single day. This isn’t just on a societal level about, you know, whether we should open schools or whether we should open bars or whether we should all go back to work. I’m talking about every individual who has to figure out, is it OK for me to go to the grocery store? Is it OK for me to go to a gym? Should I be wearing a mask? Can I go to dinner with friends? And these kinds of decisions are difficult, even when you have lots of information and you can reason about that information in a really rational way. In fact, the minimum requirement that you need in order to think critically about how to manage your own risk is information. And in the case of covid-19, the information that you need is how many infections are around me. And what I see is this breakdown in that informational piece. And here’s the problem. And it’s been the problem from the beginning. If we think back to March 1st, as I’m trying to figure out what is my risk when I go out, what’s the likelihood that I’m going to run into somebody with covid-19 who might, in fact, me? If you looked at New York, the epidemiologists say what their estimates are, that the day that they had confirmed one case. There were actually 10000 cases circulating now think about that from someone trying to reason about this disease. I think there’s one case it’s totally reasonable for me to be walking around in the world. The chances in a city as large as New York that I’m going to run into one person are minuscule. But it turned out that what we didn’t know was that there were 10000 cases and we could see the results of that in terms of people’s ability to manage their risk. As New York became the epicenter and hospitals became overwhelmed and infections rose.

S6: So here’s the problem that we have today. Obviously, if we could test every single human being every single day, we would be fine because we would all know exactly how many infections are around, because we would have the numbers. But we don’t have that. And there’s two reasons that we don’t have that one either on purpose or because of a lack of testing capacity or whatever it might be. We are certainly not coming close to testing everybody every day. That’s the first problem that we have so that we don’t really know when we see a confirmed case, how many other cases are sitting behind that. The other issue is that there’s a delay in the results that we get.

S3: And Bill Gates was on the Sunday shows, I think it was last weekend. And he pointed out that if you don’t know about a case before, three days is up within three days of a test. In other words, that there’s kind of no point in having had the test anyway. And we can see why that is because that person who doesn’t have the results is now circulating out in the world and they’re infecting other people and the virus is exponential. So they’re infecting a lot of people. And by the time you find out about it, it’s already kind of too late. So we’re in this situation where test results are coming in maybe three days later. But in a lot of cases, particularly as an area becomes an epicenter as infections explode and the caseload in the testing load goes up, sometimes as many as two weeks later. So what’s happening to me is an individual who’s trying to decide about whether I should go out into the world.

S6: I look at that running ticker on CNN and I see the number of cases there and I’m seeing a snapshot of two weeks ago. So I’m trying to reason about what I’m supposed to do today. With information that is actually showing me what the world look like two weeks ago, not as what it is today, now there’s only two ways to kind of help this along way. No one is just to start testing everybody to figure out how do we get a rapid test that’s going to get us the answer today where we can actually randomly sample the population so we can get a true sense of how many infections exist today. The other possibility would be if we can’t do that, which at least at the moment, we don’t seem to be able to get it together, to be able to create more testing would be to have some group of epidemiologists who, instead of telling the public the number of confirmed cases that there are today, would actually tell us the estimate of how many cases there are. Imagine how much better off New York would have been if on that day where there was one confirmed case. That was not what was communicated to them alone, what was communicated to them on top of that was that there were 10000 cases around. People might have been much more careful. They might have managed their risk a lot better. So that’s the first thing is that we really need better information. But the second thing that’s going on that I think is making it very, very hard for people to reason about this virus and about how to manage their own risk has to do with the scientific norm called universalism. So what is universalism? Basically says if we think about that old saying, you know, don’t shoot the messenger, we can think about it as a little flip of that, which is don’t shoot the message. In other words, that things have truth independent of the person who says them mass are either effective or they’re not. It doesn’t really matter who says it hydroxy chloroquine is either effective or it’s not. It doesn’t matter who says it, Ramdas Xavier is either effective or it’s not. Doesn’t matter who says it and so on and so forth. The way that I could sort of say it. Is if your mother says the earth is round, the earth is round, and if Hitler says the earth is round, the Earth is still round, no matter that Hitler was certainly in big competition for the worst human being that has ever lived. The earth is round nonetheless, and that is what universalism is, that things are true regardless of the person who has said them. And this is where we can see this problem with partisanship is that it feels like in America today that is no longer the case. That the person who said it tells you what is true, the person who says it also tells you that maybe you shouldn’t believe something. If Trump says something and you like him, you believe it. If Trump says something and you don’t like him, you don’t believe it. And this is not a great way to be reading about information, particularly as it relates to something that actually might kill you. And if it doesn’t kill you, it may have really long lasting effects in terms of your health, in terms of long lasting cardiac issues, long lasting pulmonary issues, perhaps neurological issues. So how are we expecting people to make good decisions when first they don’t even have the information at hand to be able to manage their risk? But second, when there’s this breakdown of universalism, I’m not sure how to fix it. But I think that if we could start to, as Bernie Sanders said on Monday night, stitch back together those partisan divides, as Joe Biden was urging, start to redefine ourselves as Americans at minimum, at least, maybe we would believe what other Americans said, and that would at least allow us to be thinking about this information more rationally so that everyone, including me, by the way, could figure out when it’s safe to go back indoors.

S2: And that’s it for today’s show, the gist was produced by Daniel Shrader and Margaret Kelly, who I want to thank for bearing with this newbie guest host and basically being my therapist as I work through my anxieties about stepping into my shoes. While I’m confident facing off at the poker table against him, he is certainly better at this job as a last plug. Please check out the Alliance for Decision Education because better decisions lead to better lives and a better society. I’ll be back on Monday in Peru, de Peru, du Peru. And thanks for listening.