Ground hornets and seeing the bigger picture | In Focus |

We need to accurately perceive our political opponents and the problems we all face

Rich Elfers

Rich Elfers

When I was 18, I mowed neighbors’ lawns to earn money. One time when I was mowing, I got stung on my ankle by ground wasps. I had stepped on their entrance hole, and they made their presence known to me.

Curious, I got a rake and put the rounded edge near their hole to see what they would do. The rake was long enough so that if they followed the rake up to me, I could escape, but they never did. They attacked the end of the rake, never understanding the source of the threat was 5 feet away. Those wasps couldn’t see the big picture.

The ground wasps taught me a lesson that we can apply to the current U.S. political situation.

There is a large group of people in this country who are like the wasps. They sense a threat to their way of life and to their very existence, but, like the wasps, only seem capable of seeing the immediate threat and not the big picture—the larger danger, the existential danger.

R. Kelly Garrett and Robert M. Bond, in an article entitled “Conservatives’ Susceptibility to Political Misconceptions”, in the June 2, 2021 Science Advances, claim in their thesis that U.S. conservatives are uniquely likely to hold misperceptions far above those of their progressive opponents. Think QAnon and other conspiracy theories such as Trump’s “Big Lie” that the election was stolen from him. Think Marjorie Taylor Green and her wild and unsubstantiated statements.

While facts and history strongly disprove all these assertions, that has not stopped their spread. Garrett and Bond’s study took place over six months. Results confirmed that conservatives had more difficulty distinguishing between truth and falsehood. Part of the reason for this is that there are more widely shared falsehoods that promote conservative views than liberal views. Examples include beliefs that climate change is a hoax, that former President Obama is not an American citizen, or that antifa broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Some scholars argue that conservatives are more biased than liberals. This appears to be the case regarding race and the threat of illegal immigrants coming to our country. As the authors state: “We [the authors] provide robust evidence that conservatives discriminate between political truths and falsehoods less well than liberals when assessing a broad cross section of real-world political claims.”

Conservatives value order, cognitive closure (the need to have a definite answer for an issue), and dogmatism (a sense of absolute certainty) more commonly than liberals. Conservatives tend to value intuition over science and reason.

The authors go on to suggest a second possible explanation: The media slants more to the left than to the right. Therefore, conservatives might feel more attacked and threatened than liberals who find more confirmation for their beliefs in the mainstream media.

In summary, “… the more politically neutral true stories there were in a wave, the more liberals resembled conservatives; the presence of politically charged true stories exacerbated the ideological divide in sensitivity and response bias.”

Because we live in a scientific age, “liberalism is more compatible with the… standards, values, and practices of science.” But this explanation fails to “explain why falsehoods disproportionately advantage the right.” The authors suggest that foreign powers manipulate the news to sow discord. In addition, the former president found it politically beneficial to promote lies.

To sum up their research, 21st century American conservatives are “uniquely likely to hold political misperceptions” while the news media provides accurate information which “disproportionately advances liberal interests.”

From 1949 to 1987 we were able to avoid much of the political polarization with the “fairness doctrine” which required radio and TV newscasts to give equal time for differing points of view. Its repeal was due to challenges by cable and satellite television networks. They asserted that the doctrine violated the First Amendment’s freedom of speech clause. The Federal Communications Commission finally demurred, stating that the fairness doctrine had a “chilling effect” on free speech.

Rush Limbaugh, talk show host, was instrumental in weaponizing the media by taking advantage of the conservative tendency to gullibility. He helped create the polarization we see today. The conservative rejection of science turned the media “liberal” in their eyes.

Perhaps it is time to return to an updated “fairness doctrine” where contrasting arguments might help us to mitigate our tendency to confirmation bias, whether or not it has a “chilling effect” on free speech. The survival of our representative democracy hangs in the balance.


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