Things That Make You Go Hmmm

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John Schwenkler was kind enough to engage Andrew once again over the origins of Trig:

[Is] it still possible to think that the Palins might have pulled off the greatest con in American political history by pretending to be the parents of a Downs Syndrome baby so that he could be their “building bloc [sic] for appealing to the Christianist base”? Sure, but it’s also possible to think that I don’t really have hands, but only a loon or a philosopher could think it’s necessary to present an argument against that.

By the same token, consider the claim that Sarah Palin has at her disposal, but has refused to provide, “evidence completely obliterating all doubts” about the matter. Given the form that the doubts about her pregnancy have so far taken, this is clearly not true – for if Palin had the cunning to fake a pregnancy, then obviously she could have busted out some gubernatorial muscle and forged a birth certificate as well, which means that short of actually going back in time, the kind of person for whom doubts remain at this point is not the kind of person whose concerns one takes especially seriously. Hence even if such a thing could be done, Palin clearly does not have a “responsibility to clear any questions up”; it matters at least whether the questions are reasonable ones, and also whether pretending to take them seriously would set a worrisome precedent by dignifying with an official response a group of openly hostile bloggers’ ludicrous attempt at a smear campaign.

I agree with a lot of what John says here, though I don't think that Andrew is consciously trying to smear Palin. He honestly has questions about the Palin birth story, still. Nothing I can stay is going to change that fact, so instead I want to examine how someone who can think so very clearly and brilliantly about many other subjects fails to see the light on this one story. I think part of the problem is some of the more gifted analytical minds in the blogosphere, who happily engage Andrew on other issues, didn't want to touch this story with a ten-foot pole (Schwenkler, Massie, and Will were exceptions). Ross, who aired his displeasure with Andrew without naming names, didn't combat the rumors directly. Bloggers on the right mocked Andrew for engaging these theories, but there was fairly little intelligent push back. Bloggers on the left mostly ignored the story either out of respect for Andrew or because they found little chance of political gain in it. I suspect With few writers around to counter Andrew's analysis, he wasn't cut short and forcefully rebuked before things got out of control, and he was therefore free to construct his own narrative. These suspicions were fed by conspiracy-minded readers who migrated to the Dish because we were the only outlet for their theories. Soon the piles of "evidence" became so complex, and believers became so convinced of their own dogma, that disproving said rumors became impossible.

Most issues I vigorously disagree with Andrew on involve numbers. Last fall, looking at this chart, I tried my best to explain to him why teenagers being slightly more prone to delivering Down Syndrome babies was indicative of nothing. When presented as fractions these differences look large, but convert these numbers into percents and it becomes clear that the 0.08 percent chance a teenager has of delivering a Down Syndrome baby is not much different than the 0.071 percent chance a twenty-year-old bears, and it is probably not a statistically significant difference. Compare those risks to the risk a woman Sarah Palin's age had, around two percent, and you begin to understand why probability is not on Andrew's side. Sarah Palin was twenty-five times more likely to deliver a Down Syndrome baby than her daughter. Apply these sorts of probabilities to a thousand other shreds of "evidence" and you see why I wrote this a few months ago.

To be fair, Andrew accepts that Trig was not Bristol's baby, though he thinks the story of the Palin pregnancy  –keeping it secret for seven months, flying on an airplane while leaking amniotic fluid, driving 45 miles to a hospital in Wasilla– is strange enough to warrant further investigation. The truth about real conspiracies is they are very hard to keep secret. If there was something to this story, it would have been dug up by now. To zoom out a little, here's a bit from Frank Furedi's article on conspiracy theory literature:

Aaronovitch defines a conspiracy theory as the ‘attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended’. He believes that a ‘conspiracy theory is the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy when other explanations are more probable’.

Andrew has an uncanny ability to see important stories before anyone else. He understood the potential of the Iran story before almost any blogger. He saw the discussion that the Tiller murder might provoke the minute he read the news. This sort of insight is a gift, but false positives are hard to let go of. That is the way the human brain is wired. Ryan Sager wrote awhile ago about why the anti-vaccine conspiracy theories remain despite all the evidence to the contrary: 

The construction of stories, as in a causal relationship between events, is a fundamental human cognitive bias. We can’t stand not knowing why, so we make up explanations even when they’re not supported by evidence or even when they’re patently ridiculous. Why does it not rain, killing our crops? God (or the Gods) is (are) angry. We must make a sacrifice to appease Him (or Them). We kill a goat. It rains. Cause and effect.We can’t avoid the need for explanation; it’s how we’re built. When something disturbing happens, like an epidemic of autism, we must decide why it has happened.

From later in the post:

When the evidence comes in, though, shouldn’t these folks change their minds?...Unfortunately, that’s not how humans work. I explained in another post the story of Marian Keech and the Seekers. In short, Keech headed up a UFO cult in the 1950s. Earth was supposed to be destroyed, and she and her followers were supposed to be rescued by a flying saucer on December 21. The day came and went, but no destruction, no UFO. Instead of giving up their beliefs, however, most of the Seekers glommed onto a new narrative that the Seekers’ belief had saved the Earth and began to try to win converts. The ones who redoubled their commitment were the ones who’d invested the most in the theory quitting their jobs, selling their houses. The UFO not showing up created a feeling of what’s been termed “cognitive dissonance.” How could I have given up my job if there’s really no UFO? The answer their brains came up with: Because what I did saved the world!

Andrew hadn't sold his home, but he had put his reputation on the line. This type of cognitive bias allowed the conspiracy theories to persist in the face of a second pregnancy by Bristol Palin. It allow them to persist despite a witness at the scene who saw Bristol Palin the day Trig was delivered. It allowed them to persist even after Tripp was born. For some, the conspiracy theory mutated at that point. Palin Deception refused to give up on her theories and still didn't believe Palin had given brith to Trig. Who exactly did wasn't mentioned. I highly doubt that if Andrew was presented with all of the "evidence" at the start that he would have come down the way he has. To invoke Fallow's much-hated metaphor, this was a case of a frog boiled so slowly it didn't jump out of the pot.

Many people believe, or have sympathy for, one sort of conspiracy theory or another: there is global warming denialism, anti-vaccine parents, Holocaust denial, believing that FDR caused the Depression, UFO believers, 9/11 truthers, Obama is a Muslim rumors. The list goes on and on. Most people realize how out of the mainstream these views are and don't air them publicly. But Andrew is among the most intellectually honest bloggers I know, in that he blogs what he thinks, whatever that may be. He's fearless. For better or worse –in my opinion for better– Andrew doesn't have much of a filter. The Dish is the blog equivalent of "The Truman Show." Andrew isn't going to hide his prejudices. So, while I believe that Andrew has gotten this story very, very wrong, and I find this attacks on the MSM for not adequately covering Sarah Palin's birth canal a non sequitur, these are risks Andrew runs by blogging the way he does. Personally, I wouldn't have him write any other way.

--PA

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