There used to be pamphlets and short books at the Christian bookstores about how CS Lewis, and sometimes JRR Tolkien, weren't Christians. Now they have websites instead, which I notice never have comments sections. Once in a while a character like that will show up on a Lewis or Tolkien FB page, attempting to argue the same tired points. The difficulty is that they have central ideas* that cannot be dislodged by any counterevidence or discussion. In my few pointless exchanges with them over the years I can report no success. They cannot hear and there is no place for discussion. This group has considerable overlap with the KJV-only folks, who present similar difficulties in discussion.
Whenever I have decided I don't like something, in this case a book, I always worry I'm going to be that guy. That's a bit of an overstatement, because I can find something of value even with writers I disagree with strongly. Yet I do worry that I am too sharply on the lookout for further confirming examples that I was right the first time about this yo-yo, and may miss much. I had started Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson and gotten irritated right off by the introduction to the second edition. They tell on themselves with some candor that they reacted badly to a mostly-positive review that nonetheless took them to task for their political bias, while loving a five-star review that contained no such criticism. They use this example to illustrate what they are exposing in others throughout their book, ruefully noting that we all, even they, are subject to these sorts or biases and inability to see objectively.
At which point they revert immediately to their bias with no correction, so far as I can tell.
I find this infuriating, because this is exactly the point at which a little thought should pop up and go "Huh. I should make extra-special sure not to do this. Especially over the next few sentences." I waited long before I went back at the book, and it does have some value, mostly as a handy reference book for the research behind the ideas on bias, self-justification, and memory. But the political bias continues throughout. It is less blatant than what one encounters in news sources, but I don't know if the subtlety isn't actually more dangerous.
More on that to come, because it did open up a useful train of thought for me. But I put this forward in contrast to Nate Silver's The Signal and The Noise. Silver has far less in the way of academic credentials for such discussions, but he knows how to look at a proposition and ask himself "Have I missed something? Am I seeing what I want to see, or what is real? Have others come to different conclusions? What were their methods?"
I see on the sidebar that Bethany has just put something up about the book over at her site. Haven't read it yet. I hope she's not saying the opposite of what I do here.
Silver's book is more about predictions, why they fail and what can be done to improve them. There has been enormous improvement in weather prediction, political polling, and the performance of athletes, even though these are all dependent on many interacting variables. Other predictions, such as climate change and the economy, also have improved, but not nearly so much, and we are not much better off on predicting earthquakes than we were fifty years ago. He writes engagingly and convincingly why this would be so. I have decided that his explanation and opinion on climate change are the best I have read for acknowledging both that some things are known, while others remain uncertain, and how initial bias on these matters prevents discussion.
The Tavris and Aronson book has the source material for much that we discuss around here about reliability of memory, personal and group bias. It does a good job of that - though very little of it was new to me, here it is now, all in one place. But that bias. While it is insisted in theory that everyone is subject to biases, different perceptions, and instantaneous excuse-making, there are apparently no gay people who are biased; nor are there any people of color who misperceive; Democrats and liberals - especially ones from longer ago - do show some bias, both experimentally and by observation - but only in the context of Republicans and conservatives doing something worse. Similarly, women might do bad things to other women, but never to men, unless the man has done something worse that they are responding to. If you want lists of groups that do evil things, corporate CEO's and religious leaders will show up. But no employees of government unions, no heads of non-profits, and no academics do such things. Nor are they observed to be biased. One black man, Bill Cosby, did do wrong things. I note that he had become controversial in the black community for criticisng its culture.
I cannot imagine that this is intentional. These are simply where their minds go when they look for examples. I was steaming as I read the section about recovered memory and the damage it caused, with no mention of Janet Reno and how that had launched her career (and oh, does the overreaction at Waco seem clearer now?); I shook my head in irritation when they pointed out that the 1979 Iranian Revolution had its roots in the 1953 CIA coup installing the Shah, ignoring the complexities and assassinations the few years before; and I won't even discuss the ways they were wrong-headed in discussing the Crusades. I looked at those and thought How can they leave those out?
Well, probably because they didn't know about them, I suddenly realised. If you don't read the conservative press Janet Reno's prosecutions against supposed ritual abusers in Dade County never come before you. If your goal is to trace back events until you can hit a point where you can blame exactly who you want, you will look no deeper, no wider, no older. So, the terrible events of 1953 just pop out of thin air, and Christians travel thousands of miles to kill Moslems and capture a few square miles of territory for no discernible reason. It's not really their job to get the history exactly fair, but to find good examples from history to illustrate their points. I would have wished an editor or fact-checker along the way had noticed something awry, but that would be unlikely. They are from the same culture. They don't know either.
When one looks at it that way, that's pretty much what all of us do, including me. If things look bad for My Fellows, My Tribe, My Team, I look about until I can find a parallel event, a mirror injustice, or an older chapter until I can get them out from under, at least a bit. Sometimes I can largely exonerate them - sometimes there really isn't much in the way of mitigating circumstances.
This is the reason that control of institutions and eliminating counternarratives is important to so many in the present day, and why the destruction - no, the defanging of the past and of traditions is worrisome. It is not merely that "well, they did some wrong things that we'd like to stop doing," - it's an entire program of having nothing to set against the present and the imagined future. Destroy the past, and even the skeptical mind will find nothing to fasten on to raise as a question.
On the other hand, the information explosion works against this very thing. One political or social group can write all the textbooks and all think alike when they write scripts and essays. But when I go looking for something, I find...other things, quite by accident.
*For the record, the first is usually that there is magic in the stories, and everything to do with magic is satanic - the Bible says so; second that they believe in Purgatory (Lewis thought it likely but did not insist on it), which is Roman Catholic and we all know they aren't really Christians.