Russiagate, Cognitive Bias, Human Nature, and My Political Nihilism

After two years of investigation and constant media coverage, the Mueller Report is finally finished. While anyone outside the Justice Department has yet to read the full report, Attorney General William Barr has released a summary. The so-called Russiagate story is not yet over, however, as there are now calls for the entire Mueller Report to be made public. Exactly what the Russiagate story is and how it started is expertly told by Matt Taibbi in his “It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD” piece. What I’m more interested in is how this whole story is indicative of human nature.

Let me first state my own biases before I talk about human bias in general. I am no fan of Donald Trump. In fact, I hate Donald Trump. I think he’s a narcissist, a terrible human being, and an incompetent president. He’s certainly an intelligent showman and con man, but he is no policy genius, has little understanding of history and world affairs, and demonstrates little interest in his followers beyond continuing to bring them to his rallies to cheer and applaud him in order to inflate his own ego.

But I also hated Obama. And Bush Jr. And Bill Clinton. And Hillary Clinton. So, my having a low opinion of presidents (and those who wished they were president) is my real bias – I couldn’t care less what party label they wear. That’s why I voted for Gary Johnson in 2016. I certainly had my issues with him, too (he’s an airhead and likely would have been used as a useful idiot by the establishment, much like the Republicans are doing with Trump). But for a political nihilist like myself, a person lacking in guile like Johnson is enough to meet my fathomlessly low-bar for who I’ll listlessly pull the lever for.

As far as the Russiagate story goes, I’ll admit to never looking that deeply into it while it was going on. I remained skeptical, yet agnostic about it. For the most part, it just seemed like more fodder for the media’s outrage-of-the-week (or, perhaps more accurately, outrage-of-the-day) storytelling. It wasn’t just that people bought into the story, it’s that they wanted it so badly to be true. That’s what really turned me off to the whole thing. I couldn’t stand watching any of the nighttime talk shows anymore. Their monologues were turned into leftist rallies where the hosts pounded their firsts in advocacy for, at best, an unverified story.

I have my issues with Glenn Greenwald on a lot of things, but his coverage of the media in general, and on the Russiagate topic in particular, I think is where he shines the brightest. Throughout Trump’s time in office, Greenwald exposed the media’s credulousness – neigh, fervor in believing every little tidbit that could possibly be construed as Trump-Russia collaboration. The media’s conspiratorial dot-connecting, mixed with their mewling acceptance of anything the professional liars in the intelligence community said, was worse than mistaken. It was irresponsible. Destructive, even.

It would be easy for me to rant endlessly on the subject. What I’m interested in here, though, is the human capacity for cognitive bias. It’s becoming almost a cliche to talk about the echo chambers wherein we all choose to reside online. I even wrote about it on this very blog back in 2014 before it was cool. Social media sites like Facebook are now even exploring ways of breaking down the echo chambers.

Of course, this ignores the issue of why people enjoy echo chambers in the first place. Nothing feels better than having our biases confirmed. And while we may be good at seeing how biased other people are, we’re terrible at seeing it in ourselves. It only makes it worse that we are prone to see other people falling into normal cognitive biases as signs of bad intentions. Thus, we end up with a growing political divide.

It’s these biases that to me appeared painfully obvious during the entire Russiagate story. From both sides. The left, in their hatred for Trump and their hopes of finding something – anything – to get him out of office, made them completely credulous to everything that could even remotely be linked to the Trump-Russia conspiracy theory. The right, of course, indulged in accusations of a witch hunt before all the facts were in, while attempting to distract from any allegations of wrongdoing with persistent whataboutism concerning not-the-president-and-therefore-completely-irrelevant Hillary Clinton.

If you are disappointed that Mueller was unable to find evidence that our president was colluding with a hostile foreign power to undermine our democracy, you are most likely biased. If you are happy that more evidence has been thrown onto the already mountainous pile of evidence that the news media is biased, dishonest, and willing to push lies for an agenda, you are most likely biased. Neither of these outcomes – the president being treasonous or the media being deceitful – are worth celebrating.

I would say cognitive biases are some of humankind’s defining aspects. Tools to correct for cognitive biases are mostly ineffectual. It’s why certain institutions, namely the sciences, were invented – as a way of weeding out the cognitive biases of individuals by holding them to account. Unfortunately, even science isn’t perfect. My pessimism about our ability to mitigate cognitive biases are why I’ve recently slid into a state of political nihilism. My already depleted hope that people could at least identify their own biases, much less attempt to transcend them, only took yet another blow with the whole Russiagate debacle (Russiagate-gate?) and I’m not sure if anything could ever bring it back. I’ve quickly going from an extropian to someone who eagerly awaits humanities replacement by superintelligent AI.

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