How Bubbles Look From the Inside

Somehow, no matter what team I root for, the referees favor the other one. It’s one of the great mysteries of my life. How is that even possible?

I mean, mostly I root for teams in my area, so the refs could have a regional prejudice. But once in a while some team on the other side of the country catches my fancy, and the referees persecute them too! How do they even know? It’s not like I announce on Twitter: “New team 4 me. GO 9ERS!” (Like I’d make it that easy for them.) But somehow they figure it out. Even in the college bowl season, where I’ve never heard of half these teams and sometimes I’m not even sure myself who I’m rooting for until the middle of the second quarter, it’s just inevitable that some bogus pass interference call in the last two minutes is going to give the game to the other team.

Why me? What did I ever do to them?

Deep in their hearts, all sports fans have these thoughts. But for most of us, reason eventually wins out. Sooner or later, no matter how convincing it feels, the International Conspiracy of Telepathic Refs in All Sports becomes too unwieldy a theory to take seriously. “OK,” you reluctantly admit, “maybe I do have a perceptual bias that makes all of Kobe Bryant’s best moves look like traveling. Maybe I have a memory bias that clings to those plays at the plate where the replay showed my guy was clearly safe and forgets all the bad calls that went the other way. Maybe that’s what’s happening really.”

It’s hard to accept, like the first time you hear that the world isn’t flat and the Australians are actually standing upside-down. But after a while it’s the only thing that makes sense. (In weak moments, though, when the red light goes on even though the puck obviously didn’t cross the line, I still nurse the fantasy that someday in a dark smoky bar in Bangkok, a renegade ref on the run will explain to me how it all works.)

Something similar happens in politics. No matter who you root for, it’s pathetically obvious that the media favors the other side. If you’re conservative, you believe that the Liberal Media covers up incredible Obama scandals like Fast and Furious or Benghazi, not to mention oldies-but-goodies like Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. If you’re liberal, it makes you crazy how conservatives can get completely baseless stories into the news cycle, like the Menendez prostitute thing or the ACORN pimp scam. David Atkins expressed the common liberal frustration:

The “story” about Menendez bubbled up through the right-wing “news” site The Daily Caller and gained traction from there in the traditional media.

It reminds me of the time that some liberal hacks paid off people to lie about a Republican Senator, the story “broke” on Daily Kos, and then the entire media world talked about it for months.

Oh wait. That didn’t happen, because it would never happen. The Washington press is wired for Republican control, and that includes the credibility given to alternative media sources.

Another media-bias notion popular on the left is false equivalence, where any story about Republican wrong-doing also has to mention some Democratic sin, no matter how trivial, so that the journalist can conclude that “both sides do it”, even if both both sides actually don’t do it.

This week’s false-equivalence story was the liberal war on science, which balances the conservative war on science. You see, a handful of liberals share popular conservative anti-science views (19% don’t believe in global warming) and there are even some issues where a fringe of liberal environmentalists or anti-corporatists reach beyond the facts (like the bogus vaccine/autism link). Even though none of these views have the slightest influence on Democratic politics or Obama-administration policy, they are totally the same as, say, Republican denial of global warming or evolution.

So let’s take for granted that (like sports fans) political partisans across the board feel persecuted by the media, or at least by the portion of the media that isn’t clearly on their side. From there, it’s tempting to dismiss the whole issue of mainstream media bias. But that might be false equivalence: What if some part of the media really is biased? (I mean, occasionally one team really does get the short end of the calls.) How would you know?

Increasingly, media has gotten polarized into self-contained liberal and conservative orbits. If you’re a liberal, you watch MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow interview people from The Nation or American Prospect. If you’re a conservative, Fox’s Sean Hannity is telling you what the Washington Times or just discovered. The worldviews you get are so diametrically opposed that they can’t both be right. So — unlike in sports — you know that there is at least one set of biased refs out there. But which one? Or both?

Once you get inside one orbit or the other, almost everything you hear confirms what you’ve already been told. But how could you tell if it’s all a delusional bubble? What do bubbles look like from the inside?

Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf is arguably part of the liberal bubble, but recently he posed exactly the right questionWho best equipped readers to anticipate the outcome that actually happened?

Most of the time, a news bubble has the resources to cover up its mistakes. So if One-Sided News announces that something is the Biggest Scandal Ever, and then the scandal doesn’t catch on with anybody else, OSN can explain that it’s all being covered up by Other-Sided News. OSN might have predicted from the outset that the other OSN would stonewall, and so the non-scandalousness of the scandal merely emphasizes how deep the scandal goes.

But some events are just too big to spin, so those are the ones to focus on. Friedersdorf argues that when you do that, you’ll see that there is a conservative delusional bubble unmatched by anything on the left. This puts conservatives at an “informational disadvantage” in their competition with liberals. (Mitt Romney’s Benghazi blunder in the second debate, for example, probably happened because he believed what he heard on Fox.)

Friedersdorf focuses on the recent coverage of the Chuck Hagel nomination, where conservative pundits kept reporting signs of Hagel’s support beginning to fracture, while liberal pundits consistently predicted a bumpy ride that would eventually arrive at its destination (which is what happened).

But a story of that middling size could come from Friedersdorf’s selection bias. Maybe there are stories just as big where the informational disadvantage runs the other way, but they just don’t pop to his mind.

So let’s look at a much bigger shock: Barack Obama got re-elected. Right up to the moment polls closed, Dick Morris was predicting a Romney landslide, and many other conservative pundits agreed. (This election-night liveblog captures the full conservative shock as the votes come in.) They had elaborate explanations of why the polls were skewed in Obama’s favor. Karl Rove kept his denial going even after most of the votes were counted.

Meanwhile, Nate Silver’s readers saw pretty much the election they expected. Silver had prepared them for what actually happened.

We’re closing in on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, which has put another shock back in the news: Saddam had no WMDs. That was a shock even to the mainstream media, which suggests that the MSM had a conservative bias going in to the war.

As the war went on, the Bush administration consistently argued that the MSM was biased against the war; it was ignoring the good news out of Iraq, and focusing only on the bad. Again: Who prepared you for what really happened? If the Bush administration view had been right, people who believed the MSM account of the war would have been repeatedly surprised by American success in Iraq. Eventually, the peace and prosperity in Baghdad would have been too obvious to spin away.

Quite the opposite: the MSM’s Iraq reporting was consistently too positive. When the shocks came, they were bad ones. Again, the mainstream media was too conservative, and the Fox News part of the media was that much worse.

How can you tell if you’re living in a bubble? A bubble is like an earthquake zone. Life rolls along smoothly for months at a time, and then there is some huge shock.

The next time you feel the Earth shake, take a look over at the other end of the spectrum and see how they’re doing. If they’re OK, consider the possibility that they might be living in the real world.

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  • Kimc  On March 11, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Good article: the core is the question to ask: does it accurately predict the outcome?
    Nitpik: the paragraph that begins, “But some events are just to big to spin, so those are the ones to focus on. Friedersdorf argues that when you do that, you’ll see that there is a conservative…” you need another “o” on that first “to”.

  • Allan  On March 20, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    Interesting post, but I believe that people will only feel the earth shake (and discover themselves to be in a bubble) under specific conditions. The person would need to make a prediction, measure results, and evaluate them objectively. Nate Silver, for example, might be able to tell he is in a bubble. However, a person who has a strong belief in a prediction (call it blind faith) may not feel the shake, and facts won’t help. To them, the earth will roll along smoothly. This is the trap, and the problem with cognitive dissonance: they can’t hold conflicting thoughts in their head, so will reject the facts to hold onto the belief.

    Of course, as an outside observer, you will see the earth shaking in their bubble. That’s the core of the problem: once people adopt blind faith then they stop feeling the earth shake, and it is really hard to wake them up. To this day, the republicans are still in denial about interpreting election results.

    To detect that you’re in a bubble, you need to be confident that you’ve remained objective and not fallen into the trap. Riddle me this: how does one wake the people up who have fallen into the trap of blindly believing some economic, political, or other belief? I’ve looked up the possible answers and so far they boil down to “Good luck with that.”


  • By Alms from the Poor | The Weekly Sift on March 11, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    […] “How Bubbles Look From the Inside” considers how you could tell if you were living inside a news bubble, cut off from actual reality. Day-to-day, you probably couldn’t. But the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion reminds us that a fantasy world is vulnerable to sudden shocks from events that are too big to spin. […]

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    […] that will inevitably burst with severe if not devastating consequences for those inside it.  It feels good to be safe and secure in that bubble, right up until the moment when reality intrudes …  No matter how good it feels to be Emperor, none of us wants to realize, in the end, that we […]

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