Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Fake News, Confirmation Bias, and George Carlin

The big story last week among my liberal friends was the announcement that the Trump administration had banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using “7 words” in sending its budget requests to Congress. They gleefully linked to a single report in the Washington Post:

It states that “Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing.” Note that no one person is named as the source of that advice. Yet my friends immediately denounced the Trump administration as being responsible. Since that report came out many have commented on it, assuming it to be further proof that the Trump administration lives down to Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” label.

The problem, of course, is that the adults in charge of the CDC have denounced the report and denied having created the list. None of the articles since have established “guilt” amongst the Trump administrators. So, this “breaking news” has lasted less than a week as a real news report but continues to provide fodder for those wanting to assign evil motives to Trump.

So, is this an example of “fake news?” For those who care about truth over politics, yes! The report was factual as far as it went, but it didn’t really establish who had created the list or how they had gone about the task. For those who are motivated by politics above all else, it fits their confirmation bias perfectly, confirming that Trump’s people are anti-science and crazed religious zealots.

My Theory

I suspect the ghost of George Carlin had more to do with the list than anyone in the Trump administration. The late comedian and social critic was known for many brilliant and funny routines, but especially for his “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”

First, note that both lists consist of seven words or phrases. Then consider the ages of the mid-level administrators at the CDC and their educational backgrounds. Finally, what are their political leanings most likely to be?

In most bureaucracies today mid-level managers tend to range from about 30 to 60 years in age. Most of them would have been in college during Carlin’s most active years on television (1970s to early 2000s) and certainly would have seen his Seven Words. Being of college age, which coincides with the ages during which young people are most certain they know everything worth knowing (and that their parents are obviously clueless about), they would certainly have picked up on Carlin’s nihilistic attitudes. And I do believe that at the core of their current belief system is the absolute certainty that Trump supporters are knuckle-dragging, anti-science deplorables.

Given that background, how likely is it that one or more administrators at the CDC would have started, as a joke, their own lists of The Seven Words You Can Never Say to a Trump Supporter? And that the List evolved into The Seven Words You Can Never Say to Congress?

I believe that’s the reason that the story hasn’t had “legs” and evolved into a witch hunt for a guilty party in the Trump administration. There is no “there” there. But… we haven’t yet heard from Robert Mueller.