Tribalism, Confirmation Bias, and COVID

AP Photo/LM Otero

During the Civil War somewhere around 750,000 men fought for the Confederacy.  It would be idiotic to claim that the Civil War was not about slavery, however the vast majority of the men who fought for the Confederacy were not fighting for the right to own slaves.  How do I know this?  During the 1860 census there were only about 385,000 slave owners.  Many of these slave owners lived in states like West Virginia (well, not in 1860, but just follow for a minute), Deleware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.  If every slave owner in the south fought for the Confederacy (any who owned more than 20 slaves were exempt) then it would still have made up less than half the Confederate army.  So how was it possible that so many fought for states rights when the primary right in question was the right to own other people?  Simple… tribalism. The other side was awful in every way.  Everything was linked, and you don’t get to tell me how to live my life.  The Yank was an oppressor on our soil trying to force us to [fill in something here] and he should go home.

Tribalism is the simplification for “me and my group against you and your group.”  You end up thinking the other side is always wrong about everything, and if they change their mind then you change yours too.  Example?  Heritage Foundation laid out a market based plan for getting everyone into a health insurance policy.  Their plan was based on the Swiss plan that works generally pretty well.  Mitt Romney adopted the plan in Massachusetts with the general backing of Republicans.  Barack Obama uses the same plan as a basis for a national plan, and now the whole project is the Devil and only flaming liberals would ever approve.  Maybe that struck a nerve.  Let’s go with a different example… Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden vote to fund a physical barrier along the southern border to prevent illegal immigration.  Barack Obama deports more illegal immigrants than any previous American president.  Donald Trump begins to build the wall that Joe Biden voted for, and now any barrier is racist.

That’s the tribalism.  What about confirmation bias?  Your office mate says that he thinks your boss is upset with you.  You think back and realize he didn’t greet you on your way in the way he normally does.  When he does come by your office the meeting seems unusually brief.  You send over a report that is due tomorrow and ask if there are any updates that are needed, but then you don’t hear back for 3 hours and all you get is a “Looks good.”  He must be upset.  Either that or he is chasing down a new contract.  You interpret each piece of evidence as a “this proves what I thought.”  Many in the other tribe have decided that Trump is a racist and look at everything he does and see if it can build that “narrative.”  Similarly he is incompetent.

Alright, tribalism, confirmation bias, and COVID.  Enter SARS-Cov-2…

Donald Trump thinks there might be a problem with the outbreak in China.  Nope, racist.  Limit travel to China.  Racist again.  Besides, it can’t even travel between humans, WHO says so, so Trump is racist and incompetent.  The Northeast begins to see a spike in cases.  Trump says that it will probably blow over by spring.  Well that contradicts IMHE and other projections which means Trump can’t even follow the science.  According to IMHE daily infections peaked March 29th and daily deaths peaked on April 16th.  This ever reported?  Nope.  Why not?  It doesn’t fit the tribalism and confirmation bias that says Trump must be wrong about everything, so if he says it will get better by spring then we should expect problems for a full year.

But infection rates are back up!!!  True, they are now back up to half the peak rate.  A peak rate that was achieved when there was far less testing going on.  Deaths are back up, again to under half the peak rate.  Alternatively according to Johns Hopkins daily cases are ~2x their April peak, but deaths are lower than they were.

We have gotten to the point where neither side is capable of admitting a mistake.  Neither side is capable of assuming anything other than the worst motives of the other side.  Everything we see merely confirms how awful, stupid, and closed minded every one else is.  I’m not sure what the future holds (my crystal ball is broken).  Right now my hopes are not high that sanity and national unity return.  There have only ever been brief periods of national unity, the longest of which ran roughly from 1941-1963.  That would be WW2, and the 1950’s ending in racial riots.  Maybe Nixon brought back some unity, but Watergate ended that.  We managed to be nearly as united again under Reagan, but that was a short period and long ago.  Most Americans alive today did not vote for Reagan.

Here’s to the future, whatever it may bring.