Why being a “self-deceived animal” could make humans extinct this time

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel spent the better part of the weekend defending itself against allegations that it doctored a photo of an “Open Wisconsin Now” protest to include a Confederate battle flag. In doing so, the media outlet showcased the clear the primary problem citizens are having these days in dealing with a pandemic that doesn’t have to care about their opinions.

The Journal-Sentinel ran this shot from a protest in Brookfield on Saturday, in which more than 1,000 people gathered to protest the extension of a “Safer at Home” order until late May:


A woman the paper didn’t identify posted this image along with a similar image her daughter shot in which a plaid-shirt-wearing guy in a baseball cap was holding a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, sans the Stars and Bars. This coupling of images quickly made the rounds on social media:

Even though the woman later deleted her Facebook post after realizing her assumption was incorrect, the images had already been shared by many, including Facebook user Ken Hadler.

Hadler shared the side-by-side images Sunday morning and accused the Journal Sentinel of doctoring its photo.

“Shame on you Milwaukee Journal Sentinel!” he wrote. “Taking a photo from the Open Wisconsin rally yesterday and photoshopping the Confederate flag in there?”

He refused to respond to messages providing proof the image was legitimate and had left his post up as of 8 p.m. Sunday; it had been shared 87 times.

As the paper demonstrated in its analysis, it turned out there were at least two flag-toting guys wearing flannel and jeans, one of whom was actually carrying the battle flag and one who was not:


Even though the paper demonstrated in painstaking detail how this was not a fabrication, I would wager that a large swath of people will continue to believe it was. It would be easy to say this is a case of distrusting “the media,” but it goes well beyond our field and our concerns as journalists.

The problem comes from people having a constant desire to not actually be right, but rather to feel they are right. In a culture of personal affirmation, reality can be an inconvenient distraction to those who have become myopic in their world view.

As the folks from The Foundation for Critical Thinking noted, humans are the only “self-deceived animal.”

Author Tom Nichols, who wrote the book, “The Death of Expertise,” explained that the sense of how “we” know more than “those people,” can be extremely dangerous, especially now:

Nichols’ speech unwinds several key problems that bear examining:

  1. People don’t want to be told they are wrong.
  2. People don’t like thinking other people know more than they do.
  3. People have mistaken the need to have an opinion on a topic with the need to be informed on a topic before having an opinion.

These three things, taken together, create an environment in which insularity of thought and ego-protective measures drive our participation in social engagement. If you’re not tweeting or chatting or snapping or sharing something, you don’t exist. The more distinct or more vociferous we are in that participation, the more attention we get and with that attention comes support from people who also want to be seen and heard.

Taking time to become informed means other people are “getting there first” on whatever topic is trending this nanosecond. Stopping to think, “Maybe someone else knows more than I do,” is to limit one’s participation, thus losing out on likes, clicks, shares and more.

Being wrong? Not possible.

In most cases, the idea that a meme from “Aunt Rose in Schenectady” is full of crap doesn’t really matter. Whether she knows how much money we spend on foreign aid or if a Confederate flag got PhotoShopped into a protest picture won’t cause any real harm. Thus, she gets to feel superior and we get to enjoy the rest of the day without answering 27 emails with misspellings in them.

The problem comes in when expertise really does matter, people aren’t ready to hear it. Much like the child who never heard the word “No” from a parent, when “these insufferable know-it-alls,” as Nichols called them, face contrary information from an expert source, they freak out.

I remember having an unfortunate conversation with a former friend of mine that went this way and it bugs me to this day.

Josh was a guy who worked at the local auto parts store and had a lot of experience with vintage cars. He was an expert in this area and was a huge help to me in restoring the Mustang. When I wasn’t sure I could rebuild a carburetor, he actually paid for a rebuild kit out of his own pocket and then wrote down his phone number on the back of my receipt.

“Follow the directions, take your time and you’ll be fine,” he told me. “If you have a problem, call me at home and I’ll come over and help you.”

When I called him for help on the carb, as well as a dozen other things, he was always helpful and right as rain. He knew exactly what caused certain problems and exactly how to fix them. His expertise was invaluable.

However, during the 2016 presidential election, he had posted several completely fabricated stories about “the media.” I tried to explain to him how these things weren’t accurate. I found reliable media sources that clearly illustrated he was wrong. Each time, his response was some version, “No, you’re just getting snowed under. I know I’m right.”

Perhaps foolishly, I tried to explain that I had background in this. I went to school for this. I research these topics. I teach on these topics. I’m an expert on this thing. Trust me.

Each time, I was rebuffed and dismissed.

Finally, I tried to put it in terms he would understand: If you were trying to tell me how to fix my carburetor, because you are an expert, how would take it if I kept telling you, “No! Carburetors are just a myth! They are a lie told to you by the deep-state auto industry to keep you ignorant!” instead of accepting your expertise?

He prattled on about the media. I blocked and unfriended him. I still hate that it came to that.

The larger point is that there was no downside to his argument for him. If he was wrong, which in his mind was inconceivable, he could go on with life. If I was wrong with about the carburetor, I could set my car on fire, so I took his expertise to heart.

True experts don’t know everything about everything. They know everything about one thing. I wouldn’t ask Dr. Anthony Fauci how to set the timing on a mid-1960s Ford small block engine any more than I would ask Josh how to combat COVID-19.

Fauci knows viruses. Josh knows Fords.

This is why it can be maddening when non-experts on a topic get license to put forth their own plans and ideas as if they merit the same consideration of those plans outlined by experts. For example,  Tavern League of Wisconsin President Chris Marsicano recently proposed the “soft reopening” of local bars and restaurants in the state. The proposal included the following items:

  • Requiring all employees to wear masks and gloves
  • Practice social distancing of 6 feet
  • All tables 6 feet apart
  • No tables of more than 6 people
  • Reduce on-premise capacity by 50%
  • Outdoor eating and drinking with 6 feet distancing permitted
  • No salad bars or self-serve buffets
  • Eliminate paper menus
  • Eliminate all table condiments

On their face, if you want to see the restaurants reopened, these items appear reasonable. They rely on things health experts have noted to be valuable (masks, keeping 6 feet apart) and they look to eliminate shared contagion opportunities (buffets, table condiments).

In reading this, though, I started thinking about things like who would enforce the rule of the six people per table or what would happen at shared areas like bars. I thought about people who go out to eat with others they haven’t seen in months and then share a table. Shared appetizers or drinks would concern me.

Then again, I’m not a public health expert. However, neither is Marsicano.

His LinkedIn page shows that he has a high school education and 37 years of experience in running a supper club. Unless Delavan-Darien High had some sort of advanced communicable disease course I’m unaware of, I don’t know what would make this guy think he knows more than the scientists and health experts advising the governor.

To be fair to Marsicano, saying he’s not a medical expert doesn’t make him a bad person or otherwise worthless. If I wanted to open a restaurant or bar and run it well, I would strongly consider apprenticing with him, given his nearly four decades of success in the business.

The only way we’re going to make it through this pandemic, as well as whatever the future holds, is if we can find ways to push experts to the forefront of our coverage and to find ways to make people believe them. This may feel like trying to get the dog to take a pill, but it’s worth the effort.


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