The Plausibility Divide

Earlier today President Trump used Twitter to accuse President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower in the month leading up to the election.  This accusation is shocking, but for different reasons to different people.  Some people are outraged at how the previous president misused his power against the American people.  Others are outraged at how the current president is misusing his power against the democratic system.  These two groups are divided by divergent ideas of what is plausible, and shocking claims like this leverage the plausibility gap to make American society even more polarized.

In this era of “fake news” (sometimes in all-caps), it is more important than ever to evaluate what we read in order to sort the wheat from the chaff.  But that is difficult, because often both reporters and presidents do not name their sources.  Many people are offering tutorials on how to distinguish “fake news” from the “real thing,” but at best that involves extensive research, and at worse those methods are merely partisan filtering.  And since most people do not have the time to do extensive research, even when the sources are publicly available, the way people actually assess the news is based on their notions of plausibility.  If a report strikes us as plausible, in keeping with the way we think the world works, then we accept that it is true; if it seems implausible, then we demand greater evidence that it in fact happened.  If the source of the report is someone we think to be credible and honest, we accept the report; if we suspect the source to be unreliable, we require more proof.

There’s nothing “wrong” with evaluating reports based on their consistency with other beliefs; all people do it reflexively.  What is a problem is when two portions of society have plausibility structures that are so greatly divergent from each other that these people simply cannot see eye-to-eye.  Many Americans think President Trump is their hero who will make everything work again the way it is supposed to, and if things are not yet back to working order, it is the fault of the strong forces opposing him.  Many other Americans regard President Trump as a dangerous tyrant who will use any power available to him for his private gain, even if that means the destruction of the American democratic system as a whole.  For his supporters, Trump’s allegations of Obama’s spying are very plausible, while his critics see this as a new low in bald-faced lying.  Trump’s critics see the possibility that the current president colluded with Russia on the campaign trail in order to cheat the election as a highly plausible story to be investigated, while his supporters see that as a smear campaign designed to hinder President Trump from fulfilling his promises to the American people.  The plausibility divide between Trump’s supporters and his critics is so wide that it is nearly self-perpetuating, as each side considers its own perspective merely the objective truth and the other perspective as deliberate and malicious falsehood.

This is a dangerous state of affairs.  This situation is dangerous because our social stability is built upon trust, trust that other people will do their jobs and I’ll do mine, trust that other people will not try to harm me, trust that the system will work and I will be able to get what I need from it; and this trust is breaking down.  This situation is dangerous because when people feel that the system is broken, they are more willing to break the system for their own purposes.  The news media are reporting a disturbing increase in vandalism, violence, and threats against religious minorities.  President Trump ran on a platform claiming that the political system is broken, and his campaign was consistently characterized as “unconventional,” at the least.  While it is true that specific social structures are not God-given or infallibly good, when social systems break down, everyone suffers.  Anarchy is a real possibility, and “might makes right” is a state of misery.  Some of the bleakest chapters of the Bible occur at the end of the book of Judges, which are explained by the conclusion, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 21:25).

Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) responded to President Trump’s claims of wire-tapping with this statement:

We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust, and the President’s allegations today demand the thorough and dispassionate attention of serious patriots.  A quest for the full truth, rather than knee-jerk partisanship, must be our guide if we are going to rebuild civic trust and health.

We need more such “serious patriots,” both inside and outside government, if we are going to continue to enjoy the benefits of a stable society.  And we need Americans of every viewpoint and persuasion to be willing to close the plausibility gap, to listen carefully to voices with whom they disagree, to do the hard work of verifying what is in fact true, and then to speak impartially against all partisan lies, from any side.  This is a dangerous and deceitful time, and only “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

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