There is No Evidence. It’s Not Required.
When viewing the coverage of Donald Trump accusing Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower, I am reminded of the famous scene from The Matrix:
Spoon boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Spoon boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Spoon boy: Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
“Trump Claims, Without Evidence…”
By now, it should come as no surprise when Trump says something without evidence. His fast-and-loose relationship with facts is well-documented. There are plenty of phrases to describe what Trump does. Some people may call it “lying.” Less polite people might call it “making things up.” The more vulgar among us, “bullshitting.” Journalists tend to prefer “making claims without evidence.” While there is a measure of journalistic integrity in avoiding words like “lie,” it’s misplaced. This phrasing relies on the presumption that evidence may be forthcoming. It’s never going to come. It doesn’t exist. There is no evidence. Donald Trump is the President of the United States — were he wiretapped, he could declassify that information. It’s not the truth he’s bending — it’s the way we perceive reality.
Trump knows that he doesn’t need evidence for people to believe him. People believe all kinds of things without evidence. Sometimes, they believe things in spite of evidence. Witness how convinced some people are that climate change is a hoax, or that vaccines cause autism. He knows that he can say things like “I can’t release my taxes because I’m under audit,” and a certain percentage of people will buy that. He knows that it doesn’t matter if the IRS clarifies that people under audit can, in fact, make their taxes public. People will believe what he said in spite of any evidence to the contrary. Why should he bother to back up his claims?
Yesterday, USA Today released a partial list of “claims without evidence” made by Trump. They stretch from birtherism to voter fraud to the idea that the US doesn’t have a vetting process for refugees. There is, of course, no proof for any of this. In some cases the claims are untrue. Proof doesn’t matter.
The Big Lie
We’ve seen this before. In the leadup to the Iraq war, 70% of Americans believed that there was a direct link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks. That belief persisted for 33% of Americans into 2007, as the war was winding down. 40% of Americans and over 50% of Republicans still think that the US found weapons of mass destruction. No evidence was ever offered for any of those claims — in the case of WMDs, the opposite. Still, the belief persists. Do you think those kinds of perceptions may affect how people see the world? How they vote?
Do you think it would affect your vote if you believed the ex-President wiretapped a candidate?
Do you think it would affect your vote if you believed that Barack Obama was an illegitimate President?
Do you think it would affect your opinion of the travel ban if you believed that the United States was letting anyone and everyone enter the country?
Would the proclivity of people to believe these things change with more assertive phrasing? We can’t know for sure. I’m inclined to believe that “Trump makes up a story about wiretapping” is a more effective counter-claim than “Trump says he was wiretapped without presenting evidence.” The latter reads as though the wiretap happened, and now we need to wait for Trump to present his evidence. I understand why journalists avoid the former. They don’t want to invite accusations of bias. But that clarity of language is what is necessary to counter a Big Lie.
The Backfire Effect
But it’s not only the language. There is also a phenomenon known as the “backfire effect.” This happens when somebody presents an incorrect view and is corrected. Rather than change their perception surrounding the issue, according to Dartmouth research, “corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.” The linked paper points to a microcosm of our current predicament:
People typically receive corrective information within “objective” news reports pitting two sides of an argument against each other, which is significantly more ambiguous than receiving a correct answer from an omniscient source. In such cases, citizens are likely to resist or reject arguments and evidence contradicting their opinions — a view that is consistent with a wide array of research.
The common journalistic assumption is that if all sides air their views, consumers will weigh the information and come to their own conclusion. This works well when it comes to matters of opinion, such as “Should the US have invaded Iraq.” It does not work well with questions of fact, such as “Does Iraq have WMDs.” In those instances, consumers will hear what they want and disregard all contrary arguments. Presenting what Donald Trump says as an otherwise reasonable claim in need of evidence plays right into this weakness of human psychology.
Donald Trump doesn’t have any evidence.
Why would he?
He doesn’t need it.