My hope has always been that people from different ends of the political spectrum have gravitated to this site in the belief there is something to gain by thinking more systematically about issues of importance. If that’s happened, I’m guessing that some readers are infuriated by the tweet I mocked up at the top of the page, while others see it as a perfectly reasonable statement (and may even enjoy its snarky tone).
Why shouldn’t we be annoyed that this year’s election still hasn’t ended because Donald Trump refuses to concede defeat? Aren’t accusations of fraud and demands for recounts in states like Georgia just desperate flailing from someone who lost fair and square? Isn’t it time for the President to accept reality, behave professionally, and – for the good of the nation – graciously prepare the ground for the legitimate winner of the 2020 election?
Ah, but what if I told you that this tweet had nothing to do with the president, or the 2020 presidential race, but instead was directed at someone else who lost a different election in Georgia? In fact, what if I told you it was directed towards former Democratic State Representative Stacey Abrams who lost the 2018 contest for governor in that state, who supported a lawsuit accusing voter suppression, and who insists to this day that victory was stolen from her?
Putting aside specifics about each case (for now), did you find yourself doing a rapid mental U-turn in your opinion over this tweet depending on who was being criticized as being a sore loser? If so, congratulations! For this simply proves you are a human being who – as has been discussed before – must navigate biases that might be hard wired into our brains.
The most relevant (and powerful) bias in play in a thought experiment like this one is confirmation bias which leads us to accept facts and opinions that conform to what we already believe and reject those that do not without further analysis. Is the person whose ox is being gored a candidate you would have preferred to have won? In that case, taunting them might seem like bad sportsmanship. But if that tweet is directed at someone you already loathe, such a taunt might seem like a perfectly reasonable response to their refusal to stand aside.
Now it could be that Trump’s 14,149 vote deficit in Georgia earlier this month, or Abrams' 54,723 gap two years ago should be questioned. Perhaps votes were miscounted (or fell into that uncertainty gap I mentioned previously), or perhaps voter fraud or suppression really did take place during one or both of those Georgia elections.
One could shore up the decision to support one complaint of a stolen election but reject the other by doing research into each election to determine whether or not voter fraud or suppression significant enough to make a difference in the vote count really took place. But having just experienced your own confirmation bias at work, you will need to make sure that same bias does not impact how you perform your research, or how you interpret the results.
For example, if you really believe Trump was cheated and Abrams was not (or vice versa), you should go into a research project with a mind open to the possibility that you might be wrong, much like scientists perform experiments designed to disprove their hypothesis. You should also look for sources that represent a range of opinion, with a careful eye trained on finding facts opponents agree on since those might serve as uncontroversial premises in arguments for and against your thesis.
A good barometer of how well you’re controlling for bias in the research process would be your use of anecdotes vs. other sorts of evidence. Given the complexity of an election process involving millions of people casting votes in thousands of locations, you will likely find stories of incidents that could be interpreted as representing vote fraud in 2020 or suppression in 2018. In fact, media outlets partial to one side or the other may have already curated such anecdotes for you, building them into narratives they hope will get lodged into the story-loving brains of our species.
But are those anecdotes representative of systematic fraud or suppression large enough to close the five-figure vote gap of your preferred candidate? To determine that, you will need to find evidence and arguments based on something other than dramatic or compelling stories. This might include statistics or legal arguments which, while likely drier than a good yarn or outrage video, can give you a better sense of the bigger picture into which anecdotal evidence might fit.
The research steps I just described are part of a systematic process called Information Literacy, a key skill for obtaining the background knowledge needed to think critically about the news of the day (or anything else). And it is to topics of background knowledge, research, and Information Literacy that we will turn next.