I’ve avoided the topic of Mitt Romney’s religion and “Lying for the Lord” as I think there’s a less divisive explanation for his false statements: he’s human. (More)

Mitt Romney, Lies, Faith, and Confirmation Bias (Non-Cynical Saturday)

There’s been a bit of buzz lately about whether Mitt Romney makes false statements so often and so confidently because “Every Mormon grows up with the idea that it’s OK to lie if it’s for a higher cause.”

That statement – like much of what Romney says, ironically – seems both narrowly true and broadly misleading. Yes, Mormons learn to present church doctrine in stages that progress from blandly benign to more specifically troublesome, what they call “milk before meat.” For example, Mormon doctrine holds that God was once a man and now lives on or near the planet Kolob. But most Mormons recognize that tale will seem farfetched to outsiders, so they usually don’t mention it. Similarly, Mormon doctrine teaches that marriages on earth endure in heaven (or on Kolob) and thus a widower who remarries will be ‘sealed’ to both women for eternity. But that dredges up the still-incendiary topic of polygamy – which the church has banned – so again Mormons usually don’t mention that to outsiders.

Mormons are hardly the only group to adopt this practice. Most college fraternities and sororities don’t tell prospective pledges the details of initiation rituals, and warn new members not to share such details outside the group. The Freemasons and Knights of Columbus follow that same pattern. That preference for arcana – secrets shared only within a group – may be an attempt to avoid censure or ridicule, but more often it seems simply to mark and fill a human need for ‘insider’ status.

A matter of faith?

Time‘s Justin Frank, a psychiatrist, offers a different take on Romney’s false statements:

I found myself discussing this situation with several colleagues, and we agreed that Romney doesn’t lie. Let me repeat: Mitt Romney doesn’t lie. He is telling the truth as he sees it – and truth it is, the facts notwithstanding. This is not simply a case of Hamlet arguing about point of view, saying, “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” This is about a conflict between evidence and faith. There is a long tradition in the Mormon belief system in which evidence takes second place to faith. Examples abound, as when two Mormon elders who were questioned about the inconsistency in passages from the Book of Mormon said, “We know the Book of Mormon is true and that it contains the Word of God even in the face of evidence that appears contradictory,” according to The Mormon Missionaries by former Mormon Janice Hutchison. Thus there are no lies, only faith-based certainty that translates as truth for which no apology is needed, since what was said was not a lie.

Dr. Frank particularizes that faith-trumps-evidence certainty to Mormonism, but I think it’s common to most if not all major religions. There is no scientifically accepted evidence for any deity, yet most religions and their followers confidently declare the existence of one or more gods. And consider the epiphany narrative in Matthew 2:1-2:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

The following verses imply the Magi found Bethlehem by following the star, yet if the Magi started east of Bethlehem and followed a star in the eastern sky, they would have gone even farther east. I’ve discussed that obvious navigational contradiction with pastors of several Christian faiths, and each offered a different explanation. One said “the east” (whence the Magi came) was the Biblical name for a place that was actually to the west of Bethlehem. Another said the star rose in the east but then moved over to the western sky. Yet another said a scribe made a copying error.

All remained certain the epiphany story happened exactly as described in the Gospel of Matthew, despite the absence of historical evidence and the presence of an obvious error in the text. Are they “Lying for the Lord,” or simply convinced of a comforting story they had heard since childhood?

“Six studies proved it.”

In Thursday night’s vice presidential debate, Paul Ryan claimed that six studies proved the math of Romney’s tax plan will work. I’m sure Ryan believes that’s true, yet only one of those sources – a working paper by Princeton professor Harry Rosen of the six sources could rightly be called a “study.” Two of the others a Wall Street Journal op-ed and a separate blog post by Harvard professor Marty Feldstein. Two more were blog posts at the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation websites. The sixth was a white paper by Romney’s own campaign.

But here’s the kicker: only the Romney campaign’s own white paper actually says his plan will work as he has described it.

The other sources make assumptions – two different sets of assumptions by Dr. Feldstein – about what Romney might do, but Romney has not embraced or rejected any of those assumptions. Moreover, none of those other five sources fully closed the arithmetic hole in Romney’s proposal, and the campaign’s white paper is simply an unproven declaration that the numbers will add up.

Does that sound like an article of faith … or something even more universal….

“A man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.”

Singer-songwriter Paul Simon wrote those words, and they fit what I want to say so I’ll cite them as if they’re authoritative. In doing that, I’ve done exactly what Paul Ryan did in response to the question about the Romney tax plan. Oops.

Well, almost. I admitted the source, and I don’t offer that quote as proof but rather to summarize the concept of confirmation bias. There are plenty of empirical studies that show confirmation bias, and you’re welcome to follow that wiki-link and its links to review them. But Paul Simon captured the gist of it: we see what we want to see and disregard the rest.

Consider Romney’s claim that no Americans die for lack of health insurance. Economists and health care groups have studied that topic quite a bit, and the greater weight of the evidence – by a three-to-one margin – says that many Americans do in fact die because they can’t afford to see doctors. The studies disagree on exactly how many, hardly surprising as the data are difficult to gather and difficult to interpret, but most of the findings range in the tens of thousands of deaths per year.

But there’s one study that disagrees, and it relies on some bold assumptions:

Adjusted for demographic, health status, and health behavior characteristics, the risk of subsequent mortality is no different for uninsured respondents than for those covered by employer-sponsored group insurance at baseline[.]

In other words, if you find an uninsured person and an insured person arriving at an ER with the same symptoms, and if they are otherwise similar – in demographics, overall health status, and health behavior – both are likely to experience equivalent outcomes. In short, ERs don’t discriminate in the quality of care based on whether a patient has health insurance. That’s good news, so far as it goes, but it ignores the fact that patients who lack health insurance tend to be less wealthy, and those class differences matter.

Still, that study seems to support Romney’s position, so he and other Republicans see it and disregard the rest. (Lest we progressive Democrats get too smug, we are also prone to cognitive dissonance, even if the two parties are not mirror images.)

Living our values

Why do I settle on confirmation bias as an explanation for Romney’s false statements, rather than Mormonism in particular or religion in general? First, because I found no evidence that Mormons – or people of faith generally – are more likely to believe and repeat false stories about non-religious matters.

But more important, I settle on confirmation bias because the “Lying for the Lord” argument about Mormonism – or any religion – is exactly the sort of sweeping, ugly, divisive generalization we progressive Democrats so often decry when Republicans make them about women, persons of color, LGBTs, Muslims, and other groups.

It’s not enough to talk about progressive values. We must live our values, and that means we must forgo some arguments … even when those arguments seem convenient in a given moment.


Happy Saturday!