Welp, FBI Director James Comey got fired. There's a lot of different accounts of what happened--and a lot of speculation as to why. What do we actually know, and how does this fit into the broader context of history and this administration?
LEARN THIS AND MORE! On the latest episode of RECONSIDER, where we don't do the thinking for you!
ander: Idea for this episode title?
Erik: Yeah. "My Homey Comey."
Xander: It has to be "My Homey Comey."
Erik: I don't know if that's going to fly, Xander.
Xander: Why not? Is he not your homey? He's my homey. He's Comey.
Erik: Welcome, everyone, to another great episode of ReConsider, part of the Agora Podcast Network where we don't do the thinking for you. Today's episode: "Comey and Speculating on Trump," and just to make Xander happy, also known as "My Homey Comey."
Erik: Before we get started, we just want to recommend another podcast to you. It's called When Diplomacy Fails, also part of the Agora Podcast Network, and you can find it pretty much anywhere great podcasts are found. One of the things I'm excited about is they just announced that they're going to do Five Weeks To Run Wild, which is two episodes per day for the next five weeks, which is 70 freaking episodes. So it's perfect for that long road trip you're hopefully planning this summer or, in my case, long lines in Boston Customs trying to get back home.
Xander: Yeah, I really like this podcast When Diplomacy Fails. The host, Zack Twamley, basically takes a number of wars throughout history because wars occur when diplomacy fails, that's the idea of the show. Even from the get-go, he deals with some relatively obscure events as far as common knowledge goes but important, like the 1870 to 1871 Franco-Prussian War that resulted in the unification of Germany. He just dives into depth, and you find things fascinating that you had never thought of before. So be sure to check it out.
Erik: Yeah. As always, you can get our notes at reconsidermedia.com/podcast. We've got a lot of notes for this one. If you want to follow up on whether any of what we said is BS, you can go check those out.
Xander: Before we launch into it, just one friendly request. If you get the time, we would really appreciate a review on the podcast on either iTunes or Google Play or whatever-
Erik: Or your favorite podcatcher.
Xander: Whichever podcatcher most appeals to you. It helps us get our message out. Every positive review we get raises in the ranking, and it gets revealed through the magic of computer algorithms to more people.
Erik: Also, if you want to say "hi," request any episodes, leave us comments, feedback, you can find us on Facebook and Twitter at reconsiderpod, that "P-O-D" at the end.
Xander: Lastly, we also have a Patreon page. Patreon is a great service that lets listeners of podcasts and watchers of YouTube videos and all that contribute to their favorite content creators, help them keep going.
Erik: You get to be a patron of the arts.
Xander: Exactly. Every dollar we get helps us keep this podcast going, helps us get the message out a little bit more. The funds that we've been raising so far, we've been putting to good use. We've brought in someone who's helping us with all the marketing aspects because Erik and I like politics and not marketing so much.
Erik: And we're just terrible at it. It's embarrassing.
Xander: It's true. We're really bad at marketing. It's a skill set. With Patreon, we were able to bring someone in with the specialized skill set to help out. You can check it out at patreon.com/reconsider. That's patreon, P-A-T-R-E-O-N, .com/reconsider. We subscribe to the Dan Carlin model of giving, which is a buck a show, and that's all we ask.
Erik: Yeah. Thank you so much to everyone who has pitched in already. It's been going really great. We're really touched. In particular to those guys who decided to patronize us with even more. It just means the world to us. If you want to patronize us even more, you get some sweet perks for it, so go check them out.
Xander: I'll patronize you, Erik. You're ugly.
Xander: So what just happened, Erik?
Erik: Well, Comey got fired. That's apparently very exciting.
Xander: We need some sound effects for this show like a downward droopy sound or something like that.
Erik: Yeah. Or the stuff that you have at baseball games like ... I don't know. I can't-
Erik: I can't make it happen. Yeah, Trump fired Comey, which first thing to clear up is he had the right to do it with or without cause, said Josh Blackman, a law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. "From a constitutional perspective, Trump can make whatever demands of his principal officers he wishes, and can fire them at will."
Xander: So why is everyone freaking out? It seemed like ... Now, there's a lot going on with Trump right now, but this one really seemed to explode in the media in the last couple of days. So what's unusual about this firing?
Erik: In part, it depends on his motivations. There are different accounts of what preceded the firing and the motivations for why. Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman tweeted on Friday that "If shown that Trump removed Comey to avoid being investigated? Yes impeachable: abuse of power, corruption, undermines rule of law."
Xander: So why did Trump fire Comey? First off, we don't actually know because we're not in Trump's head, and we're also on a podcast and not the upper echelons of Washington, DC power. Vice President Pence said that Trump fired Comey after the Attorney General criticized Comey for conduct in the Clinton email investigation. He said, "he" being Trump, "I was already planning to do it." There are some leaks that Trump claimed he was frustrated about in the investigation into Russian interference in the US election and the refusal to investigate whether Obama had wiretapped Trump. So a couple of things.
Erik: Yeah. Trump in an interview did say he had been thinking about "this Russia thing." Trump claims that Comey had actually said three times, when Trump asked three times, that Trump wasn't personally under investigation, though Comey swore to the United States Congress that people in Trump's campaign were being investigated and didn't comment on whether Trump himself was being investigated.
Xander: I have a ReConsider drinking game for everyone. It's not really a drinking game, but from now on into the future, whenever you have vodka, you have to refer to it as "this Russian thing."
Erik: "This Russian thing." Anytime you hear Trump say "that Russia thing-"
Xander: Take a shot.
Erik: Take a shot.
Xander: Because nothing makes politics better than shots of vodka. There's a lot of things that could've been going on here. The fact is, we just really don't know what exactly drove the termination.
Erik: What's really interesting about Comey, I think, is how quickly people's opinions change of him. Of course, until midyear 2016, most people probably had no idea who the guy was or what he was doing. He was appointed in 2013 by President Obama and passed the Senate confirmation process with a 93 to 1 vote, which is pretty good these days when they can't seem to vote on anything.
Around this time in mid-2016, it seemed that Democrats really, really hated Comey. He was investigating Clinton's emails, which were hidden on a private server, and many of them probably intentionally deleted, looking to figure out the question, why might she be deleting them? There was some suspicion of corruption like pay-to-play for the Clinton Foundation. At the time, the general stance from people in support of Clinton was that, look, being under investigation doesn't prove guilt for anything.
Xander: It seems like some suspicions about Trump are implicating guilt or proving guilt, at least in some of the media outlets. If you read WaPo or Guardian or New York Times or BBC, they're trying to connect the dots, which is fine. That's what journalists do. But the narrative has shifted from investigation does not prove guilt to look at what's happening, obviously there's something deeper here.
Erik: Yeah. What actually happened with Flynn? What we know is that Sally Yates, the former Attorney General who was fired by Trump, said that Flynn was "compromised and susceptible to blackmail." Comey now admits that he met with the Russian ambassador about sanctions in December, had denied it, and when it was revealed that he had denied it, he was fired 18 days later. Comey's associates claim that Trump pressured him to drop the investigation into Flynn. At least as far as Flynn is concerned, this is pretty sketchy, I think.
Xander: Michael Flynn was Trump's National Security Advisor who got sacked just a couple of days or a couple of weeks into the administration and replaced with McMaster. The supposed reason for this was it appeared that Flynn had had what many major media outlets were calling meetings with different Russians that he wasn't supposed to have been having beforehand, and then he didn't sufficiently communicate the content of these meetings with his superiors.
Erik, you say this is sketchy. I think that's one way to interpret it. I think another way to interpret it is at the time that Michael Flynn had these meetings, he was a private citizen. People are allowed to have meetings and conversations with Russians. It happens all the time, especially bigger businesses where there are international deals going on. I just do not fully understand the hysteria that surrounded that particular termination. Something happened. He had some sort of meeting. Isn't he allowed to?
Erik: Yeah. I think the problem is, much like Clinton's emails, when you're hiding something and lying about it, you probably have something to hide, which is I think something that ... It's speculation at that point, but I do think that lying about it is the kind of thing that does raise some legitimate suspicion.
Xander: Sure. We'll keep coming back to I think what's going to be the theme of this entire episode, which is, yeah, it raises some eyebrows, but it's speculation.
Erik: Yeah. To that end, I remember when Republicans loved Comey as much as Democrats hated Comey because-
Xander: What a cool guy.
Erik: Yeah, what a cool guy. Because for a lot people, investigations and sketchy behavior proved guilt when you really want it to. For the Clinton campaign, she had probably misled investigators on a few issues including deleting the emails. So, much like with Flynn, this would suggest she may have had something to hide. When Comey was going after her, Republicans were pretty excited. But now the tables seem to have turned because yesterday, Comey was investigating someone blue for some sketchy behavior, and now he's investigating someone red for some sketchy behavior. And rather than saying, "Well, it seems to be this guy's job to investigate these things," everyone gets excited about it when it's not their team and gets really mad about it when it is their team.
Xander: Gee, Erik, I would say that sounds like wedging behavior. Wouldn't you?
Erik: I would say that sounds like wedging behavior. I wrote a book about it. You should get it. It's called Wedged.
Xander: What does "getting wedged" mean?
Erik: What "getting wedged" means is allowing the spin or your tribe to blind you to reality. When this happens over and over again, what happens is you get pushed into a side of constantly defending your team and constantly attacking the other team regardless of whether it's, one, reasonable, or two, if you didn't see the red and blue colors would be something that you would defend or attack.
Xander: Yeah. I think it was worth talking about the concept because ever since I read that book, I do come back to the idea of political leaders using an extraordinarily controversial but sometimes ultimately not particularly important in the grand scheme of things issue to just drive the sentiments of their tribe crazy so that they can maintain support for their base. So we'll come back to that concept from here to there, getting wedged.
Erik: Yeah. It's very effective. What else do we know about the Comey firing? In Comey's words to Congress, he's investigating "the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts." In Trump's own comments, he'd pressed Comey to tell him whether he was under investigation, and as the following quote after the firing: "In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse for the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.'"
So it suggests that Trump might have been thinking about the Russia investigation as a witch hunt and wanting to get rid of it. He also threatened Comey after firing with "tapes," which could be a form of obstruction of justice, saying "better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"
Xander: Yeah. So I think the question again is, what actually happened? We don't really know. It could be an obstruction of justice if Trump fired Comey right at the point in an investigation where he's about to uncover some evidence of criminality, but I certainly don't know that that happened. What we do actually know is Comey got fired, there was some sort of investigation going on. The degree to which Trump is implicated in that investigation might become public, it might not. It's hard to know. Trump's team and Comey's associates offer different accounts, which for as long as I've been interested in politics, the two teams tend to disagree with each other on things, so I'm not sure that's unprecedented. What does seem almost unprecedented is firing the FBI Director itself. It happened once before in '93 under Clinton but has not happened any other time that I'm aware of.
So there's a lot of things that we can try to draw from this or imply or infer, but ultimately, no one really has much information right now. Certainly not us plebs in the public who just have no first-person insight or perspective to what's actually happening in there. So all of us really, most major media outlets included, are kind of left just speculating.
Erik: Yup, and that's what investigative forces are for. The only other thing we know that is important to keep in mind during this case is that for all the suspicion surround Trump's relationship with Russia, what we've seen from the administration so far is that their stance on Russia has been hostile and continues to be. Tillerson has made clear that Russian interference in the election is a problem and that they're not going to get a free pass. So you've seen the administration bring up the interference as a problem rather than sweep it under the rug or celebrate it.
So far, we haven't seen Trump act in any way that's even friendly to Russia much less problematically so. In fact, for example, the bombing of the Syrian airbase made people worry that he was going to start World War III with Russia. So it serves as a form of corroborating evidence when the Trump team claims that they're not in the pocket of Russia or intentionally trying to help Russia due to ties they may have had.
Xander: It's interesting to me that you bring up the airstrikes on Syria because remember when we did that show on the missile strike-
Erik: I do.
Xander: Everyone was going batsh*t crazy. It was the biggest thing that had ever happened. We were on the brink of nuclear war until we were again with North Korea a couple weeks later with the Carl Vinson, and it just does not seem to even pass the radar anymore. No one's talking about the missile strike. It's an opportunity to recall how emotional the political coverage institution in America gets, citizens included, and how quickly we tend to forget about things. I just think there's a learning lesson here to discount any immediate major emotional response we have to new stories until a little time has passed and we've been able to filter our cortex into the investigation and get our lizard brain out of it a little bit.
Erik: Yeah. We do love getting mad. CGP Grey has a great video called "This Video Will Make You Angry" that I think explains how some of these anger memes get propagated because this is a part of our brain that loves being angry at the other tribe. See again: wedged.
Xander: No, there's not. You're wrong.
Erik: No, you're wrong.
Xander: No, you're wrong. You're dumb. I've voting for ... I hate you.
Erik: I bet you voted for the person I didn't vote for.
Xander: I bet you voted for the person I didn't vote for, and I think that makes you a terrible person.
Erik: And that you can't spell. Yeah.
Xander: Anyways. So what can happen next? Coming back to Comey. Trump will need to appoint a new FBI Director, and that will need to pass a Senate confirmation vote. They need 60 votes, and that includes about 9-ish-plus Democrats. So both sides with have to have at least a small degree of overlap. Multiple Senators are emphasizing the importance of an appointee having "independence from the president," which some people are saying this could be an issue because Trump is really demanding "loyalty." I again come back to I really don't know what loyalty means. I think you can probably draw a lot of definitions from it. If there's one thing that I learned from following Trump during the campaign is that things he says usually don't have precise definitions, so I don't know what loyalty means.
Erik: The other thing to look into is what's going to happen next to Trump after the firing of Comey. US Senator Blumenthal, who's the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, said that, "Prejudging the results of any inquiry now is premature. Right now, the important point is to follow the evidence, to pursue every investigative lead and every potential witness diligently and promptly, and — I might just add this point — providing the resources that are needed." Seems like a reasonable response.
Xander: He's pretty reasonable.
Xander: So I think we started this show talking about Comey, the hubbub, the hysteria of it all, and we keep coming back to how much speculation is required to draw any discrete inferences. I kind of want to use this as an opportunity to talk about what you and I, Erik, have begun to call ReConsider principles and the idea that there are two forms of skepticism and detachment, internal and external, that one can apply towards political conversations with others and their internal dialogue as well, which can help keep the conversation moving forward in a way that's actually attempting to incorporate new information.
There is a danger that presents itself when we repeat a speculative idea around in our minds that echoes and bounces so frequently that it becomes so familiar, like an old friend. Then it begins seeming even more like reality when, in fact, no new information has been taken in or ingested that can fully corroborate that speculation because why would an old friend lie to you? It's that degree of familiarity with a speculative idea that it can prevent the conversation from moving in a more informed way. This is kind of the problem with speculation in the first place.
In ways, speculation can be completely useful if used the right way because when you're trying to understand what's happening, the first thing you need to do is draw up a list of possible explanations of the event, and then check these against new data points as these new data points come in. So you have to have a certain degree of imagination to even create that menu, that buffet of options for yourself in the first place, but most people, certainly not naturally or common sensically, most people are not methodological about this process. They grab the first explanation from this buffet, that juicy tri-tip, that seems the most likely, that seems the most appealing. Since there's a lack on information really to justify it, the most likely way that that first option is chosen is based on pre-existing biases or opinions or perspectives maybe that that person isn't even aware of. Then they filter any new data that comes in after making that decision such that information that primarily corroborates their opinion gets in, reinforces that view, but then data that conflicts with it doesn't get as seriously considered.
So the ReConsider principle here that we're referring to is called internal skepticism and internal detachment, which is constantly questioning your own prior perspectives to make sure that you're fairly evaluating new information and then a detachment from those positions to the extent that that's even possible such that your emotional responses to new information don't draw you back and back towards decisions that you've already made.
Erik: These tools are critical for fighting a well-documented cognitive bias called the confirmation bias, which you have and I have and Xander has. It's something natural in all human brains. No one is immune from it. We simply need, if we're going to make decisions that are in tune with reality rather than our own fantasies, we simply need to continue to use these tools in order to fight that bias.
Xander: When people talk to me and Erik about the show, a lot of the times they'll ask, "What do you think about this? What do you think about that?" And our position continues to be we really try not to do the thinking for you. What we mean by this is showing different ways not only to interpret a given perspective but different ways to even process the information. This isn't new stuff. There's plenty of research and literature written about how to do this. We're just talking about how we apply this sense practically, pragmatically when we're approaching the news.
So take Trump. Just generally, not even talking about Comey specifically, but any news about Trump. What is the one thing that has always happened with any news about Trump, especially since he made it past the primaries? Everything he does is sensational, and everything he does is sensationalized by the media and everyone else. To me, that means that there is going to be a degree of hysteria or overemphasis or hyperbole that comes into any discussion about him that's being had in public. So the first thing that I do whenever I'm trying to digest any new information about Trump, reading a new story or reading a new article, is I just discount about 50 to 70% of the sensationalism and assume that that will just be built into the way that the story is covered and then proceed.
Erik: And like in the case of the Syria airstrike, that sensationalism will fade in time because the most dire and extreme anger-fueling speculations about what could be possible are likely to die away because the speculations are not yet based in real evidence.
Xander: We can take a few examples to just kind of show how this plays out, how the coverage of Trump has been so sensational that this discounting method is valuable. One is the Syria missile strikes that we talked about. Another is when Trump came out recently and said he'd be willing to meet with Kim Jong-un under the right circumstances. The reaction from many, I'm not going to say everyone but for many, it was, "Oh, my god. How can Trump say he's willing to talk to this evil dictator who oppresses everyone?"
Erik: Because Trump loves dictators.
Xander: He loves dictators so much. Erik, what was Obama's position on meeting with Kim Jong-un?
Erik: In 2008, he said that he would meet with Kim Jong-un unconditionally because punishing other leaders by not meeting with them is not a way to go about diplomacy.
Xander: So remember how angry you were about Obama saying in 2008 that he'd be willing to meet with, at that time it was Kim Jong-il not Kim Jong-un? Yeah, I don't either. So again, I think there's so tribalism that come into that, but there's also just some ... Things get sensationalized when they happen, and they fade from memory as time passes.
Erik: Yeah. The other side of this is that one of the interesting things is that people are concerned enough with Trump sending a carrier fleet to North Korea that there were the World War III klaxon bells arising. What's interesting is after that when he said, "Maybe I'll just talk to the guy," people didn't go, or at least the same people in my network did not go, "Wow, that's a lot more reasonable to me than sending the aircraft carrier. This is great. What a step forward." They still go just as mad that he wants to talk to the guy as wants to send an aircraft carrier. So I think this is a good example of, in this case, sort of Trump has taken both sides of the diplomacy approach, hard diplomacy and talk-it-out diplomacy, and both have been criticized as outrageous.
Xander: Speaking of klaxon bells, just a really quick tangent, I actually didn't know that term until you told me about it when we were preparing our Halloween show. If you guys want to hear some sweet klaxon bells, go listen to our, it's like a 10-minute Halloween episode we did last October. You'll have fun.
Erik: Called "One Minute to Armageddon."
Xander: You will also leave terrified.
Xander: Coming back to Trump, here are some other things that I think bring out this unproportioned degree of hysteria in the coverage of him. When Trump was campaigning, he wanted to deport two to three undocumented ... Two to three million. Two to three people.
Erik: Two to three.
Xander: There was this huge hubbub.
Erik: Exactly 2.5.
Xander: He knew them personally. Yeah. Two to three million undocumented immigrants with criminal records. The reaction was this guy hates Mexicans-
Erik: Super racist.
Xander: Super racist. How can he-
Erik: The most racist.
Xander: What is he going to do? Have the cops with the jackboots kick ... That's not even the term. It's not jackboots. Just kick down doors and grab people and export them? Erik, the thing that you kept bringing up during the campaign was Obama's administration actually deported 2.5 million immigrants, more than any other president, but there is no coverage of it, in part-
Erik: Because he's not racist.
Xander: Right. I think in part because he did it gradually. There's certainly some left/right-ism going on, too, but he also didn't make as big a deal out of it. He just kind of did it under the radar.
Erik: Yeah, exactly. One of the things where Trump's not helping himself, or perhaps he is, is that Trump sensationalizes things just as much as the media sensationalizes stuff about him. When we talk about, for example, the border wall, it's also an extension and expansion of Bush and Obama era policy, but they did it very quietly. They're just like, build a little bit of fence here and a little bit of fence there and add more border patrols and radar and stuff and drones flying around. For Trump, he didn't say, "We should just keep doing more of that." He said, "This is a new break in policy. It's going to be a big, beautiful wall." And people got really excited. Now, it was either happy excited or mad excited, but everyone got fooled into thinking that this was a brand new, totally different, unrelated thing when, in fact, it's been going on for over 10 years.
Xander: Yeah. I think a lot of Trump's policies, we're beginning to see, even some of the foreign policies, they're really just continuations of what Obama was doing. That's certainly not true of all of Trump's policies. We are not saying that everything he's doing is a continuation-
Erik: Certainly not.
Xander: But there are some things that are similar. There are some things that are similar that received a lot of outsized attention because they seemed novel when, in fact, they weren't.
Erik: Here's my favorite example of Trump hysteria. This is different because the previous stuff was Trump is actually doing things, and when other people did those things, they weren't as big a deal. But I remember just after Trump's victory in November, a lot of my network was talking about how in danger, particularly transgender people were. And The Guardian among a number of other reputable newspapers posted an article saying that transgender Americans were literally afraid of their safety, their physical safety because Donald Trump was going to be president. I remember hearing people talking seriously about whether Trump would round up transgender people and put them into camps and how we might respond to that in order to stop it.
Through the campaign, all I could ever find through lots of digging that Trump said about transgender people were two things. One, that North Carolina's bathroom bill was terrible and he opposed it. Two, that Caitlyn Jenner could use whatever bathroom she wanted in Trump Tower. Then Jenner went and used the women's bathroom in Trump Tower, and there was no issue. As far as I can tell, the hysteria of the physical safety of transgender people to the Trump administration was completely baseless. There was nothing I could find that he said that even remotely hinted at any danger to transgender people. The only thing he said seemed to imply the opposite.
Xander: To be fair, and we try to do this whenever we can, admit our own biases or at least certain perspectives that Erik and I necessarily have that will impact the way we view the world, and there's no getting over the fact that both of us are straight, White males. So it might be that we interpret the relative threat of this situation different than others do, minorities or women or ... That's something to be aware of in our interpretation. But this thing that everyone was worried about didn't actually happen. That's the point.
Erik: The place that people could nitpick with us, to be fair, is that Trump did rollback Obama's provision that it was required for every public school in the United States to allow students to unconditionally use whatever bathrooms they wanted. When he rolled it back, it was seen as a huge attack personally on transgender people. For context, Trump did promise to rollback all of Obama's executive actions that he felt were executive overreach, and he has rolled back a whole lot of executive orders that Obama made, this being one of them. So you could choose to interpret that rollback in two different ways.
Is this a phenomenon that's just happened to Trump? Certainly not. Were people hysterical about Obama? Absolutely. It was just a very different group, and one of the things that Xander and I have to keep in mind is that we live in Cambridge and LA, which are pretty liberal bastions. We hang out with the type of people that are demographically quite left wing, somewhere between classic liberal left and straight-up communist. There was a giant faction in the United States after Obama got elected that hated him immediately, filtered all of his actions through the lens of unlikeability and found a way to criticize everything he did. Many of you will remember this.
Their lens almost certainly colored their interpretations of what the guy did, which in our memory from our network, our left-wing friends called out all of these forms of either baseless hysteria or kind of twisting what Obama was doing to paint it as bad. Here are some examples. Obama is Hitler or the Antichrist. He's a socialist. He's going to impose martial law. He's going to take away all of our guns. If you're a Democrat, Obamacare is great. If you're Republican, Obamacare is terrible when presumably, if it had been written by some neutral third party, there wouldn't be that much of a lineup. People seriously believed this stuff. For example, that martial law was coming. There was a faction of people that were totally bent on it for eight years, and I think many of our listeners will remember this.
So if you did believe this, obviously you ended up being wrong. It was speculation that ended up being unfounded. If you're on the left, you saw that it was wrong on that side. As we talked about with confirmation bias earlier, it's something that we're all susceptible to. It's dangerous to believe that only one political faction is susceptible to confirmation bias and tribalism and that the other one is not. We are all susceptible to this, and nobody is immune.
Xander: Yeah. It's easier to see when someone else is doing it rather than when it's being experienced internally.
Erik: Yeah. Unfortunately, I think most people don't learn from that and go, "Perhaps this is happening to me." Because they share the very blindness that the other side has, they're able to tell themselves the story that this only happens to one side of the political spectrum. My side of the political spectrum is fully informed and bias-free, baby.
Xander: In theory.
Xander: So we kind of tricked you with this episode. We said we were going to talk about Comey, which we did a little bit, but we really used it as a springboard for discussing how to be skeptical of the way that stories are covered, how biases play into our perception of politics, and ReConsider principles — internal skepticism, detachment. We want to bring it back to Comey, just tie it together. Erik, if you were to ask me what is my one-sentence opinion or position or interpretation of what's happening with Comey-
Erik: So what's your one-sentence opinion or interpretation of what's happening to Comey?
Xander: Great, thank you. It would be that I just don't know. The thing is, I'm comfortable saying that, and I think not knowing is something that we could all try to do a little bit more frequently. That doesn't mean ignorance. It means informing yourself of everything that's possibly out there and at the same time being able to not be carried away by the spin on the events being placed by any given media outlet. It's okay to approach a controversial topic which all of your friends think of one way or another, and you want to agree or disagree with them and when prompted by them, say, "You know what? I know all this stuff happened, and I just don't know what it means." That's fine.
Erik: Yeah. The trick, I think, is not in choosing to not now but being able to recognize when you don't know. It is a natural human thing to want an explanation for everything that happens, and that's where superstition comes from. When bad things happen or good things happen, there must be a reason. This is why there are cargo cults. That-
Xander: What is a cargo cult?
Erik: Oh, yeah. A cargo cult is this phenomenon in the Pacific Islands where barely-contacted tribes experienced in World War II American bases showing up on their islands. What would happen is they would observe a runway built, and they would observe guys marching around with guns. Occasionally, a plane would land and it would have cargo. It would have good stuff like food, medicine. The Americans actually shared this with the people living on the island. So what happened on some of these islands, more than one, is these cults formed in which they built sort of crude mock-ups of bases and airplanes and runways using whatever was available, and they took sticks that looked like guns, and they marched around doing drills in the belief, the sincere belief that if they did this, it would cause airplanes to come.
It was because their minds craved ... They wanted the cargo to come, but their minds craved an explanation for why the cargo came that they didn't understand. The human mind has a really hard time saying, "Look, dude. I have no idea how this works." They had said, "I'm seeing this correlation. We're going to go for it, and we're going to devote a lot of resources and a lot of our time to trying to bring this thing about because we believe it's true, because we filled in an explanation in a gap of stuff that we don't know and don't understand."
I think that example isn't a reason to go, "Ha ha ha. Look at these guys. They're so silly." But it's to make us look at human nature and say this is something that we all do — we seek to fill in gaps of knowledge with explanations that are not necessarily justified. It's something we need to be on the lookout for always.
Xander: This is actually one of my favorite bias types, and I forget the name of it, there's like 100 different types of biases that have been named now, the tendency for human beings to attempt to draw causal linkages to events that might not actually be causally related. The even more prehistoric example that I always hear, in addition to the cargo cult one, is if you were wandering around on the savanna 100,000 years ago, and you heard that bush over there rustle a little bit, either you could instinctively think, "That's the wind, and I'm not going to do anything" or you could evolve to think, "There's definitely something there, and it's trying to kill me, and I'm going to get away as quickly as possible." Over time, the tendency to just let it go kind of gets taken out of the gene pool as those people get killed and attacked by lions.
Vast oversimplification, but whenever I approach politics, that's the example that I always have in the back of my mind. I'm thinking, "Is this causally related or am I drawing some sort of interference that's unfounded based on the data." When it comes down to it, causality is hard. Talk to any researcher, scientist, statistician, anyone who tries to understand the world as a profession, and they'll tell you that establishing causality is extraordinarily difficult.
Erik: Yup. But don't worry. I'm sure you got it right.
Xander: With that, I'd like to say thanks for listening. Hopefully this was a good opportunity to reconsider some of the messaging that's been going on with Trump but just how we interpret messaging generally as well. It's just as important for people who are concerned about Trump to get the facts right and resist temptation as it were to draw one interference or another. It's just as important as those who thought that Obama was going to be awful, too.
Erik: Yeah. Hopefully you guys enjoyed. Hopefully you've learned a little bit. Remember, as always, don't let the pundits do the thinking for you. Pause and ReConsider. This is Erik signing off.
Xander: Xander signing off.
Erik: See you guys next time for episode four of our ReConsidering Russia series where we're going to wrap things up. It's going to be great.