She Said, He Said, and the Bias of Partisan Belief

A look at what "rings true" in the Kavanaugh hearings.

Posted Oct 01, 2018

Public domain
American Gothic, Grant Wood (1930)
Source: Public domain

Like many Americans, my eyes were glued to the screen last week watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in which she alleged that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school.

Mid-way through, I received a text from a friend asking me what my professional opinion was about the proceedings (and Dr. Ford’s testimony in particular) and whether I would write a blog post about it. I was digesting a lot of information and had a lot to say, but I thought at the time that it might be a challenge to separate informed commentary from personal opinion.

So, in the spirit of full disclosure, let me first disclose my opinion—not a professional assessment, but an opinion informed by professional experience working with survivors of sexual trauma, who often delay reporting or never report at all. I found Dr. Ford’s testimony completely credible. I didn’t get the same impression with Kavanaugh’s.

Here’s the thing though—despite what I believe, I concede that I don’t really know what happened with Dr. Ford in the 1980s. None of us do. And yet what struck me both before and after Dr. Ford’s testimony was that a lot of people were talking about what “rings true” with what they heard last week about the various accusations that were made against Kavanaugh. Earlier this summer, Kavanaugh himself talked about how his mother’s best advice as a judge herself was, “Use your common sense, what rings true, what rings false.”

But that’s terrible advice when it comes to trying to learn the truth based on objective evidence. To say that something “rings true” is to say that it’s believable based on our own personal experience and bias. According to a tweet by Washington Post reporter Seung Min Kim, Senator and Kavanaugh confirmation committee member Orrin Hatch illustrated this point all too well when interviewed about a second allegation of Kavanaugh's sexual misconduct by college classmate Deborah Ramirez:

Hatch refers to Ramirez’ allegation in NYer as “phony.” We asked why he’s calling it “phony.” He responds: “Because I know it is. That’s why.” When asked whether Ford allegation is also phony, Hatch: “I think she’s sincere, at least I hope so. But I think she’s sincerely wrong.”

“I know it is, that’s why.” In other words, Hatch believes it’s true because it feels true to him. But once we allow feeling to trump objective analysis of the evidence, we’re left with two disparate accounts of what “rings true” to different people.

Indeed, that disparity, like so many things these days, now appears to be firmly split along party lines. In a recent blog post, “Why Has America Become So Divided?”, I called the psychological phenomenon of confirmation bias one of the most powerful determinants of belief formation. That claim is hard to refute when we see that in voting to proceed with Kavanaugh’s nomination, all 11 Republican committee members initially voted “yes” while all 10 Democrats voted “no.” Does that kind of partisan divide sound like objective analysis of the evidence?

Anecdotally, the friends and family members to whom I’ve talked are likewise divided along liberal and conservative lines. Interestingly though, having watched Dr. Ford’s testimony, most of them don’t believe that Dr. Ford is lying. Instead, the split comes as liberals tend to think that it’s Kavanaugh who’s lying or perhaps that he simply doesn't remember what he did, whereas conservatives tend to think it’s a case of mistaken identity (aka “the doppelganger theory”).

It’s a small sample size, but I've heard little in the way of anyone—family, friend, or political pundit—giving an opinion that crosses party lines. [One notable exception has been the Mormon Women for Ethical Government's urge to their Mormon Republican senators, four of whom are on the Kavanaugh nomination committee — Orrin Hatch, Jeff Flake, Mike Lee, and Mike Crapo) to call for an FBI investigation. Of course, not all Mormons are Republicans, though they are the most partisan religious group in the U.S. according to a 2016 Pew Research Poll]. 

As I discussed in “Why Has America Become So Divided?”, recent evidence suggests that party affiliation and political identity are potent dictators of how we feel and believe about social issues as well as each other. New research from Douglas Guilbeault and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania adds to this conclusion by revealing that “partisan priming” can also heighten our political disagreements.1 In an experiment in which liberal and conservative test subjects were shown a graph of the amount of Arctic Sea ice over the past few decades and then asked to predict future amounts, liberals made mathematically accurate future predictions, whereas conservatives did not. It appeared that conservatives had greater susceptibility to “endpoint bias” (looking at the last deviation rather than the overall direction) and were presumably influenced by their preexisting non-beliefs about climate change in general. After exposure to online “bipartisan communication networks” where disparate political views about the data were shared, conservatives made better predictions. However, this improvement was lost when subjects were shown political logos along with the data. When that happened, conservative views remained resistant to change, less able to adapt to opposing views and objective evidence.

Many of us have our own preexisting biases about allegations of sexual assault in general. Some of us have personal experiences that factor into those biases, one way or another. Others have daughters, or sons, that likewise give us pause. Just this week, Donald Trump Jr. recently suggested that he’s more concerned for his boys one day being wrongly accused of sexual assault than his girls one day becoming its victims.

Guilbeault's research helps to put such a statement into perspective by suggesting that party affiliation can override our ability to appreciate different perspectives and to interpret the evidence objectively. And with news sources that can be delivered through a partisan lens, with constant reminders about inter-party conflict, it’s no wonder we’ve come away with two different impressions following the testimonies of Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh.

Recognizing that my own opinion isn’t a substitute for fact, I look forward to learning more from the FBI investigation into the allegations against Kavanaugh that's currently underway. I’m skeptical that a week will allow enough time for an adequately thorough assessment, but dispassionate inquiry seems to be the only rational way to sort things out going forward.

Of course, it’s possible that the facts will remain elusive despite the abbreviated investigation. And investigation or not, for many this will remain a classic case of “he said, she said,” with the truth all but unknowable. But, as we consider the role of bias in forming opinions on such matters, have you ever stopped to wonder why the expression isn’t “she said, he said?” That is, after all, the usual sequence of events.

References

1. Guilbeault D, Becker J, Centola D. Social learning and partisan bias in the interpretation of climate trends. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online September 4, 2018. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2018/08/28/1722664115