A transcript of Episode 25 of The Politics of Everything, “Mistakes Were Made, but Not by Us”
Walter Shapiro: Stage one is anonymity: You want to be the invisible man, you hope no one will notice. Then you go into rooting for amnesia: If you don’t remember it—and you willfully don’t remember it—maybe no one else does. Then you go into the madness of crowds: “Yeah, I was wrong, but I wasn’t the only one.” And then, in the era of Donald Trump, you hope the parade moves on. Luckily, I never got to the fifth stop, which is fake passport and leave the country.
Laura Marsh: That was Walter Shapiro, a politics reporter and frequent guest on The Politics of Everything, describing what it feels like to be wrong, and the stages of grief he’s gone through.
I’m Laura Marsh. I’m the literary editor of The New Republic.
Alex Pareene: And I’m Alex Pareene. I’m a staff writer at the magazine.
Laura: Today on the show we’re talking about being wrong.
Alex: What makes it so difficult to recognize when you’ve gotten something wrong?
Laura: Why is it so hard to take responsibility? Is it easier to be wrong in this political moment?
Alex: And is it possible to be less wrong?
Laura: This is The Politics of Everything.
Alex: The concept of being wrong about things in public has been on our minds lately. We’ve been doing this podcast for about a year, and, looking back in review of that year, we’ve painfully noted the things that we were very confident about at the time that perhaps we should not have been. For example, we did an episode casting doubt on the idea of electability as an important factor in selecting a presidential nominee like Joe Biden.
Laura: That one hasn’t held up particularly well.
Alex: We should clarify: We’re not talking about things that required corrections here. We’re talking about things that illuminate how your assumptions about the world may have been on shaky ground or incorrect.
Laura: Right. I mean, you go into something with a set of ideas about how the world works, and then something happens that proves that those ideas didn’t describe the world accurately. We also did an episode near the beginning of the pandemic about the inequalities that the pandemic was exposing and how people ideally should be able to go and protest.
Alex: The basic premise of that was, “Demonstration and the protest as we know it can’t really happen in a pandemic world.” And then what happened a little bit after that aired?
Laura: Just after that aired, there were huge, nationwide—and in fact international—protests against police brutality that proved us wrong.
Alex: Yeah, the pandemic turned out to be less of an obstacle to protest than your local police department, for example. And then, more recently, we did an episode previewing the vaccine rollout. And while I think that it contained a lot of interesting information, and I certainly learned a lot doing it, do you think that it turned out in the end too sanguine about how that rollout would go?
Laura: Yeah, I think we were talking about what should happen so much that we didn’t get into a satisfying discussion of what was likely to happen.
Alex: With all that in mind, we decided to ask other people who had gotten things wrong to come clean, to explain themselves, to say why they thought they got things wrong. It turns out it’s surprisingly hard to track down a large number of people who want to talk about things that they got wrong that actually mattered and aren’t, like, I mispronounced something.
Laura: Right. I mean, it’s really uncomfortable to get things wrong. Especially because what we’re going to be asking people is not just to talk about what they got wrong, but why, how does it feel, and how you move on from that. I feel like these are awkward questions to put to someone!
Alex: So I’ll say that it’s to his credit that the first person we talked to, Walter Shapiro, who you’ve already heard from, could not wait to address not just the worst mistakes he’s made in his long career, but the most recent.
Walter: Oh, it’s not even close to the worst, not even close. I mean, the record of error is so long. The most recent was probably that I underestimated, in the pages of The New Republic, Trump’s resistance to a democratic election. I operated on the assumption that after a little sturm and drang, he would just pout in the White House and spend his time throwing the cable clicker at the way Fox News turned on him. I never expected that this would get to a level of madness King George would envy, let alone the horrors of January 6.
Alex: Why do you think you were inclined to believe he would do that?
Walter: I really thought that there was a limit, even for Trump. I didn’t realize the degree to which this was the ultimate subterranean president. The other thing is, I was assuming that if there was no network projection for Trump, no maps filled with red states, it would be impossible for him to claim he had won. I was wrong.
Laura: You’re obviously far from the only person who got things about Trump wrong, because I think pretty much everyone has experienced that in the last four years. What do you think we can take away from that kind of collective miscalculation?
Walter: Humility, more than anything. I try to stay away from election predictions, even though I’m a political reporter. I don’t always do it, but there’s a sense of humility that anyone who makes any forecast about the future should couple with it.
Alex: You say you try not to do electoral predictions. In the recent few years I’ve very much tried the same—I don’t like to write things that are like, “Here’s who’s going to win and why,” because obviously that’s unknowable. But then your neighbor finds out what you do for a living—what’s the very first question they always ask you?
Walter: Oh, trust me, no one ever asked me, “Could you explain Joe Biden’s foreign policy in depth?”
Alex: Yeah. I have one person in particular who lives in my building who spent a month, every time I saw him, asking, “Who’s Biden gonna pick?” Like, I’m not in Biden’s inner circle, I probably have not much more information than you do on that.
Laura: Do you think that it’s become harder in the last four years to be right?
Walter: Absolutely not, because the press has always been wrong. I just finished a new book called Lost in a Gallup, which is about how polling has been consistently wrong in almost every presidential campaign heading back to 1936. Yet reporters totally worship at the shrine of the latest polls. We have always been, as a profession, grotesquely wrong. It wasn’t that election night in 2016 was a total aberration; it was par for the course. The only aberration is the result—the horrible presidency of Donald J. Trump.
Alex: So the takeaway from Walter is that everyone has always been wrong, especially in professions like journalism where people have this specialized knowledge that leads them to think they know what’s going on. People have just always been misinterpreting things and have always been wrong. Laura, what do you think?
Laura: Sure, that seems clear to me. There’s always going to be mistakes, there’s always going to be errors in understanding. My question, I think, is whether it’s easier to be wrong when you’re working in a really unpredictable and unstable political environment. The last four years have seen so many departures from standard operating procedure, so many norms being broken. And if that’s what you’re basing your understanding of what will happen on, surely it’s got to be easier to keep getting things wrong.
Alex: And in that sort of environment—a less stable American society, if it is a less stable one—someone who has years of experience with a much more stable and arguably predictable society and government might have more trouble now than they would have before.
Laura: I think my question is whether you’re more susceptible if you have more experience of a stable environment, or whether everyone is susceptible to being more wrong at the moment.
Alex: So we turned to another colleague, Matt Ford, a staff writer at The New Republic, who believes that he has been getting things wrong for the past four years.
Matt Ford: I assumed that there was a point at which most of the Republican Party, if not the bulk of it, would realize that Trump had gone too far, that their Faustian bargain wasn’t worth the price they paid for it, and that they would place the republic’s well-being over his political interests. And I think it’s really apparent now that that’s not the case.
Laura: So you say this spans four years. Was the week of the Capitol Hill riot the moment that you realized this was unequivocally wrong, that this was an opinion that could not be salvaged?
Matt: I went into a lot of the scandals of the Trump administration, especially the Russian investigation and the Ukraine scandal, not necessarily saying outright that there’s a point that Republicans would break away but definitely with the understanding that maybe if we had the right amount of evidence, if we had the right witnesses, if we had the right facts to back this up, that maybe they will see the light. And I can see now that that doesn’t really hold water anymore.
Laura: What has that felt like over four years? Because there are these points at which the Republicans could have come forward, and if you were expecting that, that’s when you’d hope they would, and then it didn’t happen.
Matt: Well, it’s sort of like—I don’t want to draw too clear a comparison to this, but it’s sort of like the QAnon thing, where they keep expecting that, OK, next time is the time Trump will launch mass raids and execute all the Democrats. So it’s like, Trump was able to wiggle out of this one, but perhaps down the road, he’ll do something truly abominable, and that will be the moment when there will be some sort of consequences for his actions, some sort of snap back to normality for the system.
Alex: What made you persist in the belief that they would break from him or that there was a line they wouldn’t cross?
Matt: This is the hardest part. I feel like I had the ingredients. I’ve written about how Republicans in state legislatures would basically draw the maps so they couldn’t lose their majority. I wrote about political violence and how Republican politicians have discussions about the Second Amendment and the right to stand up to tyranny that can lead people to think that armed violence is justified. I feel like I had the building blocks and yet part of me, I think, just wanted to hope that it would not all come together into what we saw. I think it was a little mixture of naïveté and I guess willful blindness that things could not get that bad.
Laura: So we’re talking to several people. Some people are very sanguine about the prospect of having been wrong—I think for some it’s easy to embrace that idea, take something from it, and kind of move on. You sound very somber about this, almost chastened, I think. What does it mean to you to feel like you were wrong about this?
Matt: Well, there’s certainly a personal element of, I guess, shame. I don’t go around moping about this, but I do feel that I’ve made a mistake that impacts the quality of my work.
Laura: Of all the people we’ve spoken to, Matt is the most searching and raw, he’s the hardest on himself about being wrong. When he mentioned the quality of his work, it’s interesting, because I think by any objective standard, his work is of a very high quality. He makes really clear, rigorous arguments. But he’s troubled by this deeper sense of having misunderstood the Trump era.
Alex: Not in the sense of “I got these facts wrong,” but that he was just wrong about the state of the world.
Laura: And I think that’s something that most people who go into any process with expectations that people will act in good faith have felt over the last four years. Something that I wondered about is if Matt was more susceptible to feeling like he’d gotten things so wrong because his beat as someone who writes about legal affairs means that it’s his job to know what all the correct procedures are, and he has an expectation that they would be followed. And so then when they’re not, that is maybe more shocking than it would be to most people.
Alex: Yeah. When it’s your job to understand the law and to communicate clearly what the law says to the layperson, the idea of the law not mattering—I mean, it would make your work a lot harder.
Laura: So both people we’ve talked to so far are politics writers, and both of the things that they feel they got wrong are political, specifically related to the Trump era. The next person we’re going to talk to feels like he got something broader wrong.
Alex: Paul Ford, who’s a columnist for Wired, the co-founder of Postlight, a digital strategy, design, and engineering firm, has been involved in the internet and writing about the internet for two decades. We wanted to talk to him about what he got wrong about the information superhighway.
Paul, you published a post on Medium, actually two posts, one sarcastic and one much more sincere, in which your self from the year 2000 interviews your current self about what the internet is like now. What did your 2000 self get wrong?
Paul: Oh geez. Everything, everything. That poor little baby, sitting there at his computer, seeing wonderful things coming down the pike, seeing communities rise up and cultures form, and everybody was going to get along so great, and we were going to use blogging as a way to build a new society, where everyone had a voice. And he was wrong. That guy was wrong.
Alex: What specifically did he get wrong?
Paul: I really did think that the technology of the web was something that everybody was going to get excited about in just the way that I did and that we would get into building the web as a society together. I never realized that there were two huge forces out in the world. One is laziness: Humans don’t want to build their own publishing platforms, it turns out, and you can’t blame them, right? Who would want to? And that was just being young and into the web and not understanding that my nerdy interests weren’t shared by every other human being on earth. And the other is that I just had no sense of how powerful a big digital platform could be. At that point, around 2000, Microsoft was the giant, terrifying player, they were looking to destroy a lot of open internet culture, or that’s how we felt. So you’re like, well, they’re the enemy, but the web is going to keep eating away at them and we’re going to somehow build a new culture where all things are open and we can read ebooks on Project Gutenberg and so on. So what did that leave out? It left out Amazon, and it left out Google, and it left out Facebook consolidating so much power. It never occurred to me because at the time I’d never seen anything like that.
Laura: When did you feel like the move away from the ideal was becoming apparent? What was the first turning point when you felt like you might not have been right?
Paul: The problem is you don’t ever get anything wrong all at once, right? So obviously you could see dystopian tendencies, even in the earliest days. People have been seeing problematic telecommunications issues forever. Lily Tomlin did an entire stand-up album about the Bell Telephone monopoly—she’s playing a switchboard operator, and she’s mocking the phone company for being a big monopoly that doesn’t care about you. (Of course, in 1984, it’s broken up. As far as I know, it’s the only comedy album that’s been made obsolete by monopoly law. I don’t think that happens a lot.) But incrementally what would happen is you would see it going wrong, but what I would tend to do is see it going wrong away from America. There was a piece I wrote for The New Yorker website, this would be 2014, maybe, when Turkey was shutting down parts of the internet, shutting down Twitter. It was Erdogan. And I was like, “Hey, the big ‘Off’ switch is a fantasy, but can you imagine what would happen if somebody with fascist tendencies just really went to town on Twitter? They’d have a lot of fans and they could do whatever the hell they wanted and they wouldn’t have the mediating influence of government or the media, they could just use Twitter to be fascist, and that would be bad, wouldn’t it?” I had no sense that Donald Trump would have 88 million followers. It’s actually always really easy to see the worst-case scenario, it’s just much harder to see it close to home.
Alex: Very unfair to bring you on for an episode of being wrong and you bring up something you were right about.
Paul: Well, now that I’m a corporate leader, I’m much better at turning these things to my own advantage.
Alex: What are the assumptions you had that you think turned out to be incorrect?
Paul: I mean, it’s brutal, right? This is the wrong audience for it, and I’m sorry, but it’s the significance of good communication, good writing, good narrative, the idea that good writing and good thinking could save the world. I really believed that deep down. And it’s just heartbreak, right?
Paul: But I mean, you know, how’s it going?
What I remember, being that age, is, I didn’t know why I didn’t have power. I just knew I didn’t have it. And that becomes a real puzzle. Like, why don’t I have authority? I seem to be really smart. I have a degree in English literature. And yet there are people in politics who are able to make decisions about me and I’m not able to make decisions about them. That seems incredibly unfair to me. I’m going to start a blog and write about going out to bars in Brooklyn, which will absolutely change this culture. So you’re living in your world, and you’ve got a set of rules, an ethos, and you aren’t really participating in the big world, you’re living in a scene. I think the power of the scene, especially when you’re a little bit younger—it just seems like it’s the whole world. You don’t realize just how many people completely don’t share your point of view.
Alex: And don’t share your values. I think that that’s important, right? Because that sort of attitude, that 2000 attitude, was like, if we democratize everything, there will be a groundswell of people who broadly share my values.
Paul: And it’s free speech, right? You’re nailing it. It’s “We’re all going to come together and more communication will be better.” And look, everybody knows it—it didn’t work.
Laura: It’s interesting talking to you about this kind of 20-year span, because a lot of the people we’re talking to, they’ve been wrong about something, but maybe they realize that six months or a year down the line. And with you, it’s been over your whole adult life.
Paul: Yeah, Paul. You were incredibly wrong. Like, wow.
Laura: So my question is how much the sense of being wrong is based on the subject itself, because this is something that most people were wrong about, how the internet was going to turn out, and how much of it is the wisdom of age versus the idealism of youth?
Paul Ford: That’s a tricky one. I think it’s a lot of the latter, right? First of all, I mentor and work with young people who come across the technology industry and they say, “Boy, I’d like some of that economic opportunity. I’d like to learn some of those things, I’d like to participate.” I love working with people like that, and they find wonderful things to be excited about. They’re really motivated by tech, there are still a lot of puzzles to solve, and they’re figuring out culture as they go along. So is their experience not valid because things are weird and ugly? No. I mean, we knew who the enemies were back then. It’s just like power consolidated. What I didn’t realize—and I think this is where age comes in—I don’t actually blame the internet. I don’t blame even, like, a Facebook. I feel that certain people are around, they come up with ideas, they centralize enormous amounts of power and revenue, and then the ethics don’t scale. Commonly understood ethics don’t scale unless you have frameworks—literally institutional frameworks, things like governance and law, that allow you to evaluate how people are performing ethically and punish and reward accordingly. And Facebook is like, “We went to the animal shelter and got an oversight board, and aren’t we great?” So I’m not surprised that that happened. I think a lot of it is just you’re getting older and you realize, “Oh, this is how power works. And boy, people really want those things, and instead of feeling really bad about that, they feel completely fine about it. And now they have 50,000 employees and they’re completely central to the world economy and they’re not going to put their headquarters in Queens.” It’s just very weird to have been part of something that then later became the economy. It’s like if you were into a band and you’re like, “Wow, they’re good. They’ve got two guitars and that vocalist, she’s amazing.” And then, 20 or 30 years later, they literally run the world economy. You’re like, “They were just a weird indie band. That’s strange.”
Alex: Facebook is an interesting example because Jeff Bezos just stepped down as CEO of Amazon—Facebook is the last one with the founder still running it. But Mark Zuckerberg, when asked in 2021 what’s the point of Facebook, he still talks like 2000 Paul. He’s like, “The point of Facebook is, we’re bringing everyone together.”
Paul Ford: Man, it worked out so good for that guy.
Alex: Is he being completely cynical?
Paul Ford: No. He’s in a world in which billions of people love his free service. He gives hundreds of millions of dollars away. People in government are very critical, it’s annoying, you gotta go sit on a cushion, but for the most part, he works with really smart people, and they do really important work, and it scales well, and then they release the new products and everybody hates them in the press and the government, but the users love it. Who are you going to go with? So let them yell. If you need to go to another congressional hearing, you will, but my God, and then you’re going to smoke your meat, you’re going to hang out with your buds, you’re going to raise your kids, and you’re going to say to hell with it. All of us have had in our careers people who absolutely think we can go to hell. And what do you do? You just go, “Well, I guess I’m going to continue doing what I’m going to do, because I really don’t feel like bending my life around somebody who’s angry at me on Twitter or sent me a weird email.”
Alex: So the government is the person who’s angry at him on Twitter?
Paul Ford: It’s at that scope! That’s where he got. And like I said, there are no ethical systems that actually scale at the speed that he would need. So instead they’re like, “At Facebook, we care very deeply about your privacy and security.”
Alex: So if the year 2000 Paul had invented Facebook and you were now a billionaire many times over, still running the company, would you have published that Medium post in which you instructed your 2000 self that you were wrong?
Paul Ford: Absolutely not, man. See, I don’t think that if I’d been in that position and I’d found that success—I mean, I’d love to think I would have made better decisions, but I don’t know if I would have. Like, if I gave either one of you a billion people—just, here’s a billion people, and they’re going to give you little incremental bits of money, you’re going to charge advertisers for that, and we figured out that, by the way, the people who gave you the money to support this, they really want you to do it. And you’re, like, 22 or 25 years old. What are you going to do? This is not to say that we should wake up and be like, “That Mark Zuckerberg, he’s a great guy,” but these problems are structural. He doesn’t think that these are the problems, he thinks the problems are elsewhere. And we think the problem is him and his company. Maybe the truth is in the middle, maybe the truth is on our side. After observing for a long time, I don’t think it’s on his side, but they could pay me to be wrong.
Laura: So you wrote two versions of this piece about what you got wrong about the internet—one serious and one very funny. What do you find funny about being wrong?
Paul Ford: It’s very important to remind the world that you’re completely fallible and kind of an idiot, and you need to do it every single day because otherwise marketing and web tools and the frameworks we’ve built are all designed around telling you that you’re a famous genius and that you should just log in and tweet some more. But the truth is you’re an idiot. And if you went away, nobody would care—for real. Look at Donald Trump—his Twitter account left, and it was like 35 minutes, and then everybody just got on with things.
Alex: Twitter just moved on.
Paul Ford: The most important Twitter account in the world is gone, and it was like 90 minutes before people were like, “This cat is ridiculous.” And that was it. So you might as well prophylactically mock yourself, because the world doesn’t care, and it’s fun to point out just what a ridiculous clown you were when you were younger. It’s very important. It’s very healthy.
Alex: So Paul seemed to suggest there’s something healthy about looking at yourself, your past self, with some critical distance, and not being so wrapped up in your own ego that you can’t laugh about the things your young self was wrong about.
Laura: I mean, I think that’s what we’re trying to do, right? We’re trying to look at what we got wrong and compare our experience of that with other people. I wouldn’t necessarily compare it to my young self, because I was only a year younger when we made some of these episodes, but—
Alex: I was very happy when, when he acknowledged that if he had been in Mark Zuckerberg’s shoes, he would not be wondering about what he got wrong 20 years ago. Because it’s easier to admit you were wrong and to come to terms with it if it wasn’t profitable for you to be wrong,
Laura: Right. I think that one of the hardest things about recognizing a mistake is if there’s a really strong incentive for you to keep thinking that you got something right, you’re not going to be as likely to turn around and say “I was wrong, let’s talk about all the ways I was wrong.” So the next person we talked to is Carol Tavris, who is an expert in this phenomenon. She’s a social psychologist. She wrote a whole book about cognitive dissonance with Elliot Aronson. It’s called Mistakes Were Made, but Not by Me. We’ll be back after the break.
Carol: The uncomfortable feeling we have when
our beliefs, a practice that we’ve done in work or life for many years, and
suddenly we’re confronted with evidence that we’re wrong, that our belief is
past its shelf life, that this practice that we’re doing in our work is out of
date—that discomfort, between the feeling “I am a good, smart, competent, kind
person,” and now you are giving me evidence suggesting that I’m not smart, not competent, not kind, that
I hurt somebody else, that I’m bloody wrong—that is cognitive dissonance. And
it’s really uncomfortable. The social psychologist who invented this theory
many years ago, Leon Festinger, said, “It’s as uncomfortable as being hungry or
thirsty.” And we’re motivated to reduce that discomfort. Now we could do it by
saying, “Oh, thank you so much for this wonderful evidence that I just did
something foolish wrong and stupid,” or we can say, “I would rather preserve my
belief that I’m smart and competent and tell you where you can go with your
stupid study.” That’s the direction most people take, of course.
Laura: So the natural reaction is to continue to believe you’re right, just dismiss the evidence that contradicts that as sort of a blip, and then we can still continue living in this world where we’re basically right about the way things were going.
Carol: Exactly. Here’s the thing: What’s most crucial is our beliefs about ourselves. If I see being a skeptic or a scientist as central to my identity, and now you tell me that I’ve actually jumped onto some belief that is foolish, that I was gullible, that I didn’t wait to get the evidence, I’m going to really feel uncomfortable about that. If you challenge me on something that is not important to my self-concept, I’m more willing to say, “Oh, thank you so much for that information.” Once we have a belief, cognitive dissonance sees to it that we only look for evidence that supports the rightness of that belief. And we minimize, forget, trivialize, ignore, or overlook anything that is discrepant with our belief. That’s how we can keep on a path of belief even as we march over a cliff.
Laura: So when we were looking for guests to come on the show and talk to us about things that they were wrong about, there were lots of people we wanted to talk to who said, “I’m so sorry. I haven’t really been wrong about anything, so I can’t come on your show.” How common is cognitive dissonance?
Carol: Cognitive dissonance—I should say, there have been literally thousands of experiments since this theory was first promulgated. And the fascinating thing about it is how nonobvious it is, that is, it’s understandable if somebody makes a mistake, and they know they’ve made a mistake, to lie about it to other people, to avoid penalties or divorce or going to prison. What cognitive dissonance shows is that this is the mechanism that allows us to lie to ourselves, to keep on doing something or believing in something without pausing to think twice that it might be time to rethink it. That’s how universal this phenomenon is. The content of what we feel dissonance about will vary, but the mechanism is universal. And so the question is what people do to reduce the dissonance. Most people reduce dissonance by denying the evidence. Or we leap to a judgment about somebody, and then once we’ve made a judgment—some sensational case in the news, the behavior of a loved one in our lives—we then begin to justify that belief, that decision we made, and then we don’t look back. And that’s how we can move very far along a path of a bad, wrong, out-of-date belief.
Laura: You referred to experiments there earlier, and what you’re describing sounds, because of the nature of it and the self-deception involved, quite hard to identify. So how do you measure it?
Carol: Well, one of the most famous studies that my co-author and dear friend Elliot Aronson did many years ago was called “Severity of Initiation on Liking for the Group.” So the idea was, you know, we were all governed by behaviorism. Why would anyone subject themselves to pain and discomfort if they didn’t have to? He set up a beautiful experiment in which some of his students had to go through an embarrassing, painful, difficult task to be admitted to a group that was then going to be discussing sexual behavior, and the control group just had to do some boring task that was not involving in any way. And now both groups listened to an alleged recording of participants of the group. And that is the most boring discussion about sex it could possibly be. But the people who went through the embarrassing initiation liked the group more and were more eager to join it than the control group. Really, the reason for such practices as hazing and harsh discipline for admission to a group, what happens is people don’t say to themselves, “Well, that was stupid, I just spent all this time freezing in the cold and drinking a gallon of alcohol in order to join this group, what am I doing, I’m an idiot.” No one wants to think they’re an idiot, that they spent time, money, and effort on something that was not worth doing. And indeed what you see, in study after study after study, is people find mental ways of justifying what they did, even when the outcome wasn’t demonstrably worth it.
Laura: The title of one of your books is Mistakes Were Made, which is a very famous phrase used by not one but two U.S. presidents—or maybe more, am I right about that?
Carol: Many. Oh, everybody has said it. It’s the “subjective self-exonerative tense,” as one journalist put it. “Mistakes were made. I didn’t do it.” The rest of the title of our book is Mistakes Were Made, but Not by Me. That’s the point.
Laura: So that’s kind of a halfway house toward admission that you were wrong, right? If you say “mistakes were made,” you’re acknowledging something wasn’t right here. It feels bad to say, “I made that mistake,” especially if you’re a head of state, and the thing you made a mistake about could be as significant as the decision to go to war.
Carol: Exactly. But look, let’s clarify here the reasons that people will say, “Mistakes were made, but not by me.” If they know what the payoff is going to be—they’ll be voted out of office, they’ll lose somebody’s respect, they’ll have to pay a fine, their spouse will leave them—that would be the reason to deny responsibility. But the other main reason is, you don’t really believe you did anything wrong. You’re accusing me of sexually harassing somebody—I don’t think it was really harassment, please, no big deal.
Laura: Occasionally I feel like you will meet someone who is exceptionally willing to own up to being wrong, these open characters who almost enjoy saying, “Well, I was entirely wrong about this huge theory I had.” They almost find it interesting. How do you think someone gets to that stage, where they are acting in a way that’s pretty untypical?
Carol: That’s true. That is of course the way scientists are meant to think—that’s what the scientific method is. And people like those you’re describing feel that they have learned something from a hypothesis that turns out to be wrong. Of course, we must have beliefs and convictions that we lay claim to, they give our lives color and meaning, but the goal is to hold them lightly enough so that if you get evidence that it’s time to let them go, you’re able to do that.
Laura: Do you think that at certain moments in history, and under certain political conditions, it’s harder to get things right, or that cognitive dissonance is more common? Do people experience more cognitive dissonance in a time of upheaval?
Carol: Well, that is an interesting question. You can’t speak about people having more or less cognitive dissonance, though. I think what your question reflects is that, as many have said, our country has become so politically polarized that every decision is suddenly now attached to a political commitment, if you will, so that decisions that once would not have been terribly fraught, would not induce massive dissonance to learn that they might be wrong, now suddenly are and do.
Laura: Is what you’re saying here, what’s most important, in recognizing that you’re wrong, it’s not necessarily the content of the belief that’s being disrupted, but it’s just how high the stakes are?
Carol: Exactly. How high the stakes are and how central it is to your view of yourself. One of the rioters at the Capitol, standing there with his identification, speaking to a reporter—you know, a clearly identifiable guy—and the reporter says to him, “What’s your name?” And he says, “My name is John, but I’m not going to tell you my last name, do you think I’m dumb?” Do you see the point—“Do you think I’m dumb?” This is the central thing that keeps people attached to their beliefs. If, when we talk to another person and we say, “What were you thinking when you did XYZ?” that question is saying to them, “What are you, stupid?” And what are they going to do? They’re going to say, “What I was thinking was I was really smart and well informed to make that decision.” You’ll make them want to justify that decision even more strongly. See, the point about being able to say I was wrong, it’s not just to say I was wrong and get it off your chest and say, “Please forgive me.” The benefit of it is to ask, “What was I overlooking that I should have noticed? What kind of evidence was I ignoring?” As Elliot always says, “What did I know at the time I made that decision that I didn’t want to know?” Great question.
Alex: So what were we overlooking that we should have noticed over the last year?
Laura: Well, I think having talked to all of these people and having talked with Carol, my feeling is not that there were major facts that we were not taking into account. My feeling is that when we did an episode that ended up being overtaken by events, it was because we emphasize the wrong things. We had the right concerns—we were asking what makes a candidate attractive, when do people need to protest, how will we get vaccines—we just didn’t manage to frame those questions in quite the right way sometimes.
Alex: About the vaccine episode, in the back of my head I was thinking, “This all seems a little too confident about the rollout, based on how the government’s been going recently.” But this is also my just saying, “Well, it turns out I’ve never been wrong about anything—even if I didn’t say it, I was actually secretly right.” So perhaps I haven’t learned anything this week.
Laura: Well, the vaccine episode to me is one of the more puzzling things we got wrong, because we were wrong because we were too optimistic.
Alex: Yes. Which anyone who knows us, I think, would be surprised by.
Laura: Right, all of my conversations with you about the handling of the coronavirus pandemic by, say, the governor of New York State, where we live, have not been optimistic at all, have been very attuned to the ways in which government has not done a great job. And yet we didn’t really talk about that in the episode. I think it would have been a much more accurate picture if we had talked more about who is going to be rolling out the vaccine, what to expect from the leaders that we know are in charge of this.
Alex: I liked Carol’s point that when you ask someone, “What were you thinking when you did this thing you got wrong?” effectively you’re asking them, “Why did you do this stupid thing?” And no one wants to admit they did a stupid thing. So this is why I’m trying to figure out about my self-critique of the questions I didn’t ask. Is that my saying, “Oh, I should have done that better”? Or is that my just saying, “I actually wasn’t stupid at the time, I should have known better”?
Laura: Is this our way of saying, normally when you’re wrong, it’s because you did something stupid, but we were wrong because we are too smart?
Alex: I mean, that’s possible. I think we should be open to the possibility that we were wrong because we were too smart, Laura.
Laura: Somehow that doesn’t feel like the right takeaway for this episode.
Alex: I’ll let the listener decide.
Laura: I’m going to try and live up to Paul Ford’s spirit of humility.
Alex: That’s probably the wiser course of action.