Monday 1 October 2018

When reason fails: Mitchell's damning report; media bias; and disillusionment

I really hate to write another piece on the Kavanaugh saga, as I really do not wish to unduly politicise this blog. However, this is entirely a non-partisan issue for me (I don't even particularly like Kavanaugh - he is too conservative for my tastes), and the situation is simply so important, and so instructive about so many things, that I have been unable to contain a minor obsession with the issue over the past several days, and believe some of these insights need to be shared. And it's not really a story about Kavanaugh, Ford, and #metoo. It is instead fundamentally a story about the failure of both human reason, as well as our media institutions/journalistic traditions, which we rely on to sustain the health of our democracy.

Yesterday, Rachel Mitchell released a report to Senators on her assessment of the merits of Christina Ford's allegations against Kavanaugh. Mitchell is a female prosecutor (not defense lawyer) of sexual assault and related crimes, with 25 years of experience assessing the credibility of, and prosecuting, sexual assault cases. In other words, she is one of the world's foremost and most experienced experts in the field of assessing the merits of sexual assault allegations. She was chosen by the Republicans to ask questions of Ford in the recent Senate hearing, but she is a non-partisan figure.

Her report on the veracity of Ford's allegations is utterly damning. She notes that 'he said, she said' situations are always difficult to prove, but in the present case, Ford's allegations are in fact much weaker than that, as Ford's testimony contains no corroboration; all witnesses dispute her claims; and there are a large number of material inconsistencies in her story, as well as suspicious omissions. She goes on to provide five full pages of bullet points with specific examples of major irregularities with Ford's testimony, of exactly the sort you would expect to emerge under cross-examination if a witness were lying. She concludes with a tremendous understatement: "I do not think that a reasonable prosecutor would bring this case based on the evidence before the Committee". I encourage anyone with an interest in this issue to read the report in its entirety.

Now let's think about this for a moment. Here we have one of the world's foremost experts in assessing the merits of sexual assault claims, who is more informed on the specifics of this case than virtually anyone else in the world, expressing serious doubts about the integrity of Ford's allegations, and yet every single mainstream media source I have seen, with the exception of Fox News, has been absolutely convinced and committed to the idea Kavanaugh is guilty, and has been determined to utterly destroy his reputation and convict him in the court of public opinion.

Every single line of Kavanaugh's testimony has been scrutinized up and down by the media, looking for the most minor of potential infractions, with the worst possible out-of-context interpretation ascribed to anything he said. And when he became understandably emotional about the effect these false allegations have had on his family and daughters, he was callously condemned with the utmost cruelty as an 'angry man' whose tirade demonstrated he was completely unfit for public office.

Furthermore, even outside the mainstream media, the vast majority of people I usually regard as independent free-thinkers and bulwarks against the biased mainstream media, such as Sam Harris, as well as many other well-known commentators such as Nate Silver and Paul Krugman, have also all been extremely active in the Twittersphere busily condemning Kavanaugh and sharing any and all articles putatively proving Kavanaugh lied in the hearings. Often, these claims use some of the most spurious and tortured logic I have ever seen, as well as some of the most heroic of assumptions. The standard of proof being applied to Kavanaugh is not 'is this likely to have happened?', but 'is there any conceivable scenario, however unlikely, where this could have happened?'*

Meanwhile, there has been almost no scrutiny at all of Ford's claims by the mainstream media, who have been prepared to overlook the most extraordinary of inconsistencies that strain credulity to the breaking point. Such inconsistencies include claiming the event initially happened when she was 18 (by which point she had already left school), and then changing her story to say it occurred when she was 15 (and still in school); and claiming to have 'forgot' whether she gave her therapist notes to journalists merely a few months ago (which contain many statements that contradict her current story, including that there were four offenders, not two), while deliberately withholding the notes from the committee. I would encourage people to read Mitchell's report for a full list of the cumulative irregularities. I would add, separately, that when giving her testimony, Ford also did not roll her eyes upwards when asked to recall memories. This is a sign that a different part of the brain is being activited, and is regarded by body language experts as a very reliable sign of dishonesty.

So how is it that, on the one hand, we have a testimony from Ford littered with obvious irregularities, such that one of the most experienced prosecutors in the world on these matters - and perhaps the most knowledgeable person on this specific case (who is also a woman) - believes the case would be summarily thrown out, while virtually the entirety of the world's media and non-mainstream intelligentsia feels entitled to ignore the evidence and reach the completely opposite conclusion, and self-righteously destroy Kavanaugh's career, reputation, and life?

This is a sad story of the complete failure of human reason. It's a story of biased, motivated reasoning, and the inability of people to think rationally in an environment of heightened emotion, and the errors in judgment and terrible injustices that can sometimes result from these shortcomings. On my reading of the evidence currently available, the only reasonable conclusion to draw is that there is an insufficient basis to believe these allegations are true, and therefore that the reasonable and fair course of action is to proceed on the assumption they did not. That does not mean we can be 100% sure - we can be 100% sure of very little in life - but there is currently no reasonable basis to believe the alleged incident ever happened, and yet the mainstream media narrative is the exact opposite.**

It is also a striking indictment on the lack of journalistic impartiality and ethics that currently exist, along with the degree to which PC authoritarianism has overrun Western society (such that people are exercising self-censorship, in failing to question Ford's account). Because there is such widespread Democrat opposition to Kavanaugh's appointment, there has been every motive to capitalise on these allegations for political advantage, and this is a big part of why Kavanaugh has been treated so unfairly, in my opinion. That politicans would act in such a ruthlessly opportunistic way is outrageous but does not surprise me, but it ought to be the job of our journalistic/media institutions to call out these sorts of political shenanigans, not actively facilitate them. It should not be rouge bloggers such as myself having to do this sort of thing (the only reason I am is that so few others are). However, the anti-Kavanaugh rebuke has gone well beyond the mainstream media, and I can only conclude from this that widespread societal prejudice (men always lie, women are always honest) has also been a contributing factor, and/or a toxic penchant for virtue signalling. It's a sad state of affairs.**

I'm used to being a contrarian, independent thinker, and standing apart from the crowd. However, the degree of irrationality on this issue has been so extreme that even I have never - ever - felt to the extent I do now, that either I or the whole world must be going completely and utterly insane. And I must say, I don't think I have ever quite had this degree of distrust in the power of human reason, or such distrust in the ethics of journalists or human beings in general. I am thoroughly disillusioned and appalled (or, perhaps, insane).


*For example, it has been asserted as proof Kavanaugh lied that he said he 'never went to a gathering like the one Ford described', because it was a small gathering and Kavanaugh would have gone to gatherings like that, and there is no way he could have remembered all of them. So he must be lying. But he denied it on the basis of the event's location, which was outside the area where he usually socialised at the time, and on the basis of his diaries. And he also appears to have a much better memory than average. These factors do not prove that he is telling the truth, but to assert that this is smoking-gun proof he is lying is completely ridiculous. Yet otherwise very smart people have been quite willing to accept this logic as satisfactory (e.g. Krugman). 

Much has also been made of his penchant for beer (which he has not denied, but attempted to downplay). That has been seized upon as further proof of dishonesty - he didn't voluntarily offer up details of getting drunk and throwing up when in school, ergo he is lying on the stand, and must have been blind drunk at the time and not remembered the incident. Again, anything is possible, but it's not at all likely if there is absolutely no other corroborating evidence. And who, really, is proud of their worst drunken school-boy moments, and wants to volunteer them up to a global audience? He was evasive in answering these questions likely precisely because he did not want to lie. 

**Since publication, these two paragraphs have been substituted for the original paragraph written below, which I believe in hindsight was poorly written and too strongly worded. In the interests of maintaining fair disclosure, however, the have preserved the original text below: 

It is also a striking indictment on the lack of journalistic impartiality and ethics that currently exist, along with the degree to which PC authoritarianism has overrun Western society (such that people are exercising self-censorship). The attacks on Kavanaugh are almost certainly a politically-motivated smear, aimed not just at blocking his nomination, but discrediting Republicans ahead of the upcoming midterm elections. That politicans would do such a thing is outrageous but does not surprise me, but it ought to be the job of our journalistic/media institutions to call out this sort of political corruption, not actively facilitate it. It should not be rouge bloggers such as myself having to do this sort of thing (the only reason I am is that so few others are). But it has gone even further than the above, as even many independent free-thinkers outside of traditional media have also joined into the anti-Kavanaugh chorus. I can only ascribe this to widespread societal prejudice (men always lie, women are always honest), and/or a toxic penchant for virtue signalling.

Important afterword

One anecdote I regrettably forgot to include in the original article was that it was reported that at the Harvard Law School, when Kavanaugh was giving his live testimony and discussing how the allegations had impacted his life, and mentioned it could mean that he could never teach law at Yale again (which he as been doing part time for 10 years), a cheer apparently erupted in the hall.

Learning this concerned me more than anything else. Here we have some of the smartest people in the country, who ought to be the most knowledgeable of all about the importance of due process and the presumption of innocence, exhibiting some of the most heinous prejudice I have ever seen. If even Harvard law students have become this corrupted, what hope is there for the future of civil society?