The Jussie Smollett case reveals the dangers of our confirmation bias
I've been silent on the topic of Jussie Smollett's alleged hate-driven assault for two reasons: First, because I wanted to believe him. Second, I also suspected he was lying.
Smollett, the Empire actor who said last month he'd been attacked in Chicago by a pair of men who beat him while shouting racist and homophobic slurs, on Wednesday was charged with a count of disorderly conduct for filing a false police report. His whole story appears to have been a fabrication.
Conservative media is filled with I-told-you-sos from skeptics who never believed Smollett's account, while many liberal commenters are lamenting that the actor's mendacity will make it more difficult for real stories of anti-black and anti-gay violence to be given proper credence.
"Does this one uncommon incident of someone filing a false report mean we should ignore the violence against Black LGBTQ+ folks past, present and future? If one person is untruthful, then maybe homophobia & racism aren't things."
-white media framing of the Jussie Smollett story
— Bree Newsome Bass (@BreeNewsome) February 21, 2019
I believe hate crimes are real and on the rise. Yet I was skeptical of Smollett. Why? Because his story was too perfect.
By that, I don't mean that his account stood up to rigorous scrutiny — questions about Smollett's veracity emerged almost immediately after his account became public. But it was perfect in the sense that it precisely fit my own expectations of what life is like in America under President Trump — right down to the detail about the attackers reportedly shouting that this is "MAGA country" as they beat Smollett.
It was a story that seemed designed in a lab to produce a storm of lefty righteous indignation, and that's exactly what happened: Figures in politics and show business condemned the attack, and took a few shots at Trump along the way. (Trump's backers, as you can imagine, are delighted at this turn of events.)
One lesson from the ordeal is this: Confirmation bias is a thing. We all think we are rational creatures, but the truth is that most of us believe evidence that confirms our beliefs — and filter out contradictory facts. When a story comes along that so neatly fits our preconceived expectations, we're ready to give it credence, when maybe the best thing to do is exercise a little caution.
Call it the Aaron Sorkin Rule. Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom, is talented at crafting liberal fantasies about our politics and media. When conservative villains appear in his stories, they're always a little bit too on the nose — and, thus, easily defeated. Real life is messier. So when a real-life incident seems too perfectly Sorkinesque, either in its glorification of liberals or its denigrating of conservatives, the best thing to do is wait a second to react. Maybe even several seconds.
This isn't just a progressive problem. For decades, people on the right have let themselves believe that Bill Clinton is a murderer, Barack Obama is really a Kenyan, and that there's a "deep state" conspiracy against President Trump. Let's not even get started with Alex Jones.
So if we're in danger of believing what we want to believe, how can we better determine the truth? The first step is to weigh the evidence fairly, to assess whether there are — or aren't — facts that corroborate explosive accusations. In Smollett's case, doubts first arose because there was precious little corroboration; none of the surveillance cameras in the neighborhood managed to capture the alleged attack.
The second step is to repeat the first step over and over.
This is my 1st tweet about Jussie Smollett.
It's the journalist in me. I needed more facts when I first heard of what happened. I certainly need more facts now.
— Jose Antonio Vargas (@joseiswriting) February 19, 2019
Sometimes there aren't enough facts to truly know the answer. Whether you believed Christine Blasey Ford or Brett Kavanaugh during last year's Supreme Court confirmation hearings probably had a lot to with your politics beforehand — there simply wasn't enough evidence either way to make a reliable judgment. Sometimes, we have to go with our gut. That's no sin, as long as we admit it and are willing to revise our beliefs if and when new facts emerge.
Even now, some prudent caution in the Smollett case might be advisable.
Despite the inconsistencies, I can’t blindly believe Chicago PD. The department that covered up shooting Laquan McDonald over a dozen times? That operated an off-site torture facility? That one? I’ll wait. Whatever the outcome, this won’t stop me from believing others. It can’t.
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) February 17, 2019
All knowledge is provisional, it turns out. We know what we know, until we learn more and adjust. Sometimes we can only rely on our best guesses. If there's a lesson in the Smollett case it should not be that we disbelieve the victims of hate crimes, nor that we should always believe them, but that we should always leaven our beliefs with a drop of humility.