Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance. It’s a concept that keeps coming up in discussions about why the local media in Baltimore has refused to revise their assessment of The Senator Theatre and its transition, and refused to investigate what really went on, in light of revelations of the truth reported on this blog and by Friends of The Senator leaders. The media has not done its job on this story, and in fact has instead perpetuated a series of falsehoods that are now believed by many in Baltimore to be the gospel truth. When the actual truth was discovered and reported by me and a few others, it was ignored. What is going on?

The false story: Baltimore City has loaned Tom Kiefaber a lot of money and bailed him out time and again.

The true story: Baltimore City has NEVER lent Tom Kiefaber a single dime, and the city neglected The Senator for over a decade. This was in order to starve Tom out of The Senator, so that they could force a change in operators (which has now been accomplished). Baltimore City is now set to give the new operators much more money in grants and loans than they ever gave Tom Kiefaber. Statements made to the press about this during the past decade by Baltimore City and Baltimore Development Corporation officials almost invariably contained either false or misleading content.

Let me repeat the basic truth here: Baltimore City has NEVER lent Tom Kiefaber a single dime, and the city neglected The Senator for over a decade. See? You still don't believe me, but it's true.

The facts are right on the surface and easy to investigate, yet since I began to uncover them, every media outlet in Baltimore has flatly refused to investigate and report the truth. Most have continued the false and defamatory storyline of “the city bailed Tom out,” in defiance of actual fact. Why?

The answer may lie in the science of brain research.

Cognitive Dissonance is a term psychologists use to describe what happens in our brains when we have one thought, which we believe is a fact, and then are presented with conflicting information. Humans don’t like cognitive dissonance. We want the information in our brains to be neatly organized, for the bits of information to agree with each other, for it all to make sense.

“If someone is presented with information that is dissonant from what they already know, the easiest way to deal with this new information is to ignore it, refuse to accept it, or simply avoid that type of information in general.” – Essay by
Phil Barker

This means when we already believe something false, we will often reject the truth when we hear it.

According to an article in the Boston Globe, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people are confronted by facts, instead of changing their minds, they often strengthen their false beliefs.

"Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger."

If you’re a true believer in the prevalent “the city bailed Tom out” meme, you probably haven’t read this far. Your cognitive dissonance has already maybe caused you to reject my argument. If you’re an adventurous true believer who has read this far, you’re probably sputtering right now, thinking “but…but…the Sun gave numbers. They told us how much the city had lent Tom.”

Numbers lie.

In a recent interview on NPR, I heard author Charles Seife discussing his new book “Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception,” which I admittedly have not yet read. The basic gist I got from the discussion was this:

Numbers automatically lend credibility. When people see a number quoted in a news article, they believe that information to be true, even if they cannot verify that the number quoted is accurate.

To re-quote an excerpt of “Proofiness” that’s quoted on NPR’s web site:

As he held aloft a sheaf of papers, a beetle-browed Joe McCarthy assured his place in the history books with his bold claim: “I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.”

That number—205—was a jolt of electricity that shocked Washington into action against communist infiltrators. Never mind that the number was a fabrication. The number went up to 207 and then dropped down again the following day, when McCarthy wrote to President Truman claiming that “we have been able to compile a list of 57 Communists in the State Department.” A few days later, the number stabilized at 81 “security risks.” McCarthy gave a lengthy speech in the Senate, giving some details about a large number of cases (fewer than 81, in fact) but without revealing enough information for others to check into the matter.

It really didn’t matter whether the list had 205 or 57 or 81 names. The very fact that McCarthy had attached a number to his accusations imbued them with an aura of truth.

McCarthy convinced the entire nation that the State Department was filled with communists, based on a number he had just made up. It seems former Deputy Mayor and former BDC official Andrew Frank had similar political instincts.

In articles in the Baltimore Sun and other places, Frank was fond of citing the figure $600,000 when discussing how much money the city had supposedly used to bail out Tom Kiefaber. Except it wasn’t true. This money had not helped Tom to keep The Senator open.

The figure Frank was talking about represented a loan guarantee, not a loan or a grant. The city had not actually paid out that money, and would never become liable for that money, unless Tom defaulted on The Senator’s mortgage with 1st Mariner bank AND the bank foreclosed on The Senator AND foreclosed on Tom’s house AND another residential property Tom had used as collateral AND all of that property still could not cover the outstanding amount of the loan. Not a very likely scenario.

In fact, the only thing the loan guarantee did was to give the city financial leverage, so that when Tom eventually could not pay the mortgage on The Senator, they were able to dictate what the disposition of the property would be, and therefore acquire it themselves. The $600,000 did not go into bailing Tom out, but instead went to the bank, so that the city could acquire The Senator. The city used the loan guarantee to get its own hooks into the property, not to help Tom Kiefaber.

Numbers can be used in a deceptive way. Take the letter to the Kansas School Board by Bobby Henderson, which used numbers and a graph to document that global warming is caused by the global decline in pirate populations. Now this is absurd – almost as absurd as claiming that Tom Kiefaber, who put over 1.2 million dollars of his own money into The Senator, and never borrowed a dime from the City of Baltimore, was bailed out by the City of Baltimore time and again.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The way the local media has framed The Senator story is largely false, in many particulars. In example after example, known by a few insiders, what the media reports on The Senator is often actually the opposite of the truth, but detailing all of that when the population of Baltimore is still faced with cognitive dissonance over the most basic of facts would be simply an exercise in frustration.

To give one anecdotal example, after The Senator changed its programming from mainly first-run films to a more eclectic mix of film, live music, and community events in March-April of 2009, the local media persisted in repeating the falsehood that the theatre was closed. One day when I was volunteering there, a passerby saw Tom Kiefaber changing the letters on the marquee, so that they would list the next day's event. The passerby remarked that it was nice that he continued to care for the marquee, even when the theatre was closed, and asked if he was advertising events for other theatres. When Tom told him that in fact, the theatre was not closed and he was putting up the marquee information for the next day's event, the passerby refused to believe him, and argued with Tom for several minutes. Finally, Tom brought him into the theatre and showed him a crowd of people in the auditorium, watching a movie.

"Friends of yours?" asked the passerby.

"You don't believe your own lying eyes, do you?" said Tom, and explained again that the people in the auditorium were paying customers, and that the theatre was in fact open.

Finally, the man had to admit that he had not been able to believe what his own eyes had shown him, because the TV news had told him something that wasn't true, but that he had believed. The man told Tom he would tell others the theatre was open, but the volunteers at the theatre doubted it would help. After all, a lot of other people had been told by the TV news that the theatre was closed, and even if they saw it open, they might not believe their own lying eyes.

When working hard to maintain cognitive dissonance, though, sometimes emotional arguments work best. When all else fails, true believers in the “Tom is the problem” meme simply state, “well, we don’t like him. He’s a jerk.” So, even if it's proven to them that the city never bailed Tom out, many will fall back on this argument.

Cognitive scientist George Lakoff knows all about how emotional arguments bypass the logical part of the brain and go straight to the emotional centers, often making arguments with facts ineffectual. He wrote about that in his eye-opening book “The Political Mind.”

So, why does all this neuroscience stuff matter in the case of The Senator Theatre? Why do I care that people have been fooled about what has happened in the past, leading to the transition of ownership of The Senator Theatre?

It matters because the best advocate The Senator has ever had in its history has been defamed, marginalized, and effectively silenced, and contrary to public belief, The Senator Theatre is now more endangered than ever before, because the current plan by the new operators is poorly thought out and is not based on real understanding of the issues involved.

Advocates for The Senator’s future need Tom’s voice back, not because he should be in charge again (he doesn’t want to be), but because of his years of experience and his visionary insight, which are very much missed by those in the know.

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