It seems that the world is full these days of examples of official -- some might say "politically correct" -- narrative trumping the truth. And thus when certain facts seem to be established beyond any possible ability to deny them any more, many people continue proclaiming exactly the opposite as the truth. Having spent a career in the trial business, I'm fully aware of the slippery nature of the truth, and indeed that at some level it is actually impossible to establish the absolute truth of any particular facts. I mean, how do we really know that somebody didn't come through in our sleep last night and transplant everybody's brain with a new brain having new memories? As that example illustrates, at some point the possibilities for continuing to argue "not so" become so implausible that you would think no one would continue to soldier on.
But not only are there plenty of examples where the advocates of alternative reality don't give up, there are many cases where the alternative reality achieves broad acceptance right in the face of the overwhelming evidence against it. Now here's what's odd: In every good example of this phenomenon that I can come up with, the evidence-trumping narrative is somehow an icon of the Left, drawing support from widespread acceptance among certain circles of journalists, academics, Manhattanites, Hollywood stars and moguls, and other cool left-leaners. I'm going to lay out a few examples here. If anyone can give me an example of a right-side narrative that has achieved comparable widespread acceptance despite overwhelming evidence against it, I'll be very interested to hear about it. But I really can't think of one, despite some effort.
Alger Hiss. I'll start with a truly classic example of the genre, one that is native to my Greenwich Village home. One of my daughters attended a high school in lower Manhattan called the Friends Seminary. A couple of years behind her at that school was a kid named Jacob Hiss. Turns out that Jacob was Alger's grandson. Around the time my daughter was a senior (2007), the school invited Jacob's father Tony, an alum of the school and Alger's son, to give a talk on the Hiss case. (Apparently Friends was the Hiss family school.) Of course the talk was all about why Alger was innocent and had been framed. And in this context I came to learn that the official Greenwich Village belief is indeed that Alger was framed. Even as late as 2007! I haven't checked around recently, but I have little doubt that most Villagers today who remember anything about this case will still believe that Hiss was framed. After all, he was one of us -- Village resident, supporter of high-minded progressive causes, graduate of Harvard Law School. (Wait a minute -- now we're getting a little too close for comfort!)
But what about the evidence? Hiss was a high-ranking State Department official who was accused in the late 40s by a guy named Whittaker Chambers of having been a co-member of a Soviet cell in the 30s and early 40s, and of having passed State Department secrets to Soviet agents. Hiss strenuously denied it, including in testimony before Congress. It was all just "he said, she said" until Chambers came up with some papers that he claimed Hiss had given him for transmission to the Russkies. The papers had been retyped on a manual typewriter of the day. The FBI got hold of a Hiss family typewriter and established that every quirk of that device was reflected in the retyped documents produced by Chambers. At that point the Hiss story became that the FBI had elaborately created a "forged typewriter" to mimic the physical characteristics of the Hiss typewriter.
Now, I above all others am prepared to believe just about anything about the FBI; and this was the J. Edgar Hoover FBI of the late 40s, which I'm prepared to believe was even worse than today's edition. But, really? Based largely on the typewriter evidence, Hiss was convicted of perjury for his testimony before Congress denying his involvement in Soviet spying.
Then in the 90s lots of information got released from former Soviet archives, and many who have reviewed decrypted communications have concluded that a certain agent identified as "Ales" could only be Hiss. A Commission on government secrecy in the late 90s chaired by then-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded that the case for complicity of Hiss was "settled".
Anyway, for those with any interest in this case, here is a website called the Alger HIss Story, maintained by a long-time colleague of Alger, and continuing to soldier on with making the case for Alger's innocence. And yes, the "forged typewriter" bit is a key element of the defense.
Dan Rather/Memogate. And now we have opening today in theaters a movie called "Truth." As with the Hiss story, to believe the narrative peddled in "Truth" you need to believe completely implausible things about how certain documents were created. And yet it seems that formerly respected newsman Dan Rather, his producer Mary Mapes, actor Robert Redford, director and screenwriter James Vanderbilt, and zillions more of the leftist persuasion, are more than prepared to go with the narrative over the evidence.
Some brief background: In September 2004, two months before the Bush-Kerry presidential election, the CBS news show 60 Minutes II ran a story touting some newly discovered documents as establishing that then-President Bush, while serving in the Texas Air National Guard in the early 70s, basically went AWOL by failing to show up for a required physical exam because he was working on someone's Senate campaign in Alabama, and then exerted pressure from above on his commanding officer to avoid a bad report. The story was produced by CBS producer Mary Mapes and presented on air by Dan Rather. It rapidly fell apart. It seems that the documents, supposedly generated by Bush's commanding officer Jerry Killian in the early 70s, bore none of the physical characteristics of documents generated on typewriters of the day, and instead appeared to have been generated by a 2003 version of Microsoft Word. For example, 70s typewriters gave all letters equal amounts of space, whereas Word gave more space to a "w" than to an "l"; and Word would automatically superscript the "th" in 5th, something that is very tricky to do on one of those old typewriters. Here is Megan McArdle of Bloomberg, rehashing the story on July 15:
The documents that backed this story up were probably forgeries. Now, I say "probably," because I can't exclude the very remote possibility that in the early 1970s Bush's commanding officer, for reasons lost to history, decided to type up these memos himself (even though his wife said he couldn't type) rather than getting his secretary to do it. I can't prove that he never got his hands on a rather exotic typewriter instead of using the ones that were in his office, spent some time working on it with a soldering gun, and managed to coincidentally produce a document that looked exactly like what you would get if you opened up Microsoft Word 2003 and started typing.
You quickly get the picture of how completely implausible this would be. To the credit of CBS, Rather and Mapes were quickly dispatched. You would think that those two would have quietly gone into another line of work and hoped nobody remembered this embarrassment, but no. Mapes strenuously asserted in multiple interviews that it had never been "proved" that the documents were forgeries, and then in 2005 came out with a book, "Truth and Duty," presenting her side of the case (with herself of course in the role of heroine standing up to the corrupt President Bush). Ten years on, it's now a movie.
So given the evidence out there at this point could anyone possibly give this the time of day? Here is the New York Times on October 14 reporting on a preview showing of the film that took place last week at the Museum of Modern Art -- literally one block from my office:
Last week, the former CBS News producer Mary Mapes was back on West 53rd Street at the Museum of Modern Art for the premiere of the movie “Truth.” Ms. Mapes, the author of the book that inspired this movie, got a Hollywood welcome from an adoring crowd and blew a kiss to the film’s director and screenwriter, James Vanderbilt.
Yes, it was a "Hollywood welcome from an adoring crowd." That bit of publicity was followed by the rave review for the film that appeared in yesterday's Pravda, calling it "a gripping, beautifully executed journalistic thriller about the events that ended Dan Rather’s career as a CBS anchorman . . . ." The review studiously avoids taking any position on whether the 60 Minutes II story was true or the journalists performed their jobs with any semblance of competence, versus getting taken in by an obvious hoax that they failed to question because the story helped their side in the heat of a presidential campaign. After all, of what relevance is it to a movie going by the title "Truth" whether the story it is peddling is true or not? That's not what this is about at all!:
“Truth” doesn’t try to resolve mysteries that may never be solved or to drum up paranoia for the sake of extra heartbeats. But it still casts a pall of dread, an ominous sense that people in high places, whether in government or the news media, will stop at almost nothing to protect themselves and their interests.
Sure. I've got news for you, Pravda: this one is not a mystery. At PowerLine today, Scott Johnson also points out with serious understatement that "[Times reviewer] Holden’s thick clichés about people in high places apply perfectly to Mapes herself rather than to the putative villains of Mapes’s piece."
I was planning to cover several more examples of this genre, including the cases of executed Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, as well as the "Hands Up Don't Shoot" narrative that came out of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But this is getting way too long. So let me close with what is undoubtedly the most extraordinary case today of mass groupthink acceptance of a politically-correct narrative over seemingly definitive evidence disproving the narrative. I am referring, of course, to global warming.
Global warming. Those who follow this issue at all know that in 1979 the U.S. put up sophisticated satellites to measure global temperatures. The satellites were intended to resolve many thorny issues arising out of trying to measure global temperature by scattered thermometers located at surface weather stations. Those issues include that large parts of the earth's surface (e.g., oceans, poles, Amazonia, sub-Saharan Africa) have no or few weather stations, that stations move, that cities grow around stations, that instruments get changed, and so forth. So from 1979 forward we have satellites that measure nearly everywhere in the world equally, with far greater accuracy than the prior thermometer networks, and with none of these old issues. Two different and independent scientific groups, known as UAH and RSS, were retained to analyze and publish the satellite temperature data. So now we would really know whether global warming was occurring or not.
The latest monthly report on the satellite data covering September came out at the beginning of this month. The basic story of the satellite data is that during the first 18 years (1979 - 1997) they showed some warming, but since early 1997 -- a period of now 18 years and 8 months -- there has been no warming at all. Zero, zilch, nada. Here is the chart of the RSS temperatures since early 1997, with the calculated slope line going through the middle (from Watts Up With That here):
It's important to note that the slope line shown is not some kind of estimate, but rather is calculated from the data points. As indicated on the chart, these 224 months have seen a tremendous increase of human production of CO2, particularly with the growth of the economies of China and India, such that fully one-third of all human-produced CO2 has been in this period -- with no warming at all to show for it.
So what is the reaction over at the New York Times? They actually had an editorial on this subject just last week (October 10), titled "Teaching The Truth About Climate Change," and advocating that children as young as middle-school be taught that “human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature.”
Misinformation about climate change is distressingly common in the United States — a 2014 Yale study found that 35 percent of Americans believe that global warming is caused mostly by natural phenomena rather than human activity, and 34 percent think there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether global warming is even happening. (In fact, an overwhelming majority of scientists agree that climate change is here and that it is caused by humans.) One way to stop the spread of this misinformation is to teach children about climate change.
Well then! "An overwhelming majority of scientists agree that climate change is here". I guess that sure trumps the facts! Time to teach all the pre-teens how to groupthink!