IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Assessing America's information crisis with David Roberts: podcast & transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with journalist David Roberts about how the erosion of trust and manipulation of information has impacted the conservative movement.

How can you be sure that the things you know are true… are actually true? We have access to more information than any humans in history but we can't process it on our own. In fact, almost all of what we know comes from others. We come to rely on people and institutions to tell us what to believe and not to believe. And it turns out there are huge, consequential differences in how Americans form those relationships, relationships which serve as the building blocks for how we shape our own views of the world. So what happens when someone tries to manipulate that trust? If you ask David Roberts, you need only look at the current conservative movement to get your answer.

DAVID ROBERTS: All these little lies serve a purpose, like telling people that the caravan is a threat. Telling them that they had the biggest inauguration crowd, ever. Just all these constant little lies are conditioning, they're meant to sort of condition their followers to just go along with whatever they say. And once you've got that then it's like off to the autocratic races.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host Chris Hayes.

In 2012, I published a book, it was my first book. It was called "The Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy." And it was a book that was about a few different strands. One of the big ones, broadly, was the crisis of authority in American life. That was the kind of pitch sentence that I would go around to publishers and say, "I want to write a book about the crisis of authority in American life." And it had started when I looked at his polling data that showed that Americans trust in their pillar institutions had declined over a period of time, and were at all time lows in around 2010, 2009, when I started thinking about writing the book.

So this was across the board like: higher education, media, the legal system, medicine. In fact, military and police were really the only thing that a majority of Americans had a lot of trust in. So, I wrote the book, and it published in 2012, and there's a chapter in that book which is a chapter that wrestles with what the effects of this crisis of authority are for how we form knowledge about the world. How do we think about ... how do we get our facts about the world? How do we have public conversation and discourse about facts about the world, when the intermediaries that are the things, the institutions, that give us those facts whether it's, you know, colleges and higher education and research universities, with their fancy scientists, or it’s newspapers, are in this kind of downward spiral of trust.

And the chapter is called, "Who Knows?" And in the chapter actually it's sort of funny, like there's all these characters that pop up in the book, in this chapter particularly, who would prove to be important later on because this theme is arguably the single most important thing that we wrestle with right now as an American democratic society, as a political entity and as a nation and civilization, is these radically irreconcilable truths that different parts of our American political system have. This inability to agree on the basic consensus grounding of facts, particularly on the most acute crisis that's ever faced humankind, which is climate change. And so in the chapter, I write about Julian Assange, I write about WikiLeaks, and I write about its sort of radically disruptive model, this kind of pathological distrust embodied by Assange and Wikileaks of other institutions, the promise of transparency as a way of getting to "the truth," right?

That like, there's these all these institutions you don't trust, they're holding secrets from you, they're lying to you and we will wrench those secrets out from those institutions and present them to you, to see for yourself, and then you will get to the truth. And that's the promise. And now, talking about this in 2018 it seems obvious that that's not really the agenda and also that can be really toxic and insidious, but I wrote about how it can be insidious back then in 2012 with a different example, which was the climate gate leaks, which were a bunch of research scientists in England who were hacked. We still don’t know who hacked them, and their emails were posted online and eventually hosted by WikiLeaks, and there was nothing nefarious in them but they were pulled out of ... ripped out of context, and taken by climate denialists, and blown into this huge fake scandal.

There was a report after report, there was Fox News reporting about it, the right wing media in England went crazy, and it was all used to essentially confuse the issue. So, what's so ironic about the climate gate model, right, is that the emails were real, and the things that were in them contained, it was true. It was true, it was radically transparent, they did actually take the emails from these people, behind the curtain at this institution. They really did present it to the public to see for themselves, and yet its effect was to take a very clear and apparent truth, climate change is happening, and obscure it. Right? The transparency, and the bringing the thing forward, the new information, made the truth less accessible.

The new information made the truth start to disappear. That is the conundrum of our times. We do not have a lack of information. We have too much information, and the way that we mediate that information is by depending on all sorts of other people to tell us what to trust and what not to trust, and those trust relationships are the building blocks of how we form knowledge about the world. And there are these huge differences in how some Americans do that, and how others do. In what institutions they trust, and I've been thinking and obsessing over this question since I was a philosophy major in college, where I studied epistemology, which is the philosophy branch devoted to justified belief, how we come to justify belief. Okay, so that’s my background on this.

Today, I get to talk to another philosophy major, in fact the person I talked to in the conversation today not only was a philosophy major in undergrad, went to grad school for philosophy and was ABD, got all the way through except his dissertation, before leaving and becoming a journalist and a writer. He's a great writer. He's incredibly sharp guy. His name is David Roberts, and David Roberts is a guy who I first became aware of when he was writing for Grist, and he writes a lot about climate, and he writes really wonky stuff about climate. I mean, if you want to get into the weeds of how grid policy works, David Roberts has like a 5,000 word article for you. In fact I think we'll have it back at some point to talk about grid policy, because it's super important.

But he also, like a lot of people, and like my conversation with Andrew Revkin, if you'll remember who writes about climate for The New York Times, the people that work on climate, they all end up moving from the physics and the science of climate, to this belief question because the tricky part of climate isn't the science, like we know what's happening, and we kind of know the things we have to do to do it. The problem is we're not doing it. And so everyone who works on climate ends up reasoning their way back, or working their way back to wrestling with this fundamental, philosophical and cognition question, which is like: why don't people do anything about this and why can't we get people to believe in it? Or why is there some rump caucus of Americans increasingly, who refuse to believe in it?

And David, because he starts in climate, has been writing and thinking about what he calls, an epistemic crisis in America, and I think that's a great way of thinking about it. The epistemic crisis we encounter in America right now, in which you can imagine a world in which the D.C. police find the body of a man who was murdered by the president of the United States. With the president's fingerprints on him, and tens of millions of Americans are like, "Nope, just didn't happen. That's fake news." There's no evidence that can pierce a certain shell, and we see it all the time, we see it with Russia, we see it on climate, we see it and a whole bunch of domains.

And so this conversation today is about understanding the epistemic crisis in America, and understanding how it is people form their opinions broadly, and how they form their knowledge of the world, and what has gone wrong, so wildly pathologically wrong with a certain segment of the right in America, in how they form their views of the world.

You and I have something in common, and it's an important thing that we have in common, do you know what it is?

DAVID ROBERTS: Oh? I would hesitate to speculate.

CHRIS HAYES: We studied philosophy. Both of us.

DAVID ROBERTS: Oh right, yes. Odd number of journalists-


DAVID ROBERTS: … have that in common.

CHRIS HAYES: It is funny, and you know, I wrote a chapter in my first book about epistemology, basically. And you've been writing about epistemology, and it's something that I think you studied in both undergrad, and grad school. I only studies philosophy in undergrad, but I thought maybe let's just start out with that, right? Like, let's start out with, what do we mean by epistemology? What is that, what kind of field of inquiry is that?

DAVID ROBERTS: Wow. Going to jump right in the deep end.

CHRIS HAYES: We're going right in the deep end.

DAVID ROBERTS: Well, epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge basically, how we gain knowledge and what justified belief it consists in. Basically, how we know things and what it means to know something.

CHRIS HAYES: The thing that I loved about philosophy is, you take a very banal, obvious thing, and start asking questions, and within a few questions you would be like, "Whoa."

DAVID ROBERTS: Exactly. You realize that no one knows anything.

CHRIS HAYES: We don’t actually have any answers, right? So, when someone says to me, "How do you know the world is round?" Right? I say, "Well, it was taught to me." "Well, who taught it to you?" "Well, my teachers." "Well, how do they know?" "Well, scientists." "Well, which scientists?" "I don't know." "How'd the scientist know?" Actually as I'm playing this out right now, I don't actually know the answer to that. Like, I literally I don't know the answer to the question of ... well, obviously now we have satellites and all that stuff, but like before we got into space, like how did they know, but they knew, right?

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah, I think that actually, it reveals that our folk theories of epistemology are sort of folk theories about how things work, don't stand up to even the mildest scrutiny.

CHRIS HAYES: What do you mean by that?

DAVID ROBERTS: In Western culture, particularly American culture, we sort of adopted from science, our view of what epistemology is, i.e. you gather evidence, and you sift through it, and you reason from evidence to conclusions. But as you say, from your anecdote about the world being round, the vast, vast, vast bulk of what we say we know, we know based on trust, we know based on someone told us, and we believe them. So really, when it about knowledge and how to know things, it's much less about the sort of individual process of inquiry or gathering evidence or sifting through it, and much more about, who do we trust, and how do we maintain that trust, and how is that trust vouchsafed, and what happens when that trust crumbles? Which is sort of what my articles are trying to get at.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. So, the way that I talked about it in my first book was, we think of knowledge as being the basis for trust in this way. Right? I have someone in my life, a friend right? And I sort of get repeated attempts of seeing whether they're trustworthy, and what they do, and whether what they say checks out. Right? And then when I like established they're trustworthy, it's like I have this knowledge about them, and now I trust them. But actually what you're saying, and what I said Twilight of the Elites, and which is true, is that it's actually the other way around. Trust is the primary thing and that's how we get our knowledge, like we have all sorts of trusted people.


CHRIS HAYES: Your second grade teacher, who taught you the world was round. Your parents, the newspaper that you read, like there's all kinds of stuff coming in, and like you don't have time to test it all. You're not a scientist, you're not a social scientist, you’re not any of those things.

DAVID ROBERTS: You don't have time to test one out of a million propositions.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes, we literally ... you literally are just getting like inundated with information, and you're making these kind of what we call heuristic, these shortcut decisions about, what do I trust and what don't I?

DAVID ROBERTS: Yes. And this is another thing I think is misleading in the way kind of Western philosophy has tackled these subjects, is this turns out to be intrinsically social processes, it's not an individual process. Knowledge and inquiry, are not primarily individual, they're social. Knowledge creation, contesting of knowledge, it's all social processes, you know? And this is why I think when you discuss something like, oh, you know, sort of climate skepticism, people always reach for the solution of, let's educate people.

CHRIS HAYES: They need more facts.

DAVID ROBERTS: Let's create better individual brains.

CHRIS HAYES: They need facts!

DAVID ROBERTS: Right, but it's not happening inside their individual brains. It's happening on a social level, and that's the level at which you have to tackle it, if you want to do anything about it.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. This cannot be more central to what we're talking about today, like knowledge is social, and knowledge is trust. It is a phenomenon of social interactions and bonds of trust, and you know, the reason that's kind of a rebuke you know, just a small little, indulge me for a moment, in a kind of small tangent on philosophy, which is of course people know who Rene Descartes was, and he's sort of the father of modern philosophy and that's "Cogito, ergo sum" and that's "I think therefore I am," and he tried to build up this project where he said, "I'm rejecting everything. I'm by myself in a room. I'm gonna build up knowledge from the ground up."

Image: A painting of Rene Descartes.
A painting of Rene Descartes.Christophel Fine Art / UIG via Getty Images

And, you know, that was the sort of beginning point of a line of philosophical succession, that brings us to modern philosophy. But the point that you're making, the point I'm making, I think the point that's sort of fundamental in this conversation is, it doesn't work that way. It's not-

DAVID ROBERTS: Well, this is what Hume did, right? It's sort of like the Cartesian project of trying to sort of find foundations, or something confident to place underneath your knowledge. If you start with the conception of knowledge as something that happens inside your brain, you end in total skepticism.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes exactly.

DAVID ROBERTS: There's no way to avoid total skepticism.

CHRIS HAYES: That's what Hume ends up showing. He says, "Okay. I'll take on your project, and when I do that project, I got nothing." At the end-

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah, we know nothing.

CHRIS HAYES: We know nothing. Right. So knowledge, both in a sort of deep philosophical sense, as we're talking about, but also in just like the basic lived reality, right? Knowledge is a product of trust, and social relationships. That's how we know things about the world, and that's one thing I want to make clear here. That's true for everyone, there's things we're going to talk about in this conversation that are about a certain segment of the American population, but it's also important to realize, you high minded, enlightened, liberal listener, right now, this is true of you.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yes. And the fact that it's taken on a weird negative connotation, such that you have to use those sort of caveats, is sort of like evidence of what we're talking about. Like there's no reason that should be viewed as a bad thing that you accept most knowledge on trust, it's just absolutely intrinsic to the human project, but it's sort of taken on this sort of connotation is like, groupthink, or you're passive, or you're just sort of accepting what your told. You know?

CHRIS HAYES: Right, like we're tribal, and it's like, well yeah, in the sense that like you listen to people that are close to you.


CHRIS HAYES: That's just a fact about humans. So okay, so I want to talk about what you're writing about, and it's a thing that I've written about before, you call an epistemic crisis, that has profound impacts for all of our politics, the durability of American institutions and the long term viability of its democracy. But before we get to there, I want to start with climate particularly, because I think the way that you got to there, was your work as a climate reporter. I want you to talk to me about what that work involved in what you started to realize as you were reporting more and more about climate.

DAVID ROBERTS: Sure, sure. I started, you know, looking into this stuff in earnest, call it like 2004, 2005. And from the time I started looking into climate and learning about climate and you know, looking at the sort of social landscape, everyone has been obsessed with deniers, right? Like this is the central thing in climate discussions, you can't talk about it still to this day, honestly, you can't talk about it, when people bring up, why doesn't this set of people believe what scientists are saying? And this is you know ... and how can we bring them to believe it? How can we convince them and change their minds?

This is like hundreds of thousands of man hours of intellectual, and you know writing and talking labor, around this project of trying to bring these people to believe the overwhelming scientific evidence for this problem. And this is just one of many ways, I think, where this sort of climate area is kind of a microcosm of larger political trends going on, and in a lot of ways kind of an advance look at what was soon to consume the entire right. Right? Sort of like a signal of what was to come.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, the climate debate I always ... it's the canary in the coal mine, it's like the stuff that happened with climate, 10 years later, 15 years later, 20 years later, happens about all of the reality before us. Like, whether you voted to protect pre-existing conditions, or whether Jim Acosta karate chopped an intern, when we know that he didn't because we all saw it.

DAVID ROBERTS: Did we Chris? Did we really?

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly. That's my point, right? So, we're going get to all that, but the point is that like, it's the canary in the coal mine, because all this this stuff we're seeing everywhere.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah, in a bunch of different ways actually, in a bunch of different ways. More ways than I thought at first, like they've unfolded over time, and when I've realized, like I should write an article about this, sort of like climate as a preview. Anyway, so you know everybody's talking about belief, and epistemological subjects in climate basically, like “what is belief and why do these people believe the way they do, and how can we change the way they believe?” And sort of, you know, what the climate people have discovered over long and very frustrating experience, is that people don't think like scientists.

They do not assess the evidence you put before them, and draw independent conclusions about them, that's just not what happens. What happens is, like you say everybody's tribal, liberals are tribal, so their trusted authorities tell them that climate change is a thing, and they believe, not because they've gone out and verified it on their own, but because that's who their people trust. And it's exactly the same on the right. Their people, who they trust, for various reasons, have decided it's impermissible to admit this thing, or at least admit the severity of this thing.

And so, they don't believe. And all the evidence flying this way and that, and all the arguments and framing, oh my God, so many discussions of framing, all that stuff just turns out to be more or less useless. And the conclusion I've come to is, they're going to change their minds about that when their trusted leaders tell them to. That's it. And until that happens, everything else is hue and cry for no result.

CHRIS HAYES: But the point here is, right, that people for a long time have been like, okay we've got this certain percentage of the American population that does not believe that this thing is happening, which is that the carbon in the atmosphere is warming the earth, right? And for a long time it was like, get them more facts, get the more data. Okay, facts and data aren't working. Frame it correctly, just ... or tell stories, or like there's all this advice about how to persuade people.

DAVID ROBERTS: Invoke emotions, and their values.

CHRIS HAYES: And here's the thing, and this is why I want to make sure that people are holding onto this idea of what's universal and what's not, because I think it's important, it's like the thing you just said is important. Liberals have what ... in their circle of trust are scientists, and they're correct in some ways, to have the institutions of science be in the circle of trust. I mean-

DAVID ROBERTS: Right. It's a good choice.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, exactly. With exceptions, let's be clear, with exceptions, right?

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah, right, right, of course.

CHRIS HAYES: But like, this idea that evidence is going to get you over the hump, like people should play this thought experiment. And it's a thought experiment it comes from my own life. I have sat at a bar in the year 2002 or 2003, with an extremely knowledgeable, evidence-rich, drunken 9/11 truther citing piece after piece of evidence about why 9/11 was an inside job, knew, by the way, many of the facts of the case better than I did.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yes, of course.

CHRIS HAYES: But guess what? They didn't persuade me because they were a truther and I wasn’t goint to like… It's like I was just doing the same shortcut. It's like, "We can sit here at the bar all night if you want, dude. It was not an inside job."

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah, another thing that's really worth emphasizing, which you sort of obliquely mentioned there, is this is not about being dumb versus being smart at all. Some of the most devoted climate change deniers are extremely smart people, and furthermore they know more about climate change than the vast bulk of liberals because they're going out and gathering knowledge about climate change in service of denying it. They're invested in it in a way that people who just accept it because their trusted institutions say so are not invested in it. We really have got to get over this notion that people who don't believe things that seem obvious to us, truthers on this, or on climate, or whatever else are dumb. It's really not about that.

CHRIS HAYES: It's not about that, it's not about intelligence, education levels, evidence, right? In fact, one of the things I love is that the more educated a Republican is, the more likely they are to be a climate denier.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yes, right? That's because they get engaged and it matters more to them what their trusted leaders say. They're more invested in what their trusted leaders say, they're more invested in the whole project of being conservative.

CHRIS HAYES: What's also important here is the idea of confirmation bias or motivated reasoning. Right? The way people work cognitively, and we have experiment after experiment that shows this, is they basically have their conclusions set from the social bonds that they work through. Then they use their brains, even if they have extremely powerful brains, they use the brains to take new evidence and fit it into whatever those pre-existing beliefs are.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah, I think the best way to describe this, the way that's always caught on for me is, people do not think like scientists. Scientists keep an open mind and draw no conclusions until they gather evidence, and then they let the evidence speak to them. That's the scientific way of thinking. The other way of thinking is-

CHRIS HAYES: Ideally we should know ... Let me just stop you there.

DAVID ROBERTS: Right, right, of course.

CHRIS HAYES: That's ideally true. A lot of things we know from the sociology of science-

DAVID ROBERTS: Well this is my point, it's difficult even for scientists, but of course normal people don't think like that. Even in specifically designed institutional contexts meant to encourage that kind of thinking, even there it's difficult. Most people, most of the time, think like lawyers, i.e., they have a case, they have their conclusion in hand, and they're going out, gathering information, trying to build a case for it. Most people, most of the time, think like lawyers and reason like lawyers, not like scientists.

CHRIS HAYES: That is a great way of putting it, that's a really good way of putting it. We're all lawyers for our cases as we go through the world.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yes, that's right. That's right. Trying to let that go, trying to not be attached to your conclusions, trying to allow the evidence to influence you is extraordinarily effortful and difficult. You really have to construct circumstances in which that can happen. It's not just going to happen in the wild, it's not going to happen out among normal voters.

CHRIS HAYES: Now, this is not an either/or. You can be skeptical and rigorous, and you could have good mental hygiene and good habits of thought, right?

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah, that's right.

CHRIS HAYES: Good practices, good habits of thought, good approaches to data evidence and rigor, or you can have bad ones. It's not either-or. But it also is the case at some level, you can work really hard on yourself, on motivated reasoning, and lord knows I think that I do, even though I succumb to it, and there's some inescapable bedrocks you're not going to get away from.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah, it is. Even for those who are aware of it and conscious of it, it is effortful and difficult to ... and it's not primarily cognitively difficult. It's not intellectual difficulty. It's really emotional difficulty. That's what you have to do as a scientist, is you have to put some emotional distance between yourself and what you believe, and the things you believe, such that you can get some objectivity about them. But normal people, in normal day-to-day life, don't do that. They're very emotionally bound up with what they believe, and often what they believe helps constitute their identity. So you don't have any emotional distance between yourself and your identity, right? The opposite.

CHRIS HAYES: We've got a good vision of how people actually form their beliefs. They form them through these social interactions. How they get knowledge, they get knowledge through these bonds of trust. How motivated reasoning makes them think like lawyers, rather than scientists.

So all of those I think are universal truths about how all of us are working through the world, but what you're writing about and what you're putting your finger on, the epistemic crisis in America is not an epistemic crisis that's universal. It is specific to one political coalition, and what is that?

DAVID ROBERTS: Correct. It is a phenomenon of the right in the U.S. Primarily, not exclusively of course. Whenever you talk about these things, you're going to get a bunch of emails about, "What about this one time this person on the left said this dumb thing?" Like of course everybody makes errors, of course everybody blindly trusts things that turn out to be wrong. Of course all these things are universal, but as a social and political phenomenon, it's primarily coming out of the right.

I think the right way to approach it is the way we've been doing it, is to see it as social. Not as conservatives are dumb, or that there's something wrong with their brains, or that they're fundamentally different creatures from the rest of us. That's not it at all. What happens is that liberals, broadly speaking, have agreed to value science, and to accept provisionally, not blindly, but provisionally accept its conclusions, to accept the conclusions of experts. Part of that is the value that the left places on self-regulation, of skepticism, of being open to changing your mind in the face of evidence. That is a common value among left, especially among the engaged professionals, or the educated leftist demographic.

CHRIS HAYES: And liberals too. I mean broadly, we should say. Right.

DAVID ROBERTS: So we've created these institutions of science, and we try, in so far as we can, to protect them from politics, and to give them the space and the money and the time to think like scientists in this way. Then we pledge, more of less, to accept what the experts come to through evidence, even if it is an uncongenial conclusion to our ideological priors. That's probably rare, even on the left, but I think it still exists as a value, as a cultural value on the left.

CHRIS HAYES: As a sort of both-

DAVID ROBERTS: If you go out in journalism and say something flagrantly dumb and wrong, or flagrantly ignore evidence, someone else on the left will correct you. That's it. Collectively, as a social project, there's still self-correction, it's still a value.

CHRIS HAYES: I got to say, there's a lot to say here, but to that point, I view it as my role to try to work myself away from confirmation bias, and particularly to try to smack down, refute, and rebut nonsense and conspiracy theories. I get emails from people who saw something, "This election was stolen. This thing happened," and I write back and I say, "That is not true. There is no evidence for that," or "The evidence for that is weak," or I point them to another article.

There's actually a really important role, I think, played by gatekeepers. Gatekeepers is the old insult-

DAVID ROBERTS: Absolutely.

CHRIS HAYES: ... that 9/11 truthers would throw at people like me, but there's actually a really important role because of the trust positions that you embody.

DAVID ROBERTS: And importantly, on the left you can gain status, social status, by being a gatekeeper, by being a good gatekeeper. That's a position in the left that is valued. But on the other side, especially these days, that position has fallen out completely. There is no one doing that anymore on the right.

So what they've been overtaken by is what I call tribal epistemology, which is just this distinction between what's good for us, what's our narrative, what's our side of things, what do we need to believe for political advantage, and what's true just collapses. They just become the same thing. It just becomes we believe what's good for us to believe, they believe what's good for them to believe, and that's the end of the story.

There's no referee above us who can decide between us, there are no sort of ... these trans-partisan standards of evidence or reasoning don't exist. There are only tribes, our tribe and your tribe. Your truth, our truth. They're equally valid because that's how things work. So it's taken time for this to sink in and completely take over the right. Now it's just become frictionless, it's become effortless.

This is what I was writing about, about the caravan, the migrant caravan "invasion." There was not even a pretense of going through the motions of pretending to find evidence that the caravan was a threat. They just skipped that whole part, and just said, "It's a terrible threat," and everyone on the right said, "Okay, it's a terrible threat." Even going through the motions of pretending like there's some sort of inquiry or knowledge production happening has just fallen away. They just are like, "What do we need to believe in this situation? It's good for us to believe that the caravan is a threat, so we believe it. Boom."

That's how it is now. There's no self-checking, there's no gate keeping from other trusted members of the right. Everyone, media, think tanks, right-wing media, right-wing think tanks, right-wing lobbying groups in the federal government now-

CHRIS HAYES: That's key. That’s right.

DAVID ROBERTS: ... are all basically part of the same thing. There are no distinctions anymore, they're not checking each other. They're all part of the same project. So they all have the same perspective, they all believe the same things. Epistemologically there's no self-correction remaining on the right.

CHRIS HAYES: You said something earlier, just now, that I think is key. I think it's really important to understand this, that there's a kind of cynicism here that the people on the right genuinely truly believe about the left, right?

DAVID ROBERTS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

CHRIS HAYES: So they think this is how it works everywhere. Their whole point is that ... I think Rush Limbaugh once said that science, academia and journalism were the pillars of deceit. Is that what he said?

DAVID ROBERTS: “The four pillars of deceit; science, journalism, academia and media, dominated by the left, lying to you about everything.” There's this whole ... This was back in 2010 Chris, eight years ago.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, I quoted in "Twilight of the Elites." Yeah, the four pillars of deceit.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah, and he basically says, and they set out to do this, over decades, we have to build our own media, our own think tanks, our own science. We're gonna build our own parallel world of knowledge, and it's going to be just as valid as the left's, because all they are is two versions of the same thing. It's not so much that they think the left is doing the same thing, and they don't ...

It's like trying to describe a rainbow to a colorblind person. I don't think that they understand there is another way of viewing it. I think they think everybody's just tribal, and all this talk that liberals do about skepticism, and standards, and self-correction, and evidence, they're just bids. They're just maneuvers trying to gain advantage. So the right will adopt that language. They'll talk about evidence, they'll talk about proof, they'll talk about motivated reasoning. If you say fake news, they'll start saying fake news, because they sense that those words and concepts have some power, have some influence, but they're not using them the way the left is using them. They're talking about different things.

CHRIS HAYES: And this is a thing, is that what happens if, when you put all of the main parts of knowledge production in a society, journalism, right? Journalism is part of knowledge production, right? You go out, you report facts, you say, "I went to the scene of the shooting and I saw these shell casings. I talked to these police officers. I talked to these witnesses who says this happened. Then I come back and I report it out, and I say, 'These things happen.'" In academia, which is whose job is knowledge production and knowledge transmission. Science, which is part of academia, knowledge production, knowledge transmission. The media more broadly, right?

If you take all of that, which are the main ways a society produces and disseminates knowledge, and you say, "That's all in the other camp," you have untethered yourself from all the institutional means that produce knowledge about the world, which is what they have done.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah, and you are creating parallel institutions, which do not have any of the self-correcting features, and are designed purely to generate the conclusions that you want, and you mistake that for being the same thing. This, what you just said, in a nutshell is the epistemic crisis. Namely, call it 30 percent of Americans have basically hived off from mainstream institutions of knowledge creation and knowledge verification, and have created their own hermetically sealed world of their own. I'm not sure democracy can survive having 30 percent of its people in a completely separate epistemological world.

CHRIS HAYES: This is so key to me. Like this is why it's not a both-sides problem, because we got to distinguish here. Remember, everyone's got confirmation bias, everyone motivated reasoning, we're all doing that. But in the divorce, one side got the actual institutions that do a pretty good job of producing knowledge, and the other side didn't get any of them. That's the key here, is that there are all kinds of criticism of modern science and scientific production, there are all sorts of studies that came out. There's a verification crisis that's happening right now. There's all sorts of criticism of modern reporting and the tropes of mainstream media.

All of that stuff is important to criticize and not just take at face value. But the universe, the institutional universe of developed, rigorous processes of attempting to get to the truth, the entirety of that, more or less, ended up on the left side in the epistemic divorce.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yes, and the right created a sort of simulacrum of it that sort of apes the gestures and the tone. If you look at the stuff coming out of right-wing think tanks, it looks and even sort of sounds like actually inquiry, but it's not the same thing. It's like you're acting it out without the spirit of it.

CHRIS HAYES: I think it's important for people to recognize, again, to take this point seriously. That a professor on my show making some point about their social science research sounds to someone on the other side of this epistemic divide the way that Pat Robertson spouting off sounds to me. It's just like, "Yeah, I'm not buying it. You're Pat Robertson.”

DAVID ROBERTS: Right, and they've been trained now to offer zero deference anymore. The fact that it's a professor, an ostensible expert who's ostensibly done research, just carries no weight at all on the right at all anymore. Zero. So the only criteria by which they are judging what that professor is saying is, "Is this congenial to my identity? To my priors?" That's the only sort of epistemic criteria left, and it's not even really epistemic.

CHRIS HAYES: I think a lot of this got started ... I mean, there's two places to look at the genesis of this. I think it's big tobacco's war on science over cigarettes. There's a great book called Merchants of Doubt, which is there were tens of hundreds of millions of dollars sunk into the project of destroying the reputation of science as it produced study after study showing cigarettes causing cancer, that the tobacco world invested in, because out of pure pecuniary interest to protect their profits, they wanted to destroy the reputation of science.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yes, and some of the very same people are involved in climate denialism. Not even the same thing going on, but literally there's some of the same people.

CHRIS HAYES: Like literally the same individuals show up at tobacco hearings and climate hearings. There's a way in which this starts as this just totally cynical project by corporate power, tobacco then fossil fuels, but then just becomes something so much bigger, and more embedded, and cultural, and primal, and visceral.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah, I mean the story that ... What really interests me, and what I don't feel like I have a great grasp on, but I do have some stories to tell about, is why? Why the right and not the left? Why did this happen to the right? I don't think it's a coincidence. I think that generally in politics, over time, my basic view of politics has come down to this; there's always, in every situation, incumbents who enjoy certain privileges and advantages, and people outside who want some of those privileges and advantages fighting. That's politics.

So for those who want egalitarianism, and who want rule of law, and who want knowledge respected, those are all things that require rules and procedures and institutions, sort of like depersonalizing it. That's the whole advantage of rule of law; rule of law, not of men. So it's impersonal. That's what gives the weak and the excluded a chance, is impersonal laws applied equally to everyone.

So it's not a coincidence that the side that is filled with incumbents, the side basically that has become the party of white privilege more or less, white revanchism, white society, the side that's trying to protect its advantages and privileges, would like to personalize these things, would like to personalize knowledge and tie it to identity. So if you're with us, you believe what we believe. If you're with them, you believe what they believe. There's no standards to decide between them, there's only a choice of identities.

So I don't think it's a coincidence that the side of privilege and power, that's defending privilege and power, acts in this way. I don't think it's a coincidence that every aspiring autocrat goes after the media, and goes after sources of independent knowledge. Every aspiring autocrat wants to reduce the epistemological atmosphere into “us versus them” and nothing more than that. Right? It's serves power to do that, that's what I'm saying.

Image: George Orwell
Writer George OrwellAP file

CHRIS HAYES: The great example of this is the George Orwell "1984," quote, “the party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final most essential command.”

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah, although I think that's slightly wrong in that I think it's the first, I think it comes ... This is what I think is happening in front of us now, is it comes first. First, you train people not to trust their own eyes and ears to just trust you as a source of information. And then you proceed to the atrocities, once you have people who will believe anything you say and support you in literally anything you do, then you're off to the races but you've got to sort of like condition them, and that I feel like honestly is what we see happening in front of our very eyes right now in the U.S. All these little lies and all these little sort of seemingly trivial stupid fights like this fight over Acosta.

CHRIS HAYES: Just to be clear for folks who are listening, the fight of Acosta which is that Jim Acosta the day after the midterms, there was a presidential press conference, Jim Acosta asked a number of questions. The president was incredibly rude and vindictive to him. A White House intern came and kind of tried to grab his mic three times. He just sort of like moved it away from her. And then the next day he was denied a hard pass on the grounds that he had assaulted the young woman in question, complete with a video that originated on Info Wars literally the 9/11 truth site.

DAVID ROBERTS: And I make any of this stuff up.

CHRIS HAYES: Being tweeted out by the White House in which the motion of him moving his arm is sped up to look like karate shot, as the basis for this, that's just for people to know what we're to referring to.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah, this is I mean, this is the thing like it makes me want to laugh but all these little lies serve a purpose like telling people that the caravan is a threat, telling them that they had the biggest inauguration crowd ever, just all these constant little lies are conditioning, they're meant to sort of condition their followers to just go along with whatever they say.

And once you've got that then it's like off to the autocratic races. Then you can go after the judiciary, then you go after security services or the military or whatever. So I think Orwell had it a little bit backwards. Getting people to believe absurdities is the first step of autocracy.

CHRIS HAYES: And then it's like, right, exactly. And that's how ... And we've seen this with fascist regimes, we saw with totalitarian communist regimes and Stalin and Mao, you subvert any independent source of epistemic authority. You need to sever off the bonds of trust. You have to sever them from academia, you have to sever them from the newspaper, you have to sever them from their friends who are liberals, you need to sever them from the science and then sever them from judiciary when it rolls against you.

It's just a bunch of liberal hacks, and sever them from the FBI because the FBI, the FB freaking I, the G-men, the white G-men who probably voted Trump 70 to 30 — I mean I don't know what they did, but like the predominantly white, predominantly male, predominantly conservative Federal Bureau of Investigation, that now is in the same part of the pillars of deceit as science and as liberal media. And so you got to sever them from the FBI, because the FBI might come out and say…

DAVID ROBERTS: Right, this is what I mean by tribal epistemology. You reduce all of epistemology to a single binary, which is “for us or against us.” That's it. That's the only thing that matters. If the FBI is against you, you can make up a story about how the FBI is corrupt, and have everyone believe it. And it is like easy, you don't have to break a sweat these days.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. And it's more than that too. It's like it's also this is ... I talked about this with Zephyr Teachout when she was on the podcast, which is it's the same view he has of law, the president has of law, and increasingly the conservative movement, which is like there is no abstract standard of law, there is you're with us or against us. And if you're with us, then you're a good guy who got a bad break and you were treated terribly like Al Capone or Paul Manafort.

And if you're on the other side, then you're a rapist, and you're a thug, and you're a villain and you deserve what you get. And that's it. And it is not an exaggeration to say that this worldview is the worst worldview in civilizational history, and the source of the most evil forms of mass murder that have ever been visited upon the globe.

DAVID ROBERTS: Absolutely. I mean, I think you could probably identify it as the source of most conflict generally. But I also think we have to emphasize that it's like the default, it's like how humans evolved in that these efforts we have achieved where we have created these institutions which are at least sort of moderately sheltered from some of that stuff, sort of moderately at least constructed to block out that influence and to give people room to think independently is an incredible and incredibly fragile achievement everywhere it exists, it is not the default to have trusted institutions.

I feel like this is one of the great lessons of the Trump era for everybody from every angle is, like as much as we spent years and years bitching about institutions and gatekeepers, like it's better to have some than not have any. It’s better to have some than to have Trump be the only one.

CHRIS HAYES: And this ... So the epistemic crisis that you lay out in your writing and you've talked about what we've been talking about, like I think it's a really important framework. Important people understand this, it's bleak AF because it's like, all right these people have been kind of cut off and yet I also feel like there are some grounds for hope. You're a perfect example. Where are you from?

DAVID ROBERTS: Tennessee, grew up in Tennessee.

CHRIS HAYES: And you're from ... If I'm not mistaken, a sort of life world, family world, social value that is sort of white conservatives Southerner.

DAVID ROBERTS: More like the bland conservatism that used to be much more common.

CHRIS HAYES: Interesting.

DAVID ROBERTS: That's what I associate with, my youth as sort of bland Reaganite, not particularly engaged on social issues, not particularly religious, just sort of common sense sort of fiscal conservatism, but I've watched my father who was very much sort of a model of that sort of conservatism, when I was young, I watched him and I can trace it back to Limbaugh, to Limbaugh becoming popular. And he started listening to that. And then just like progressively over the years, has been pulled into that world and has gone full hog in that direction.

So I wasn't like born in the belly of that, I'm not one of these hillbilly elegists; I have no such pretenses.

CHRIS HAYES: And your father is now a Trump supporter.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah. And again, to our point, super smart guy, was a professor of civil engineering for decades, reads history all the time is like gentle and soft spoken, you just would never think.

CHRIS HAYES: Although that's true of him, and it's true of individuals. But one of the things I think that is encouraging is that there's two macro trends we're seeing, which is that college educated folks, people of color of all different socio economic backgrounds reject Trumpism and reject conservatism, and reject this. But we're talking about white people who are much more susceptible to it, younger white people and also college educated postgraduate degree white people, are way less susceptible to being sucked into that 30% of the kind of epistemic coalition.

DAVID ROBERTS: Let's hope, I mean one thing I've been asking people about a lot recently is, please someone site for me a historical example of someone who's sort of gone this far down this road, had this big of a subpopulation cut itself off so completely and so hostility from the larger project in the larger mainstream, and then made it back without devolving into violence or the country falling apart. Is it possible to go as far as we've gone and pull out of the spiral? That's what I want to know.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, I think there is one example that comes to mind is the Joe McCarthy red scare. Which took over an enormous portion of the country and was ... If you go back and you look at his rhetoric, it's all the same stuff right I mean it's like the-

DAVID ROBERTS: It's every demagogue ever, they all say exactly the same thing, it's all like out of a script.

CHRIS HAYES: And that's a place where there was a kind of breaking point to pull back and obviously it had tremendously deleterious effects but it…

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah but on that ... On another example, you can maybe site tobacco like there was a public opinion break there too, like you can ... But all those in Watergate too people often cited as an example of sort of like eventually tribalism broke and people came together. All those were in a different era, an era of small group of media gatekeepers. Now if McCarthy was rerun, he would have a whole network, several networks and websites and radio shows devoting to defending him, and taking his claims and quote on quote, proving them. Like, would there ever be that kind of breaking point today?

I don't feel confident that there would and I feel like we're going to run that experiment pretty soon.

CHRIS HAYES: We're running, we're running it right now honestly there's so many ways to think about this, but like if Robert Mueller says like, “Look these are the facts.” And the president like personally texted Vladimir Putin to be like, “Let's collude bro.” That will just be rejected out of hand by 30 percent of population; like that's where things will start.

DAVID ROBERTS: That's the test, that's what I wrote my epistemic crisis article about, is just what happens if we find out beyond a shadow of a doubt that Trump has done criminal things, that he colluded with Russians, whatever it might be me… financial crimes.

CHRIS HAYES: Or other criminal stuff. There's a lot.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah, there's a whole lot of panoply of crimes to choose from. But what if, like it's nailed down 100 percent and it just doesn't matter. The knowledge has no purpose, the truth has ... In this to me is the crisis of journalism, which I feel like journalists just have not really wrapped their heads around very well, is it's no longer particularly difficult to uncover the truth and write about it. Like all knowledge is public these days.

Everything's out there. Like, if you want to go find the truth you can, the challenge is making truth matter.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes there two ... The problem is… and Zeynep Tufecki writes brilliantly about this particular digital sphere of the sort of interactions of authoritarian regimes, sort of knowledge regimes and social media, her point is like it's a problem of too much information, of a flattening of information, it's a problem of actually not skepticism but belief, that like actually ... And Hannah Arendt writes about this in "On Totalitarianism" that says the ideal subject is sort of constantly cynical, and skeptical that they're sort of willing to believe anything and then turn around and be like, “Oh yeah, I knew that was a lie.” And you see this in Putin's Russia, you see it in Erdogan’s Turkey, the problem actually is believing things, it's not a problem of skepticism.

It's a problem of belief and that actually the more cynical the subject is, the more cynicism is sort of cultivated as a value, the more than one day the president says X, and the next day he says not X. And you can just go from believing X to go to believing not X, like because-

DAVID ROBERTS: Right and Masha Gessen I think it's written really well on this too, the point of these regimes is not necessarily to make everyone believe their version of events it's just to confuse everything, just to fill the atmosphere with smoke so that no one ... And so in that emotionally uncomfortable contexts, people will happily cling to a strong figure who seems to bring clarity to that situation. That is sort of Autocracy 101, you make people believe that a) they're under immense threat and their way of life is under threat, b) they can't believe anything they're being told, and c) only I can fix it.

That's the playbook and I mean, we're not even getting a particularly novel version.

CHRIS HAYES: No, it's so ham fisted. Literally it's like the most ... It's the most-

DAVID ROBERTS: It's poorly written.

CHRIS HAYES: His thing is make everything as dumb as possible take every trope and make it hand fist and dumb, I mean even if you get somebody says Stacey Abrams is going to get rid of your second amendment, and they say your friends are going to come to your house and ask for your guns. It's like that's like the dumbest version of the gun grabber argument but like that's what he does in every-

DAVID ROBERTS: But also very much exposes what's really going on behind that, it was never about evidence that they're coming to get your guns. It was always about identity. He just blunders, this is what I said about being like colorblind, like he doesn't know there's a different way of talking about things, or believing things. He doesn't even see a different way in his world. It's just who's with me and who's against me and I will make up what I believe, and then that's what you should believe. There's no ... He's not even aware he's eschewing some other possibility.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, that's a great point. Well, this has been depressing.

DAVID ROBERTS: Yeah, this is my whole life now. And so like what no one I've heard write or talk about this thing, I feel like maybe this could be me maybe wish-casting a little bit, but I feel like in making what's going on so crude and so sort of thuddingly obvious, and stripping away any conceivable pretense that Trump might have like jolted mainstream U.S. politics out of its stupor a little bit, and maybe people are starting to realize that this is not just normal politics, with two normal sides, with their extremists on both sides who believe crazy things and their moderates in the middle, like this whole model is not what's going on anymore and there's actually a right wing white supremacist revanchist, anti-intellectual movement in the U.S., and that is the problem.

It's not a parallel symmetrical problem. It's that movement that is the problem.

CHRIS HAYES: David Roberts writes about climate and energy for Vox as well as epistemology and never got that PhD in philosophy, huh?

DAVID ROBERTS: Yes I am ABD as they say in the biz.

CHRIS HAYES: Someday maybe you can write that dissertation and finally solve all the problems that we've been addressing

DAVID ROBERTS: I'm just gonna blog my dissertation in pieces.

CHRIS HAYES: Hey man thanks. That was fantastic. Really. Thank you very much.

DAVID ROBERTS: Thanks. Awesome.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to David Roberts for joining us for that conversation. You can find more of his writing over at Vox. He's a great guy to follow, he's @drvox on Twitter. He's really, really sharp.

A reminder that you can always email us, we read those emails, email us at Tweet us #WITHpod, we love to hear from you. We've gotten lots of responses to people telling us to come to their city or town to do a live WITHpod we are going to make that happen. We're not sure where or when yet, but we're working on it and we love, love, love to hear from you. We're also getting all the time guest suggestions, we want to keep those coming. We want to hear who you want to hear from.

"Why Is This Happening" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News produced by the "All In" team and featured music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work including links to things we mentioned here, by going to