Finding evidence to support our theories

According to some psychologists, people subconsciously try to find evidence to support their own theories. It’s more than just the optimist seeing the glass half full and the pessimist seeing it half empty — the pessimist will actually go out of his way to find an empty glass and then say “see, I was right.” I think that’s the main explanation for why some people always sabotage themselves just when things are about to go well, while others always land on their feet.

Post 9-11 America is showing this symptom on a societal level. The Bush administration’s obsession with Iraq is a prime example, of course, but it’s also pervasive in society at large. The Terrorist is the perfect boogyman — he’s so ill-defined and inscrutable that we can and do project anything that scares us onto him. And then we go out and find the evidence to support that fear, be it a glitch in airport security or the arrest of someone who once visited an Al Qaeda training camp. Some of that evidence is real — this week’s attack in London is just the latest reminder that there is some basis to our fear — but most of it is simply driving ourselves into a panic playing games of “what if?”.

The Hemant Lakhani case, featured on this week’s This American Life radio show, sounds like a perfect example of finding (really, manufacturing) evidence to support a theory. Here’s somebody that the FBI approached and asked to supply a missile to terrorists. Lakhani agreed, but couldn’t actually deliver. After waiting 22 months for him to actually commit the crime, the FBI provided the missile to him themselves, and then arrested him. The guy is clearly amoral, but also pretty clearly incompetent, and he didn’t even have the idea to provide terrorists with weapons until the FBI suggested it. Setting him up like this so we can throw him in jail is like airport security confiscating grandma’s nail clipper — it was never a big threat to begin with, but when they find it we all breath a sigh of relief while we visualize the horrible things that might have happened had we not gotten lucky this time.