Vigorously Seeking Errors
Most educators try to imprint on their students the approach of seeing mistakes as learning opportunities. In my experience, students of chess, math, English, Spanish, science, etc. are generally receptive to this notion, and recognize that their errors are pointing them in the direction of missing knowledge or understanding, and hence the most valuable areas for them to further study and ponder. I try to apply this same idea to my own study of life.
Like most, I go around with a certain framework for understanding society around me — a collection of theories and hypotheses about what other people might be thinking, why they do what they do, and what I can expect the future will be. And like most people, I don’t know to what extent each of my ideas is right or wrong — though I would love to! Every day, I come across new data, for example: there’s another right-turner who only looked for cars coming from the left, and did not check the crosswalk to their right before driving through it; or: Kelly Loeffler lied about the coronavirus publicly so more people would die, while making more money from that information. Typically, this information will click right into place in my framework — “most car drivers don’t take driving seriously because they do it too often;” “it’s too easy to get a driver’s license;” “cars are bad;” “Senators are almost all corrupt;” “Senators almost all have tons of blood on their hands, and don’t care;” “Politicians tend to lie;” “billionaires are probably sociopaths.” But now and then, I come across an event or a piece of information that surprises me.
Now, a surprise is generally indicative of some underlying error. I tell chess students to always stop and reassess a situation when surprised by an opponent’s move, because unless they do, they are likely to make a second mistake straightaway, having not yet understood the cause of their previous error. In life, when something surprises me (Donald Trump’s election in 2016 or AOC’s in 2018, a throat cancer patient asking their doctor if they can continue smoking, Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger denouncing Lindsey Graham for attempting to conspire to commit election fraud), I understand that means I probably had a mistake in one or more of my theories about people. I seize on these moments, for I do see them as precious indications of where I could improve my understanding. That understanding is not only an academic interest, but also extremely important, because it informs the actions I take to try to better the world. Many people who wanted to better the world have probably worsened it because of a faulty understanding of the society around them.
If this all makes clear sense to you, and you are ready to examine events that surprise you, and try to continually revise your worldview, that is wonderful, and you can stop reading here (potential tedium warning). Myself, I always find it easier to understand ideas with examples, so I will now talk about my latest surprise: the news about Brad Raffensperger.
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When I first heard the news, it was in the following simple form: Brad Raffensperger, a Republican and the Georgia Secretary of State, tasked with overseeing the state’s recount of the 2020 presidential election, claimed that Lindsey Graham, Republican Senator from South Carolina, had asked him if he could toss out a bunch of legal votes; Senator Graham denied it. (Since I started writing this, a second, similar story broke about a phone call between Raffensperger and Trump). Not everyone will be surprised by this news, and some will be surprised for different reasons. We all have different things to learn. You might be surprised that Lindsey Graham would want to commit election fraud. You might be surprised that Raffensperger would invent this story to smear Lindsey Graham. You might be surprised that the media invented this Raffensperger character, and the whole story along with it. In my case, the big surprise was that Raffensperger denounced Graham publicly and the minor surprise was that he did not agree to commit fraud. Whichever boat you are in, if you were surprised, it’s useful to ponder the possible explanations for this story, then do some research and see how it matches up with the theories you can come up with, and the big framework of how you understand the world.
Here are some theories I came up with, before doing any research:
- Raffensperger believes in American democracy and highly values the integrity of elections.
- Raffensperger and Graham have a personal history, and he was glad to have the opportunity to hurt him.
- Raffensperger either doesn’t want a Trump win or doesn’t care about a Trump win, so he had no incentive to take any risk upon himself.
- Raffensperger was offered an opportunity by the Biden camp.
- Raffensperger was threatened by the Biden camp.
- Raffensperger saw personal political advantage in taking the position he did.
Even if you don’t have the time to do research, it is already very useful to ponder possible explanations. Spending time with the surprise will keep you from quickly forgetting it and letting it bounce off your worldview without making any impression. You can think about which of the theories seem more or less likely to you; though this will sometimes just reflect your worldview back at you, at times it may point you in the right direction, for example if one theory requires a 100-person conspiracy, and another requires a 2-person conspiracy.
I imagine someone who believes the Biden camp was engaged in widespread election fraud would find it very plausible that the Biden camp had interfered with Raffensperger. Myself, though I believe the Biden camp engaged in election fraud, I have a bias that a lot of Republican politicians are even worse than Democrats, so I might think first of a theory involving Raffensperger having some history with Graham or Trump, because that would be based on character flaws in Republican politicians. In this case, the simplest explanation however is 1., that Raffensperger has integrity. It doesn’t require any particular action by anyone, coordination, stories, or multiple factors. Additionally, recognizing consciously that I had been surprised, I was not only open to, but actively looking for, an explanation that would challenge some piece of my worldview.
Reflecting more on the possibility of the Biden camp interfering with Raffensperger, it strikes me that trying to tamper with the election would have been fairly risky. Even though lots of people live in their own reality bubbles right now, this was a heavily scrutinized election, so there is a good chance that any interference would come out, and whether or not everyone believed it, it would play very badly for the Biden camp. Also, the Biden camp would probably have to think that, despite two recounts in their favor, they had actually lost the election, and that result would likely be revealed by further investigation if they did not step in. Otherwise, it’s a risk without any upside.
This same issue of scrutiny can also be applied to the likelihood of Raffensperger maintaining integrity or trying to sway the election. I wonder how many people, if given the opportunity to secretly swing the election in favor of their candidate would do so. Imagine a hypothetical scenario, where you know the candidate you opposed has won the race by 5 votes, and you have ten uncounted ballots for them in your hand, that you could destroy and nobody would ever find out. How many people would think the ends justify the means there? I’d be so curious to know. But even if lots of people would do that under a hypothetical “you can’t get caught, and your candidate is guaranteed to win based on your crime,” would they do so in the real world, with such glaring scrutiny, the risk and impact of potentially being caught, and uncertainty about whether their action would actually change the result? Perhaps, all questions of integrity aside, it would not have been easy for Raffensperger to change the election results once workers around the state had done their jobs. To me, this makes theories 4. and 5. quite unlikely, even before any research.
I haven’t had time to do a thorough research that provides any definitive answers — and that is fine, as you probably rarely have that time either — but I read a little bit about Raffensperger online. Three broad biographical strokes are that he 1) has degrees in civil engineering and business administration; 2) as CEO of a contracting/engineering firm had a net worth of $26.5M in 2018; 3) is a lifelong Republican who has been in elected office since 2012. This puts him in several categories that I am strongly biased against: MBAs, CEOs, millionaires, and elected officials. In other words, it would be a gigantic surprise to me if this person proved to be remotely moral — all the better chance to learn something new!
I came across a telling tweet of his from this week “Spreading disinformation about elections is dangerous and wrong. It was wrong when Stacey Abrams and her allies made false claims about GA’s election processes following the 2018 election and run-up to the 2020 election, and it’s wrong when the Pres and his allies are doing it now.” Clearly he is hanging his hat on integrity, and the fundamental importance of elections and democracy. But why does he choose to bring Stacey Abrams and 2018 into the discussion? The result was pure hatred in the comments — Republicans flaming him for being a traitor to Trump, and Democrats flaming him for “whataboutism” for adding an unnecessary barb at Abrams, and supposedly making a false equivalence. When I first saw this, it really made me think “gosh, he really does just care about election integrity, because from a political perspective, he is making everybody angry at him with this post.” And indeed, recently, under threat of violence from Trump supporters, he had been scurried out of the state Capitol, and he also claims his wife has received death threats. The notoriously litigious Trump filed two lawsuits against him for recording their conversation in which Trump, like Graham, pushed Raffensperger to change the official result of the election. It seems like purely an unpleasant position he is putting himself in. But perhaps he has calculated that it is a small group of angry people on both sides, who tend to be most vocal, and that he is positioning himself well for a silent majority who see him doing something apparently unpopular and apparently full of integrity. The angry democrats on twitter seemed to share the belief that Abrams had a legitimate claim about the purging of voters in 2018, but in my superficial research, it seemed that the lawsuit has yet to be resolved, and I don’t know which side is right. If Abrams and the democrats are right about various claims from 2018, then it would contradict Raffensperger’s entire positioning around election integrity, since he has vehemently opposed Abrams’ claims and seems to continue to denigrate them publicly at the faintest opportunity.
Another thing I saw was Raffensperger saying that he voted for Trump and wanted him to win. If this is true, then it undermines the theory that Raffensperger simply did not want Trump to win, did not care about it, or had personal beef with Trump in advance that would cause him to seek to make Trump look bad by recording and publishing their phone call. My brief readings suggest that Trump endorsed both Raffensperger and the Georgian governor Kemp in 2018, that Raffensperger has defended and extended Kemp’s work as Secretary of State from 2016–2018, and that Kemp and Raffensperger only suddenly found their way into Trump’s ire when the election in Georgia did not go his way. All of this would make it less likely that either of them (Kemp also declined a request by Trump to fiddle with Georgia’s electors) had a prior animosity towards Trump guiding their actions. Also note that Raffensperger has now responded to a call from Trump in just the same way that he did the call from Graham, so the animosity theory would now require two separate instances of bad relationships, making it decreasingly likely compared to a theory that simply relies on Mr. Raffensperger’s character.
One other effect of Raffensperger’s actions is that his name is in a lot more headlines; and this was a predictable outcome of his going public with the seemingly improper calls of Graham and Trump. Having noticed that in my research, it becomes another possible motivation: simply to gain great notoriety quickly.
My best guess at this point, reflecting on these possibilities without any certain knowledge, is that Raffensperger wants to improve his political position and that of the not-Trump segment of the Republican party. All my theories other than 1.and 6.have been substantially weakened by logical reflection or the small research I did. But between Raffensperger being motivated by political positioning of himself and the GOP or being motivated by a genuine belief in the sanctity of American elections, is rather a guess, and I will continue to keep my eyes open for further information, as there is the potential for me to learn something truly worldview-shattering here.
And for the few that have made it through this tedious step-by-step sample analysis, I hope you, too, will be inspired to adopt a practice of continually challenging your own worldview, and eagerly seizing upon surprises as opportunities to do so.