Yesterday, the police arrested a suspect in the letter bomb matter. The alleged bomber, Cesar Sayoc, looks at this juncture to be an anti-left rager/nut, with a troubled history that includes bomb threats going back to the early 2000s, and a number of run-ins with the law.

This story began with the first intercept of a bomb, addressed to George Soros, on Monday afternoon. A second bomb, addressed to Hillary Clinton, was intercepted Tuesday. By Wednesday, after news broke that several more had been intercepted, it became clear that this was a national matter.

The Internet being what it is today, there was a quick flood of speculation across social media (and the mainstream press) about the bomber and his motives. Opinions were quickly rendered, most of them with next to no facts other than the names of the targets, a picture or two of the devices, and some disjointed and piecemeal tidbits from law enforcement.

None of that stopped people from making confident predictions, many of them completely contrary to the Occam’s Razor conclusion that some anti-left maniac had gone off the deep end. Countless conservatives proclaimed “false flag,” asserting that, because none of the bombs went off and/or one of them was reported inoperative, the real goal was to generate sympathy for the Left and antipathy for the Right ahead of the mid-terms. Countless fingers were pointed, with accusations leveled at opponents’ incivility as being the catalyst for this crime. And, just for completeness, some talking head suggested it might be the Russians.

Was any of this rampant, angry, divisive and confrontational speculation necessary? Was it that impossible for people to simply wait a couple days before declaring what they’ve concluded is going on? It was likely that, given the resources the government has, such a high-visibility provocation would get resolved. And sure enough, it took less than 140 hours from first bomb report to arrest.

What happens now, to all those confident-but-wrong opinions and declarations? Some will admit error. Many will just forget their past opinions or pretend they never existed. Most of those many will learn nothing from their rush to judgment. A few will cling. Already, I’ve seen some of the false-flag types doubling down, insisting there’s something much deeper going on. This is one way that conspiracy theories are born, by the way. Somebody doesn’t want to admit he was wrong, or that he rushed to judgment before the facts were in, so to “save face,” he concocts some twisted way that his first statement can still be right, and/or flat-out denies the obvious facts of the matter.

There is an unfortunate human tendency to prefer consistency over accuracy. Once we grab onto a belief, we tend to hold onto it even in the face of stark facts to the contrary. This is the world of cognitive dissonance, where assuaging mental discomfort is more important than being correct. This is amplified when we go public with a belief. On top of the internal discomfort of having to admit we were wrong, we worry about the embarrassment of having to say so to others. Call it social anxiety or whatever you will, it’s so real and so powerful that even Fonzie had trouble admitting he was wrong. What chance do we less-cool people have?

Risk can be quantified by multiplying probability by consequence. Applied to our formulation of opinion, it tells us that, the less certain we are of being correct, the greater risk we face in forming an opinion. And, even more so when we go public with it. If the discomforts of cognitive dissonance and public embarrassment are something you dread, it only makes sense to reduce your risk of feeling them.

And, the easiest way to mitigate that risk is to avoid being trapped by impatience. If something happens, don’t form an opinion until you get enough facts to be confident in it. And, even if you can’t help yourself, even if you have an instant gut-check response, try keeping it to yourself until additional facts either validate or refute it. You might have some dissonance if your gut steers you wrong, but it’ll be much easier to put behind you if there’s no public record of it.

There can be a rush of excitement and, perhaps, superiority if you’re among the first to put forth a theory that proves out. People like to gloat over their ideological opposites, and in pursuit of that they often mix up what they wish to be true with what is true, and often overestimate how solid their opinions are. Fortunately, being cognitive creatures, we are capable of learning from past mistake. If you’re among those who screamed “False Flag!” or some other low-probability and highly partisan assertion and are now licking your wounds over the near-zero chance of this being the case, maybe next time keep your mouth shut and your fingers off the keyboard until you’ve got something more than conspiracy-theory-grade speculation to share. Trust me, no one cares if you’re the first person to suggest something that proves true. Any prognosticator reputation you might gain from that, going forward, is easily wiped out by any hint of reputation as a fringe whacko, which is what anyone who isn’t already exactly like you will think if you constantly rush fact-free contrarian theories.

Even if it did turn out to be as you originally thought or broadcast but now appears dead-wrong, what did you gain by rushing your opinion out? Here’s the correct answer: Nothing. You’re just someone on the internet, and are not being paid for those opinions. You’re not offering up some unique insight. Indeed, oftentimes are you’re repeating someone else’s partisan opinion, because it fit a narrative you like (or rejected a narrative that makes you uncomfortable).

Be patient. Don’t rush to judgment. Therein lies less dissonance, less discomfort, less anger, and greater serenity. And, people will like you better.

And, you can participate in a reasoned discussion as to the what and why of this matter, now that there are actual facts at hand.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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