What the hell is a meta-truth?

Nicholas Kristof says President Bush cares more about ‘higher meta-truths’ than facts.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof illustrates George W Bush’s "casual relationship with truth" by quoting a short passage from Bush’s autobiography:

One night, Laura and I were out of town campaigning, and Barbara and Jenna spent the night at the vice presidential mansion. Dad had spent the day preparing for a debate with Michael Dukakis. Unfortunately, Barbara lost her sleeping companion, Spikey, her favorite stuffed dog. She complained loudly that she could not sleep without Spikey, so ‘Gampy,’ better known as Vice President Bush, spent much of the night before his debate searching the house and grounds of the vice presidential residence, flashlight in hand, on a mission to find Spikey. Finally, he did, and Barbara slept soundly. I don’t know if my dad ever went to sleep that night.

What’s wrong with this story? Well, Kristof has done some checking and it turns out:

  1. Spikey was a cat, not a dog
  2. George snr did not find Spikey
  3. The incident did not take place on the eve of the Bush/Dukakis debate.

That’s a lot of errors for such a short passage. So what does this show?

According to Kristof it shows something important about George W’s way of thinking:

Like President Ronald Reagan, reality to him is not about facts, but about higher meta-truths: Mom and Dad are loving grandparents, Saddam Hussein is an evil man, and so on. To clarify those overarching realities, Mr. Bush harnesses “facts,” both true and false.

There’s something a little ironic about this, but I’ll get to that later. When Kristof writes about ‘meta-truths’ he’s on to something.

All of us carry around vague but powerful impressions of people, places, and things. For example, we might know that George W Bush is a dangerous imbecile, that the Allies in WWII were good and that the Germans were bad, or that Casey on Australian Idol totally rocks. But as sure as we are about these things, if we run into someone who disagrees with us it’s sometimes hard to justify our beliefs. We mightn’t doubt what we know, we’re just at a loss for words to explain how we know it.

For many people, their greatest pleasure in life is to have their attitudes reaffirmed. Bush haters buy books by Michael Moore and visit anti-Bush web sites, Casey fans visit Casey web sites, and WWII buffs get annoyed if you suggest that Hiroshima and Nagasaki might not have been militarily necessary. A lot of us don’t go out of our way to find reasons to think differently.

But even when we don’t actively seek out evidence which confirms our favorite meta-truths and screen out evidence which disconfirms them, we can still manage to preserve our favorite impression. As psychologists Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper explained:

…there is considerable evidence that people tend to interpret subsequent evidence so as to maintain their initial beliefs. The biased assimilation processes underlying this effect may include a propensity to remember the strengths of confirming evidence but the weaknesses of disconfirming evidence, to judge confirming evidence as relevant and reliable but disconfirming evidence as irrelevant and unreliable, and to accept confirming evidence at face value while scrutinizing disconfirming evidence hypercritically.

Because we often can’t remember how we arrived at our meta-truths we are forced to look for evidence to present to other people. We want others to see the world the way it really is rather than in the ignorant a biased way that they do now. Like George W we look around for anecdotes, evidence, or arguments which support our views. We might not find them personally convincing (they are not the reason we hold our views) but we hope they might convince others.

Recently John Quiggin caught Gerard Henderson doing this. One day Henderson was arguing that religious readers ought to "stick to their professions" and not comment on political issues. But later he was arguing that Cardinal George Pell was entitled to enter the debate over education funding.

Henderson believes that only left wing clerics are able to get away with commenting on political issues. He is convinced that the media is biased against conservative Christians. He could be right, but then this could be just another example of what psychologists call the ‘hostile media effect.’ During the 1980s psychologists Robert Vallone, Ross, and Lepper presented pro-Israel and pro-Arab viewers with identical samples of TV network coverage of the Beirut massacre. Each side was convinced that the media had favored the other side and treated their side unfairly.

So getting back to Kristof. The thing that’s a little ironic about his choice of examples is that Bush probably didn’t write the passage about Spikey and Gampy. Like other celebrities, politicians tend to busy – too busy to be writing long books. And often they’re not great writers. The easiest way to deal with this is to hire a ghost writer. Originally Bush’s campaign team went to Mickey Herskowitz. When that didn’t work out Bush’s communications director, Karen Hughes took over. Kristof probably knows all this but, since it’s one of his favorite Bush anecdotes, doesn’t want to spoil it with too much analysis. After all, the Spikey story serves a higher meta-truth.

Lord, C. G., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 2098-2109.

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Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Don, I think a “meta-truth” is the same sort of category as “trust to manage the economy”. I can’t remember Textor’s exact phrase in his Bulletin interview with Maxine McKew – it was up there with “core” and “non-core” promises! As usual, the right are being more postmodern than the postmodernist left when it suits – which kinda proves that we do live in postmodern times!

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Poor old Al Gore – he couldn’t get away with inventing the Internet, having Love Story based on his romance with Tipper, flying to Florida to look at a hurricane or having his mum’s drugs cost more than his dog’s…. One rule for…

2022 years ago

Bit hard on Kristof Don. Ghostwriters, shomtzwriters. If Dubya can’t be held directly to account for his autobiography, what can he be held accountable for? Oops … another meta-truth.

2022 years ago


Maybe I was being a bit hard on Kristof – but here’s my reasoning.

Even if you hire a ghost to write your autobiography you’re responsible for what’s in there. I’ve got no problem with that.

But Kristof isn’t just holding Bush accountable for what’s in the book, he’s using it as an insight into his mind. For that to work you’d need to be sure that the story appears exactly the way George W told it to Karen Hughes (or whoever).

And there’s another interesting point in this. Many people in public life don’t write their own speeches, don’t come up with their own answers to journalists’ questions, and don’t write their own media releases. You can’t really attribute their words to an individual (at least not for the purposeses of psychological analysis).

For example when a newspaper reports that “the minister said today” the words have never left her lips. They originated in something a bureaucrat wrote and the minister’s advisers approved.

So – and here’s the bit I find interesting – when you interpret a politician’s utterances you’re really interpreting a collective entity -a mind that might consist of severeral hundred individuals and an institutonal filtering system.

We treat presidents as individuals because of convention. It’s convenient to attribute quotes that way. It’s useful to make someone accountable – even if they don’t know or understand what they’ve said or done.

Red Peter
Red Peter
2022 years ago

These “meta-truths” are probably pulled from the notion of “meta-narrative”- like sign posts in the unravelling story that explains the world meaningfully. In Bush’s case, I suspect, Good vs. Evil is fairly central here.

But let’s call a spade a spade; I think this is really just bias. Bias derrived, over-time, from what an individual finds to be materially and socially (hence emotionally) rewarding.