Floating Belief Networks

Some people literally believe that Barack Obama was responsible for the disaster relief for Hurricane Katrina. And the poll data looks mostly reasonable for this claim – albeit with a fairly dodgy question that didn’t have a “neither” option.

Image result for where was obama during hurricane katrina

We’re also seeing the same trope crop up again amongst Donald Trump supporters (though, at this point they’re better described as “apologists”) who want to imply that the then-Senator held some responsibility for the disaster. Even if you think the above poll is dodgy, these seem to be very honest expressions of sentiment.

At this stage, you might well think the obvious: these people are stupid, they think Barack Obama was president in 2005, they’re stupid because they don’t know he wasn’t president at the time!

But I don’t think this is the case. And I certainly don’t think “stupid” merely means “not knowing something”.

The ideas “[Barack Obama was President in 2005]” or “[Katrina happened during the Obama Administration]” probably aren’t literal beliefs that these people hold in their heads. If you were to ask them the years Obama was President, they’d probably get it right: 2008-2017. If you asked them for the year of Hurricane Katrina, they’d also get it right – maybe a small slither would land somewhere in 2007-2009 or so because things get hazy after a while, but not a significant amount.

I think the problem is that they haven’t connected these two facts together.

So, what do I mean by connecting ideas? Let’s beat this point to death with an example:

  • I believe that my office has a door with a lock on it.

It’s a simple, trivial belief,  but it connects to a lot of other further beliefs. It connects to the idea that I can’t get into my office without unlocking and opening the door. It connects to the expectation that if I don’t unlock and open it, I’ll smack my face right into the wood if I try to walk in. This is something I expect to see and feel. It connects to the idea that I need to bring keys with me. It connects to the broader idea and beliefs about how doors and locks work.

It can even be drawn out in a diagram.


It’s still somewhat simplified, but hopefully you get the idea. The point isn’t so much the nodes, but the fact that they’re connected together. In a way, the words in blue are the actual important bits that make it function.

The other important part is that the connections attach to the outside world in a few places – what I expect to experience if something does or doesn’t happen. If I have keys, I will feel them in my pocket. If I haven’t opened the door, I expect not to be able to enter and for it to block my path and hit me in the face.

Mapping out ideas like this is hardly novel, but it is powerful. Here’s an example (usually known as a concept map in these cases) for chemical kinetics I ran through with some undergraduates a while back.


The reason that they’re useful in pedagogy is because it tests how well someone could expand upon an idea, how well they actually have a fully coherent model of the world in their head.

When it comes to learning theory to build mastery and expertise, the aim isn’t to just populate someone’s head with more and more nodes (pop culture and fiction do this when they imply that intelligence = “knowing a lot”) but to connect them together. Someone without these connections would be unable to complete a task if it’s presented in an unorthodox manner – even if they certainly can do it. Whereas someone with these connections has enough of a coherent model to apply their knowledge and analyse and evaluate new ideas.

So, what do I think is actually happening when people say Obama was responsible for the response to Hurricane Katrina?

I’ll just stick it in a similar diagram first:


The ideas just float around. There’s a core belief – and it’s locally consistent. In fact, if we were to expand this it might even be very consistent in attaching an “Obama is bad” sticker to almost everything – though whether that “Obama is bad” node forms a connection to other locations is an open question. But there’s no global coherence, and no interconnectivity. It can lead to contradictions very readily.

This is what I think is going on in the heads of people who you might call “stupid”. It’s not that they don’t know something – it’s that they haven’t joined the ideas together. It may also go some way to explaining why responding “but Obama wasn’t president in 2005” doesn’t make the Obama-Katrina problem go away. That knowledge/node is already there, and adding it doesn’t actually change anything.

We talk about the “post-truth” world as if it’s all about replacing facts with falsehoods. I think it’s more about destroying the connections between facts so that they can be substituted with the falsehoods more readily.

Currently in vogue is the relationship between the Democratic Party and the KKK – a point that falls to pieces once you consider the political shift between the two main US parties over the course of the 20th century, and a fact that is effectively page 1, chapter 1 of “American Politics for Dummies”. But that’s not the point, the people saying this are simply connecting “Democrats are bad” to another node marked “KKK is bad”. So no amount of contextualisation actually affects that belief – the context was never connected to it in the first place and so this fact can’t break the local consistency of the belief network.

So many beliefs stay firm in the face of being corrected: we’ve known for well over a year that the £350 million figure used to draw the United Kingdom out of the European Union was utter bullshit, and that there was never any indication that it would be saved and given to the health service. But the more that becomes clear to those who voted leave, the less it impacts on their beliefs – “Any amount is too much!” or “but we didn’t really think it would be given to the NHS… honest” they say. Is this cognitive dissonance resolving, or was there never any dissonance to resolve because it was never tethered to their beliefs in the first place?

And, yes, I do think the liberal-left do this, too. The rise of bullshit (aka “fake news”) from the liberal-left side of the spectrum is also a by-product of floating beliefs, no different to that “Obama is bad” loop above – because if you have a floating belief network, one that isn’t attached to any observation or expectation, you’re more likely to uncritically bolt the falsehoods to it.

But… if you do connect your beliefs strongly to reality, and use them to produce a coherent model of the world, you’re less likely to fall for bullshit. Or, at the very least, it will take a more in-depth, more-powerful, more-coherent hoax to fool you, and far less effort to purge it from your belief network when corrected.

You know, if you expect to bit hit in the face by a locked door, you’ll remember to take your keys with you.