Friday, January 07, 2005


One of the reasons I don't do a lot of punditry posting (other than the fact I really don't know anything about anything) is that I believe assertions you make about particular subjects should be supported by tangible proof and supportable evidence.

Go anywhere you like on the web, blogs or not, and you'll see wildly unsubstantiated "facts" and stories about everything under the sun. What's worse, once everyone starts repeating the stories they become pseudo-facts - "facts" that become self-proven, simply because all your friends have said them over and over, so they must be true.

Don Williams is a columnist with the
Knoxville News Sentinel. In the past few years, he's concentrated almost solely on repudiating the Bush Adminisration's policies and actions. And that's fine...ever administration should have its feet held to the fire. Bush included, especially now that he's a lame duck president.

But his latest column, Words to the wise for Democrats, highlights some of the continuing flaws in our information and opinion-sharing process - the lack of real supporting evidence to back up your opinions, and the reliance on "conventional wisdom" or "common knowledge" as a substitute.
'Polls show that a majority of those who voted for George W. Bush in 2004 really believed Saddam Hussein had something to do with the horrors of 9/11 and that Iraq had strong ties to al-Qaida. A similar percentage said the United States found stockpiles of chemical or nuclear weapons in Iraq. You and I know these things are not true, but lots of Fox News viewers in particular believed they happened.
What polls, Don? Can you tell me? Can anyone tell me? How difficult would it have been to say something like, "A December 2004 Pew Opinion Poll showed that a majority of those...." or "A November 2004 MSNBC poll said the United States found stockpiles..."?

Maybe such polls exist, maybe they don't. Maybe Don was told they did, and he reported the fact - he may have been told by someone whose integrity he trusted. Maybe that person read a story in a publication he trusted. But unless the actual poll is presented along with the opinion, how far can the trust go? Especially when any link in the chain may have more than the most pure of journalistic intentions at heart. Continuing:
'Religious indoctrination is about as depressing. Journalist Bill Moyers noted in December that the best selling books in recent history are the "Left Behind" series by Timothy LaHaye - adventure yarns about the rapture and other manifestations of the so-called end of days - based on iffy interpretations of scripture. Millions of Bush supporters believe Jesus is returning within a generation.'
Here Don did provide a source for his assertion regarding the "Left Behind" series. An assertion I believe, as well. But how does he actually know "millions of Bush supporters believe Jesus is returning in a generation"? What poll or study was that found?

Again, maybe just such a poll exists - if it does, it would greatly boost his credibility among those who might not agree with him.

But mostly it sounds like what's typically bandied about in ultra-liberal blogs and websites - opinions that, when tossed around so much, take on a factual basis of their own, based on their listeners' desire to believe them.

Here's more with a local spin:
'There's reason to believe that millions of fundamentalists - including many in East Tennessee - embrace similar positions. That's a big problem. If I believed the end was near, if I believed Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11, I might've voted for Bush, too.'
Huh? What makes you think that "millions" of fundamentalists hold similar positions? Word of mouth? Conventional Wisdom? It's one thing to cite CW when you say something like, "Millions of fundamentalists - including many in East Tennessee - believe every word of the Bible is the literal truth". There you're deriving applesauce from apples. The effect is a product of a directly related cause. But when you equate "fundamentalists" to "hyper-confidence in the divine mission of Bush" to "belief the rapture's coming soon, so let's believe anything he says about Saddam" is as big a leap - WITHOUT tangible support - as trying to assert they all believe the moon's made of green cheese.

And it's not just on the liberal side. It's a universal problem that's perpetrated by columnists and pundits and bloggers and radio talk show hosts of every political stripe - the more you say that something is a fact, the more people believe it's a fact, and the more it becomes Conventional Wisdom. When you have millions of listeners or readers, it becomes a handy tool. It's worked well for Rush Limbaugh for 15 years or more.

Finally, I realize it's difficult to get past these things. I believe, yes, that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed and walked on the moon in 1969 - it's been part of my upbringing for 35 years. I've seen the videos, heard the stories, read the textbooks. But how do I really know? Have I seen and analyzed the telemetry data myself? Have I interviewed the men of Apollo 13 myself? No, of course not. But I still believe it - because after 35 years (current conspiracy theorists notwithstanding) I accept it as a wonderful part of human history and would be foolish to disbelieve it.

But 35 years from now, unless we're happy that some of the current Conventional Wisdom arguments will still be around and regarded as "fact", we need to be prepared to demand proof and support for our media's assertions. And not rest until it's provided, willingly.

Because there's your doublespeak. Accepted willingly.

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