Along with all of our other problems, today’s Americans face the grand-daddy of true-false tests.
Ironically, with information more available than ever before, with literally mountains of data at our ever-googling fingertips, we are losing the ability to tell the difference between fact and fabrication. I’m not talking just about the beliefs held by folks who are, shall we say, lightly tethered to reality—the holocaust deniers, the JFK conspiracy theorists, etc. They’ve always been around. I’m not even talking about the loonier precincts of the blogosphere, or the so-called “pundits” like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter who make big bucks playing to limited constituencies with unlimited grievances.
I’m talking about people who should know better.
Recently, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota gave an interview in which she criticized the stimulus bill for giving ACORN five billion dollars, even though the organization is “under federal indictment for voter fraud.” There were only two things wrong with this criticism; ACORN is nowhere mentioned in the stimulus bill, and it’s not under indictment.
Or take the recent rash of revisionist “scholarship” about FDR, ranging from “he actually caused the Depression” to “the New Deal didn’t work.” Reputable historians agree the depression began well before FDR took office, and while it is perfectly legitimate to question the adequacy of the New Deal, or to debate the causes of the improvements that occurred on Roosevelt’s watch, suggesting that there were no improvements is simply not true.
Falsehoods also appear in the so-called “mainstream” outlets we trust. George Will’s column originates in the Washington Post. A couple of weeks ago, he dismissed the evidence of climate change, noting that “according to the University of Illinois Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.” Within hours of the column’s appearance, the Center posted a rebuttal on its website. “We do not know where George Will is getting his information… the decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California and Oklahoma combined.” To date, there has been no correction noted either by Will or the Post.
Often, when people are too invested in an ideology or position, they create alternate realities, selecting—or inventing—“facts” that bolster their beliefs. As the saying goes, however, we are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.
Let me be perfectly clear: people are entitled to draw different conclusions from a given set of facts. We may conclude that a stimulus bill is necessary, or believe it’s the wrong approach. We can acknowledge that WWII finally ended the Depression without denying the earlier, well-documented improvements in employment figures. We can quibble with certain aspects of the (overwhelming) scientific consensus on global climate change. Such debates are necessary if all sides of important issues are to be understood.
People will draw different lessons from a given set of facts. But when one or more parties to the debate occupies a fact-free zone, truth and illumination both suffer.