Be a Doubting Thomas and check the facts
(This piece was written sometime between 2006 and 2009 as a newspaper column. References to some events may be a bit dated, but I have added a few more recent references. Today's date is Dec. 12, 2016)
Living in the age of information and advanced technology requires every citizen to be watchful and to think critically about what he or she hears and sees. It would seem that anyone who has studied a bit of history and the perversion of fact by Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and the rest would be aware of how facts can be twisted. One would think that after living through the Joe McCarthy era, and the Communist witch hunts of the 1950's, Americans would be skeptical and critical of what they read and hear. But that doesn't seem to be the case.
Too often I hear people citing Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Bill O'Reilly as an authoritative source for information. Puhleeeease! These guys are pretend journalists more akin to the muckrakers of the early 1900's. They are first and foremost entertainers who make use of provocation as a way to increase ratings. They have more in common with the National Enquirer and the Star than any real newspaper.
Back when I was teaching the research paper to high school sophomores, (in pre-computer days) I warned them about using papers and magazines that made unsubstantiated claims that could not be verified in several noteworthy journals and books. Imagine my shock when one young man came in with footnotes and bibliography citations all sporting the Enquirer citation.
“Raymond,” I said trying to control my sense of frustration. “Did you not hear what I said about evaluating your sources and finding reliable sources that check their facts?”
“But my mom reads it all the time,” he countered.
“Raymond, the last issue of the Enquirer had a lead story about a three hundred year old dead woman giving birth to a live child. Another issue claimed a woman gave birth to 59 babies. Do you think that Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report would have missed that story?”
Part of Raymond's problem was that he was lazy. He didn't want to do the hard work of reading several newspapers, magazines, and journals in addition to a book or two on his topic when discarded Enquirers that hadn't been used for the bottom of the bird cage were stacked on the back porch.
And now more people rely on television and radio for their news than ever before. And television and radio condense world and national events into a 30 second sound bite. Health care, taxes, election of a new president, Soviet – American relations, and the choice of a new Supreme Court Justice get passing mention. But Donald Trump's tweets, his hair and the break up of Brad Pitt and Angelina get top billing.
Another pretty hideous thing back in 2006 were all are the unsigned chain letter e-mails that were passed from person to another. It was the equivalent of the cyber-grapevine and cyber-gossip rolled into one. Some of the e-mails even contain quotes that are attributed (often wrongly) to one person or another. And no one bothers to check out the charges.
Of course chain letters became old hat when Facebook became popular. Then Insta-chat, Snap chat, Twitter and a host of social media served as the national gossip grapevine. Anyone could say anything, or post some ridiculous stuff without really laying claim to it. At the same time, there was “fake news” being passed as well as the usual partisan stuff that bolstered one and another person's opinion about something that happened. Usually it was politics. The alt-right had their favorite outlets and liberals had theirs. When Trump announced he heard Islamist on top of roof tops cheering as the Twin towers fell on 9/11, a good share of the American public believed it.
Because of the emphasis on fixing the health care problems in 2008 and the mention of a single payer system such as is found in Canada and England, there was a rash of scare e-mails related to health care. One recent e-mail that made the rounds trying to scare people about health care reform alleged that “In England anyone over 59 cannot receive heart repairs or stents or bypass because it is not covered as being too expensive and not needed.” Sorry folks – it ain't so. Check it out. One place I like to use is www. FactCheck.com. I was skeptical of the site until I heard Vice-President Dick Cheney make reference to it in a television debate. They do some pretty even handed analysis there.
Just recently, Nov. of 2016, President elect Trump laid claim to saving 1300 jobs at Carrier. It sounded really good that he could do that. But the question was how? Pretty soon the answer came out. Gov. Mike Pence, the Donald's running mate, was able to finagle some tax breaks for the good folks at Carrier, paid for by the loving taxpayers in the state of Indiana, so Carrier wouldn't send those jobs to Mexico. Then it came out that the correct number wasn't really 1300, it was more like 730 jobs, and some of those jobs weren't union jobs, so the working stiffs that Trump liked to pretend to champion weren't really getting all that many jobs saved. A thousand or more are still headed south of the border.
Other sites I've found reliable are a website called Public Agenda (http://www.publicagenda.org/) and the Pew Research Center (http://www.pewresearch.org/). National Public Radio is also good, but lots of folks say it is liberal propaganda. I like the Christian Science Monitor (http://www.csmonitor.com/) as well. I warn you though, it calls for some careful and thoughtful reading on issues such as the environment, the economy, education, crime, poverty and welfare and a good deal more. They even point out “red flags” - those areas where there could easily be misunderstanding because of how an idea is presented.
For some items, I like to use Snopse.com. Ever heard the reference to the baby carrots you buy in the grocery store actually come from deformed larger carrots? Did you hear that those baby carrots are soaked in chlorine? Snopse did some research and found that the baby carrots actually are specially bred to be small, sweet and bright orange in color. Holy Gregor Mendel and Luther Burbank, Batman. They can actually genetically grow those things that small.
The point of this tirade really is about being a little more skeptical and questioning about what you read and hear – even from so-called reliable sources. Mistakes can easily creep in even with legitimate information sources. And keep in mind that there are lots of people who have something to gain by lying to you.
My old high school history teacher often gave us some historical fact that would leave us shaking our heads in disbelief. Then he would ask, “Why would I lie to you, people?” I never had an answer to his question, but over the years I've found a few things that weren't so factual and were based more on his interpretation than on fact. I don't think he lied, he just didn't have all the facts.