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Believing What You Read

September 6th, 2009

There is a rather significant danger in believing what you read without questioning it. I don’t know how many times I have encountered people who forwarded “facts” which were patently untrue. One over-the-top example we see today is the “Death Panel” claim, one of many claims made by the same crowd (Obama is creating death camps, Obama wants to indoctrinate kids with socialist propaganda, etc.) which millions of Americans are lapping up and believing without any question. Not that it doesn’t happen on both sides, of course, but currently the right wing is winning the prizes for volume and depth.

Most of the time, such things are far more subtle. We have a certain point of view which we feel strongly about. When we hear or read something that contradicts this, we will tend to dismiss such reporting out of hand, often without bothering to find out if it’s true. When we encounter something which supports what we want to believe, we will likely accept it without question. Goodness knows I’ve certainly been guilty of both in the past, and probably will be in the future, though I do try to avoid it if I can (being aware that it’s possible is the first step).

For example, take a report today from Talking Points Memo blog. Josh Marshall is on about a Republican gubernatorial candidate, and makes the following statements over several blog posts:

In 2002 he struck a motorcyclist while driving in the wrong direction on a one way street.

NJ Gov. candidate Chris Christie, when asked for comment about the 2002 accident in which he hit a motorcyclist while driving the wrong way on a one way street.

…NJ gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie hit a motorcyclist while traveling on a one-way street, but was not ticketed.

Reading this, one imagines the man driving his car and striking a motorcyclist head-on, likely causing serious injury, making the fact that he was not ticketed seem outrageous. I was set to be all indignant and stuff, maybe to pick this up for my own blog and show up another Republican for what he is. But I followed the links and read what was quoted directly from the police report:

Christie was driving a rented BMW sedan and apparently had lost his way when he attempted to turn right onto a street that was one-way in the other direction, according to the police report. A motorcyclist, Andre Mendonca of Elizabeth, was riding towards Christie, and both men saw one another and put on the brakes, police said. Christie’s vehicle came to a stop, and the motorcycle then “fell on its side and slid into his vehicle,” according to the police report.

While Marshall’s repeated use of words like “hit” and “struck” and “collision” could perhaps be considered technically true, they are just as misleading as Christie’s own statement that “the motorcycle hit me.” When you read that someone driving the wrong way down a one-way street “hit” a motorcyclist, it gives the impression of something quite different than what the police report expressed. Christie did do something worthy of criticism–he went the wrong way down a one-way street, caused an accident, and was not even ticketed–but it is not nearly as bad as the cursory reports on TPM make it sound. Describing the incident as “causing an accident” would be a more accurate way to report it–but if I just believed the report on TPM and reprinted that, I’d be opening myself up for a rebuttal attack that would make me look bad.

Speaking of police reports, the recent case of Henry Louis Gates Jr. is another excellent example of believing what you read. I accepted the officer’s report about what the 911 caller said–and that was a big mistake. Turns out the officer made stuff up in his report, making the caller seem like a racist when it was far more likely that any bias came from the officer himself. Sometimes you can find yourself believing stuff from sources you disagree with, when the matter is aside from central issue or facts you are contending. We believe a lot of stuff on faith even when we don’t want to believe it, like that Democrats are tax-and-spenders while Republicans are good for the economy, or that liberal protesters spat on Vietnam vets on the airport tarmac as they returned home.

Another example of believing what you want to believe from a different venue: here in Japan, a guy named David Aldwinckle, who became a naturalized Japanese citizen, is an activist for foreigner’s rights in Japan. He goes after the big and the small, fighting discrimination and corruption, and has made a bit of a name for himself in the gaijin community here. Recently, he blogged about receiving a message from a guy who claimed that his father, a 74-year-old American tourist, was arrested for possessing a pocket knife when he went to a police box and asked for directions. The story was one of those outrageous ones that are so often true about Japanese police officers treating non-Japanese improperly. The problem was, Aldwinckle was reporting it as fact, when all he had was an unsubstantiated report from a reader whom he apparently did not know at all. At the time of reporting, he clearly had not corroborated the story.

When a reader asked that caution be exercised before accepting the story as fully true, and asked for corroboration and/or the other side of the story, Aldwinckle treated it with disdain, and when the Japan Times, a full month later, did corroborate the story, Aldwinckle made another post announcing “SITYS” (See, I Told You So), calling for the “nasty” people who doubted the story to “capitulate.” The thing is, while his initial belief was eventually upheld, he was still dead wrong to simply believe it without supporting evidence; he could just as easily have been made a fool of.

You’ll probably find no end to examples of this kind of thing when you sit back and really think about it–times when people you oppose and people you admire have done it, and when you have done it as well. Sometimes it’s egregious, and sometimes it’s minor and subtle.

The broad lesson, however, is very clear: don’t believe everything you read, especially if it is what you want to hear. Find the sources, get to the original facts, and learn as much as you can before you accept something and present it to others in your own arguments.

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