Thieving Thursday: Do Your Own Homework

>> Thursday, September 10, 2009

I wrote a comment on a left-leaning blog, First Door on the Left, noting a rather interesting exercise done by the New York Times today regarding the President's speech on healthcare reform last night.

Now, ignoring the subject of the speech or politics in general for a moment - because most of you know how I feel on these subjects any way - but I wanted to stress the significance of the diversity of responses to the speech. All of them seemed to claim they knew what the President was "really" saying, and yet the diversity and diametrically opposed nature of much of what was used to describe his intents were, well, shocking.

My comment ended with: "This article, in my opinion, emphasizes why relying on any opinion giver to give you an objective read on a topic is all but impossible. And why, if you want to make an informed decision, you’re going to have to go to the sources and think for your freaking self."

And that's what I want to talk about.

People can believe and think as they want, but it takes a certain amount of nerve to think you have a better grasp on what someone means or thinks or intends than the speaker himself or herself. Actually, it takes a bit of nerve to give the implication of anything - scientific results, guilt in a criminal case, gossip, etc. without making clear the distinction between the facts in the case and one's opinion. But people do that. What bothers me is that other people will - without listening to the original - take that interpretation of whatever with more trust than the original.

Politics is just one of many venues where this is common, but it happens in many places. People get on a blog and complain that so and so got off in a criminal case. OK, maybe someone did, but I'd be careful about taking that assertion at face value without knowing the facts of the case, and I would remember that the jury got the facts in this case not filtered by the media or anything else. Sometimes, I've agreed with the angry blogger or whatever, but only after I've checked the facts myself (such as the case with OJ Simpson). Many times, I see that much of the cited evidence was spurious or ambiguous or that a heinous crime was crying out for someone to blame. Now, I might have a gut reaction to something, think something was true, might even express my opinion, but I do know there's always a chance that a difference exists between what I thought was true and reality.

It happens in science all the time. Some media mogul (or, at least as often, someone with an agenda) puts a slant on scientific results oftentime completely counter to the actual lessons learned from the research. However, if the scientists who created this research complain or object, they are ignored, dismissed or belittled. Now, I tend to give science credence for several reasons, not the least of which is that I'm one of them and believe most of us take our scientific ethics pretty freaking seriously. But, even if I didn't, I also know that scientists are required to show their work and that, if I have questions, concerns or don't agree, I can check it out myself.

But we can do the same. We can find out information on criminal cases or opinions by qualified experts. We can listen to the actual speeches people make or read the text of the actual reports or bills. And, using that information, we can make up our own minds, decide for our own selves what we believe and what we don't, what is the truth and what is speculative. We can do our own thinking instead of having someone do it for us.

And we can figure out whose opinions we should stop trusting.

I know for a fact, I'm much more likely to take an opinion seriously if they include links to the source. It's one reason I still use Wikipedia routinely. It's one reason why snopes is the first place I check if someone forwards some "shocking" something to me via email. In both cases, I've followed the source material, followed the links and done my own reading (and, usually, they are both in excellent sync with the sources). And, if I find an article or story that's short on sources (or objective sources), I know to take those postings with a grain of salt.

Remember, when trying to learn the truth in any situation, get sources as far up the chain as you can is the best way to obtain corrupted data. And, when evaluating, garbage in, garbage out.

When someone lies to you, shame on them. When you cough up lies, well, you haven't done your homework. And that's your fault.


  • Jen

    Couldn't agree more. I tend to not question a jury's verdict because I know they were privy to information I was not. Not in the case of OJ however. The case was presented poorly and I don't think the jury could have found him guilty based on the wonderful defense he had and the crappy job the state put on.

  • Jeff King

    i agree. it has happened to me before, prob to all of us.

    live,learn and remember all you can do...

  • Roy

    This is why I quote the original (or as original as we've been able to find) Greek manuscripts to fundamentalist Christians who insist on using the King James Version to make their points. The KJV is based on flawed sources which are three, four, and even five iterations removed from those earliest Greek manuscripts. And all of those iterations were agenda-driven. I was a history major in college, and the first thing they drive home in all the classes is go to the source. Any iteration beyond the original source isn't fact, it's hearsay.

  • Stephanie B

    I hear you, Roy. That's one of the reasons why yours are the only religious discussions I look forward to.

    But it should be true of anything. Get the facts.

    Jen, the evidence against OJ was so overwhelming that you'd have to be sitting there going "lalalalalala" to think he might be innocent. It still boggles my mind.

    Thanks, Jeff.

  • Shakespeare

    I've found this tendency in my literature classes, which I run, I suppose, differently than most high school teachers (and perhaps more college teachers as well). Each class is an exploration of the text--not a lecture where I tell students what everything signifies, what the author intended to mean, blah, blah, blah. My students have to engage in the text themselves, take chances on interpretation, and show how they formed their ideas from the texts.

    Yet I always have a few students who object. They just want me to "tell them what it really means" so they don't have to think about it. But they don't understand. I don't KNOW what it means. How could I possibly know what it means? I've been studying Shakespeare since 9th grade (we're talking decades) and I still could not attest to anyone else that I KNOW what something means. The more we understand, the less we say we know.

    At least, that's what I THINK (not know).

  • The Mother

    This is certainly a problem that we've discussed often in the past--especially as it affects scientific discourse. The average American gets his/her medical/science news from the media, not from the literature.

    That means that everything he reads is slanted by the point of view of the media, with all of its inherent biases and lack of understanding.

    I have no solutions. I know the average Joe isn't going to go back and read the original paper, as Stephanie and I do. Most probably wouldn't understand it anyway.

    If anyone has any fantastic answers to this problem, I'm all ears.

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