Seeds of Doubt: When Facts Outlive Their Usefulness


Turns out the mustard seed doesn't illustrate only the kingdom of heaven, Vaughn says. A seed of doubt can grow big enough to dominate the landscape in a land increasingly hostile to truth claims.
"You're entitled to your own opinions," the saying begins. "But you're not entitled to your own facts."

 

Maybe not. But we're at least entitled to ignore or deny as many facts as necessary to reach a conclusion more suited to our palate.

 

Time magazine media critic James Poniewozik thoughtfully examines this state of affairs in his recent column, "The Myth of Fact."

 

"Journalists, and those who critique them, like to believe that facts conquer all. If the press reports quickly, fully and responsibly, myths will be dispelled, scales will fall from eyes, and society will be guided along the path of reason," writes Poniewozik. "It's time to wonder whether that belief is itself a myth."

 

It's past time. Poniewozik's examples of the controversies surrounding Barack Obama's birthplace and faith, the establishment of "death panels" in health care reform, the real mother of Trig Palin – these cultural talking points surely suggest that facts may have outlived their usefulness, at least for folks who find factual evidence inconvenient.

 

What's noteworthy, though, is that people typically interested in defending Absolute Truth seem to be the first ones to ignore mounting evidence and its logical conclusions.

 

In other words, folks who see the Bible as an evidentiary endpoint are oddly skeptical of mountains of evidence, even when the proof on any given topic doesn't contradict anything Scripture has to say. Again, witness the Obama birth controversy and its popularity among Christians. Ditto for climate change skepticism.

 

Now this is not about holding a minority opinion. This is about holding an opinion in defiance of the tools of logic, in defiance of having verifiable evidence to support a claim, in defiance of the best work of our best experts.

 


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To be sure, sometimes experts are wrong. But more often than not, they're correct (hence their status as experts). We should stop behaving as if exceptions are the rule and therefore every idea or theory – no matter how outlandish or feebly demonstrated is as worthy as the next. Is the idea that the U.S. government planned the Sept. 11 attacks simply another theory on par with the "theory" that the al Qaeda terrorist network did? I hope not.

 

Poniewozik mentions conspiracy theories, too. Gone probably are the days when the U.S. public square was only pocked by a few conspiracy wingnuts putting on modest sideshows (e.g., we never landed on the moon). The sideshow is now the main attraction. Witness the Fox News-"Daily Show" tete-a-tete. Witness how other news sources increasingly cover not the issues, but our spectacular divide over the issues, which isn't surprising given our attitude toward "facts."

 

It's no wonder that our most popular media outlets are increasingly incapable of showing us real debate on issues. We thought it was because screaming heads are more entertaining. That's true. But maybe it's also true that "debate" is pointless if "facts" are meaningless (or if they have to be put in quotes).

 

When there are two (or three or more) legitimate sides to an issue, we need to consider those other points of view. But media programs need to exercise better judgment; half-baked claims don't equal well-reasoned positions.

 

"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field," said Jesus. "Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches."

 

Turns out the mustard seed doesn't illustrate only the kingdom of heaven; it also represents what passes in the public square in 2010. Now a seed of doubt planted in a partisan field grows into a tree big enough to dominate the landscape.

 

It's a land increasingly hostile to truth claims, even logical conclusions.

 

Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.

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