Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Facts, lies, slant, and politics

Why are we willing to accept that in politics, facts don't matter?

Let's say that in my biology classes, I told the students that eating yogurt was directly linked to male pattern baldness, and that studies had shown that raspberry yogurt was the worst -- eating one serving of raspberry yogurt per week boosted your risk of hair loss by 50%.  Then, a student does some research, and finds that this statement is, in fact, false, that no such studies have ever been done, and that yogurt-eaters are just as likely to keep their hair as anyone else.  And I respond:  "Well, it was true to the best of my knowledge at the time.  And in any case, we all agree that male pattern baldness is still a serious problem that we need to address."

I suspect I'd be shown the door by the principal, tolerant man though he is -- if the students and their parents hadn't run me out of town first.

Politics, however, seems to give you an immediate gloss of immunity from telling the truth.  Witness the much-publicized claim by Michele Bachmann that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation.  In an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC's Today, she related a story about a "crying mother" who had come up to her, and spoken about her daughter:

"She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter.  It can have very dangerous side effects," Bachmann said.  "This is the very real concern, and people have to draw their own conclusions."

Well, this incident may have actually occurred, but of course there turns out to be no connection whatsoever between the HPV vaccine (or any other vaccine) and mental retardation.  Like any medicine, it can have side effects, but these are infrequent, seldom severe, and are in any case are far outweighed by the protection the vaccine provides.  In the case of the HPV vaccine, the CDC reports that of the 35 million doses that have been administered, there have been 18,000 reports of side effects, of which 92% were classified as "non-serious" -- and none of the serious side effects included mental retardation.  To save you from having to do the math, that's a rate of serious side effects of a little more than 0.004%.

Then, we had Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina claiming that substance abuse was widespread at government facilities.  She was giving a speech in favor of her plan to introduce drug testing as a requirement before the jobless could collect unemployment.  In defense of her plan, she made the statement that substance abuse was an "epidemic," and that at South Carolina's Savannah River Nuclear Power Facility, "... of everyone they interviewed, half of them failed a drug test."

Government officials who oversee the site immediately said, quote, "What the hell?" and demanded that Haley retract the statement.  A spokesperson for the Department of Energy brought forth records proving that (1) they don't drug test people during interviews, only after they are offered a job; (2) the rate of failure of people offered jobs at the Savannah River site is under 1%; and (3) passing a drug test is a condition of employment, so that less-than-1% never began work there in the first place.  Haley at first tried to defend her claim, but when the demands to retract grew louder, she said, and I quote:  "I've never felt like I had to back up what people tell me.  You assume you're given good information."

Please note here that I am deliberately not addressing the points that either Bachmann or Haley were trying to make -- whether it is a good idea to force parents of pre-teen girls to be vaccinated for HPV, or whether it is a good idea to require mandatory drug testing as a condition for receiving unemployment benefits.  My point here is, if you think something is a good idea, shouldn't you have actual factual reasons for your belief, and not just half-truths, exaggerations, and outright fabrications?  Why would you stand up in public, with its virtually instantaneous access to fact-checking via the internet, and make patently erroneous statements?  And confronted with incontrovertible evidence that you had said something incorrect, why wouldn't you stand up and say, "I was wrong.  The statement I made was completely non-factual, and for that I apologize."?

Politics seems to be one of the only venues around where people can make up facts and statistics as they go along, continue to defend them when confronted, and still somehow maintain credibility with their supporters.  In fact, their supporters are sometimes so vehement in their defense that they question the facts themselves, as if facts had a political spin, as if the CDC (for example) based its statistics on some kind of political agenda.  In one of the infrequent political arguments I've been in -- I tend to avoid them like the plague, as I find them generally pointless in every sense of the word -- I was accused of believing the "slanted liberal spin machine" because I quoted statistics that (1) were a matter of public record, and (2) had been verified by

The whole thing demands that I say it bluntly: facts matter.  What conclusions you draw from those facts are up to you.  But the data is available to all, and is the same for everyone, and data has no political bias.  I have more than once quoted Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but it bears saying again: "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts."

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