The Facts, Ma’am
When I was a kid … eons ago … if I had to do research for a paper, I had two choices. Fortunately, my parents had provided us with an Encyclopedia Britannica (with annual yearbooks) which was Option One. But if the subject was really esoteric or required more depth than Britannica provided, Option Two was a trip to the East Haven Library. As I got older, a trip to the main library in New Haven might have been warranted. These days, research is at my finger tips on my smartphone or my tablet or even my laptop if I’m near public wi-fi. What I can learn about a subject in half an hour would have consumed days back in the 1960s. And yet, with all this information at our disposal, our online experience is populated with opinion posing as reporting, advertising for products with ludicrous claims, and hoaxes propagated as if they are real news. Posters on Facebook and message boards are willing to take any scrap of misinformation that they find and run with it if it supports their opinion. With all the information we have our disposal, we seem to have lost the ability … or the desire … to, as Jack Webb used to say on Dragnet, find just The Facts, Ma’am.
In part, this reflects the blurring of the line between between opinion and reporting in not just our news media but our media in general. Too often, I know exactly what news a network will emphasize, what they will leave in and leave out, based on their political leanings, whether it’s CNN or Fair and Balanced Fox News. If the people we count on for our news can do it, why shouldn’t we? What we read online reflects, too, the anonymity of the internet, where it’s all too easy to be an internet troll, tossing an inflammatory opinion into cyberspace just to incite a response. But often, I think, it’s intellectual laziness coupled with a naive belief that If I read it on the internet, it must be true.
The truth is that although the internet has made research easier and faster, it has, in some ways made good research harder. Recently, a friend asked me about a product that Dr. Oz was promoting as a weight loss miracle, coffee that includes garcinia cambogia, the extract of a plant native to Indonesia. When I Googled garcinia cambogia, most of the hits were advertisements for weight loss products, because, of course, Google sells the rankings on their search engines. Some, claiming to offer the truth about garcinia cambogia were actually ads for other weight loss products. Even websites with names like garciniacambogiaexposed.com turned out to be pitching the stuff. It was only by looking for reputable sites like webMD or the National Institute of Health that I could get a more balanced view … and even then, I have to take into account the medical profession’s sometimes-bias against holistic medicines. Sometimes, when I can’t find a balanced report, I have wander into what seems like enemy territory and put up with biased opinions just to see the other side. This happened a lot when I was doing research for my series of posts on gun control in Guns and Sandy Hook. Recently, someone posted something on Facebook implying that Genetically Modified Foods are practically poison. Indeed, in fifteen minutes, I was able to determine that many agree but there are others … not all of them vicious corporate moguls … that see GMFs as a way to reduce hunger in the world through disease resistant crops. Certain hoax-debunking websites like Hoaxbusters and Snopes.com often provide a quick fact-check (There are more listed here). When someone posted an article claiming that Johns Hopkins University had endorsed the notion that cancer is caused primarily by sugar consumption, a quick trip to Snopes indicated that it was a hoax … disavowed by Johns Hopkins … that had been circulating for years. But even Snopes has been known to change its posts now and then.
In the end, my search for just The Facts, Ma’am, leads me to a long list of so-called facts, each of which I have to balance with my own judgement. Because the truth is, the line between fact and opinion is often blurry. Sometimes, the best we can do in the finite time we have to invest is push that line in the general direction of fact. Sometimes, the best I can do is find An Informed Opinion, Ma’am. But I can live with that. How about you?