Woster: What information are you ignoring?
Too often we accept any old thing we’ve read or heard, if it makes us feel good.
In the early 1930s, a movie called “Duck Soup’’ had Chico Marx questioning the trustworthiness of eyewitness information.
One character said something like, “I saw it with my own eyes.’’ Marx responded, “Well, who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?’’
That may have been a laugh line back in the day. It isn’t funny in the context of politics, social discourse and the flood of misinformation sweeping the nation today.
Too many of us seem willing to ignore facts from sources that demonstrate their credibility. Instead, too often we accept any old thing we’ve read or heard, if it makes us feel good. That doesn’t help us have rational conversations about, well, anything, really.
Perhaps we ignore credible sources because we have become invested in a particular narrative. If I get invested in a political candidate, for example, I really don’t want to believe anything negative about that candidate. I may want my candidate’s narrative to be true so much that I ignore or refuse to believe any information critical of my person. I don’t question any of my opinions. And I don’t believe, don’t even consider, any other narrative.
For several years, a Minnesota-born, South Dakota State-educated scholar named Thomas Patterson has studied the trend toward that who-do-you-trust phenomenon. He wrote a book four years ago called “How America Lost Its Mind.’’ The subtitle is “The Assault on Reason That’s Crippling Our Democracy.’’ Alarming words from a thoughtful, soft-spoken government professor at Harvard.
Patterson opens the book with the story of a guy from North Carolina who drove to a pizza place in Washington, D.C. He told customers to leave, searched the place and began shooting. An online article somehow convinced him the pizza joint was a front for a child sex ring involving Hillary Clinton and other Democrats. Sounds outlandish, doesn’t it?
Well, Patterson cited a poll after the incident in which one-third of American adults thought the sex-ring story “definitely’’ or “probably’’ was true. That amounts to something like 80 million people in the country.
It is a well-documented, alarming and highly readable book. Here are a few of Patterson’s observations, in case you don’t have time or inclination to read the original text.
“Some degree of political misinformation is to be expected,’’ but “today’s volume of misinformation is unprecedented.’’ And, “Some beliefs are so far off the mark as to raise doubts about our reasoning ability.’’ Finally, for this column, anyway, “Ironically, the misinformed think they are highly informed.’’
I know you’ve read this before from me, but I spent my entire newspaper career trying to write stories that would give other citizens good information as they tried to understand legislative and government issues. I didn’t tell them what to think. I only wanted them to have good information. It frustrates me how much misinformation is out there these days.
I tried mightily to fact-check the information I included in stories. Even so, I never expected readers to take a story without question. I wanted them to think about it, even check it out. In the process, I hoped to develop some level of trust, enough so they gave me the benefit of the doubt — subject to check.
That’s kind of what the Mitchell Republic did recently with its Trust Week series. It basically said, “here is who we are. Here’s what we do. Check us out. You can trust our work.’’ Always, those things are subject to check, and every legitimate news outlet I know welcomes having its readers check it out.
Somehow, we must hit a reset button in this nation, revert to a time when most people read widely and thought carefully. We need to be able, when confronted with information contrary to what we think, to say, “I should learn more,’’ instead of “What a liberal Commie leftist’’ or “What an extreme right-wing dupe.’’
Changing our current situation will be unbelievably difficult. For all of us, it will mean a step back, a calming breath and the willingness, even just for a moment, to consider contrary thoughts and ideas.
Can we do it? I don’t know. I would love to see us try.