Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Little Skepticism

I am always stunned when people read something and accept it as fact. If it's written, after all, it must be true. I've seen this phenomena among my students, and unfortunately among my friends and family.
"Where did you hear that?" I ask.

"I read it."



"Did you check it?"

Well no, of course not. That might mean reading other articles, doing a little fact finding, seeing if quotes are taken out of context or if recounting of events are being skewed. I know it takes a lot of time. It's worth it though. There's nothing like reading a story, spreading it around, and then finding out later that you've been the dupe of someone's (left or right) political agenda.

I practice the same caution when reading history books. As I pour through a text, I want to know the sources. I check the footnotes and occasionally try and glean where the information was gathered and whether or not such information may have a bias or be reliable.

What about a book like "John Adams" by McCollough? These non-fiction texts present a challenge. The author will take a series of events and pad them. The intent of the author isn't to change history or influence a reader, but rather to make the narrative flow more easily. To give it life. I have no problem with this if, as in McCollough's case, it is done artfully and scholarly.

What rankles me though is something I call bubblegum history texts or current affair texts. You've seen these. The New York Times bestsellers that are churned out by the likes of Ann Coulter or Bill O Reilly. Or on the left Bill Press or Al Franken. These texts all claim factual integrity. And the facts cited are usually accurate---to a point. It's that point that makes all the difference. Too often what is left out is anything that could be used to counter an argument or which might give a perspective that is different from the one that drives the agenda.

These books are fun sometimes, but worthless from an intellectual perspective.

It always stuns me when this information is then spewed by a reader as fact. Because...let's say it together...they read it somewhere. I tell you, if Mark Twain were around today, he would have made John McCafferty (the crotchety old guy on CNN) look like a naive and funloving cad.


Charles Gramlich said...

This is one of my pet peeves as well. You should see the crap that my students cite as sources in their papers sometimes.

Sidney said...

Ah, Charles' comment reminds me of my library days trying to help kids who didn't want to help themselves on research.

I've tired of all of the "pop" non-fiction these days. Our local library has a wall devoted to the Coulters etc. which is kind of unfortunate. It's where they used to keep the paperback overflow and was always a good place to browse.

Lana Gramlich said...

Thus is the nature of the sheeple. They will believe whatever they are spoon fed, if only out of sheer, intellectual laziness.
Add to those you mention all the people who forward bogus "factual" e-mails without even checking Snopes first. Sickening!

Sidney; If it's any consolation, our little library still has a paperback section. :)

SQT said...

I think this stuff is allowed to proliferate because people don't want facts to get in the way of their opinions.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Charles, I'll never forget one time a girl actually used a plagiarism site as a footnote. I think the internet has caused teachers a good deal of grief. Plagiarism. And lack of skepticism in reading information posted online.

Sid, I think the pop non fiction is on a par with the stuff you read in the grocery line.

Sheeple. Yeah. I am tempted to further embrace elitism. You notice I said...further.

SQT...don't use words like proliferate. I can't handle anything more than two syllables at a time. sounds dirty.

SQT said...

Hmmm, okay. I'll try to come up with dirty sounding ones in the future.