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Fresh Ideas: Without facts, our convictions lack foundation

Marilee Swirczek
For the Nevada Appeal

U.S. Sen. and ophthalmologist Dr. Rand Paul addressed students at the University of Louisville Medical School: “I never, ever cheated. I don’t condone cheating. But I would sometimes spread misinformation. This is a great tactic … misinformation works.”

Paul’s disclosure exemplifies a new reality: Intentional misinformation is an acceptable, even “great tactic” of those interested in manipulating our perception. Pundits offer propaganda as news; politicians invent facts; media and electronic information sources produce smorgasbords of baseless opinions to support anything we want to believe.

It’s easy, as Farhad Manjoo in “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society” observes: “It is more convenient than ever before for some of us to live in a world built out of our own facts.” Or, as Paul suggests, a world built out of facts invented by others.

Manjoo examines how we choose what to believe and explores Americans’ propensity toward creating facts — as opposed to creating opinions based upon facts.

He cites Stanford University professor Shanto Iyengar’s work demonstrating that people prefer information sources they agree with. This isn’t surprising regarding politics, but Iyengar concludes that people “have generalized their preference for politically consonant news to nonpolitical domains.”

Examples abound in private and public life. Children suffer or die without appropriate medical care because parents decide that faith heals, choosing testimonials reinforcing their belief instead of evidence-based therapies. Do you believe that childhood vaccinations cause autism despite reliable science proving otherwise? Why?

When Trayvon Martin was killed, did you jump on the bandwagon pronouncing him a drug-addled, intimidating thug casing his neighborhood? If so, you likely found corroborating misinformation — but no facts.

Even national opinions, which affect our interactions with world neighbors, can be devoid of fact though bolstered by self-selected “evidence.” Do you still believe Saddam Hussein had a hand in 9/11 despite acknowledgment to the contrary by President Bush and Vice President Cheney? In a 2006 Harris study, 50 percent of Americans believed Iraq had WMDs, and they found support on the Internet — but no facts — to prove it.

Are we becoming a culture that constructs so many alternative realities that all become acceptable? Consider the Texas school district that adopted a textbook offering the story of creationism as an alternative to the science of evolution. Or the drunk-driving Texas teenager who killed four people and successfully presented the newly invented affliction of “affluenza” as an alternative to drunkenness in his manslaughter defense.

Manjoo contends that “modern communications technology has shifted our understanding of the truth.” More, faster access to information is useful, but with it comes an infinite array of anecdotal, manipulative, even crazy misinformation. So, encouraged by motivated persuaders of public opinion, we believe those who think as we do, assuring that our version of reality is never challenged.

If we choose to believe fictions over facts, we abdicate a critical responsibility of informed citizenship. Fragmented into camps of the like- and close-minded, we become sitting ducks for purveyors of myth, spin, conspiracy theories, false promises, misinformation and lies.

Marilee Swirczek is professor emeritus at Western Nevada College and lives in Carson City.