Friday, July 22, 2005

Liars, truth tellers, and bias

My wife and I both argue politics on different message boards, and we both agree that there is a tendency for people to listen only to the sources they like and discount the sources they don't like. For instance, people who insist that "mainstream media" is automatically lying because of their "liberal bias", will in the next breath go on to confidently quote blatantly right wing sources such as Rush Limbaugh, NewsMax, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, etc.

Now, admittedly, Ginny and I get a lot of news from left wing sources. And I'm not talking about Time, the New York Times, CNN, etc... the places that conservatives pretend are liberal when they aren't. I'm talking about Air America Radio, Daily Kos, Media Matters, and so on. Sources that are really liberal, and don't fear to say so.

Ginny asks me sometimes, "Do you think we do the same thing, but reversed? Do we just listen to those sources and form our opinions based on that, while ignoring the other side?"

My answer is no. Sure I listen to my favorite liberals, and I occasionally catch myself repeating what they say without checking it out first. But most of the time, if I want a new "fact" to enter my mental library, I go and check it out with as unbiased a source as I can find. If it's about something Bush said, I look at the White House page. If it's about world news, I try to corroborate it with several unrelated sources. If it's about science, I look for peer-reviewed material, or at least direct references to peer-reviewed material. And whether the answer is what I want it to be or not, I accept the results of my best research efforts.

Al Franken likes to tell an anecdote about himself and Rush Limbaugh. He repeats it a lot, so if you listen to his show then you've almost certainly heard it. In case you haven't, I'm sure he wouldn't mind if I repeat it one more time. From an interview:
A few months ago, Rush was talking about the minimum wage. Conservatives like to portray it that no one has to raise a family on the minimum wage, the only people who get the minimum wage are teenagers who want to buy an i-Pod. So Rush says, "75 percent of all Americans on the minimum wage, my friends, are teenagers on their first job." And one of the researchers brings this to me, with a smile, and I say, "Well, can you look it up?" And they look it up, the researcher goes to something called the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 60.1 percent of Americans on minimum wage are twenty and above. 39.9 percent, then, are either teenagers or below twelve (laughs). I had several jobs as a teenager, so you figure, what, 13 percent might be teenagers in their first job. Not 75 percent. So where did Rush get his statistic? Well, he got it directly from his butt. It went out his butt, into his mouth, out the microphone, into the air, into the brains of dittoheads. And they believe this stuff.

So we get our labor statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He gets his from the Bureau of Rush's Butt. And that's the difference. We don't do that. That's one of the main differences.
That is a big difference in my book. It's not that I think Al Franken does flawless research; he's wrong sometimes. But the point is that he actually CARES whether his information is correct or not, he is willing to go to a credible source and not just use rhetoric. That very attitude sets him miles apart from Limbaugh.

Even so, I'm not sure that it is correct to say that Limbaugh is "lying" when he says something like "75 percent of all Americans on the minimum wage are teenagers on their first job." That is because in order to really be lying, you have to actually know whether what you're saying is true or not. If you don't know, then you're just mistaken.

I heard an anecdote -- almost certainly not true -- about an asylum inmate who was hooked up to a lie detector. He was then asked, "Are you Napoleon?" The inmate answered "No." The machine indicated that he was lying.

You can be right and still be lying, if you don't think that you are right. And you can be wrong without lying.

In that spirit, I don't know for sure that Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and Hannity ever lie. I think it is far more likely that they just don't care whether they say things that are true or not. There is a difference. They care whether they say things that agree with the construct they've made of the world, but they don't see a difference between lies and non-lies. That's why they tell you that the media is biased, that polls don't matter, that scientists all have a nefarious agenda, etc, etc. They want to rule out the possibility that anything could contradict them and still be accurate.

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