Monday, July 14, 2014

When Believing Is Seeing

July 14, 2014, 6:20 a.m.

Check It On Snopes

Note: For more on this subject see, "Snopes, Popes, and Presidents," December 26, 2014, and "Obama-Haters' Rhetoric and Media Responsibility," July 5, 2014.

When Believing Is Seeing

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 14, 2014, p. A5

Hitler’s Joseph Goebels is credited with the strategy that, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.” That’s deliberate lying.

More common is Mark Twain’s insight that, “It’s not what we don’t know that’s the problem, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” We’re not “lying.” We’re just repeating false information we assume is true because it’s consistent with our beliefs — something journalists are trained to guard against.

New York’s four-term U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan famously admonished, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

But what are we to do when it is our opinion that creates our facts?

“Seeing is believing?” Yes, sometimes. But the reverse is also true: “Believing is seeing.” We tend to see that which supports our belief.

In a Yale paper last year, “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” the authors report their research finding that even scientists, highly skilled in math, make more errors when the correct math answer leads to conclusions contrary to their political orientation.

The phenomenon occurs for what we love as well as what we hate. Fans of Pope Francis are likely to believe favorable, false stories about his good deeds, however implausible (e.g., he’s slipping out at night to visit Rome’s homeless). See, “Snopes, Popes and Presidents,”

Similarly, Obama haters are equally willing to believe almost any emailed negative assertion about our “Muslim, socialist, Kenyan, imperial” president — and send it on. is a wonderful online service for checking the truth of the “urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation” that circle the global Internet each day. So when the occasional Obama-haters’ email comes our way, we check it on, and kindly inform the senders if the email is untrue.

Recently came a whopper, widely circulated since January.

It was so obviously wrong on so many counts it would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been seriously libelous in its efforts to link the President — and Hillary Clinton, too, for good measure — to words allegedly authored by community organizer Saul Alinsky: “Eight steps required to create a socialist state.”

To paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s retort when Senator Dan Quayle compared himself to Jack Kennedy during their 1988 vice presidential candidate debate, “I knew Saul Alinsky. Saul Alinsky was a friend of mine. And believe me, Sir, Saul Alinsky never wrote those words.”

Nor could Barack Obama have received the mentoring from Alinsky the email hints at, since President Obama was only 10 years old when Alinksy died. In fact, during a conversation I once had with candidate Obama about community organizing, neither of us even mentioned Alinsky’s name.

The need to oppose, and demonstrate the evil in everything President Obama has ever read, thought, advocated or done can lead to bizarre results, one of which is the email’s effort to demonize community organizing as “socialism.” It not only reveals equal ignorance regarding both, but rejects what is actually just another description of democracy.

Community organizing is the study, design, and utilization of strategies by which neighborhoods, or other groups of individual citizens, can more effectively present their grievances and proposals to governments and other institutions. These are techniques millions have proudly used since our nation’s birth, including both the Tea Party and Occupy movements during this century.

What can we do?

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow simply tries to state the facts occasionally. Examples: “He really was born in Hawaii. And climate change is real. And rape really does cause pregnancy sometimes. And evolution is a thing. And no one is taking away anyone’s guns. And the moon landing was real. And regulations of the financial services industry are not the same thing as communism.”

You get the idea.

And for the rest of us? “Check it on Snopes or risk looking like dopes.”
Nicholas Johnson, Iowa City, maintains and the blog,

For more, in the form of related research on this subject, see, Amina Khan, “‘Liberal’ or ‘Conservative’? Brain’s ‘Disgust’ Reaction Holds the Answer,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 30, 2014 ("[F]indings, published in Current Biology, show that the brains of liberals and conservatives may indeed by wired differently — and shed light on the biological factors at play in political beliefs. . . . [M]any of the same subjects at issue in certain political ideologies – attitudes toward sex, family, education and personal autonomy, for example – have an emotional component as much as a logic-based one. And some research has indicated that political leanings can be inherited (much in the same way that height can inherited but modified, affected by a number of factors from nutrition to the environment).").

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Bravo, Nick! Just the antidote to administer to those who send me those wild rumors they believe factual. I suppose conspiracy theory is always more exciting than the truth of normalcy.