Seeing What Others Do Not Part One

 Continuing each Monday an excerpt from my 2001 book:


Be Skeptical


As we consume information, we first need to cultivate a healthy skepticism. Don’t trust or believe something just because you read it in a book, saw it on television, or heard it from an expert who tosses out statistics. Take a few seconds to compare what you hear with what you know. When it comes to data, official statements, assertions, and opinions, it’s hard to beat that old Missouri slogan, “Show me.”
Don’t confuse skepticism with cynicism. I have friends who believe that everything that comes from the major networks is filled with liberal bias, and other friends who think the media is full of “corporate bias.” None of these people are likely to gain a deep understanding of the world around them. If you suspect hidden agendas and dark motives in everything you hear, you’re probably assuming way too much about our information providers.
In my experience, most of the bad information we get comes from people who are inexperienced, who are “innumerate”—that is, illiterate when it comes to numbers—or are just poor observers.

Looking Behind the Headlines

Although I believe our free American press is one of our country’s greatest assets — in fact, one of the world’s greatest assets — it has one inherent problem as a source of ideas and information. Journalists are normally focused on news, and news is often not very important.
A central truth in the life of a news editor is something called the “news hole.” There are so many pages of newsprint that have to be filled with news each day, so many minutes of radio time, so many hours of television time. No matter what happens in the world, the news hole must be filled. If nothing of note happens, the newspapers and airwaves still have to be filled.
If you watch CNN Headline News (one of my favorite sources of leads for information), you know that it used to place state headlines at the bottom of the screen, rotating through all fifty states. I’m confident that the CNN editors were working hard to pick the most important stories. But on some days, nothing much happens. Consider these headlines, all taken from CNN on the same day (February 21, 2000):
  • Ohio: Springfield auto dealer uses cannon to deal with pesky crow problem
  • Illinois: Proposed Hooters restaurant stirs controversy at Peoria Waterfront
  • Tennessee: State equine population third in nation, after Texas and California
  • Texas: New video cameras installed in 214 cruisers used by Lubbock police
  • Indiana: Evansville to get Doppler radar two years early
  • Alabama: Birmingham man’s unwanted coffin is Goodwill’s strangest donation
Even when the headlines really are important, like “Vicente Fox wins Mexican presidential election,” the big news is often not what follows the page one headline but the story that ran a year earlier, probably buried on page fifteen: “Former Coke executive makes bid for Mexican presidency.” The people who write the news, who live by the daily headlines, naturally tend to focus on the most recent event, when the real story includes events that happened at many times and in many places. It’s often left up to us to piece it together.
When headlines reading “Greyhound declares bankruptcy” appeared some years ago, the real story occurred several years before: “Congress deregulates airlines.” When Boeing took over arch-competitor McDonnell Douglas in the 1990s, much of the real story dated from forty years earlier, when Boeing got its 707 passenger jet into service a year before Douglas launched the DC-8.
Recently, an Indian airliner leaving Nepal was hijacked and the passengers were put through a terrible ordeal on the ground in Afghanistan. Updates about the crisis were broadcast frequently, especially on the all-news channels. Hours were devoted to this story, mainly telephoto lens shots of the airliner sitting on the tarmac. But as a frequent traveler, I had one question: How did armed men board a commercial airline flight in a capital city airport (Kathmandu, Nepal)? I never saw one reporter assigned to answer this question. What happened at the boarding airport? What was being done to make sure it did not happen again? The real story went unreported.
Why is some information so hard to find in this age of superabundant information? It’s not conspiracy, it’s just another reflection of our tendency to follow others blindly, to march en masse down well-traveled streets. Book publishers do it, moviemakers do it, network executives do it. We all do it, unless we make a determined effort not to.
Fads are another reflection of the human tendency to get into ruts. I recently visited a bookstore in search of a good book on the history of Italy. But when I looked, there were very few books on Italian history. I could not help noticing that right next to Italy, under “I,” were maybe ten books on Irish history, two of them hot bestsellers. Ireland is a fascinating country with wonderful people and strong cultural links with America — but so is Italy, and Italy has a lot more history to write about. I guess this was not the year to be interested in Italian history.
Perhaps we need our skepticism most when we read pessimistic stories. It’s natural to take things that go right for granted. No one remarks over the dinner table or at the office water cooler, “Isn’t it great that the occurrence of home fires in the U.S. has dropped significantly in recent years?” even though this is true. We’re a nation of problem-solvers, so we go looking for trouble.
At the extreme, it has become an intellectual vogue to believe that things are bad and are getting worse. Arthur Herman has written a fascinating book, The Idea of Decline in Western History, which tells the intellectual and philosophical history of the doomsayers. Fortunately, the doomsayers have rarely been right, and are not likely to be so in the future. They habitually underestimate the adaptability, intelligence, and power of people to make their world better — particularly people working together in voluntary enterprise to realize shared goals.
I don’t mean to upset my journalist friends. I would rather have too many news sources filling too many news holes than depend on a single state-operated information source, as the Communist world had to do for most of the twentieth century. But in a society inundated with significant and not-so-significant information, every thinking person needs to ask:
  • Is this headline the right headline? Is it really the big story?
  • What prior headlines led to this one?
  • Are the numbers in this story correct? Do they make sense? Are they the ones we need to be looking at?
  • How does this story relate to other things I know?
  • Does this journalist’s interpretation agree with, contradict, or add to my perspective on this subject?
  • How much of this story is spin, opinion, or conjecture, and how much is hard fact?
We cannot delegate our responsibility to understand, even to the finest and most accurate of journalists, interpreters, and commentators, or even to the greatest of experts.