Dialogue, especially on social and political issues, benefits greatly from a clear (and agreed-upon) grasp of the facts. But ferreting out honest-to-goodness facts can be wickedly tricky. Allow me, in the spirit of making a point, to look at what may be an absurd example.
Our subject is an innocent-looking sentence in â€œSchool aid reductions wonâ€™t harm students,â€ a recent op-ed from New Yorkâ€™s lieutenant governor, Robert Duffy. Discussing a state school system that he calls â€œlarge, expensive and underperforming,â€ Duffy writes:
It is the most expensive system in the country and the 34th in the percentage of adults with high school diplomas, according to the Census Bureau.
Usually I read sentences like that without blinking an eye. Why did this one set my truth antennae to tingling?
Letâ€™s unpack the sentence a bit. A strict reading doesnâ€™t make sense, if you think about it. No school system contains adults with high school diplomasâ€”not as students, anyway. Students in high schools are teenagers, generally, and they donâ€™t have high school diplomas because theyâ€™re there to earn high school diplomas.
Now thatâ€™s clearly not what Duffy means. But what exactly does he mean? Perhaps heâ€™s referring to graduation or dropout rates, in which case his statement makes sense as legitimate evidence. But maybe he meant that New York State itselfâ€”not the school systemâ€”ranks 34th in the percentage of adults with high school diplomas. Now weâ€™re on shaky ground, because all kinds of factors might influence that statistic. Does New Yorkâ€™s large population of immigrants skew the ranking? Do the data count immigrantsâ€™ diplomas, if earned in another country, as â€œhigh school diplomasâ€? Â The answers to these questions might help us understand whether the â€œ34â€ statistic really proves Duffyâ€™s point.
OK, maybe Iâ€™m tilting at windmills here. But the point stands. People who debate an issue (as in op-ed pieces) naturally use statistics to bolster their case. Thereâ€™s nothing wrong with that when itâ€™s done in good faith, as Duffy (I believe) is doing here. Dialogue, however, is not debate. The spirit of dialogue, with its commitment to ferreting out the truth above making a case, demands that we weigh such statistics carefully, consider who is using them, and evaluate their relevance to the issue at hand.
This is extraordinarily hard work in todayâ€™s world, with reams of information cascading toward us every minute. Â Our 24/7 information cycle requires us to have finely tuned truth antennae, so we can pick out strange fact usage quickly. Try this exercise: Next time you read an article, watch a video, or scan a blog, and you run across something cited as fact, take five seconds to weigh it. Does it make sense? Is it self-evident? Or is something just a little bit offâ€”something that sets off your truth antennae?
Have you already run across things that fit into that â€œsomething offâ€ category? Feel free to share them here.