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 “School aid reductions won’t harm students,” a recent op-ed from New York’s lieutenant governor, Robert Duffy. Discussing a state school system that he calls “large, expensive and underperforming,” 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?
Let’s unpack the sentence a bit. A strict reading doesn’t make sense, if you think about it. No school system contains adults with high school diplomas—not as students, anyway. Students in high schools are teenagers, generally, and they don’t have high school diplomas because they’re there to earn high school diplomas.
Now that’s clearly not what Duffy means. But what exactly does he mean? Perhaps he’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 itself—not the school system—ranks 34th in the percentage of adults with high school diplomas. Now we’re on shaky ground, because all kinds of factors might influence that statistic. Does New York’s large population of immigrants skew the ranking? Do the data count immigrants’ diplomas, if earned in another country, as “high school diplomas”? The answers to these questions might help us understand whether the “34” statistic really proves Duffy’s point.
OK, maybe I’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. There’s nothing wrong with that when it’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 today’s world, with reams of information cascading toward us every minute. 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 off—something that sets off your truth antennae?
Have you already run across things that fit into that “something off” category? Feel free to share them here.