Facts Falling Behind

“A true Poem is the Daily Newspaper” – Walt Whitman,

With those words the poet captured the American realism movement, an embrace of facts over fiction. The movement faded around 1910, but a century later we face its anti-thesis, a general rejection of fact.

It struck me when my longtime mentor asked me about a phenomenon he’d observed in recent years: candidates for the Rhodes, Mitchell, Fulbright and other such prestigious scholarships remain ignorant of the most basic facts about the programs they apply to, such as amount of funding or even the subject of study. They don’t bother to obtain this simple, easily accessible yet crucial information.

This phenomenon is not only anecdotal. As the country clashes over the hovering debt ceiling, the fact is that 45% of Americans admit that they don’t understand the issue, according to the Pew Research Center;  but 75% of Americans claim that the debt “is a major problem the country must address now”. This means that at least 20% of Americans, say 60 million people, are knowingly sticking their heads in the sand!

I see it as a symptom of our modern information surplus. For nearly a decade now, those about my age and younger are trained not to retain facts, but to filter through them. This inevitably leads to cherry-picking convenient facts over inconvenient ones. Though students and scholars have always done this, what’s scary is that we’re less and less likely to be held accountable. Websites like www.turnitin.com check for plagiarism, but they can’t control which facts are used and which are left out. Teachers try, but pressed for time they often settle for a citation from a credible sounding source.

As a result, we have increasingly come to accept simple assertions as a premise for decision-making and action. We must, for to hesitate long-enough to double check may mean a lost opportunity, or an unstopped catastrophy. A 90% chance is considered statistically acceptable, but that still means we’re wrong one in ten times. Is our world just moving too fast for us to know anything with certainty?

In the race between the data torrent and its filter, we data-miners may have a new ally. Fact checking software, though still in its infancy, uses powerful logarithms to instantly test the credibility of online assertions. The next generation might even propose differing interpretations and their sources, allowing instant arbitration.

The question remains: do we care enough to check, or has the habit of guesstimation based on incomplete information ingrained itself in our psyche?

Erwin Knippenberg

The Barefoot Economist

PS: I welcome anyone who wants to test the factual premises of my argument or offer countervailing sources.


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