by Jay Johansen | Oct 30, 2004
Every now and then I hear a claim of "fact" made in some discussion that strikes me as so unlikely that I find myself thinking that the person making the argument would have been more convincing if he had used some less extraordinary claim.
Let me give a couple of examples that I've come across over the years.
Disclaimer: Perhaps I should make clear that my point in this article is not to discuss the issues raised, but rather the arguments given for them. It is certainly possible to give a weak argument for a good idea.
Disclaimer #2: I make no claim that this is a scholarly article. I haven't done extensive research to back it up. This is just chatting, okay? If I have some fact wrong I'm happy to hear about it so I can correct it, but please don't blast me for not having footnotes.
You may recall that a few years ago a series of laws were passed across the country putting pretty sharp restrictions on smoking in most stores and offices, when not banning it altogether.
I heard a story on National Public Radio that began with a sound byte from a representative of some smokers' organization in which he protested that these rules were unfair to smokers. He said that lots of smokers all over the country were very unhappy about these rules. According to the reporter, he asked this gentleman for some examples of these unhappy smokers. The organization gave him some names. The reporter contacted these people and they all said that in fact they were satisfied with the rules. So he went back to the organization, who then referred him to another pro-smoker organization that could give him some "real horror stories". They gave him some names and places, but when the reporter contacted these people, they all said they were perfectly happy too. So they went back to the second organization, which referred them to a third organization. The third organization said they didn't know of any unhappy smokers. So, the reporter concluded, talk about all these upset smokers was just a bunch of propaganda from the tobacco lobby.
And I concluded, You have got to be kidding. You are seriously telling me that you could not find one smoker, anywhere in the entire United States, who was unhappy about rules requiring him to go outside to smoke, in broiling heat or soaking rain or freezing blizzards? Every single smoker in the country is perfectly happy with that?
If this reporter had argued that the inconvenience to smokers was outweighed by the health benefits to non-smokers, I might have found his argument convincing. If he had even argued that, sure, lots of smokers were unhappy, but they accepted that this was the way society was going, or they were just going to need some time to get used to it, I might have found it convincing. But to claim that he had diligently scoured the country and couldn't find a single unhappy smoker ... Well, I personally knew several smokers who were obviously pretty annoyed about it all. I am not a smoker, but I can easily imagine how I would react if I was told that there were new rules that said that anytime I wanted a candy bar or a cup of coffee that I would have to go outside for it, regardless of the weather.
The claim was so unlikely that I concluded that the only possible explanation was that the reporter was deliberately slanting the story to get the result he wanted. At best he followed a couple of leads and when they didn't pan out he prematurely declared that the matter was solved. At worst he was flat lying.
At an "urban legends" web site I came across a story about a frightening new crime wave: The criminals were supposedly hanging out at gas stations at night. When someone -- usually a woman -- went inside to pay for the gas, the thug would quickly slip into the back of the car and hide there. (This probably assumes that the driver left the car unlocked while she went in to pay, but surely people do that often enough.) Then the woman would get back in the car and drive away, not knowing that this guy is in the seat behind her. When she gets to some isolated spot, he leaps up and attacks her.
The web site claimed that this story was false. In fact, they said, no such crime has ever been reported.
Not ever? I found this hard to believe. Surely the idea of slipping into the back of someone's car and hiding there until they drove to some isolated spot is a very obvious plan. People have committed some pretty bizarre crimes. Surely you would think that someone would have tried it somewhere along the line. Could it really possibly be true that in the entire United States, in the hundred-plus years since the automobile has been invented, never once did anyone even attempt a crime like this? It's possible, I suppose, but when you make a claim that unlikely, you should be prepared to offer serious evidence to back it up.
Which brings me to a related rebuttal I have to many claims of fact: How do you know? In this example, how does the "debunker" know that no such crime had ever been reported? I know that the FBI keeps all sorts of statistics on crime, but do they go to that level of detail? I mean, they produce reports saying that last year there were so many robberies, so many murders, so many assaults, and so on. They collect this information from police departments. But do they really have a place on the form where they say "check here if the criminal snuck into the back of the car while the victim was parked at a gas station and then waited until said victim had driven to an isolated area whereupon the criminal jumpeed up and attacked"? And that in the entire history of collecting these statistics no one has ever checked that box? If so, does the FBI fill their surveys with questions about other hypothetical crimes that never happen? Why would they bother? Or perhaps the debunker called every police department in the country and asked if they had any such crimes on file. But that would surely be a lot of phone calls. And then the person at the other end would have to search every file the department had to make sure that no such crime had ever been reported. After all, the person answering the phone surely doesn't know off the top of his or her head every crime that has ever happened in their jurisdiction, including the ones that occurred before that person joined the police force.
If the debunker had simply said that there is no wave of such crimes, I'm sure I would have taken his word for it. He could give good evidence of that by calling a few big city police departments and asking if this was a major problem. If there were really dozens or hundreds of such crimes a year, it would be reasonable to expect that that would be something in the front of the minds of the members of the police department. "Hundreds of crimes like this every year" is quite a different thing from "once twenty years ago". Or they could do a search of newspaper articles. Again, if there are hundreds of such crimes a year, it is not unreasonable to suppose that this should make it to the newspapers. One in the last twenty years ... maybe there was some other big story that day and it didn't make the paper.
I was watching a panel show on one of the educational channels where they discussed media coverage of politics. One of the panelists mentioned charges that the media are biased. At which point another panelist, who was described as a reporter for CBS News (I'm afraid I didn't catch his name and I didn't recognize him -- no, it wasn't Dan Rather) said that such claims were ridiculous. There is no conspiracy to slant the news, he said. No one has ever told him what stories to cover or how to cover them. He concluded by saying that if they ever did, he would promptly resign in protest.
Now, I admit that I don't know much about the news business. But is it really true that a reporter's boss does not give him any direction about what stories to cover or how to cover them? If I went out tomorrow and got a job as a junior reporter for CBS News, is it really true that I could then just go out and do whatever stories I felt like doing and they would put them on the air? I could tell the editor that I wanted to spend the next six months in the Bahamas doing a series of stories on the vital role played by shoelace manufacturers to their economy, and he would promptly hand me a check to cover the plane fare and hotel bills? Okay, maybe that example is just silly, but let's take one that surely happens all the time: Suppose there is some big news event -- a war, a presidential election, some juicy scandal -- and many reporters in the office want to cover it. Surely there is someone who decides which reporter covers the big, dramatic story, and who does the story on 3rd Street being closed for repairs.
And how to cover it? Suppose a reporter for People Magazine assigned to do a story on celebrity extramarital affairs came back with an article filled with statistics and quotes from sociologists on the history of wedding customs. Would the editor print that, or would he tell the reporter that that isn't the type of story this magazine publishes? You could say similar things about the style that any publication expects of its writers.
If a reporter said that at his news organization, the management makes serious efforts to be scrupulously fair and to try to separate their personal political or social beliefs from their editorial decisions, I might find that believable. But to say that management makes no editorial decisions at all, and reporters just cover whatever they feel like and write in any style they choose? Sorry, I just don't believe that.
When people make extreme, unlikely arguments like this, I wonder what they're thinking. Are they afraid that if they made a more moderate, reasonable argument, that that just wouldn't be strong enough? Maybe some people find this sort of argument convincing. I find that it makes me less likely to believe the speaker.
Of course, sometimes extreme, unbelievable statements are, in fact, true. As stories of Nazi and Japanese atrocities came out during World War II, many Americans found them unbelievable. They thought such wild stories were just propaganda put out by the U.S. government to stir up support for the war effort. But of course after the war when the concentration camps were liberated, the world could not deny that these stories were true.
So I don't dismiss a claim just because I find it unlikely. But the more extreme the claim, the more likely I am to insist on evidence. And the more unlikely the claim, the stronger the evidence will have to be. If someone tells me that there's a blue Neon in the parking lot, I'll probably just take his word for it. If he tells me that there's a fifty-foot pink limousine in the parking lot, I'd probably want to go to a window to see for myself. And if he tells me that a flying saucer from Alpha Centauri has just landed in the parking lot, even if I went outside and did indeed see a saucer there, I'd surely insist on additional evidence before believing it was really from another planet.
Frankly, I'm sure that people can and have fooled me by making claims that were completely false but sounded reasonable and plausible and I just took their word for it without demanding any proof. But when the claim becomes too extreme, I find it less convincing. I begin to suspect that the speaker is either a gullible fool to believe such a thing, or he is hoping that I am a gullible fool to believe such a thing.
© 2004 by Jay Johansen
Momo Jul 23, 2014
, that is not always a bad thing. When I was a boy, my fteahr owned two handguns, and it never occurred to me to pick one up. If I wanted to shoot, I asked my fteahr and we went shooting. But those guns were my fteahr's, they could hurt people, and they didn't belong to me. When I was very small they were out of reach, of course. When I was older, my fteahr taught me how to use them safely.We live in a very different society now. The only reason I suggest mandatory sentencing for crimes committed with firearms is that the stigma of committing crimes with firearms seems to be quite low nowadays. An ethical framework begins at home, but not very many parents seem concerned with that at present...though I am finding more and more parents who do care about more than their salary or the newest fancy car to drive. Some of the poorest parents (in terms of money) are among the best of parents (in terms of parenting), if you will excuse the world play.I could be wrong, of course. Most posters to websites don't admit to that kind of possibility, but I do. Yet the facts remain. It is certainly true that crimes committed using firearms have increased greatly in number. I am happy to hear other, better solutions."Bobh" makes a great point, and it illustrates why my Libertarian friends don't seem to respect me much. On the one hand, I think it is strange that we require testing and licensure for drivers---along with mandatory insurance in the several states in which I have lived---but not for firearms. On the other hand, there is no mention of automobiles in the Constitution. I am reminded of the old science-fiction story where the motto goes: "The right to buy find weapons is the right to be free."But we don't live in that world, sadly. I am willing to compromise a bit. To me, it all comes down to personal responsibility. If I carry a firearm, I am 100% responsible for it. But most governmental entities do not agree. So they try to institute controls. I am trying to find a compromise (according to Ambrose Bierce, that is defined by a solution which angers everyone).I don't mean to trivialize the firearm issue, but I do tend to see it in light of the automobile issue. It costs money to get "drivers' education," to take the test, and to get the license. Ditto the insurance required most places. Does that discriminate against the poor? How about older people who lose the ability to drive safely. Yup. But notice that most places have "workarounds" for that in many cases.But "Bobh" makes good points. Playing Devil's advocate, I would say that drivers' licensure is not the same as firearm licensure due to safety issues of the license holder, and their ability to protect themselves.Yet, as Larry Niven once wrote: freedom multiplied by security equals a constant. The more freedom, the less security. The more security, the less freedom.Again, just my thoughts and I appreciate the responses. "Eric Blair"