Facts, opinions

Fri, 01/20/2017 - 11:45am

While watching Saturday Night Live many years ago — in the infancy of the show — I saw a skit with Chevy Chase and Jane Curtin. It was a parody of a life insurance commercial. As I watched the skit, it looked like a real advertisement. The narrator of the piece spoke in a smooth reassuring voice. It involved a dad coming home from work to a smiling wife and kid — maybe a dog, too.

The soothing and concerned tone of the dramatic voiceover explained that the company would replace the father if he died — with a new dad. Then the dad, played by Chevy Chase, disappeared from the scene. In came the replacement dad, Bill Murray, who sat on the couch and kissed the mom, Jane Curtin rather, ahem, aggressively. The last line of the skit was “We’re tops in pops!” It was the first time I’d watched the show, and for a moment I was snookered into believing that the commercial was legit. This was a reminder on how easy it is to get hustled, scammed, or played.

The foundation of logic and the ability to think critically is to understand the difference between a fact and an opinion. Factual statements can be proven true or false for their validity. Statements of opinion cannot. For example, “It’s 80 degrees outside today,” is a factual statement. We have ways to prove or disprove this—an outdoor thermometer will do the trick. “It’s a nice, hot day today,” is an opinion. There is no possible way this can be measured and validated with empirical evidence — nice is not measurable. This is the bedrock of all arguments. Moreover, it is the way to seek and destroy fallacies of logic. It’s the basis of all critical thinking. We can be objective if we look at things from this point of view. Facts objectify the world; opinions subjectify the world — simple stuff.

The same way I got snookered all those years ago, I also got somewhat deceived while surfing the web during the last six months while reading an overabundance of what appeared to be viable news. “Fake news” is a new buzzword for the digital world, where we consume scads of information: ads, minutiae, and misrepresented facts. Who are we to believe while sifting through all of the information being spun on the web? Are the sources respectable or genuine? We need to know this in order to make informed decisions.

In the ’70s, while in college, the main go-to sources for good information were the following; The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Washington Post. In addition to those print sources, there were the major network news programs. Of course, all of the aforementioned were biased; however, we could clearly tell the difference from The Enquirer, and the The York Times. Those were simpler times. If we read Newsweek, or Time, there was a good chance we were getting good information.

There are certain cues that reveal faulty reasoning and erroneous information — this is nothing new. Mark Twain said, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.” We must remember that the news is a money-making business, and can be slanted and biased. Revenue can be found in all forms of the mass media, so it’s a stacked deck if we don’t ask certain questions regarding what we’re being sold. Oversimplication is a way to mislead people while selling something.

An example of this is when someone will say, “We can do this. We went to the moon, didn’t we?” Yeah, we went to the moon, but do we know how much it cost? Another way to convince folks to see things your way is to have a celebrity endorse a product. In the early ’80s, the Pittsburg Steelers’ “Mean” Joe Greene was paid $1.5 million for a Coke commercial; it must be good sugar water if Joe Greene says so, right? (Mean Joe had to drink 16 Cokes for the advertisement — he kept belching.) Moreover, product placement and logos along with slanted slogans sell scores of products. Caveat emptor.  

One clear example of objectivity in the media is Consumer Reports. This magazine is a non-profit and advertises nothing; therefore, we get just the facts for whatever product we’re looking to buy. This gang of folks from Yonkers, New York will put cars, hair conditioner, flat screen televisions, iPhones, computers, and washing machines through the wringer so the consumer won’t get hustled. There is no slanted language in the text of each product — they use a dot system to show value. (Google this.) With automobiles, they use a simple compare/contrast model so we can objectify the vehicle. It’s a bargaining chip of tested factual outcomes for us to use when we buy that shiny new car. We need more information than the word nice — new cars are all nice — when we purchase a complex machine.

At the ferry dock, facts and figures abound. Wind velocity and direction are very important weather facts to explore — especially during the wintertime. If the weather experts are suggesting big numbers, then the captains and mates need to pay close attention. Recently, Capt. Don Rooney said to Mate Colin Waitkun, “If anyone asks, as of now we’re running all three trips, but that could change because the wind and sea can jack up later.” I said to Colin, “See, what Capt. Don just said was that facts don’t happen in the future, facts only happen in the past, and we haven’t even gotten to the next trip.” Capt. Don nodded, “Correct, Joey.” 

In our “Digital Age,” we must remain vigilant and believe that there is nothing wrong with healthy skepticism. We must seek objectivity to inform good decision making. By the way, I heard the air temperature will be a nice 55 degrees for the next three days. Just sayin.’