Staying Informed in a Polarized World

The Daily Libertarian is a political blog.  There is no way around that.  This blog exists to forward libertarian values, and since I believe in those values, I make no apologies for that fact.  At the same time, there is an old saying that though we are all entitled to our own opinions, none of us are entitled to our own set of facts, and yet we live in a time when each side in a debate does claim to have its own facts – ‘facts’ which often directly contradict one another.  Opinions based on ‘facts’ that are not true are dangerous, so it is important that all people know how to sift through garbage to sort out the truth.  This post covers how to do that, in a non-partisan manner.

The first thing one has to do to separate truth from falsehoods is to read news articles.  Headlines are often misleading, so and it is not safe to assume that an article supports the headline it was given.  The same is true for fact-checking sites, such as Politifact and Snopes:  often the details listed contradict the summary.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen Snopes, or Politifact call something a lie, and then in the detailed description of how it is a lie, show that it is true.  Headlines mean nothing – you have to read the full article.

Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, and other mainstream news sources generally print factual information, but they often omit as many facts as they tell, and by carefully selecting which facts to tell, and which facts to omit, it is easy to present a false perspective supporting the wrong conclusion.  News articles also often use words like, ‘could,’ or ‘might,’ to present something as probable that in reality has no chance of occurring.  News sources also often present what I call ‘baseball statistics,’ which are statistics that are so specific as to be meaningless – like the baseball announcer who says, “this batter is hitting .450 against left handed hitters, named Lou, on Fridays, when the sun as at his back.”  When you hear a statistic like this one, it is likely that the same hitter is hitting .090 overall.

The solution to all three of these problems is to read a wide variety of sources, covering every part of the political spectrum.  A liberal who does not read Fox News has no more idea what is going on in the world around them than does a conservative who only reads Fox News.  Since different news sources with different slants present different facts, the only way to get all of the facts is to read all of the major news sources.  I read the following news sources every day:  Fox News, CNN, ABC, the BBC, USA Today, the Detroit Free Press, CNBC, the New York Times, Politico, the Washington Post, and MSNBC.  I may read articles from a dozen or so other sources that I see posted to Facebook (and increasingly, Twitter).  I believe all of them, and none of them.  I believe that what each posts is factual, and I expect all of them to word their articles with a slant, and to only present that factual information that supports their slant.  Most people only read that news that agrees with them, and as such, though they have opinions, they do not have informed opinions.  Only by looking at all of the facts, on all sides of each issue, can someone truly form an informed opinion, and the best way to try and find all the facts is to read as many sources, covering as many slants,as possible. 

News sources are increasingly printing false information only to later retract it.  The false information is usually on page one, and the retraction is usually buried where nobody sees it except those who are looking for retractions.  Luckily, there are sites like that specialize in printing retractions, making them easy to find.  It should go without saying that once a retraction is made, the information in the original article should no longer be considered valid.  Use sites like to look for retractions of information you may have previously read.

The line between  ‘news’ and ‘opinion’ blurs.  I don’t watch news on TV anymore.  I read it – mostly from websites.  Written articles clearly specify opinion pieces.  Really, news articles are largely opinion-based too (for the reasons listed above), but it still helps to know when someone is pretending to deliver news, and when they are purely giving opinion.  Similarly, never quote anyone who openly claims that their job is to entertain rather than to inform.  That means comedians like Jon Stewart are not legitimate sources, and nor are personalities like Rush Limbaugh, who openly admit that they put entertaining their audiences first.

Anytime you start to form an opinion on an issue, try to change sides.  Study the opposing position until you can defend it just as well as do most of those who believe the opposing position.  Unless you understand both sides of an issue well enough to articulate and defend both sides, you really don’t have a strong enough base of knowledge to have any opinion at all.

Debate, constantly.  Defend what you believe against those who believe other things, but don’t debate just to win.  Debate to test.  Don’t think that if someone else makes a point you can’t refute, you have to accept their position either.  If you run into something that makes your position impossible to defend, question your position, of course – but it is entirely possible you can account for the new information by modifying your position rather than throwing it out entirely.  We must never be afraid to modify our beliefs as we learn new things, and we must never be afraid to test our opinions through debate.  Some people get angry when they debate, but that’s silly.  In an open exchange of ideas, the best ideas tend to find their way to the top.  It is only when ideas are suppressed and the market place of ideas is no longer free that bad ideas flourish.  Incidentally, when you see people trying to suppress speech, it seldom means they disagree with the speech in question; it usually means they are afraid of the speech in question and that shutting it down is the best defense they have against whatever it is that would otherwise be said.  There are two reasons people fear speech.  The obvious reason is that on some level they know they are wrong, and fear that free speech will expose them.  The other, less obvious reason, is that someone might want to say something abhorrent that is surprisingly similar to what another group says all the time, and shutting down the abhorrent speech prevents people from seeing that those shutting down speech say abhorrent things as well.

Beware of phrases designed to end or ridicule debate.  If someone says something is ‘anti-science,’ take the ‘anti-science’ claim with a grain of salt.  Likely the side claiming the other is ‘anti-science’ is misrepresenting science, and ridiculing the other side to discourage people from exploring it.  Generally speaking, sweeping statements like ‘anti-science,’ or ‘the debate is over,’ are used to defend weak positions by keeping stronger positions from being heard.

Look out for logical fallacies.  Appeals to authority, straw-man arguments, the fallacy of association, and other logical fallacies are common.  Learn to recognize them, and don’t fall for them when you see them.  Question people who use logical fallacies.  Sometimes people make logical fallacies purely by mistake, but other times people use logical fallacies to distract others from a weak position.

Dig into statistics when you see them.  What is actually shown, and what does it prove?  Often, someone will use a real statistic to make a point, but the statistic used fails to take other mitigating factors into account.  People also often use statistics to try and prove that one thing causes another, when in reality, correlation does not imply causation.  Be wary of causal claims unless they are supported by more than a mere correlation.

We all have opinions.  We all write about our opinions.  We all get into spirited debates regarding our opinions.  The best opinions are based on facts, and facts are only helpful when they are honest and complete.  Following the simple steps in this post will help the reader sift through all of the available information out there such that they can piece together all of the facts, and form better opinions.