Checking sources on what you say and read
We have, of late, read several opinion pieces that make use of historical references. As with all opinion pieces, these they are pushing some particular agenda or view. This is why they are opinion pieces, not news.
We tend to look at supportive quotes that seem too good to be true, or too convenient, and try to find the original quote. Sometimes the quote is, in fact, real. All to often, however, we find that the quote is not real.
While there is no hard and fast rule as to what should be tested, things tend to get a little out of hand when people are trying to justify their positions in controversial issues. This means that even if a quote supports your personal point of view, it is probably a good idea to check the source and make sure that it is a real quote, and that it is a full quote, or at least a quote taken in context. Thus, for example, while it is in theory accurate to quote Winston Churchill as saying “democracy is the worst form of government,” the impression given is quite different from quoting the whole line, which says “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
More annoying than quotes taken out of context are fake quotes. We have seen quotes supportive of gun ownership attributed to George Washington that, even without checking sources, were simply not the sort of thing that Washington – or anyone else of that era – would have said using those words. We have, by the same token, read quotes attributed to Washington regarding his personal relationship with Christianity. These, too, don’t even need to be checked, as Washington assiduously sidestepped any such comments. We have seen quotes attributed to the Qur’an that were patently false, and as easy to check as are quotes from the Old or New Testament.
The bottom line is that many are willing to add quotes supporting their positions, and may well not bother to check the historicity of favorable quotes. You, on the other hand, have the option of checking anything you hear, and finding out whether what is said is reflective of any actual reality.
Along much the same lines, the Internet is filled with unverified information, and a huge amount of that information is simply wrong. When you get an e- mail telling you something that sounds odd, or read something on-line that sounds odd, check it out. Sites like http://hoaxbusters.org/, http://www.snopes.com/, and the Department of Energy’s http://hoaxbusters.ciac.org/ are good places to start.
Why do we care about the accuracy of what we read, particularly if it enforces our own beliefs? We care because we tend to make decisions based on the knowledge available to us, and a belief about the consequences of those actions. While this is, in fact, the best we can do, there are two very obvious problems.
The first is that sometimes our knowledge is wrong or incomplete, or, as noted above, based on patently false information, which means or decisions are likely to be bad ones.
The second is that the consequences of decisions that follow on bad information may not be what we expect, or that what we do seems reasonable, but, it retrospect will turn out not to have been so.
We though of this last point while reading a recent article on the cause of the drop in crime in New York City (and elsewhere) during the 1990s.
The Giuliani administration based certain policy and actions on James Q. Wilson’s theory – and Professor Wilson had emphasized that it was a theory – that if you stopped small problems the big ones would go away. Thus, if you repaired broken windows, and eliminated petty quality-of-life crimes, like windshield washers approaching your car at red lights, larger issues would disappear. This theory was the philosophical basis for the City’s emphasis on community policing.
This was in line with the commonly held view that the drop in crime was attributable to:
• The Strong Economy of the 1990s
• Changing Demographics
• Better Policing Strategies
• Gun control laws
• Laws Allowing the Carrying of Concealed Weapons
• Increased Use of Capital Punishment
This view has been challenged by Steven D. Levitt, the Alvin H. Baum Professor of Economics, University of Chicago, and Research Fellow, American Bar Foundation, both in Chicago, Illinois in a paper entitled Why
Crime Fell – Levitt posits that crime fell because of:
• Increases in the Number of Police
• The Rising Prison Population
• The Receding Crack Epidemic
• The Legalization of Abortion
Levitt’s position was discussed by columnist John Tierny in his opinion piece, The Miracle That Wasn’t, of 16 April 2004 in the New York Times. In recounting a debate between Levitt (author of Freakonomics) and Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point, Tierny notes that Mr. Gladwell, in presenting his rebuttal of Professor Levitt’s position, began by jokingly saying, “My first inclination is to say that everything you just heard from Steven Levitt, even though it contradicts things I have written, is true.”
We don’t know whether Professor Levitt’s view is, in fact, true. Indeed, we are not entirely sure what “true” means in social policy issues. As an example of our confusion, it is fairly clear that any investing strategy in a long-term bull market is a good one. But that doesn’t mean the strategy is, in and of itself, good. It is also clear that, if you sacrifice a virgin each year on the Winter solstice, the days will start getting longer again, as has always happened after such a sacrifice. But we are not convinced this is either causal or the best long-term use of a potentially-contributive pre-pubertal male.
The best we can do is try various approaches to dealing with problems, even looking at theories as uncomfortable as Levitt’s, and see if they really make a difference. If not, we should back out of what we were doing, and try something else. And if something seems to be working, we should still look at it from time to time to see if it really is working, or if the propter hoc is merely post hoc.