The Fayette Citizen-Opinion Page

Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Don't believe, or pass on, all you read


This is a column about intellectual honesty.

My opinions generally run to the conservative, and I hate dishonesty in politics and, even more, the response one often hears when someone's favorite politician is caught in dishonesty: "Oh yeah? Well what about Iran/Contra?"

And clearly I'm happier when a liberal politician is caught with his or her hand in the cookie jar than when it happens to be a conservative.

But intellectual honesty compels me to condemn it in either case.

Just for the record, when Iran/Contra did happen, in spite of the fact that I completely agreed with what Col. North and his band of merry men were doing in the White House basement, I condemned it because they were doing it illegally.

Congress had specifically ordered them not to do it, and no matter how strongly one might feel that Congress was wrong, when military and intelligence people start sneaking around and doing things contrary to what the civilian government has ordered, we're just a hop and a skip away from a military coup.

I also loudly denounced the actions of a congressman from these here parts, Republican Pat Swindell, when he got caught doing some shady things back in the '80s. I liked the guy, agreed with him politically. But he had to go.

I could give several more examples, but that's not where I'm going with this.

Where I'm going is to the Internet.

What a wonderful tool it is with its instant links to expert knowledge on any topic you can think of, not to mention its helpful sites for communication and education of people involved in literally thousands of special interests and pursuits.

But it is also a very efficient tool for the rapid dissemination of completely false information, especially political charges, countercharges and "facts" to support various arguments.

Any of you out there who have access to the Internet know what I'm talking about... all those e-mails that get forwarded all over the place. You usually get the more popular ones two or three times at least.

Take this as a general rule, folks: If you haven't verified it, it isn't true.

The best known legend about Al Gore this go-round was the story about him allegedly trading his vote on the Gulf War to whichever party would give him the most air time to talk about it.

I never was able to verify whether this one was true or not, but I'm guessing not. It was attributed to Sen. Alan Simpson, supposedly in a column written Sept. 3 for the "Denver Rocky News." I searched for such a publication and found only the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.

So I searched for the alleged column without success. I e-mailed the paper and asked for verification, with no answer. They did, however, use my email as a letter to the editor, which I learned about when a reader e-mailed me to ask what I had found out. Weird.

I really enjoyed one recent message that was circulated extremely widely, at least among conservatives. It gave several interesting "facts" supposedly compiled by statisticians and political scientists about the counties across the nation that voted for George Bush and the ones that voted for Al Gore in the recent election.

Supposedly, the people in the counties for Bush had more education, more income, ad infinitum, than the counties for Gore.

I didn't have time to check them all out, but I was curious about one item in particular... the contention that the murder rate in the Gore counties was about a billion times higher than in the Bush counties.

This was attributed to a Professor Joseph Olson at the Hamline University School of Law. I never heard of such a university, but went online and found it. And Prof. Olson does exist.

"Now I'm getting somewhere," I thought.

But in response to my e-mail, Olson said the "research" was attributed to him erroneously. He said it came from a Sheriff Jay Printz in Montana. I e-mailed Sheriff Printz, and guess what? He didn't do the research either, and didn't remember who had e-mailed it to him.

In other words, he got the same legend e-mailed to him and passed it on to Olson without checking it out, and when Olson passed it on, someone thought it sounded better if a law professor had done the research, and so it grew.

Who knows where it originally came from, but it's just not true.

All of which leads me to a very simple plea. Conservatives, libertarians and Republicans, it doesn't help the cause when we use false information to support an otherwise logical argument. It hurts it.

Don't pass this stuff along unless it comes from a verifiable source.

Oh, and by the way, Hamline University houses George Bush Sr.'s presidential library. And that's a fact.

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