My Turn by Steve Blount: Facts vs. opinions
Sometimes when I climb up on my high horse and start pontificating, usually to ridicule as ill-informed some other pontificator’s point of view, my lovely wife will bring me back to earth with the comment, “In your opinion.” She is pointing out to me that while I may have 100 percent confidence in what I’m saying, my comments are usually based on just my opinion, well- or not so well-informed as the case may be. Her comment reminds me of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s saying, though: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
There is only one set of facts on a given subject. Understanding that facts can be cherry-picked to support one side or another of an argument and that statistical analysis of the raw facts can be twisted to make your side of a debate sound stronger than the other, the basic facts shouldn’t differ — but of course they can and do.
In the political arena both sides of debates seem to feel free to make outlandish statements, made so confidently though that upon hearing them many listeners just assume they are true. Newspapers respond to egregious comments found in guest editorials and letters-to-the editors with small disclaimers pointing out the real facts. For the most part, however, they go unchallenged and after being repeated often enough within a community of listeners become accepted as facts. This is a terrible tragedy, though it gets little attention.
Conservatives support the free market over most sorts of government intrusion but forget that one of the main tenants of a free market is a well informed consumer. How can we invest in stocks if a company is allowed to make untrue claims about profitability? How can we buy a car wisely if dealers can make unfounded claims about safety or fuel efficiency?
And how can we know which side of a public debate is correct if we can’t believe what our elected, appointed and self-selected leaders tell us? The concept of a well informed consumer extends to the free market of ideas and policies, too. Freely delivered and well publicized debate over issues is important not just to sway voters but to keep the public informed on both sides of an argument. Public debate, correctly reported in our media is often the only chance citizens have to educate themselves on a given issue. But with exaggerations, twisted logic, personal attacks, and outright lies being used in the course of these debates, how can we insure an informed decision will prevail?
One way to ensure fact-based decision- making is to elect good, smart people to make decisions for us — the cornerstone of our representative style of government. Most of the big issues in our nation, state and communities are decided by the people we elect to leadership positions. Making these big decisions well requires a willingness to study complex issues with an open mind, inviting input from a wide field of resources, gathering as much data as possible and then making decisions based on the facts, not personal agendas, personal opinion or even populist sentiment.
When we go to a doctor to treat an illness or a mechanic to fix our broken cars we want the best and most talented doctors and mechanics available making those important decisions. We don’t want brain surgeons deciding our fate based on our chosen religion. We don’t want our car repair to depend on the color of our skin. We also expect those experts to depend on their knowledge, their expertise and the information they have gathered and not make their decisions based solely on our uninformed personal opinions.
“Mr. Voter, you can’t smell the stink because you have a tumor that we can surgically remove to solve the problem.”
“Nah, I think it’s my nose. Let’s cut it off instead.”
“But Mr. Voter, that won’t solve the problem and it will spite your face!”
Maybe you wondered where that old saying came from.
The issues faced at all levels of government are complex and rarely as clearly defined as the political and personal ideologies used to select our elected officials. It is past time for us as citizens and voters to start demanding fact-based decision-making instead of opinion-based knee-jerking. The ballot box is the place to fix the problems of our nation, state and communities. It’s time for us voters to become the well informed consumers needed to select people that can lead us to a better tomorrow.
Steve Blount is a former member and chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
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