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‘Facts’ not always truth

Posted: October 20, 2011 10:45 a.m.
Updated: October 21, 2011 5:00 a.m.

There’s a funny thing about facts nowadays: everyone has their own. 

It seems as if more and more people willingly tout completely fabricated statistics -- or erroneous rumors, for that matter -- as facts in order to support their arguments.

Take, for instance, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl. 

Six months ago, Kyl declared -- on the Senate floor in front of C-Span cameras, no less -- that abortions are “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.”

His source?

Honestly, I have absolutely no idea. As it turns out, Planned Parenthood said abortion services only represent 3 percent of total services.

“His remark was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, an organization that receives millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, does subsidize abortions,” his office said in a statement to CNN. 

Last month, presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann suggested the HPV vaccine posed a danger to young girls.

Her source?

A woman she met outside the Tampa GOP debate who said her daughter suffered mental retardation after receiving the HPV vaccine.

Even after the American Academy of Pediatrics said the claim that the HPV vaccine can cause retardation has “absolutely no scientific validity,” Bachmann still didn’t skip a beat.

"I didn't make any statements that would indicate that I'm a doctor, I'm a scientist or that I'm making any conclusions about the drug one way or another," she said in a NBC interview.

And don’t even get me started on Sarah Palin, Joe Biden or the scores of other Republican and Democrat politicians who have made a habit of defending their erroneous facts.

Ah, those pesky little facts. We love them when they actually back up what we believe, and yet dismiss, spin or ignore them when they don’t line up with our arguments.

But as Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts said during a recent book signing in Columbia, everyone is entitled to their opinions, but not their own facts.

“We admit no ideas that do not confirm us, hear no voices that do not echo us, sift out all information that does not validate what we wish to believe,” he said in a 2010 column.

It’s a practice -- this whole disguising-speculation-and-opinions-as-facts thing -- that has always annoyed me. 

But I never really thought it could cause much harm. After all, who in the world would listen to speculation and seriously believe that it was true?

Tens of thousands of people across the nation, I’ve learned recently.

Including a young student I met several weeks ago, who could not accept the not-so-great grade she got on a history test. 

“But everything can be interpreted differently,” she said. “Give me a minute and I bet I can find something online to back me up.”

Is that what we’re teaching to kids? That facts that do not support your claims can be manipulated or ignored, in favor of information that lines up better with what we believe? 

Let me be clear -- rants on online blogs, while they may support your beliefs and opinions, do not count as facts. 

Entries on Wikipedia, while informative and great for background knowledge, are updated by the public and do not count as facts. (Don’t believe me, ask any high school kid who has tried to list Wikipedia as a source on an English paper.)

What someone said on the street corner, no matter how passionately, does not count as a fact.

For years, Pitts has rallied against the growing number of Americans who seem to not only spout incorrect “facts” on a whim, but also defend those “facts” when confronted with evidence that they are wrong. 

I agree with him whole-heartedly.

And with the 2012 elections looming in the future, I’d venture to say that we’ll be subjected with enough fact-twisting, erroneous statements to last us another four years. 

What we need is less speculation to support our claims and more actual tangible facts.

The sooner we realize that, the better example we can start setting for the kids who look up to us.

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