Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The benefit of doubting

When is the first time you recall hearing a politician tell a lie?

My first time was 1960 when World War II hero, President Dwight David Eisenhower flatly denied Russian claims they had shot down a U.S. spy plane in Soviet airspace.

When the pesky Russians subsequently stood up CIA U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in a Moscow press conference and also exhibited to the world's press parts of his aircraft clearly marked “Made in U.S.A”, President Eisenhower had to allow as how he might have been “mistaken”.

In their own minds, politicians never tell lies, they “make honest mistakes” or “mis-speak”.

To be fair, I am told there are many instances in recorded history in which a politician said something that was not a lie.

This suggests an interesting question: How can we tell the difference?

We Americans are generally very trusting people who, particularly when we have made an emotional investment in a politician or party by giving our vote to them, tend also to give them the benefit of the doubt when they claim something is true.

Europeans refer to this trait as, “naïveté”, the state of lacking experience or understanding and/or having a lack of sophistication; innocent simplicity.

In some circles in this country, this is also referred to less politely as being a “dumbass”. This is usually considered a negative trait.

For politeness sake, this trait will subsequently be referred to as being “naive”.

So, how can we avoid being naive when it comes to evaluating a politician's words? I'd like to suggest this is not, as they say, rocket science.

Instead of giving politicians the benefit of the doubt, what we should be doing is giving ourselves the benefit of doubting. To conquer our innate addiction to naivety, we need not a 12-step program but a simple three step plan:

  1. First, immediately assume politicians are lying (this will usually be correct).
  2. Next, accept each claim only after it is proved beyond a reasonable doubt by independent evidence.

  3. Finally, after ALL the evidence is in, apply a reasonableness test. Taken together, do the politician's claims and proposals make sense?

Sometimes this doesn't work.

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