Keeping facts in the idea zone

In the digital age, assertions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes are easy to dream up and a snap to propagate. Facts are harder to establish. But they are what matter.

Photo Illustration by Kacper Pempel/Reuters/File

This is just my opinion, but I believe that every news conference, TV talk show, Facebook Live feed, and Twitter burst should be accompanied by Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s timeless disclaimer: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” 

Venting an opinion, pointing a cellphone camera, tapping out an insult, hitting “send” – those are easy moves, made ever easier by new technology. Establishing a fact is hard. Journalists, researchers, and operations such as and try to do the painstaking work of determining whether what politicians and their minions say is fact-based. But they can vet only a fraction of the opinions, assertions, claims, and raw-feed “news” that flood the idea zone every second.

In a Monitor cover story (click here), Patrik Jonsson and Simon Montlake take on one of the big assertions of the 2016 presidential campaign: that free trade is a bad deal for the United States, that it has shifted hundreds of thousands of jobs to China, Mexico, and other low-cost countries. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have strongly asserted that to be the case. Hillary Clinton hasn’t gone that far, but criticism of free trade has become so politically potent that she has reversed her previous support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

What are the facts? They aren’t simple. Jobs have indeed been lost. But new ones have been created. The economic crash and relentless automation are at least as culpable as free trade in job loss (which has, by the way, also affected China and Mexico). Meanwhile, some sectors of American manufacturing aren’t shedding workers; they are begging for them.

After reading Patrik and Simon’s report, you’ll be armed with facts. What you won’t have is a simple “free trade is bad” or “free trade is good” declaration to make in your next political discussion. You can’t reduce their 3,400-word report, derived from research in Shelby, N.C.; Madison, Maine; and Grand Rapids, Mich., to a 140-word Tweet. And, in any case, that probably won’t help you if you are having your discussion with someone who lost a job to offshoring or knows someone who has, or who has seen a news report or social media post in which emotions are running high the day a boss announces that a factory is moving to Mexico.

Facts can be cold abstractions in the face of personal experiences and heart-rending anecdotes. Facts should never keep us from comforting people who are laid off, from supporting retraining, or from reexamining trade deals to ensure that they are fair. But while facts are rarely lovable and often are hard to accept, the establishment of facts is crucial to human progress. If we couldn’t overcome the anecdotal with the factual, we would still believe Earth was the center of the universe.

Can we trust fact-checkers? No. Every fact and every fact-checker should always be questioned, cross-checked, and challenged, just as every opinion and assertion should be. Facts, hard as they are to establish, are what matter.

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