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Friday, November 19, 2010

"How do you know?"

Upon reading Tom Friedman's column in yesterday's NY Times (11/17/10), I was reminded of my mother's oft-spoken question to me--"How do you know?" She first asked this when I showed her a picture of the Eagle Nebula on my computer and told her this was a “stellar nursery.”

In an unusual column about tv and cable news broadcasters/showmen, Friedman quoted at length a program by CNN's Anderson Cooper. Cooper evidently examined the claim made by many of one political persuasion that President Obama's recent trip to Asia would and did cost about $200 million per day. Yes, per diem.

When Cooper heard this claim he did some digging around and found that the first mention of this charge came from some not-well-known individual in India ("an alleged provincial Indian official") and then it made its way to the US, into the House of Representatives, onto cable tv news and the radio airwaves. No one could identify who this "official" is.

Like so many tall tales, new versions got added as people spread them: Obama's trip turned into a "vacation" guarded by ten percent (10%) of the entire United States Naval forces with an entourage of 3,000.

Cooper said on his CNN show: “. . . no one really seemed to care to check the facts." No one was curious enough to ask any one of the political figures, “How do you know it’s going to cost $200 million a day? Where did you get your information, your facts?”

Reminds me of the claims of WMD in Iraq. Who was fact checking the stories emanating from the same NY Times about their presence in Iraq before our invasion?

Friedman concluded, "When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem."

How did we get into this kind of situation--absent people who have a high regard for Elizabeth Barell's question--"How do you know? How do they know?"

Perhaps it’s the presence of the very 24/7 cable and radio news networks on which people of very strong political views voice their judgments. Or, can we really call them "judgments"? My definition of that term, especially when used to educate our young, involves drawing a reasonable conclusion supported by good reasons and very specific facts/data/evidence/information.

Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman wrote once that we need to "teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed." It's OK to say, "I don't know."

Some of us seem to be very certain of just about everything leaving no room for doubt nor for that confirmatory question that Elizabeth Barell used to ask, "How do you know?"

I’m often found ranting and raving at the television set where some politician is making a modest, grand or outlandish claim. “How do you know?” Tell me the facts behind your claim, if there are any.

Rigid certitude may be the hobgoblin of small minds and what we need are more skeptics in the press, in government, in politics, at home, in the world of work and at play.


  1. Totally and completely agree. There is far too much 'certitude with attitude'. To raise doubt is to expand minds...

  2. I like that observation: "too much certitude with attitude." The seemingly total disregard for factual information to support our claims is astounding, almost as astounding as the too many folks willing to believe what they are told without question. See Paul Krugman's column today, 12/24/10.

  3. A great post on the value of doubt!

    I wonder if you can give me a reference to your Feynman quote in the paragraph:

    Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman wrote once that we need to "teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed." It's OK to say, "I don't know."

    I could not find that quote in Wikiquote http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Main_Page

    However I did find a related quote [bracketed by lines "FFFFF. . . ."

    The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty damn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt.

    We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress, we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain. Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know.

    But I don’t know whether everyone realizes this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.
    Richard Feynman In "The Value of Science," address to the National
    Academy of Sciences (Autumn 1955)

    Richard Hake, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Indiana University