“You know,” Grandma told Odin, “you shouldn’t believe everything Grandpa tells you.”
“I know, Grandma,” Odin assured her. “But I’m going to try that pepper-in-my-underwear thing.”
Pepper in your underwear
“Fact or Fib” is one of the most fascinating and instructional games I play with our grandchildren when they come to visit us on the farm. They have a natural tendency to accept anything that Grandpa tells them as the truth, but by the time they are nine or ten years old they have learned to take my advice, platitudes, and truisms with a grain of salt.
It is probably devilish of me to undermine their faith in people’s basic honesty by spinning tales that stretch their credibility and make them question the veracity of every statement they hear, but I want to prepare them to deal, as adults, with politicians’ proclamations and television and web news reports that can range from half truths to outright lies. As my own grandfather once told me, “Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see until you check the facts yourself.”
That advice served me well during a fourteen year career as a newspaper reporter and editor. “Never accept a statement from any one person as factual,” I used to coach my staff. “Always check a second source, and if possible get the document. People in official positions tend to be more honest if they have to put their statements on paper.”
I knew I was getting through to them when one rookie reporter received a birthday card from her mother that said, “I love you, Honey!” Reading the card over her shoulder, another reporter said, “I’d cross check that with your father if I were you.”
The mantra “Don’t believe anything that you have not investigated yourself” is even more valid in today’s world of online media with its torrent of postings produced by “citizen journalists” with no accountability to anyone or anything, and no training in the ethics and practice of separating facts and data from their own prejudices and opinions. In an era of easy manipulation of audio recordings, photos, videos, and documents, every responsible citizen should fact-check information before sharing or re-posting it.
I have terse words for anyone who types “I don’t know if this is true, but…” when he or she sends me a link to an online post or report. “If you don’t know whether or not it’s true,” I tell them, “why in the world would you forward this? Repeating or spreading false information means you are bearing false witness. You are a second-hand liar, but you are still a liar.”
This rude response may annoy them, but I hope it makes them think about their personal responsibility for seeking bona fide facts and information before sharing reports with other people. I cannot overstate how important this is if we are to maintain civil dialogue about controversial and contentious issues. Ultimately, the survival of our democratic system depends on it.
Why any person would want to jeopardize his reputation for honesty by forwarding or re-posting unverified information is beyond me. Actually, it’s not beyond me. They do this because the information they are spreading plays into their core beliefs – and often their biases and prejudices – and they are eager to accept anything that shores up their opinions. We are all guilty of this to some extent, but some people revel in the distribution of misinformation to a degree that astounds me.
Electronic media have fostered this sad state of affairs in public discourse because the basis for their reporting is not news value but entertainment value. In the world of mass media it is no longer important that information be timely, accurate, and factual as possible, it is only important that it draws a large audience of viewers. The name of the game is selling the maximum dollar amount of advertising, not objectively informing the citizens of a democratic society.
It’s easy to be taken in. That’s why I play the “Fact or Fib” game.
“Did you know,” I will tell my granddaughter, “that lipstick is actually made from horse manure and crushed butterflies?”
“That’s what I heard. Should we check it out?”
They learn that ten minutes of research on the computer, gaining instant access to the world’s biggest and most comprehensive library, can validate or debunk questionable statements and dubious information. They become quite skilled at this in short order, under Grandma’s coaching. But some of the fibs they just have to unravel with their own good sense and analyses. That’s also good training.
“Grandpa, Carrina can run faster than me!”
“Well you could run faster than her if you would put some pepper in your underwear.”
“Yep. That’s what I always used to do in baseball when I wanted to steal a base. Shake a little pepper into my underwear.”
“I’m going to try it!”
“Okay, but think about it first. And don’t tell Grandma that I told you to do it.”
More stories about life in the North Country, hunting, bird dogs, and bird guns are published in my two collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot and Old Coots Never Forget, and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.