Sensationalism Backfires

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Over at Cracked is an interesting article titled "6 Famous 'Frivolous Lawsuit' Stories That Are Total B.S." which illustrates the importance of objectivity in research, and underscores a point I made some time back regarding an image of urban decay in Detroit that was being misused as a "symbol" of the failure of socialized education:

A picture is not merely not an argument. It can, through carelessness, be made worth a thousand words to one's intellectual opponents! In fact, even if the original commentator had said nothing beyond elaborating on the circumstances behind the ruin he blogged, anyone who held it up as an example of the failure of public education would have undercut his position.

Such carelessness makes one look sloppy, and therefore, one's position look suspect.
Proponents of tort reform -- and although I am no expert on the topic, I do count myself among them -- would do well to read through this list and consider the fact that they can unwittingly make life very easy for their intellectual opponents by mindlessly passing along stories without bothering to check them. Just observe what "Christina H." says after looking at just three of these stories:
... [S]ome people took [a forwarded email about frivolous lawsuits] really seriously. Some newspapers even. The New York Daily News printed that email forward verbatim in 2002, and the owner of national news magazine U.S. News & World Report, Mort Zuckerman, cited examples from that same email about fictional lawsuits a year later to show us what's wrong with America today. When told it was fake, he published a sort-of correction that basically said, "Well, maybe these were fake but we all know this happens all the time, so what's the difference."

And that's exactly the thought process of everybody who endlessly repeats these stories. It's why the guy in the cubicle next to you is happy to tell you about the burglar who broke into a house, tripped over the coffee table and then sued the owners of the home into bankruptcy. Sure, he doesn't know exactly where that happened or where he read about it, but we all know that stuff happens, so what does it matter if that story is true? After all, this is a country where you can sue for millions if your coffee was too hot.
Or, better yet, consider the following title, from an article (linked above) about Zuckerman's error: "How the media helps the insurance industry and the GOP promote the myth of America's 'lawsuit crisis.'" If you propagate enough half-truths on "behalf" of your position, you will eventually watch your credibility speed down the drain as people begin to equate your position with a mere urban legend.

More interesting to this advocate of laissez-faire capitalism is the following. There are many infringements on individual rights in the current political milieu. We can't fight all of them at once, so we have to prioritize based on several criteria, one of which is how serious the problem really is. Sensationalizing a story can distract fellow activists from focusing their energy on the more important problems in addition to harming the credibility of one's side generally.

-- CAV

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