Jack Dolan: What do you actually know?

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What do you know, and what do you believe? Think about what you know, actually know. Not the things you believe because someone told them to you, but the things you know for a fact because you witnessed them first hand or experienced them directly in some way. For almost everyone today, there’s really not that much we truly know.

It wasn’t always like that. Almost everything in a caveman’s brain got there from direct experience; he knew fire was hot because he burned himself (probably when cussing was invented), he knew animals bite because he’s missing a finger. He had no way to pass this knowledge along, no written word, no spoken language. He may not have known much, but what he knew, he knew from direct experience, he didn’t have to rely on believing someone else relating his or her experience.

Today, we may not “know” much more than the caveman, but our brains are crammed with things we believe. Most of us have never touched fire but we believe it burns because our mothers warned us to stay away from the stove when we were toddlers. We know that you can’t breathe on the moon because we’re told there’s no air up there. It’s handy to believe in things we’re told. Can you imagine relying solely on direct knowledge today? You’d never get through a day.

But there is a problem inherent in getting your information second hand, compared to experiencing it yourself; who do you trust? If you aren’t going to run around experiencing everything for yourself, who do you listen to? Who do you believe?

This problem is exacerbated exponentially by the Internet. The ‘Net is the greatest disseminator of information since Gutenberg cranked out the first mass produced book, but the Internet is also the Great & Powerful Oz, the man behind the curtain with unknown credentials telling stories vetted by no one, filtered by no one, proven true by no one.

So what? What does this mean to you, the believer? It means that the burden is on you to separate the speakers of truth from the snake oil salesmen. It always has been but today, in this era of information overload, it’s more important than ever to separate the wheat from the chaff, as they used to say.

The first question you have to ask yourself is, does the person you’re listening to have a horse in this race? Is there some angle, some hidden agenda he or she is trying to nudge you towards or away from? I’m not sure that it’s possible to be completely unbiased, but whatever happened to hearing both sides of a story? Are you listening to a bleeding heart liberal, or a Fox News right-winger? Do you listen only to people who support your beliefs, or do you take in the other’s point of view?

And even if you find a happy medium, where you believe you’ve found a source that comes close to fair and honest reporting, is it accurate? Remember when a journalist’s job was to tell you who, what, when, why, where and how? Now it’s all about spin and scoop and speculation. The churning, voracious 24 hour news cycle must be fed and being first to spill the story has superseded being accurate. The motto seems to be “Get it out there first, then issue a correction later”.

Obviously, not all reporting is bad. There are credible, fairly unbiased sources of news and information. There are still places where you can go to listen to both sides of an issue. But you have to make that effort (or not).

Remember, believe half of what you see and none of what you hear. Ben Franklin said those words of warning 200 years before the Internet and Photoshop and Virtual Reality. So, after reading my little caveat, you should be asking yourself one question first – Who the hell is this guy why should I believe him? Good question!

Jack Dolan is a retired journalist living in Newhall.

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