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TSPR Commentaries

Facts Making Fiction in Politics

Wiki Commons

The mere accumulation of facts doesn’t always lead to good conclusions, judgment or wisdom. Too many of us, progressive and conservative alike, can fall victim to extrapolation or correlation.

An example of extrapolation is extending some inference based on a sampling of graduate students to people with an 8th grade education. The classic “Correlation is not cause” is concluding that roosters cause dawn because the sun rises when they crow.

Sociologist Jacques Ellul in his book “Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes,” writes that a danger in relying on media isn’t in dishonest broadcasts or stories, but in people’s susceptibility to isolated facts as the sole basis for decision-making.

Ellul wrote, “Propaganda does not base itself on errors, but on exact facts. It even seems that the more informed the public or private opinion is (notice I say ‘more’ not ‘better’), the more susceptible it is to propaganda. The greater a person’s knowledge of political and economic facts, the more sensitive and vulnerable is his judgment.”

Media are complicit, arguably, since a need to be fair has become a demand to offer different perspectives, regardless of value, leading to false equivalency.

Paul Rosenberg, editor of Random Lengths News, writes, “If you try to treat both sides equally regardless of the merits, then by definition that automatically favors the side that has less merit.”

Some progressives chuckle that Americans most affected by GOP cuts to food stamps vote Republican. A Time magazine analysis of county-by-county food-stamp data showed that in Owsley County, Ky. (99 percent white and 95 percent Republican), 54 percent of residents use food stamps.

Time reported, “Many rural districts with very high participation in the program are represented by Republicans leading the charge in cutting billions from the program.” editor Sky Palma writes, “Many economists agree that food stamps trigger economic activity when poor people utilize their benefits, which more than makes up for the cost. Republicans, however, take the opposite approach; they believe tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires is what stimulates growth, all the while cutting programs that help the poorest in society.”

Nevertheless, poor whites in the South voting Republican might tempt the conclusion that they’re racist, ignorant or manipulated by social issues into voting against their own interests, when real reasons could range from family tradition, to vulnerability to false attack ads, to a fondness for a candidate’s face. Facts: They voted, and they’re poor.

Bill Knight

Conservatives defend Mitt Romney’s well-known comment about the 47 percent of Americans who are “moochers” and pay no taxes, what running mate Paul Ryan used to call “takers” as opposed to “makers.” However, they neglect to note that poor people still pay sales tax and taxes for Social Security and Medicare, and that most recipients of social-assistance programs are “on the dole” temporarily. Facts: Their jobs don’t pay enough for them to owe income taxes. Also, we sometimes delude ourselves. A Cornell University survey about whether people use government programs found most said no – despite about a fifth actually doing so.

Progressives express outrage that Illinois’ GOP candidate for governor, Bruce Rauner, avoided paying taxes by sheltering income in the Caymen Islands. Facts: That’s not illegal – nor is being wealthy.

Conservatives including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) currently assert that talk of the President’s impeachment is a political plot created by Democrats to gain sympathy. Facts: Well-publicized demands for Obama’s impeachment have come from Right-wing media figures such as Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Michael Savage, plus Boehner cohorts such as GOP Members of Congress Michele Bachman of Minnesota, Darrell Issa of California and Steve King of Iowa.

Whether generalizing, stereotyping or becoming lazy watching Fox News or MSNBC, media consumers should be careful not to make unjustified leaps of logic.


Contact Bill at; his twice-weekly columns are archived at

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.