David R. Henderson  

Getting the Facts

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In the late 1990s and early 2000s, in one standard part of an optimistic speech I gave about the modern economy and the effect of the Internet, I told a story from a 1977 Woody Allen movie, Annie Hall, that I could reasonably assume about half of my audience had seen.

It's the scene in which Woody Allen gets in an argument in a movie line about what Marshall McLuhan believed. Woody cinches the argument. Here's the dialogue:

Woody: I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here. So here, let me, come over here for a second (pulling the real Marshall McLuhan out from behind a poster.) Tell him.
McLuhan (to guy Woody is arguing with): I heard what you're saying. You know nothing of my work. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.
Woody (staring at the camera): Boy, if life were only like this.

I told the story briefly and then pointed out that, indeed, the Internet means that life is like this. You sometimes have to dig a little but you can find facts quickly. We all, I said, can bring into the discussion our own version of Marshall McLuhan. Sometimes you might have to email someone who knows, but emailing is so much faster than sending a letter, both in the sending and in the work the other person has to do to respond. I should have added, in my talk, that life is like this if you want it to be.

What I have found, unfortunately, is that people typically go with their priors and aren't willing to ask tough questions when the apparent facts support their priors.

Which brings me to something that happened yesterday.

A "friend" on Facebook (I put "friend" in quotation marks because it's someone I don't know who friended me--if we met, he might indeed be a friend) had a link to this video of something that happened on the floor of the California State Senate. In the video, State Senator Janet Nguyen, a Republican from Orange County went after the late Senator Tom Hayden for his support of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam war. After she switched from speaking Vietnamese to speaking English, two of the Democratic Senators tried to shut her down and she ended up being forcefully removed from the Senate floor.

This was awful, I thought. How could they justify making her stop when all she was doing was expressing her opinion about somebody? One of the two Senators who tried to shut her down was my Senator, Bill Monning, who is also Majority Leader of the Senate.

Bill and I first met when we were on a panel at Robert Louis Stevenson school in which the topic was the Iraq War. The U.S. government had invaded Iraq the previous month and RLS held a forum. Morning, then a professor at the Monterey (now Middlebury) Institute of International Studies, Richard Hoffman, a military faculty member and an Army officer from the Naval Postgraduate School, Kip Hawley, a local Republican who later became head of the TSA, and I were invited. I don't think Bill or I surprised anyone because our antiwar views were well-known locally. The big surprise was Richard Hoffman, who was very critical of the war. Hawley was the only supporter.

A few years later, Bill and I both spoke at an antiwar rally during the Bush administration. In both cases we hit it off.

I had one run-in with him in a restaurant around that time in which he made a false accusation. But when I persisted in challenging him, he apologized. So my bottom line was that he was a fair-minded man.

So I thought I would write him about this latest incident. Here's my letter that I wrote to him late Friday afternoon:

Dear Bill,

It has been a long time since we've spoken. I hope this finds you well.

I saw a segment on line today in which you, on the Senate floor, objected to the state senator from Orange County criticizing Tom Hayden. I'm not familiar with Senate rules. Is it not allowed for someone on the Senate floor to criticize a fellow Senator even if that Senator is no longer a Senator?



P.S. My best to your wife and daughter.

Less than 4 hours later he responded:
Hi David,
The situation was unfortunate, but the member did not follow Senate rules... The Adjourn in Memory for Hayden was on Tuesday with tributes from colleagues, etc. Sen. Nguyen wanted to offer criticism of Sen Hayden on Thursday when the Adjourn in Memory motion was not on the floor. She asked to do so as matter of personal privilege but that is reserved for a member to defend him/herself if attacked by another member. That was not the case.
I sought to make a Point of Order which would have allowed for us to discuss her desire to speak and determine the parliamentary procedure that would apply. I was not allowed to make the point of order as Sen Nguyen continued to talk without pause. When she refused to acknowledge the request of the presiding officer to stop talking so that the point of order could be discussed, he asked sergeants to remove her from the chamber.
. . .
There were many other options available to her as we pointed out to the minority leader... She could have submitted a letter to the file (an official procedural option) and could have released that to the media or held a press conference to share it. She could have spoken to the media and/or issued her own press statement. Instead she chose to make her statement on the floor and refused to listen to the presiding officer who had a motion before him.
. . .
Hope you and your family are all doing well.
Thanks for your outreach and for the opportunity to offer a perspective from the lens of someone who sought to bring some order to this situation.

I replied:
Dear Bill,

I very much appreciate your getting back to me so quickly.

I have always thought you are a fair-minded person and it's nice to see that I have no reason to revise that view.

We are doing well. Thanks.



I got his permission to quote from his letter.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Robert Knaus writes:

So you gave a standard speech every time over a decade or more? That's lame. My father had an 8th grade education. As a lay preacher, he worked 6 days a week in his bakery and every Sunday delivered an original sermon. He woke up each morning at 4AM to work on it.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Robert Knaus,
That’s what you got out of this?

Michael W writes:

Excellent reminder of the need to challenge our assumptions and I'm reminded of this recent article about why we rarely do - http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds

The internet has given us the ability to form an opinion based upon our own research from the comfort of the breakfast table in our bathrobe, alas, it's also a great source to confirm our priors.

I'm also reminded of my military history professor at Fort Leavenworth on the first day of class offering up the admonition that there's an example in military history to support every prior belief we brought into the classroom. His job was to show why history offers up questions and not, necessarily, answers.

If only the internet were used in the same way: to encourage us to ask more and better questions. Sadly, it appears that evolution has suppressed this urge.

Shane L writes:

This is why I'm so surprised by current concern over "fake news", social media echo chambers and the like. Never before has it been so easy to access information. When we compare the economic fortunes of two countries we replace the old anecdotal evidence of tourists with World Bank GDP per capita data. There is so little excuse for opinions based on an ignorance of the facts.

I had a similar experience lately myself, when I quoted an article by historian Professor Timothy Snyder in a Facebook discussion. A friend challenged me on a point, so I emailed Prof Snyder and checked the point with him!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Shane L,
Never before has it been so easy to access information.
When we compare the economic fortunes of two countries we replace the old anecdotal evidence of tourists with World Bank GDP per capita data. There is so little excuse for opinions based on an ignorance of the facts.
I agree. I would hedge a little by saying that, especially in the case of centrally planned economies and economies suffering widespread, highly binding price controls, I would want to mix in with the World Bank data that data from tourists.
A friend challenged me on a point, so I emailed Prof Snyder and checked the point with him!
I had the same experience with Professor Naimark of Stanford on an aspect of the Cold War. I emailed him on New Years Day and he replied within an hour or two.

Shane L writes:

Fair caveat on the World Bank data - it makes sense to triangulate from multiple sources, no doubt!

I will react to two ideas which probably appear in this thread. And even if these ideas have not been introduced intentionally by others, these ideas have nonetheless jumped up in my reaction to what others have said.

Idea (1) Civil, mutually supportive communication can cross an ideological divide.
Sometimes we can get better information from people on the other side of the aisle. This was how I first understood David's post, and I agree.

Idea (2) There is no excuse not to get the facts.
Yes there is an excuse. It is called rational ignorance.

Idea (2a) "Fact checking" can separate the true from the liars.
No. Life is big with many species. Each species has its own way of surviving, which is a distinctive way of behaving in the world. What meal would suit the digestion of Jones: wood or a Big Mac? We can't know until we know whether Jones has the biases which we may expect to see in a termite or a human. Each possible way of surviving in this world will have its own facts worthy of note. Life supports diversity in plausible perceptions.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Richard Hammer,
Idea (1): Yes.
Idea (2): I did not state that idea. I stated that the cost of getting the facts has gone way down, and so I guess I implied that there are fewer excuses for not getting them. Ignorance often is rational, but what’s striking is not how ignorant people are but how certain they are when they should confess ignorance. My students typically don’t know who their U.S. Senators are. They admit that. They don’t go around claiming that person A is their Senator when he in fact isn’t. I would like the same humility about other facts, especially when they are easy to check.
Idea (2a): I don’t know where you get that. It wasn’t in my post. My post is about how one can often get facts. It says nothing about liars. To say someone is lying is to say something about intent. It’s often hard to know intent.

Charles Lindsey writes:

Very nice addition to a story poorly reported in the news, thanks. As a bonus I'll let you in on a little superstition from the journalism trade. Whenever a story offers "just the facts" or something else implying corrective accuracy, there will be a fresh error. Like misspelling Marshall McLuhan. Just a friendly note!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Charles Lindsay,
You’re welcome. And thank you re the spelling error. I should have known better than to misspell the name of a a fellow Canook, er, Canuck.
Correction made.

David Friedman writes:

Sometimes the modern world is even closer to the Woody Allen segment.

Back in the days when Usenet served roughly the role Facebook now serves and I was active on it, I routinely checked to see if anyone on Unsenet was mentioning me. If he was and I thought the comment required a reply I gave it--in the thread where the original comment was, where almost anyone who read that comment would see it.

Nowadays I can do a similar search on the web.
Responding is harder, but still possible if the page with whatever I want to respond to is open for comments or has an email address to send them to. And Facebook automatically tells me if someone mentions me, which gives me the opportunity to respond if I want to.

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