Just the Rants, Ma’am

A while back I came across an article that stated that a majority of automotive accidents took place within 25 miles of home.  This little factoid was presented as a significant revelation that should shake the foundation of your entire belief system.  At the time I wasn’t sure what to make of it.  I do however think about this now each time I exit the store parking lot and struggle to get my seat beat buckled before arriving at my driveway just around the corner.  That in turn made me think about how utterly ridiculous this statistic was!  As with my micro trips to the grocery store, how often do you drive beyond a 25 mile radius in a given day? Looking at statistics, about 85% of commuters travel less than the 25 miles to work, and it’s unlikely that any of them will go further than that to find a good cup of coffee or buy a gallon of milk.  Anything in the 30+ mile range will either be reserved for a less frequent time slot or skipped over as non-essential.  So if no one is actually driving beyond a 25 mile range in any given day wouldn’t it stand to reason that any accident we might be involved it would be similarly limited to that 25 mile range?  Did we really need an insurance company to point out the limits of our daily terrain?  More importantly was that revelation actually meant to provide vital information or merely introduce a shiver of fear into our subconscious thus triggering a subliminal desire to review our policy coverage or have our brakes checked?

When I took Speech and Debate back in college I remember how we learned to question any and all information that we might gather for an argument.  The classic example was the popular commercial claim that 9 out of 10 dentists recommend a particular brand of toothpaste.  We were taught to question this on every level; how was the questioned framed?  How were these ten dentists selected?  And most importantly, what the hell did the tenth guy say?  If he suggested mayonnaise as an alternate oral abrasive we might reconsider the initial selection process.  And in that scenario why did the other nine guys recommend this brand of toothpaste when only given mayonnaise as an alternative?

Still these proclamations are made all the time to further endorse the perceived value of an advertised product.   Do we really need that added fiber, bleach, or vitamin D?  In this over marketed world are we filling a deficiency we didn’t even know we had?  Some clever additions seem less like an intentional innovation and more like a simple side effect of manufacturing.  A good example was found on my daughter sidewalk chalk that proudly proclaims their “anti-roll” technology because the chalk was square shaped to better fit into the packaging.  Though I’m sure this comes in handy when rendering your masterpiece on a 25% grade slope, how many people have gone out of their way to seek out this particular feature.  It’s all about value added, and the value perceived.

What are the limits of spin when building these perceptions?  Pharmaceutical companies spend millions of dollars to promote catchy names and acronyms for diseases you’ve never heard of and they blur the lines with the facts they present, the facts they omit, and the facts you wish they’d omit.  For example I’d never heard of Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) until I saw the frequent ad for Requip during the evening news.  While I understand this could be a serious neurological disorder, in our family it was simply called “spilkes”, but I’m guessing that would be harder to sell a cure for.  And speaking of “harder” we can thank former senator and two-time presidential candidate Bob Dole for introducing us to Erectile Dysfunction (ED) and the magic blue pill.  Again a worthy remedy for those in need but despite Pfizer’s altruistic claims a good chunk of their income comes from users without any clear signs of ED or any honest concerns for erections lasting more than four hours.  But we ask ourselves if these things are necessary.  Will that magic pill change my sex life?  Will knives that can cut through a soda can make me a better chef?  Our practical mind assures us that none of this is necessary, but then our dreamy hopeful mind perks up with a persistent “sure, but, what if”.  This all comes back to the question of what level of alternative facts or false facts are acceptable in the world around us? Which ones are we willing to accept?

This question is most crucial when it comes to sorting out mixed messages of an individual, specifically an individual we voted into public office (or failed to vote against).  Politicians of the presidential persuasion often master the art of spin in their pursuit of office (and some continue beyond election, until the day they die).  In recent months the very news we rely upon has been called into question.  The free press is being labeled a societal evil for challenging the views of an eccentric egotist who is constantly parroted by a pandemonium of yes-men and one yes-woman (ironically “pandemonium” is the proper and fitting term for a flock of parrots – go figure).  The free press questions the facts of the administration and they in turn protest the fake new being reported about them.  So where does the truth lie?  If all facts are called into question, who can we believe?  Who is worthy of trust?

To this day, there are still people out there that passionately believe the government faked the moon landing.  Personally I don’t buy it; I’ve seen enough proof to convince me of its validity; how else would they have found that crashed Transformer ship from Cybertron.  But, on the flip side, can I prove that the government DOES NOT have alien life stashed away at an Area 51 type facility?  No, I cannot.  I think the likelihood is extremely low, and I have seen enough debunked UFO sightings to question the substance on which the urban legends are based, but I have no way to definitively discount the notion as fake news.  Unless a disgruntled janitor comes forward because his dental plan was denied how would I even hear about something like that?  Some secrets are simply above my pay grade.  Even if I feel, optimistically, that a free society should have no secrets, I know that’s simply not possible.  There are issues of national security and public safety that prevent complete transparency in government.  The civil servants must constantly manage the perception of its citizens.  We’ve seen it hundreds of times on every political drama ever made where a story needs to be twisted for mass consumption or to aid flagging approval ratings.

On a smaller scale there is the frequent “he said, she said” scenarios, such as recent sexual allegations against certain fancy foxes.  Unless you are a fly on the wall or a bug in the Towers you don’t have a firsthand account of what really went down.  Who’s telling it straight and who’s bending the truth?  While we don’t want to be insensitive to real victims it would be naïve to think that every allegation ever made was fair, complete and accurate and never motivated by greed or anger.  A case is made for either side, though it’s admittedly a hard sell to paint the accused as a victim.  Biases exist.  Emotions are manipulated.  Truth is forces down into a submissive role not unlike the original accusations.  From there, judgements are made.  We pick the innocent like we pick our sports teams and cheer when justice is done.  But can we be certain that justice is done when the issues remain raveled in spin?

As Mulder put it “the truth is out there”.  We can search for the facts and try to make informed judgements on what we believe and what we do not.  We can pick our sources, pick our media outlets and pick the political flavor we want it rolled in.  Sometimes it’s the pure firsthand accounts that comes with the satisfaction of reliability.  Sometimes it’s the once removed “other sources” or “unconfirmed reports”.  Sometimes it’s random nuggets from the internet like my son sometimes interjects even while acknowledging them as suspect.  The free press is meant to protect society by holding everyone accountable including those in public office… especially those in public office.  By the same measure we must hold the press and all they report accountable as well.  Even reported facts have 50 shades of gray (just with less bondage) between pure truth and pure rubbish.  The best we can do is keep questioning from both sides; never take a fact for a fact, or fake news as a falsehood.  Try to see through the spin and recognize when our information is unreliable or incomplete.

We many never know what the tenth dentist said.  We may never know if the G-men have little grey men stashed in freezer bags. We may never know if Trump was bugged by Obama or bedded by  Russians.  Sometimes it’s enough that we that we just ask the right questions and sometimes we might be satisfied just not asking questions we don’t want the answers to, like whether or not sushi has more calories that a Big Mac;  Really, I don’t want to know.

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