Fact attack!

What happens to truth in the age of spin and sound bites?

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Dylan Horvath, MS ’03, steward of the Binghamton University Nature Preserve, has been insulted, misquoted and even threatened.

Jeff Katz ’84, who received more votes than the local Santa Claus in the race for village board in Cooperstown, N.Y., endured “Shame on you Jeff Katz” signs posted in local stores.

Both were reviled for decisions they helped make. Each describes the situation this way: “I looked at the facts, I weighed the pros and cons, I made the best decision I could.” Then each watched as that decision sparked controversy that quickly flared into conflict — people formed coalitions, took sides, made signs and videos, signed petitions, traded opinions as facts and got very, very personal. 

“I haven’t slept a good night since all this started,” Horvath says. He is a member of the Committee for the University Environment, which says that an overpopulation of deer is doing ecological damage to the Nature Preserve. The committee agreed that the best way to reduce the number of deer is to shoot some of them.

The plan was protested by a neighbor of the preserve and an animal rights group locally and through an online petition at change.org. It was challenged in court and is now on hold.

Katz also was accused of trying to kill something — in his case it was downtown businesses — by voting to institute paid parking in the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Turn on the news and these two conflicts pale in comparison to the bigger issues of the day: the battle over possible gas drilling in New York, the future of healthcare in the United States, the impact of climate change on the world. What they have in common is that somewhere along the way, dialogue became debate, voices grew louder, stakeholders became polarized, and opinions were labeled as truths and lobbed like rotten tomatoes at the unsuspecting neighbors on the other side of the garden fence.

Why? And is there a way to cut through the conflict and emotion and focus on the facts?

Not one of us

Katz was a political science major who became an options trader in Chicago. After 17 years, he gave it up and moved his family to Cooperstown, where he researched and wrote a book called The Kansas City A’s & the Wrong Half of the Yankees. When he was asked to run for village board in 2005, he did. And won.

Two years later, he was on the board of trustees, considering instituting paid parking in the village. It was a “nuts and bolts kind” of issue, he says, where you weigh the pros and cons and make an informed decision. After 20 or more meetings, the plan appeared to have majority support and was about to become law. That’s when the unexpected happened, he says. An anti-paid-parking group rose up, claiming residents would have to pay $10 a day to park in their own village (the law proposed a $10 season permit.) Lawn signs, letters to the editor and misinformation proliferated, Katz says.

“They were very emotional,” he says. In his opinion, the opposition wasn’t as much about paid parking as it was about identity. “Some of the opponents felt that paid parking ‘wasn’t Cooperstown,’ that it was unwelcoming and ‘not who we are.’ To some degree, that was a subtle nod that people like me, who had only recently moved to Cooperstown, didn’t have a sense of community.”

The law passed, 4-2, but opponents weren’t done.

“Someone was screaming, ‘Go back to Chicago,’” Katz says. And up went the signs “shaming” the four people, including Katz, who voted in favor of the law.

When decisions go bad

Some decisions seem so logical: define the goal and identify how to achieve it. That’s how Katz and Horvath thought things should work. In reality, decision making can be messy, says Pamela Mischen, associate professor of public administration.

Even if you start with a defined goal, the process can break down if the means for achieving it are not clear. If parking fees will raise revenue, who should pay: Residents? Tourists? The disabled?

The worst-case scenario is when there are competing definitions for both goal and solutions. Is the Nature Preserve really endangered? How many deer are too many? Can they be moved? Sterilized? Fenced out?

In the “race to be right,” stakeholders work fast to shore up their arguments with evidence, experts and opinions. Facts can be questionable and emotions run high. Conflict erupts.

At this point, people typically do one of two things: They quit listening, or they use mental shortcuts to help them process information. One shortcut is to rely less on facts and more on values and beliefs for guidance, Mischen says. Another is to align yourself with a group or a cause to help you cope.

“Your group becomes your information filter,” she says. “And once you’ve joined a group, the rest of the facts seem inconsequential, and you’re never going to hear that you are wrong.”

Finding information in the information age

So you’ve joined a cause, you’ve taken a stand — their stand — but in the back of your mind you wonder if there isn’t more you should know.

Take this year’s presidential election. Unless you vote a straight party line, you have some work to do in order to make an informed decision.

“Information is available. In fact, the problem is not getting the information, it’s sifting through it,” says John McNulty, assistant professor of political science. “A lot of the information is not necessarily reliable, it’s tinged with a partisan agenda.

That’s one reason almost a third of eligible voters don’t vote, he says.

“It’s been suggested that people were better informed about political issues in the 1970s than they are now,” McNulty says. “It didn’t matter which TV channel you turned on — ABC, CBS or NBC — you were going to get, more or less, straight-down-the-middle Walter Cronkite-style news.”

David Schultz ’80, MA ’86, agrees. “It’s harder to get objective coverage today because of the fragmentation of the media marketplace. MSNBC appeals to one constituency and Fox appeals to another.”

Schultz is a professor at Hamline University School of Business in Saint Paul, Minn., and has taught classes in all manner of politics. He tells his students to tune in to a national network newscast for one week — but watch just the commercials. “Look who the advertisers are — if it’s stuff like Ex-Lax and Depends — the audience is old and the number of people watching is very small. The media just cover material that appeals to their demographics.”

The media aren’t alone when it comes to targeted messaging. People avoid controversy by getting their information from sources that reinforce what they already believe.

“Recent presidential elections have been much more about mobilizing people who agree on an issue, rather than persuading people who aren’t sure,” McNulty says.

It is possible, scholars say, to break out of the information cocoon, but it’s not easy.

One of the first steps is to read. McNulty reads long, analytical pieces from different perspectives. “It’s time consuming, and most people don’t do it,” he admits. Assume nothing is completely objective, he says; see how facts are used to support claims.

Practice being neutral, says Dawn Osborne-Adams, University ombudsman. “People think of neutrality as not caring. Really, it’s where you don’t pick up on the noise, you think about the facts. You also have to recognize and then disengage your emotions.”

And be prepared to be uncomfortable.

When you can say, “This isn’t what I expected to see, but it seems compelling,” you can feel like a traitor, even to yourself. “It’s cognitive dissonance,” McNulty says, “and that’s not a feeling that people like.”

Mind your manners

Mischen says that the lack of diversity in our information is accompanied by a lack of civility — sometimes people are quick to turn those with an opposing viewpoint into the bad guys.

“We’re a big country, and people have different values and beliefs, so we’ll always have people on different sides,” she says. “But I think we’re losing discourse and civility, to be able to agree that even if we have different beliefs, there is probably something that unites us, something we can agree on.

“You can’t change people’s values, but you don’t have to villainize them,” she says. “Other people aren’t making irrational decisions, they’re making rational decisions based on their core values and beliefs, which may be different than yours.”

Jeff Katz understands that. He’s proud that he supported a policy he believed in and stuck with it even when it became controversial. Paid parking never did happen on the streets, but it’s been a money-maker in a previously free municipal lot.

“It was the most controversial topic in Cooperstown in years,” he says. But people came around, and Katz was elected mayor this spring.