Test Everything

by Peter Blair | 1/5/09 4:09am

Over winter break I saw a commercial about polar bears. You know the kind I'm talking about. The commercial opens with some picture of a polar bear floating away on a block of ice, and then cuts to some authority figure -- usually a C-list actor whom you know you've seen somewhere -- telling you in a very serious voice about the grave threat that climate change poses for the polar bear population.

Deeply moved by this commercial, I decided to look up some facts about polar bears.

According to Danish academic Bjorn Lomborg, 11 out of the 13 polar bear populations in Canada are stable or increasing in number, and more polar bears are killed every year by hunting (49) than by climate change (15).

Two years ago, in a case concerning literature about global warming, a British High Court judge ruled that there is not any evidence for the notion of the drowning polar bear. Of course, there is disagreement on that decision, but the matter is hardly as cut-and-dry as the commercial presented it.

I'm not trying to make a point about climate change (which, for the record, I do think is happening) or about polar bears here, but rather about the credulity of our generation and American culture in general.

I don't know how many of you have experienced something like the following in your conversations at Dartmouth, but I have come across this phenomenon several times with my friends, both at school and at home: someone will make a claim, but, when asked to elaborate on it or give evidence for it, will have no answer.

For example, I was talking to one of my friends about President-elect Barack Obama, and he said, "Well, at least he's appointing good people to his cabinet." When I asked him which of Obama's appointees he liked, he couldn't name any. He had probably heard some media pundit say that Obama was appointing good people to his cabinet, so he just went around repeating it.

I think our generation is too quick to believe what we hear (especially from the media) and, too often, is uninformed about the subjects we like to talk about. We have more "information" than ever, but we are also more misinformed, about more subjects, than ever.

I'm certainly not immune to this generational (or, really, human) weakness. I've been called out on things I've said more times than I can count. In our world of media sound bites, advertising and specialized "experts," we have been trained to unquestioningly accept claims that, with a little research, can be easily disproved.

I think this was always true to some degree, but the problem is much worse today. What does it say about our society that we would more easily believe an actor telling us about the plight of the polar bear than we would a scientist? And, even if it were a scientist, would that make our quick acceptance any more acceptable?

Of course, there's a point at which we must take things on authority -- nobody really has the time or the intellectual capacity to examine everything. However, I think we tend to uncritically accept information on "authority" much more often than is necessary.

We would do well to be more skeptical about statements we hear, especially on TV. Nearly everyone, including the expert, is trying to sell something today, whether that be a product or a political agenda.

Furthermore, even those with the best of intentions are fallible human beings who might have their facts wrong.

St. Paul once wrote, "test everything; retain what is good." It is sound advice, especially today.

Our generation could use a little more skepticism and a little less gullibility. We need to free ourselves from the sound-bite culture and subject claims to thorough research and careful thinking. If we do that, our society may just become a little healthier.