Will the Real Facts Please Stand Up? Putting Facts in Context

Disclaimer: Linus van Pelt was very astute to observe that “There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” While the example may be political, the discussion is about best practices, regardless of your political leanings.

Procrastinating on Facebook on a lazy, snowy Sunday morning, I came across a chart I had seen before entitled “Who Increased the Debt?”:

What struck me wasn’t the chart itself, but the debate it generated. In nine hours, it received 37 likes, 45 comments, and 13 shares. Many of the comments offered alternative charts with a different take:

Three charts (and there are likely more) on the same topic with different messages. Which should someone trust?

Truths Depend Greatly on Our Own Point of View

The answer is none. Examining the credibility of these charts, they’re all questionable.

When confronted by Luke in The Return of the Jedi for lying about what happened to his father, Obi-won spins it by saying:

Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

The easiest to dismiss is the chart that claims that the Obama Administration has added more debt in one term than all previous administrations going back to George Washington.  It cites no source, which would be like turning in a research paper with no footnotes.

Both of the other charts reference a source: one cites the Treasury Department and the other the Office of Management and Budget. Both still need to be looked at with skepticism. It is not surprising the pro-Obama chart was created by the Office of the Democratic Leader (AKA Nancy Pelosi), while the anti-Obama chart was produced by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

The Bottom Line

I learned the hard way retweeting a misattributed quote after Osama bin Laden was killed that it is easy for inaccurate information to become popular and go viral. That’s why it’s more important than ever to get the facts straight.

  1. Cite your source. If you don’t say where you got your information from, people should call “B.S.” as they don’t know if its real or if you made it up. Don’t give them that opportunity by being lazy.
  2. Consider the source, use more than one when possible. The replies to the Facebook posting of that charge that quoted less biased sources like The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal had more credibility with me than any others. They were journalistic sources and there were more than one. If there was only one source one may be reminded of the line from The Merchant of Venice that “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” If I wanted to comment about the health inspector’s concern about the rat population explosion around the Occupy DC shantytown from Fox News, those on the left may discredit it as being from “Faux News”. If I however I post the story from the Washington Post and left-leaning Huffington Post, I eliminate the perceived bias.
  3. Provide context. The Post and WSJ articles on the debt make the data relevant by putting it in context of the gross domestic product, or the debt burden. For example, if I was making commentary about living within one’s means, my argument is stronger if I frame the assertion that a $50,000 car is “too much car” by putting it in the context that the median household income in 2009 was $50,221 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
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