I always marvel at my ability to be unduly influenced when reading an editorial, op-ed column or blog post that expresses the writer’s point of view with such unyielding conviction that an aura of concrete certainty seems to attach to it.
I will adopt this point of view, I chant to myself, mesmerized by the apparent inevitability of the writer’s argument. This must be the definitive position, I humbly acknowledge. No other argument can refute this.
Then I wake up. Some inner sense, deeply buried but carefully voiced by a decade of writing editorials and another decade of teaching opinion writing, whispers authoritatively in my ear: Denny, it’s really bullshit. You know that, don’t you?
That’s my problem. I often don’t know. And I bet I’m not alone in that admission, either.
Words can seduce. Clever artifice of sentence construction, married to incomplete context and mistress to a well-built lie, can whisper Come hither, you shallow, sleepy mind, and bend to my will.
I slip into this frame of mind, caught between wanting to believe but needing evidence, in the last week of August each year, because I teach opinion writing in the fall semester. Come Tuesday next at 2:30, 13 young men and women whom I’ve taught before and whose writing and thinking I admire will be awaiting instruction in how to write an opinion.
The actual instruction takes less than one minute: Make one point, support it, then shut up — but eloquently. The rest of the semester is practice, practice, practice.
But teaching the most prized quality of good opinion writers — constructing a good bullshit detector — is difficult. That’s because the young are generally caught between naivete and cynicism. Learning to be skeptical is demanding.
Astronomer Margaret Geller, quoted in “The Whole Shebang” by Tim Ferris, said:
I have a strongly held skepticism about any strongly held beliefs, especially my own.
Teaching my young charges to be skeptical about their own beliefs — or their own interpretations of apparent facts — as well as those of others lies at the core of my course. Good opinion writing requires astute navigation through gray waters of conflicting facts and dogma. It’s hard to figure out who’s got the handle on Truth. Said physicist Niels Bohr:
The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.
What I rely on is shepherding them through the distinction between cynicism and skepticism:
A cynic attributes all actions to selfish motives. A skeptic has doubts about expressions of certainty and wants evidence for claims.
That’s easier said than done, because naivete threads itself between both. Hell, I’m 61. I still think TV ads tell the truth. It’s hard work to ferret out the many lies told in politics and commerce instead of simply acquiescing to an apparently Wiser Voice.
So I teach them a frame of mind: Skepticism is a weapon.
Skepticism is a weapon.
Skepticism deflects spin, propaganda, P.R., B.S., press agents, publicity seekers, hearsay, unnamed sources, and anyone with a hidden agenda.
Skepticism is that little voice that tells you you’ll never be a millionaire with little or no money down.
Skepticism is the sneaking suspicion that all aspirin are alike.
Skepticism is a quality shared by truth seekers, freethinkers and realists.
Skepticism demands that proof and facts be unsanitized, uncensored and unembellished.
Skepticism makes the world accountable.
Skepticism is a virtue.
That’s the motto of the late, lamented (at least by me) media watchdog publication Brill’s Content. The advice is a wonderful antidote to being suckered.
This semester, as I teach it to my students, I hope I finally learn it as well.