What do Donald Trump, less reputable politicians, and dubious news sources all have in common?

Besides a certain sleaziness, they all have a tendency to present words and facts out of context in a way that distorts what actually occurred.

In all fields of expertise, presentation/observation/understanding of events and facts in context is vital. That’s why archeologists excavate so carefully, because the context in which objects are found can often reveal even more than the objects themselves.

It’s why courts use the phrase “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

As I’ve noted earlier, there’s a great deal of difference between the handling of classified documents by Donald Trump and by Joe Biden or Mike Pence, because the context in each instance is very different.

This lack of understanding also results in the misapplication and misunderstanding of certain phrases. The despicable Harvey Weinstein used a common and accurate phrase – “it’s a small world” as a threat to his victims which suggested that he knew enough people to blackball those women from getting future work in entertainment. There’s no doubt that Weinstein was using that phrase as a threat, but the plain fact is that the world of entertainment is a small world. So is the world of classical music. So is the political arena.

But when a classical music instructor told a pupil who’d displayed thoughtless and rude behavior to be careful in the future because classical music was a small world, the pupil complained that the instructor had issued a threat, when no threat was even implied. All the instructor meant was that a pattern of bad or thoughtless behavior would get around, and not to the student’s benefit, but the student likely didn’t understand the contextual difference.

But because of the Weinstein cases, and the publicity involving that phrase, what was an honest and accurate observation of a number of professional fields has become a toxic phrase, all because the media, especially, failed to understand the difference in context.

And, with Twitter, social media, and even mainstream media shortening everything, there’s a growing loss of context… and a corresponding lack of understanding that benefits no one.

Weather Forecasts – Accuracy?

I’ve noted earlier that weather forecasts for Cedar City tend to be hit or miss, possibly because Cedar City is roughly fifteen miles north of Black Ridge, and Black Ridge is the southern end of the plateau on which Cedar City is situated. South of Black Ridge, the ground drops close to three thousand feet in less than thirty miles.

I understand the difficulties this poses for forecasters, especially since Cedar City is not exactly a major metropolitan area, but as I write this, it’s been snowing consistently for the past six hours, and we’ve gotten about seven inches of snow, and it’s still falling.

All the forecasts say it’s partly cloudy and that we’ll have scattered snow showers.

I’ve lived in New England at the foot of the White Mountains, in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and here in Cedar City, essentially between three mountain ranges, and in none of those places would seven inches of snow be considered intermittent snow flurries or showers.

Last night, Cedar City was supposed to have flurries. We got about three inches of snow.

I understand that the location of Cedar City makes forecasting difficult, but still stating that it’s partly cloudy with possible snow flurries as the snow continues to fall strikes me as either a continuing reliance on unreliable algorithms or incompetence, if not both. It’s one thing to miss a forecast; it’s another to report the current weather wrong – continually.

Or perhaps it’s just that none of those so-called meteorologists even bothered to check with any of the 50,000 -60,000 people who are experiencing those “scattered snow showers,” because algorithms are so much more accurate than real people, not to mention, cheaper.

Learning, Knowledge, and Credentials

Sometime back, I wrote about some of the “innovations” proposed and since implemented by the local university, in order to create a three-year bachelor’s degree, a degree pushed by the state legislature. One of those “innovations” was to cut the length of the semester by twenty-percent, without any increase in the length of classes or the number of classes. Despite all the rhetoric, what that has meant is that students aren’t learning as much.

I’d thought about detailing more of the so-called improvements in education and pointing out how they actually degrade learning and how most students today know less, have lower critical thinking skills than their predecessors, and have more difficulty learning and recalling material.

But there’s little point in that exercise. Most of the American people have turned their backs on what used to be the objective of education, especially higher education, and that was the ability to read and write critically, to think analytically, to understand what numbers actually mean, and to obtain the skills to be able to learn and to attain new skills on a lifelong basis.

Instead, public education, at least through the collegiate baccalaureate level, has largely become a charade of exercises in mastering objective tests and obtaining paper credentials in the hopes of leveraging an inadequate education and an overstated degree into a job that will provide an adequate income.

It’s also become an incredibly expensive exercise, as millions of young Americans with massive student debt can testify, especially given that we’re graduating twice as many students from college every year as there are jobs requiring a college degree, and yet the mindless push for more students to go to college continues.

At the same time, we’re seeing a growing contempt for science, for verified facts, and for reasoned analysis of everything, while unthinking tribalism is running wild. All that suggests to me that, despite record high numbers of high school graduates and the proliferation of college degrees, the possession of credentials, and the mastery of the cellphone, Google, and objective tests, doesn’t help much with critical thinking, logical writing, or understanding and solving the problems facing the world.

The “News-Objectivity” Debate

Once upon a time, say sixty years ago, media news was largely about facts and an average reader or listener could usually figure out what was accurate and what was not. No, the news wasn’t perfect, and government hid information back then as well, but most media outlets devoted much more time and effort to digging up hard news, especially the facts. Today, all too many “news” outlets trumpet opinions second-hand and focus on sensationalist “exposes,” often about lesser matters.

It doesn’t really matter whether Hillary Clinton used a private server for some official emails. So did Colin Powell, and there’s no real evidence that either’s use compromised U.S. security. Hunter Biden tried to cash in on his father’s position. So did Billy Carter. Again, there’s no evidence that either President Carter or President Biden did anything wrong. Millions of Americans have greedy relatives. Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinski was deplorable and in terrible taste, but the fate of the free world didn’t exactly hang on a stained dress. So what else is new?

When thousands of people try to storm the U.S. Capitol and overturn an election that state officials from both parties declare was the fairest ever – that is a big deal. And so is a President inciting the mob or repeatedly committing tax fraud.

How did we get to a point where the facts and hard news take a back seat (or are often ignored) to unfounded lies and to those who trumpet them?

Largely because too many in the media have come to focus on what gets people excited and stirred up and how people feel. That drives ratings and profits, even for so-called “staid” and established media outlets such as The New York Times.

The other problem is that far too many media news outlets have focused on “fairness,” falsely equating objectivity to giving both sides equal time/airspace/column inches or the like. Today, the news continues to equate the fact that President Biden inadvertently had a few classified documents in his house and office with the hundreds of classified documents willfully taken and kept by former President Trump. The news media also gave up on noting Trump’s documented tens of thousands of lies and misstatements but scrutinizes Biden’s every statement for even minor inconsistencies.

In such cases, the news media are literally undermining their own objectivity, not that they seem to care that much, but objectivity isn’t measured or determined by equal time or by political beliefs; it’s established by verified facts – and by the lack of facts.

Opinions not backed by facts shouldn’t get equal time. Their shortcomings need to be exposed – factually – and the news needs to concentrate on what actually happened and how, instead of continually churning up the falsehoods and the liars who spout them.

Will this change? Only for the worse, I suspect, because Mammon is now the American God.

“Magic Thinking”

“Magic Thinking” is the idea that belief can change the physical world. Now, I’d be the first to admit that someone’s beliefs can motivate them to accomplish great things, but in the end it is the accomplishments that can change the world, not the beliefs. Belief is the first step, and at least in my experience, the easiest.

Yet today, all over the United States, we’ve had a resurgence of “magic thinking” totally divorced from reality.

How can a culture that promotes Viagra, movies and television with intense sexual content, that supplies its young people with private transportation and funds, and that now has the largest gap between the age of physical maturity and financial and social maturity honestly believe that abstinence is going to be practiced for ten years or more by a significant fraction of the young population? It isn’t; and the facts show it, but legislators across the country continue to push abstinence as the solution and to reject any form of realistic sex education. But then again, perhaps Twitter or TikTok might increase abstinence, but not the rhetoric of rightwing fundamentalist legislators.

Thirty to thirty-five percent of the American population continues to believe that the 2020 Presidential election was “stolen,” despite study after study, audit after audit, and election officials from both major parties declaring that it was a free and fair election and that the results are accurate.

Scientific study after study has also shown there’s no significant difference in overall mental ability of human beings linked to skin color, but significant percentages of populations in the U.S., Japan, China, and elsewhere believe such a difference exists, when all the evidence links the vast majority of differences to nutrition and income.

There’s a simple fact that all too many “magic thinkers” don’t understand: The strength of one’s beliefs does not make something so. All the denying in the world isn’t going to change physical facts. Unfortunately, magic thinking can lead to riots and storming the Capitol, or to unwanted and neglected children born out of wedlock, or to massacres of people who are different.