In my field, it’s that time of year when best-movie lists are announced, and while sequels like Transformers 3 and Twilight 4.1 have dominated the box office this year, they’re not showing up on critics’ lists. Instead, critics are touting little-seen movies like The Artist or Beginners (both of which happen to feature scene-stealing Jack Russell terriers, as seen in the video above). That is, there’s a vast disparity between what’s popular and what’s actually good. This will cause a lot of handwringing, as usual, at the Academy, since they would love the popular and the good to be in sync so that more people watch the Oscar show. It will also cause grumbling among contrarians who would dismiss critics as out-of-touch elitists. But the idea that the most popular movie must also be the best is nonsense. If that were true, the People’s Choice Awards would be taken more seriously than the Oscars. In fact, why have awards at all? Why not just look at the box office chart and give the best movie prize to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II?
The notion that validity should be determined simply by popularity has infected our politics as well. There was a good example of this last week in the kerfuffle over Politifact rating the Democrats’ assertion that Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan would end Medicare as “the Lie of the Year.” It was a curious choice, since the finalists included other, more brazen lies, such as Sen. Jon Kyl’s assertion that abortion accounts for more than 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s activity, a claim Kyl’s own office said “was not intended to be a factual statement”) or presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s evidence-free assertion that the human papillomavirus vaccine can cause mental retardation. In contrast, the Medicare line comes down to, at best, a difference of interpretation. It’s a lie only if you buy the Republican argument that changing Medicare from a single-payer, guaranteed, cost-saving, government-provided health insurance program for seniors and future seniors into a
single-payer, guaranteed, cost-saving, government-provided health insurance voucher program for seniors and future seniors doesn’t actually end Medicare.
Accompanying Politifact’s ruling was a readers’ poll, which Ryan tried to game by urging his supporters to vote for the Medicare claim. Politifact says it’s not influenced in its decision by the readers’ poll (indeed, the Medicare assertion finished only third there), but then, why have a poll at all? What difference does it make how many people say something is true or false? Reality ought to exist independent of what people perceive it to be. But in today’s politics, reality is simply the delusion that has the most votes.
That’s the sad thing about this fiasco. Not only can we no longer agree on policy (if, indeed, we ever could), but we can’t even agree on basic terms, on what is true and what is false. You get truth from your media sources, which tell you that the other side’s sources are hopelessly biased and dishonest, and I get my truth from my media sources, which say just the opposite. There is no independent source trusted by both sides to referee reality. Politifact and other fact-checking news operations were meant to fill that vacuum, but it was becoming clear, even before Politifact’s Medicare controversy, that no one was buying the notion of fact-checkers as unbiased. Recent criticisms of fact-checking have come from both the right (here, here, and here) and the left (here, here, and here).
A fact-checker might respond (as, indeed, Politifact’s Bill Adair did) that, if they’re being criticized by both sides, they must be doing something right. Of course, that would be true only if both sides’ criticism were equally valid. Instead, Adair and his cohorts are buying into the narrative that both sides are equally dishonest (a narrative that creates a cynicism about politics that ultimately supports the conservative myth that government can never solve problems, only create them or make them worse), as well as the narrative that, if you criticize both sides, both sides will learn to trust you. (Nah, they’ll still call you a liar when it’s their ox that’s gored.) A truly independent fact-checking apparatus wouldn’t worry about ideological balance in its results (only in its approach), and it wouldn’t care what readers thought, no matter how many of them agree or disagree.
One is reminded of the old riddle, often attributed to Abraham Lincoln*, asking how many legs a dog would have if you call a tail a leg. Answer: Still just four, since calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it so. You’d think we could all agree on that, but sometimes the tail wags the dog, and sometimes the dog with the best tale has no legs to stand on.
*There’s no proof Lincoln ever said this, but it makes for a good story, which is all that matters.