March 2, 2004

That DNA thing again. I wrote the other day about how journalists have been repeating a drastically wrong statistic about DNA exonerations that John Kerry used during the California debate last week. One of my readers wrote to Slate about William Saletan's praise for Kerry's use of this statistic, on the theory that Slate would want to correct the underlying error. Saletan, unlike some of the other journalists, did not actually repeat the bad number, but he did say:
The DNA stuff is good, too: As an argument against the death penalty, the risk of executing innocent people polls much better than moral absolutism does.

Saletan wrote back (and gave permission to quote on this weblog):
I'm happy to correct anything I wrote that's wrong. I don't see anything that I wrote here that's wrong. Your problem seems to be with the number Kerry used and I didn't, so I think Kerry's the guy you need to ask for a correction.

To me, this seems to concede that all journalists do is comment on how everything sounded, rather than to try to figure out whether the actual positions are sound. Also, I can't help thinking that they would have eagerly exposed outrageously wrong assertions of fact if Bush had made them or if a supporter of the death penalty had relied on a statistic that was off by a factor of ten. Saletan does have lots of good and bad to say all around, about all of the candidates, and I do understand that it is awkward to come back to an old piece and raise some secondary point about it. And anyway, Saletan was just making suggestions on how to "poll much better," and not on how to get to the truth about anything.

But really, what gets me in all of this DNA business that I've gotten myself involved in talking about--and I don't have an agenda one way or the other on the death penalty right now--is that people don't notice when facts sound really wrong. Why doesn't a little mental alarm go off and make you think: that doesn't sound right, could that be true? We get so wrapped up in the theatrics of the campaigning and the rhetorical maneuvers in the debates, which seem so interesting to talk about. But why don't we care more about the actual content? If someone said 38 times 46 is 180 thousand, you would know the math was wrong, even if you didn't have the exact right answer in your head. You'd never just repeat the assertion as if it were true. Why don't we have more of a sense of what is true about the real world? And how can we trust ourselves to judge the candidates unless we have some grounding in facts?

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