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Shannon Casas: Let's find some facts and allow debate to stretch our minds rather than close them
Shannon Casas high res

I had an argument with a 5-year-old this week. Well, more than one — but one that got particularly heated.

“What would you do?” he challenged me. About what? It was unclear. But he was quite angry I wouldn’t give him an answer in the midst of his meltdown.

He’s smart, but he’s not quite ready for the debate stage. Perhaps I’m not either, given that I let myself get sucked into these arguments.

It’s easy to get sucked into an argument, though. It’s harder to listen, think and respond thoughtfully. That takes extra brain power.

Some nights I’m all out of brain power.

So, sitting on the floor of our sunroom I faced this child and his barrage of accusations and questions.

Some days scrolling through my email inbox and social media feed feels similar.

We all know Facebook is a place where arguments devolve into nonsense much more often than people learn to see another side of an important issue.

My goal for this newspaper’s Opinion page each day is that we all learn to understand new sides of important issues even if we don’t change our opinions about those issues. 

Most days, I enjoy putting together that content. Believe it or not, it puts a little skip in my step when I have received countering arguments on the same issue, whether that’s from syndicated columns, political cartoonists or letters to the editor. But really, any well argued point that lands in my inbox makes me happy, regardless of whether I agree with it. I enjoy learning other’s perspectives when they’re approached intelligently and thoughtfully.

It’s the arguments based in fallacies that leave me the same place that 5-year-old did: scratching my head wondering what in the world I’m supposed to say when we can’t agree on what we’re even arguing about. 

For this reason, I encourage those of you writing letters to the editor to cite your sources. Arguments must be based on facts first. Writing out an opinion that’s 500 words or so demands more thought than those Facebook rants laced with name-calling. And when you put more thought into it, you quickly realize what you don’t know, which hopefully leads to some fact-finding. 

Of course, one of society’s biggest problems in 2019 is that we can’t agree on what a fact is anymore. There’s so much information floating about in cyberspace, that even those looking for the facts often can’t find them. 

Knowing which sources to turn to seems to be growing ever more difficult.

From my professional standpoint, there are a few key things to look for from your sources of information:

  • A tradition and goal of providing accurate information

  • The ability to contact someone at the organization, i.e. not anonymous

  • Information as close to the original source as possible

And whenever you find multiple independent sources confirming the same information, you’re likely getting something legitimate.

Once we have some legitimate facts, then we can form some opinions worth debating.

And as we’re debating those opinions, we can keep returning to sources of information and broadening our knowledge as we strengthen our arguments. 

If you’re hearing only from one side of an argument, your list of facts, as legitimate as they may be, is likely limited. This is where you sometimes see national media appear biased. There’s context missing, even if all the information there is technically accurate.

Our Facebook feeds are also usually biased, as algorithms show you only the information you seem to like.

So dip out of Facebook for a while and seek out some well-sourced opinions. You don’t have to change your mind, just stretch it a bit. 

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a foster parent. You can hear her most weeks on the Inside The Times podcast on iTunes or Google Play.

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