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Opinion: Skepticism shouldn’t be political. We've got a few tips on how to know what to believe
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Health care crisis. Racial equality crisis. Political crisis. Economic crisis. Constitutional crisis. Mental health crisis. Law enforcement crisis.

Pick a topic, and there is a pretty good chance the “crisis” label has been applied to it, and rightfully so, in 2020.

But there is another form of crisis that is interwoven into all the others, providing the putrid foundation on which many of the other issues fester and foment.

It is a crisis of credibility. Simply put, many of us no longer know who to believe or what to trust.

From biased news reporting to lying politicians to viral misinformation to doctored photos and videos, our belief in our ability to gather facts and act accordingly has been shaken to the core, leaving us too often to have faith in what we want to be true rather than what demonstrably is true.

The rise of social media and the breadth of its scope have played the major role in the confusion over facts that too often seems to be rampant among us. Add to that the stresses of trying to deal with an international pandemic, and the traditional butchering of facts evident during every election cycle, and it’s no surprise that many of us are no longer sure of the validity of the information we receive.

The good news is that we have access to more information than ever before in the history of the world; the bad is that much of that information is inaccurate, falsified, intentionally misleading, anecdotal or skewed to satisfy a particular belief system.

Increasingly, what we accept as factual depends on political beliefs rather than research, logic and critical thinking. Nowhere is that more evident than in the national reaction to information about the coronavirus.

Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager

  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown

  • David George

  • Mandy Harris

  • Brent Hoffman

  • J.C. Smith

  • Tom Vivelo

A survey by the Pew Research Center conducted in June shows that the most trusted source for information about the coronavirus outbreak is the CDC, with some 64% of those surveyed feeling the agency was right “almost all or most of the time.” But the partisan divide in the results was significant; 76% of Democrats surveyed trusted the CDC, compared to only 51% of Republicans.

The political split in the trustworthiness of other sources of information on the virus was even greater.

Only 44% of those surveyed said they trusted news media to be accurate in reporting information about the virus. Only 25% of those who identified as Republican trusted news media compared to 60% of Democrats.

The greatest partisan divide over accurate information on the virus, as might be expected, was in opinions about the credibility of the Trump administration in providing accurate information. Overall, only 30% of those surveyed said they trusted the administration to get the facts right. The survey found 54% of those who trusted the administration were Republican, compared to only 9% who were Democrat.

Another Pew survey, this one taken in April, found that 43% of those adults questioned had a “great deal” of confidence in medical scientists to act in the best interests of the public,” which was much higher than the 24% who felt that way when asked in 2016. But again, the partisan split was a big one: 53% of Democrats had confidence in medical scientists compared to 31% of Republicans.

Let those overall results sink in for a minute. The findings of the surveys are that people are making life and death decisions about a disease that has killed hundreds of thousands around the globe based not on their understanding of medicine or science or human frailty but rather according to their political beliefs.

It is not surprising that such is the case, and both political parties are to blame. Asked to describe a blank, white canvas sitting on an easel, many in the Democratic Party leadership would insist to the world that it was awash in brilliant shades of blue, while their Republican counterparts would argue that the brilliant reds were awe inspiring.

It is no wonder the populace is reluctant to believe what it sees and accepts instead what it is told. Remember the folktale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” all those who spoke glowingly of the wardrobe modeled by their naked leader, because that was what they were expected to do?

Are the protests in the nation’s cities largely peaceful or are they primarily violent? Are law enforcement efforts excessively aggressive or surprisingly restrained? Is social media showing bias in removing content it labels as misinformation, or is it negligent by allowing too much misinformation to go unchecked. It all depends on who and what you believe. 

And many do not know what to believe.

At the core of all these issues are some basic facts that cannot be altered regardless of bias or opinion, and we have an obligation to make the effort to discern those for ourselves. There are some ways you can better educate yourself on what is truthful, and what is not:

Find multiple, different sources for information. Don’t depend on one perspective. Form your opinions on data gathered from different sources and different perspectives, using as a foundation the areas in which they seem to agree.

Search for facts, not opinions or political positions. Look for words — progressive, right-wing, leftist, conservative, liberal — that indicate a bias by the source that might skew the facts.

Depend on sources you have found to be reliable in the past. If you trust your personal doctor, listen to her. If there is a local politician in which you have faith, listen to him. If local news media has proven accurate in the past, pay attention to it rather than national news sources. (Hopefully, The Times falls into that category.)

Do not depend on social media for news. Social media platforms do not employ journalists. They do not write stories or research facts. Other sources, many of them suspect, provide information to social media. Find the originating source on whatever data you gather and convince yourself it is trustworthy. The fact that something is often repeated on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t make it true.

Consume information thoroughly. Don’t just read a headline and jump to a conclusion. Study the full content of any news story or video.

Do not repeat bad information. Whether it is in casual conversation or by sharing a post or meme, endorsing bad information puts your own credibility, and reputation, at risk. Be sure that what you share is accurate by doing your own homework first.

We have a credibility crisis in our country that is exacerbating all the other issues and undermining our ability to find solutions to problems. The only way we can make it go away is to demand factual information on all fronts and reject that which we cannot confidently endorse as true. The onus is on us all.

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