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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

America needs more — not less — cynicism

The Pew study should alarm us all, if

The Pew study should alarm us all, if we weren't already. It suggests that about three-quarters of us are easily misled, and that -- gulp! -- we might be among them. Credit: iStock

The Pew Research Center released a disquieting study this month showing that just 26 percent of Americans surveyed can consistently distinguish factual statements from opinion statements in news stories. The 5,035-person study also found, perhaps less surprisingly, that Americans are more likely to view statements they agree with as “factual” even when they’re merely opinion.

You’d think from all the ads we see everyday — between 4,000 and 10,000 according to some estimates — that we’d be Einsteins at spotting spin. But we’re not. In fact, I’d posit we’re getting more gullible by the day, or maybe just more beaten down by never-ending commercial and political indoctrination tactics. (Opinion.)

I tried to train my daughters to defend themselves against the persuasion onslaught when they were little: After some random TV ad played during “Hey Arnold” or (Hey) “Jesse,” I’d pause the television screen and challenge them to spot the deception in the commercial: What language was missing?; what phrase was ambiguous?; what did the admaker want you to believe without promising it was true, and, most important, what does that tell you?

I have no idea if my exercises in cynicism took hold with my daughters — or if they did permanent damage to their ability to trust anyone or anything in life — but I’m glad we tried them. If there’s a sucker born every minute, none of us is immune. (One daughter is now incapacitated by laughter every time an ad for a new pill is forced to tell the truth: “Zanzlyta may cause hemorrhoids, eye bleeding, genital lesions or spontaneous combustion leading to death, in some cases all at once. Talk to your doctor . . .”)

But nowhere is the current lack of discernment ability between fact and opinion less funny and more worrisome than in political discourse. The Pew study should alarm us all, if we weren’t already. It suggests that about three-quarters of us are easily misled, and that — gulp! — we might be among them.

I remember shaking my head once watching a World War II propaganda video produced by German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. “Just a minute, ladies and gentlemen,” the voiceover begins, “here’s something you ought to know.” Images of happy Germans at work are overlaid with charts showing rising German employment numbers from 1933 to 1936. “All the Fuhrer’s work!,” the voice continues. “That’s all you need know.”

How stupid could they be, I thought at the time. The audacity of the clause — “That’s all you need know” — can you imagine trying that today? Hahaha.

I don’t need to imagine it anymore. We all see it everyday: Millions of Americans now accept political messaging far dumber and less truthful than what Joseph Goebbels presented in his paternalistic 1936 employment ad.

And here’s the really scary thing: We have the means to fact check any statement made today with a few taps of a glass screen, yet we so often don’t. Maybe we don’t want facts to get in the way of our conclusions.

The emphasis in American classrooms when I grew up was the so-called “Three R’s,” Reading, riting and rithmetic. Now it’s STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Maybe it’s time to add a class in spotting BULL, no acronym needed.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.