Who to Believe?

One day, when the then-unknown snipers (John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo) were terrorizing residents in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Northern Virginia, my son said to me, “I just found out today that the sniper is in our area.” I responded, “I doubt that. I don’t think anyone has a clue as to where he is from day to day.”

To which my adolescent son vigorously retorted, “I know for a fact that he’s in our area.” Masochistically, I took the bait and asked him how so. “Because all the kids in school were talking about it,” he replied with certainty in his voice.

A classic father-adolescent discussion then ensued. My son’s position was that if all the kids in school were saying it was true, that proved it was true. Which meant that I was confronted with the frustrating task of trying to make him understand that adolescent chatter has no relationship whatsoever to the subject of proof.

If you have, or have had, teenagers in your household, you’re probably smiling and shaking your head up and down right now. But it’s not all that funny when you stop to think about how many unsubstantiated things we, as adults, believe.

When I was in my early twenties, a doctor diagnosed a malignant tumor in my left sinus. Without taking the trouble to get a second opinion, I quickly found myself on an operating table. Fortunately for me, the story had a happy ending: The doctor’s diagnosis was wrong.

How wrong? Well, not only was the “tumor” not malignant, it wasn’t even a tumor. Rather, it was nothing more than a harmless clump of polyp that could have remained in my sinus forever without causing a problem.

Sometime after the operation, I went to another doctor for a checkup. After looking at my x-rays, he told me that he never would have operated on me. He said it was obvious to him from the pictures that it was nothing more than a polyp. (What a great time to get a second opinion!)

It took at least six months for me to fully recover from the operation, and the pain in the early going was excruciating. Then there was the loss of valuable work time and quality time with my family. The stress and fear I endured were free of charge, of course.

It was a pretty big price to pay for assuming that a doctor’s diagnosis was correct. As a result, I now ask a torrent of questions whenever I visit a doctor’s office, which tends to cause him/her to harbor an intense dislike for me. And that, in turn, often results in my saying my goodbyes early and finding another doctor who is more willing to answer my questions.

Now, here’s the sticky part. The reality is that most of your life is based on information and assumptions you have never verified. For you control freaks out there, you may find that hard to accept.

When you get on an airplane, how do you know that one of the pilots isn’t inebriated? The fact is, they sometimes are. As you may recall, one pilot – I believe he worked for Northwest Airlines – was arrested by the FBI some years ago when he landed in Minneapolis. The FBI had gotten a tip from someone that he had been drinking heavily the night before.

I’m much more rigid than most people when it comes to taking everything with a proverbial grain of salt. My motto is: Assume nothing. If your mother says she loves you, check it out! Even so, on occasion I still find myself assuming things that I have no sound reason for assuming.

For example, a few weeks ago I took my wife and son to a Washington Nationals game at (ugh) RFK Stadium. We’re talking old here. RFK Stadium makes the Coliseum in Rome look like a state-of-the-art structure.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching a game in this ancient relic, the best way to describe it is that you don’t need to ask anyone where the nearest toilet is. RFK Stadium is the toilet!

But, other than the filth and the irritating fact that people insist on calling the Senators the Nationals, the team is the surprise of Major League Baseball. Damn Yankees, here we come!

We arrived at the game early, because we didn’t have tickets. When we got to the ticket windows, we were surprised to find that there were about a dozen lines, each about 50 people deep.

Suddenly, a man in a uniform (always a bad sign) said to the people at the back end of the lines, “If you go right around the corner to Gate F, there are more ticket windows and no waiting.” Totally disregarding Ringer Rule No. 228 about never believing anyone in a uniform, I quickly hurried off toward Gate F with my wife and son.

I felt like Lawrence of Arabia making his way through the Sahara Desert – humid, 95-degree heat, and desperate for something to drink. But, hey, what’s the big deal about a few hundred feet or so?

I’ll tell you what the big deal was: The few hundred feet turned out to be all the way around on the other side of the stadium – which, in the heat and humidity, made it feel like we were walking to Baltimore! And all because I assumed that the guy in the uniform knew what he was talking about.

I’m sure by now you’ve guessed the Homer Simpson ending: The lines at Gate F were as long as or longer than they were at the main ticket windows. At this point, I was ready to start digging a water well with my bare hands.

My stint as Lawrence of Arabia got me to thinking about just how many things even the most anti-assumptive among us take on faith. It also reminded me of a reader who had recently sent me an e-mail that stated, in part:

“I’m an ETR subscriber and fan of your column. Your recent rant about the tidal wave of BS with which we are flooded was a good one, to say the least. However, you can’t sling BS about famous psychologists who claim to, but don’t actually have, doctorate degrees without naming names. … So, come on, who are you writing about?”

It was a nice letter and, I had to admit, a reasonable question. In part, I responded with, “I would never reveal the name of someone in a situation like this, for obvious reasons. Since the person (the ‘psychologist’ with no degree in psychology) is in his seventies and hasn’t written a book in more than 20 years, I doubt you would ever have reason to read anything written by him.”

I guess what I was really telling the reader was that he would have to take my word for it. Which brings me back to my son, who, two years after his “the sniper is in our area” statement, had came full circle and asked me (in response to someone whom I had quoted to him), “How can you be sure that he’s right about that?”

I’m glad he asked the question, because it reminded me that whenever I read or hear something, the weight I give it is a personal judgment based on my confidence in the person who is conveying the information. When John Stossel recently reported that, contrary
to popular belief, the rubber tires on your car do not protect you from being struck by lightning, I believed him.

Why? Because, having listened to Stossel for years, I am confident that his research is thorough. He has exploded hundreds of myths that have made him a target of hate from both the left and right, from environmental and conservation groups to corporate America. Which, in my opinion, gives him impeccable credentials.

As I’m sure is the case with you, I have a long list of authors who are on my credibility list – Eric Hoffer, Will Durant, Harry Browne, Henry Hazlitt, Paul Johnson, and, of course, John Stossel, to name but a few. Though our opinions may differ on occasion, I tend to accept most of what they say as fact.

No one has the time to do so-called original research on every piece of information he requires before taking action. The skill is in picking the right sources for your information.

When you’re young and inexperienced, you are more inclined to believe people who tell you what you want to hear. In my twenties, I probably would have bought a used car from Bill Clinton. I can just hear him saying to me, “I can guarantee you that I did not have sexual relations with that car.” And, just like that, I probably would have driven off the lot with a pregnant Chevy.

But when you have a little experience behind you, you become pretty good at knowing who you can believe and who to distrust. Experience is important, because most of the information you act on is based on your faith in the provider of that information.

Authors, in particular, are in the business of offering information and opinions. After enough experience with a writer, you come to have either more or less faith in what he has to say. It’s the same with everyone you deal with.

And, remember, you don’t have to agree with everything an author or anyone else says in order to learn something valuable from him or her. Take what you think sounds right and leave the rest.

You might liken the millions of words that appear every day in newspapers, magazines, books, and on the Internet to a giant information buffet from which you can pick and choose as you please.

The trick, of course, is to choose wisely.