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Monday, November 08, 2004

The Burden of Proof

The other day I was reading a blog written by a woman who lives and works in Connecticut. I have never met her, but she is friendly with my older sister… and her personal story has sort of caught my interest. Hers isn’t a political blog, but for some reason she recently included part of a news story from Yahoo News about the current confusion surrounding Arafat’s condition.

No big deal… but it was interesting that she would post it, and nice to see her taking an interest in this part of the world.

The article she had quoted didn’t offer anything new (is there ever anything truly new?), but I was curious to see what kind of comments it had gotten.

The first comment was a fairly innocuous;

"Now let’s see what happens next in the Middle East after his passing."

Ho Hum.

The second comment said:

"He isn’t actually dead yet, that’s info from the Israelis and you can trust them about as far as you can throw them, especially on info about Arafat."

The commenter then went on to offer a link to a source he considered unimpeachable; The BBC.

You might think that’s what sent my blood pressure through the roof. Well, you’d be wrong. What set me off was the response offered by the blogger… a professed liberal Democrat… saying,

"Thanks [name of commenter]! I’ll check it out… :-)"

Huh?! Excuse Me?!

Now, as I said, this woman does not profess to be particularly political… and my assumption is that she is not really up on what’s going on in the Middle East. In other words, that makes her a typical American.

Most Americans know about as much about Israel and the history of the Arab/Israeli conflict as I know about the conflict in Northern Ireland… meaning, not very much. They buy the big lies coming out of the Palestinian camp because they see the media buying the little lies.

I was not particularly surprised that no two Palestinian sources agreed on Arafat’s condition. Conflicting announcements and outright lies are part & parcel of the way they do business. These were the big lies. The small lies that everyone let slide were comments like the one above which stated that the confusion over Arafat’s condition was somehow due to Israeli dishonesty! The proof that the little lie had been accepted was in the blog host’s response: A thank you and a little smiley face.

Small lie told… both small and big lie accepted.

Saeb Erekat (one of the more visible Palestinian spokespeople) makes almost daily announcements that Israel is carrying out "atrocities" and "genocide" against the Palestinian people. Those are the big lies which make the talk shows and the 10:00 PM News. The lack of even the smallest shred of proof seems to bother the media not a bit. This is because the small lie is very subtle; that the Palestinian and Israeli spokespeople have earned the same credibility. The small lie in the guise of 'evenhandedness' that is continuously presented to the American public is enough to get them to swallow the big lies, hook, line and sinker.

Imams in the mosques whip their congregations into a rage by claiming that the Israelis have poisoned the water of Palestinian villages, murdered Palestinian women and children and blown up the Dome of the Rock. The fact that these things turn out to be untrue (and are easily verifiable) doesn’t bother the mob… they are comfortable with the big lie… mostly because they've grown up with the small lie; that Israelis are capable of such things.

There is a tactic in propaganda called ‘The hair of the beard’:

Simply put, if I tell you I have 10,000 hairs in my beard, you are likely to nod your head and accept this. After all, it’s my beard and it’s a relatively unimportant statistic to concede… so why not agree?

Once you nod and say OK, I have you.

Next I tell you that there are actually 15,000 hairs.

Once I’ve gotten you to accept the first number as fact, you willingly accept me as the authority on how many hairs there are. I can say whatever I want about the beard from then on… because you have surrendered any interest in verification. This is why the small lies worry me so much more than the big ones. Without the small lies - the seemingly unimportant ones that go unchallenged - there can be no big lies.

The burden of proof in this war of information seems to always fall on the Israelis. American and European culture is imbued with the notion that one is innocent until proven guilty. Yet the reverse is mostly true when it comes to Israel. I truly believe the reason for this is far less sinister than anti-Semitism.

I think it is because when Americans hear the small lie, they say ‘thank you’ and type a smiley face.  Most people are not really up on the details of the conflict, so if someone presents himself or herself as an expert on the subject (and the world has no lack of experts), then it is easier to just say, ‘OK, there are 15,000 hairs in that particular beard… now tell me something interesting’.

So what's the answer?

Forget trying to lobby Congress or sway the content of the New York Times’ Op Ed page. If you want to make a difference, spend some time showing your friends and coworkers how to think critically about the information they are receiving. If you can just get John and Jane Q. Public to spend a moment looking critically at the little lies… then when the big lie comes along, the burden of proof will fall where it belongs; on the bearded folks telling the lies.


Posted by David Bogner on November 8, 2004 | Permalink


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I've come to think that one of the problems of some many people buying lies from the media (America is just one sad example) is also one of languages. How many people in the US do really speak a second, third or even fourth language so well that they could check back with a range of sources and evaluate opinions?

Critical thought, as I see it, is being beautifully eradicated from people's minds. Because there is nothing worse to a government than citizens (sorry - voters) whose minds are switched on. This starts as soon as school, but grows far into people's privacy. Why is it that there are far more docu soaps and shopping tv channels than those with a decent political and cultural value? Because, as I think, people are easily to corrupt. Why have a hard time understanding things when there is all the soap bubbles and shopping craze?

I remember years when critical voices about American TV were heard here. About how it stupidifies. When I switch on the TV these days, I have no less than a third of all channels broadcasting the same said dullness: soaps, homeshopping, horoscopes, call-in games. I don't want to think about it, but I have the feeling that we're heading towards a new 'illiteracy', and that the differences in levels of education will be felt much. And it scares the *bleep* out of me.

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Nov 8, 2004 1:18:15 PM

Ah... yes... Sadly, I join in Mademoiselle a's lament of the demise of the critical thought process.

And, even more cynically, I think that she has hit the nail on the head with her astute observation that people are easy to corrupt. While we are on the subject of corruption - it will be interesting to see how history deals with Arafat vis-a-vis his astonishingly healthy bank account.

Of course, history's ability to deal with these facts may be obfuscated somewhat if the current reality of journalistic integrity prevents those writing history from investigating the situation rather than relying on the spokesperson du jour - la the Palestinian media machine..... Catch-22 anyone?

If, in fact, the rumored worth of Arafat is around 33 million U.S. dollars believe that this is what the New York Times recently estimated his worth, how can his corruption be disputed? I think the answer to this question goes to the very essence of this post, the small lie has been so neatly woven into the fabric of information that is regarded as truth, that the acceptance of the larger lies are hardly newsworthy or even discernable.....

Posted by: zahava | Nov 8, 2004 4:40:57 PM


Send your friend this link:


It is pretty interesting, she may not buy into it, but it is a start.

Posted by: Jack | Nov 8, 2004 5:39:47 PM

I do apologize if I offended you.

Admittedly, in my haste to reply to the comment and not really having absorbed what was written when replying to his comment.. I thanked the person for leaving another source to get more information. Not necessarily his comment on the Israelis which, I must admit, in "typical American" fashion, I really didn't even catch it until it was too late (meaning, you pointed it out). I will be far more careful in the future.

Rest assured, I take nothing at face value... which is why I welcome other resources to get more information about things that confuse me. As I've mentioned in my blog before, I don't read international papers and every day that passes I think I should.

But how am I to know which is accurate when all sides are saying the other isn't...

What's worse is that I really only posted that entry about Arafat as a reference for myself to come back to.. kind of an "on this day" type marker.

Anyway, lesson learned about staying out of things I don't know enough about... I'll stick to commenting on King Bush.

I will be deleting all the comments in that entry as soon as I am able.

Posted by: Ashamed Blogger | Nov 8, 2004 5:44:51 PM

Well, that didn't take long! A senior advisor to the PA has just announced that he believes that Israel poisoned Arafat!


Mademoiselle a. ... As usual, you are right on target about critical thinking. I'm just not sure the attempt to eradicate it is as organized as you suggest. The 'dumbing down' you describe is a symptom of laziness, more than anything. If you're right, it would be a scary scenario indeed!

Zahava... There's alway's the possibility that he was just very frugal. I mean, think about this for a second:

He spent next to nothing on clothing... his personal hygiene needs were, um, minimal... he didn't have many travel expenses (what with being cooped up in Ramallah all this time). If you do the math, he could maybe sorta have saved up the amount you're talking about on a despot's salary! :-)

Jack... You just did. thanks.

Ashamed Blogger... Don't be (ashamed, that is). You noticed that I didn't name you or provide a link to your blog while I was ranting. You have nothing to apologize for. In fact, you helped me put my finger on somthing that has eluded me during the many times I've found myself yelling at the evening news. I admire your interest in becoming more familiar with international affairs, and I encourage you to read all the sources... not just one side. The wonderful thing is that when you hear both sides, the liar is usually pretty easy to spot. You're a parent, so you probably already knew that!

Also, don't delete the post or the comments on my account. I have never asked anyone to edit their blog to suit me, and I'm not abut to start now. You have a wonderful sense of humor and I'd hate to have you start second-guessing yourself just because I felt the need to vent over here at my place.

Don't worry... you and I are just fine.

Posted by: David | Nov 8, 2004 5:53:56 PM

I'm sure I'm being naive here, (shocking, I know) but what possible reason could Israel have for hiding Arafat's death? As opposed to, say, celebrating with a glass of wine and maybe a nice piece of pie, and going on with their lives?

Posted by: Tanya | Nov 8, 2004 6:07:43 PM

Tanya... Nobody said it had to make sense! I'm assuming that they were implying that the Israeli's were trying to throw the PA into turmoil by prematurely announcing arafat's death.

I just came across a great example of Saeb Erekat's chutzpah:

"I hope the Israeli public will show sensitivities. I've seen some Israelis dancing in the streets, hugging each other other yesterday,'' Erekat told CNN. "I think it's alien... I cannot describe my feelings. It's heartbreaking to see Israelis hugging and kissing in such circumstances."

Oh, you mean sensitive like the Palestinians dancing in the street and passing out candy to children whenever there is a bus bombing? Sensitive like that???

Give me strength! [hat tip to Israellycool]

Posted by: David | Nov 8, 2004 6:23:48 PM

Great stuff, David.

As a "typical American" I have been trying to gain familiarity with Middle East events. The problem I'm finding is that the more you unravel, the more you discover that you don't know. It's not an easy onion to peel. That's part of the reason I come here, and I'm happy to see you weigh in on the Arafat issue.

Posted by: Jim | Nov 8, 2004 6:47:56 PM

Ah... yes... Sadly, I join in Mademoiselle a's lament of the demise of the critical thought process.

Call me a snob, but I am not sure that there ever was a time in which critical thought was more prevalent than it is now. So I think that news of it's demise is greatly exaggerated. Thanks Mr. Twain.

One of the things that I find funny are the complaints I read/hear from people who assert that the American media is biased and inaccurate. The reason I laugh is that I have often found that they are among the same people who do not spend any time questioning what they read, they simply accept it.

So what is the difference between them and the "stupid American public" they prattle on about.

In large part I think that the problem is that too few people are willing to peel the onion so that they really understand the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Posted by: Jack | Nov 8, 2004 7:04:33 PM

Jack, correct me if I'm wrong again -- but I thought that in times where societies should be proud to finally have achieved a fair level of education for theoretically everyone, it is shameful to witness that now of all times, much is done to corrupt the masses to not take advantage of it (and train critical thought).

If in other times there was critical thought, then should it not be noted that that was likely to have been a privilege of only a small percentage in a society - if, at all?

But maybe I got you wrong, because I did not really get what you were hinting at (hint, hint).

David, it was the Mossad B} Hey, that's a running gag from Holy Land, not my fault! Wasn't it predictable? But rest assured - there is another rumour saying that Y.A. invoked Allah's scorn for having particular interests. So much on rumours and myths.

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Nov 8, 2004 7:50:51 PM

Hi Mademoiselle a.,

Critical thought is something that should be promoted. But I don't buy the argument that the government or any other body is intentionally trying to squelch it.

If there is a dearth of it I think that in large part it is an end result of an instant gratification society, not the intentional product of the "leadership."

But critical thought requires knowing when to look and when to just accept things too.

Posted by: Jack | Nov 8, 2004 9:04:25 PM

Hey there, Jack:

Certainly the statistics and data collected from the nation's schools do not support your assertion. Appallingly low literacy levels and math competency scores indicate a profound lack of ability to think period -- critically or otherwise.

Regarding your assertion that the dearth of critical thought is the end result of an instant gratification society and not an intentional product of the "leadership" ignores the culpability of our elected officials. For a variety of self-furthering agendas, our elected officials seem to be unable to properly allocate the funds necessary to improve the public educational system which is supposed to provide the tools to think critically in the first place.

The current apathetic state of affairs vis-a-vis the American "street" is due largely to the incredible cutbacks in educational spending by the government: federal, state and local. It may not constitute an attempt by the leadership to squelch critical thinking, however, it does constitute a profound lack of effort in trying to further it.

To paraphrase one of my children's former teachers: you can teach children, with relative ease to find answers, the harder task remains to teach them to ask the right questions.

Posted by: zahava | Nov 8, 2004 10:48:37 PM

Hi Dave,
This is all too political for me, so I noticed that you posted some new pictures of yummy Yonah!
What a yum! just look at your kid, that'll help your blood pressure...
Thanks for the smile!

Posted by: sarahb | Nov 8, 2004 11:12:38 PM

I tend to agree with Jack on this one.

I think this is a very interesting point. We look into history and see *lots* of critical thinkers. Why is this, though? It's because only those really good thinkers created material (art, journalism, what-have-you) that withstood the test of time. All the silly non-critical thinkers stuff (which is always the vast majority) is quickly forgotten. The net result can give us the illusion that the quality of today's thinkers is far below that of the past's.

As far as American leadership being culpable for our bad test scores--they ARE. However I don't believe they are *intentionally* sabotaging our education system. Instead they just aren't caring enough because there is no short-term benefit for them ...

Posted by: Jim | Nov 9, 2004 12:26:23 AM

Regarding your assertion that the dearth of critical thought is the end result of an instant gratification society and not an intentional product of the "leadership" ignores the culpability of our elected officials. For a variety of self-furthering agendas, our elected officials seem to be unable to properly allocate the funds necessary to improve the public educational system which is supposed to provide the tools to think critically in the first place.

Hi Zahava,

I am in favor of more funding for education. I think that it is severely underfunded. However, I also think that it is important to remember that we have to do more than throw money at a problem.

I am not suggesting that this is what you were saying, but it is relevant to this conversation.

I would also add that while our elected officials may be responsible for looking out for our interests, ultimately our job as parents is to handle the education of our children.

If we do not make education a priority it is unlikely that our children will. And part of that should be teaching them how construct and deconstruct logical arguments.

Posted by: Jack | Nov 9, 2004 2:13:48 AM

Jack: I whole-heartedly agree that it is our job as parents to look out for the education of our children. But what about the children born into socio-economic situations where the parents haven't the education themselves, nor the financial means to pursue additional educational resources for their kids?

The assertion that critical thinking is on the decline is reflective of our society's collective committment to problem-solving and education, not just the segment of the society best able to secure such options for our kids.

Jim maintains our elected officials are not intentionally sabotaging our educational system – it is simply that their immediate short-term interests lie elsewhere. What exactly is this supposed to say about our government and our society? If the folks with the greatest accumulation of education and wealth are able to say, "We've interrupted the regularly-programmed-education-of-our-youth to spend billions of dollars on creating forums and task-forces for a multitude of special interest groups because these groups will vote for us next time," and we the American public actually ALLOW them to do this, what does this do to further the idea that critical thinking is alive and well?!

Posted by: zahava | Nov 9, 2004 9:36:07 AM

Hi Zahava,

Just checked in and saw your response, I should wait to do this in the morning (12:20 am here in LA) but why wait.

In a nutshell, here is where I am on this. I believe that we should work on improving education for all people. I believe that our priorities are skewed and that we should strive to make people view teaching as one of the finest professions one can have.

In order to get there from our current position we need to pay teachers enough to catch our best and brightest. We fail to do that now and we pay dearly for it.

I really do not believe that we have a way to easily measure whether critical thinking has increased or decreased.

As was said to me earlier today, in some respects the quality of television has dropped. But it has also increased dramatically, some of the programs on science are amazing, just incredible.

The net has made it possible for increased education and interaction with people of different backgrounds and experience in a way never seen before.

So, unless we establish some kind of criteria to measure things, we are going to engage in circular arguments.

Lailah tov for now, I'll see you all in the morning.

Posted by: Jack | Nov 9, 2004 10:26:01 AM

Man, I missed the whole thing. You guys went on about it after I had gone to sleep already...

Okay, so since Jack has officially 'closed' the thread on this, I will keep my mouth shut, which doesn't mean I agree.

Thanks David for bringing up this topic - it is highly interesting to witness diverging opinions. Believe it or not, it might even help me preparing my thesis paper in one or the other way.

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Nov 9, 2004 11:32:49 AM

I wouldn't say the thread was closed... but I was starting to sense that jack and Zahava were sort of arguing around one another (one of the short-comings of this medium).

There was a lot of good stuff aired out here, though. Thanks to everyone for being so civil.

Posted by: David | Nov 9, 2004 11:38:57 AM

Hey, Jack! I really respect your committment to the thread! 12:20?! Pretty late on a school night....

Clearly you and I do not disagree on the pressing need to improve the nation's education system. Truth be told, we could argue the merits of how to secure such improvements until the end of time, but even there I think that the distance between our perspectives could be described as miniscule at best.

Where we disagree (I hope respectuflly so) is on the proof that our society is ceding intellectual territory rather than gaining. For every instance that you cite verifying the presence of intellect, I think I could (sadly) cite at least five with evidence to the contrary.

You are quite right that there is no existing standard with which to measure the existence and employment of critical thought. However, there is astonishing evidence which points to a lack of it's employment.

Again, I am not saying that HUGE technological and intellectual leaps are not occuring. I am, rather, suggesting that the pecentage of the population from which they are coming is shrinking....

Mademoiselle a – I would LOVE to hear your views....

Posted by: zahava | Nov 9, 2004 1:36:22 PM

SarahB... Sorry I didn't respond sooner. There should be a few more pictures of the little guy up by the end of the day.

However, to really get a sense of how big he's getting you really need to see him up close and personal (hint hint). When are you guys coming to visit us for a weekend???

Posted by: David | Nov 9, 2004 3:09:41 PM


Just a hit and run post, don't close this thread on account of me. :)

Posted by: Jack | Nov 9, 2004 4:30:53 PM

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