The Importance of Fact-Checking

We’ve all seen them, even if we don’t recognize them at first. A graphic espousing some ideology that we share on social media sites without fact-checking. It doesn’t matter what viewpoint they take, they’re almost always factually incorrect and this is a problem. We jokingly quote Abraham Lincoln as having said you can’t trust everything you read on the internet, but it seems like nobody has taken that to heart and the lack of fact-checking before sharing or re-posting these images damages credibility. If you don’t fact-check this item (typically because it suits one’s ideology) it becomes perfectly reasonable to suspect you’re wrong on other topics, as well.

Nowhere is this more damning or damaging to one’s credibility then a claim that is plainly falsifiable.

The problem is this info is almost 100% wrong.

The problem is this info is almost 100% wrong.

I’ve seen this graphic several times already, but the most recent encounter was from someone whose judgment I question, so I was prompted to fact-check it. This isn’t a political statement, this is purely because the numbers and claims are easily falsifiable. Some who like the message’s premise may protest “Statistics can be made to say anything you want”, but I argue that data cannot. This isn’t about shifting the representation of data, this is about pure numbers and the veracity of the claims. Here we go.

  • $450k is the salary of a SITTING president only. Their pension is less than $200k. There are only four surviving retired presidents. <$800,000 
  • House and Senate members’ retirements fall under either CSRS or FERS, just like any other federal employee. In 2006, 413 retired members drew pensions. 290 earned ~$61k under CSRS, 123 averaged $36k under FERS. This totals $22,118,000 annually.
  • In 2010, a Congressional Budget Office estimated the average active duty military member receives $99,000 a year in benefits. (Includes medical, etc.)
  • In 2009, there were almost 1.4 million active duty military members. This doesn’t include National Guard, Reserve, or retirees (but does include Coast Guard). My calculator doesn’t have that many digits, but it’s about 1.385 BILLION dollars in active duty salary alone. $1,385,000,000.
  • In 2012, 1,944,049 military retirees drew over 52 BILLION dollars in retirement benefits. $52,000,000,000.
  • The average annual Social Security payment to seniors is actually $15,600. 38 million people will receive a monthly average of $1,294, for a total of 49 billion dollars A MONTH. In 2014, over 59 million Americans received almost $864,000,000,000.

As an aside, being military pays better than the private sector. I’ve worked both and can verify this personally, but there’s data to back it up.

I understand the sentiment behind the post, I really do. But in reality, the numbers just don’t mean much. For one, they’re just plain wrong and outright lies. But secondly, the politician’s pensions (not salaries) are inconsequential next to the claims being made. If anything, this graphic is playing the “statistics game” by skewing the representation down to the micro level and then suggesting they would be a source of reasonable cuts at the macro level.

  • Total US military spending on salaries and benefits is 150 billion dollars. $150,000,000,000.
  • Total Social Security benefits received are 864 billion dollars. $864,000,000,000.
  • Combined, somewhere around 61 million Americans will receive this total of 1.014 trillion dollars of government spending. $1,014,000,000,000.

The combined totals of presidents’ and House/Senate members’ retirements is still less than 23 million per year. That is less than 0.0023% of what we spend on Social Security and our troops (past and present). Even if we did away with the politician’s retirements entirely and distributed as the graphic suggests, giving $23 million dollars to 61 million people only benefits them an additional 38 cents per year.

The graphic is factually incorrect, and if you actually run the numbers it’s just plain stupid.

Again, this isn’t a political statement. This is a plea for people to fact-check before sharing things on social media. I chose this example because it was in front of me, numbers are easy to run, and the actual data is publicly available, but a healthy dose of skepticism should be applied to any claim making the rounds on social media before sharing and being identified with it. Because another quote ascribed to Abe Lincoln (likely also not his) is, “Better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Sharing things that are untrue or just plain foolish makes one look like a fool by association. My name and reputation for honesty and accuracy matter to me as a personal brand. I want people to know that if I say something they can take it to the bank in every circumstance. It’s better to say “I don’t know” than give an answer based on wish-thinking, and better to speak a truth that hurts oneself than a comforting inclination. Because an untrue statement is like a crumbling brick in the structure of one’s credibility- a weak brick, depending on size and location, can bring a building tumbling down despite lots of other good, solid bricks. A building with a bad foundation is untrustworthy. So is a person that allows ideology and emotion to trump facts. I disconnect from repeat offenders, because if I can’t count on them to be honest, why associate them at all?

Don’t be a fool. Don’t be dismissible. Don’t share without fact-checking.

Two Ears, Just One Mouth

I haven’t written here in a good long while now. Mostly because I’ve been learning everything I can. I started going back to school last semester with Arizona State University. They have a wonderful online program for entrepreneurship (rated #9 and #2 respectively for Bachelor’s and Graduate degrees in the nation by US News & World Report), so I’ve been busting my hump and made the Dean’s List carrying a 4.09 GPA. I’m enjoying it and even thinking I may continue on for a Master’s. ASU has a great support network for veterans through the Pat Tillman center that would help with that, and I’d hate to squander the opportunity. And I love that I’m getting a degree from a real university (regionally accredited) as opposed to some fly-by-night degree mill with dodgy accreditation. Being able to trust in the value and quality of my education is a wonderful feeling.

When I’m not studying required materials for school, I’ve been studying the stock market with Investopedia, or challenging myself and reading books that would have been way outside my scope before, like A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I’ve opened up my first investment account that I manage and make trades from, and even been able to wrap my head around Hawking- he’s a wonderful educator and explains the concepts really well. I always try to read and learn as much as I can on a deployment, and this one has been particularly rewarding.

When I sat down to publish this brief entry, I didn’t even intend to write this much. All I really intended to share was this, a Hubble Deep Field image. This is the Ultra Deep Field from 2004, outdone by the eXtreme Deep Field in 2012. Not a picture of stars, but of 10,000 galaxies. Each of them made up of billions of stars. Each of those stars likely a sun to several planets. And the area pictured is “smaller than a 1mm x 1mm square of paper held at 1 meter away, roughly one thirteen-millionth of the total area of the sky“.

Click to enlarge. VERY large.

Click to enlarge. VERY large.

That’s awe inspiring. Trying to wrap one’s head around the immensity of scale is… humbling. And I think, “I have so much more to learn.”

Fanboys & Gentlemen

Yesterday I was treated some rude, but otherwise harmless commentary on an old post about the myth of the Apple tax. It was pretty clear from the “points” the commenter wrote that he was simply an Apple hater or an Android fanboy, making claims of less functional, smaller screens, no Flash, etc. ad nauseam. I replied that they’re simply different tools for different users and “hating” one made as much sense as hating a hammer for not being a saw.

Lesson #1- Do not feed the trolls.

From there it devolved from rude and classless behavior into all-out name calling and vulgarity from him, and me generally questioning how an internet tough guy like my commenter gets along with society in the real world. It was plainly obvious he hadn’t read any of my linked posts about my frustrations with Apple, nor was he interested in having a discussion. When I deleted his comments (for vulgarity) he got a new email address and tried to post claiming that I delete comments that “disprove” me, replete with copious personal insults for full effect. The funny thing is that while he was calling me a moron for defending Apple, the idiot was posting all this from the same IP address.

I don’t know if the commenter’s rage was due to deindividuation or simply being from back east. (Massachusetts? New Jersey? Being a west coaster, they’re all the same to me.)

From Urban Dictionary:

fanboy, n, 1. A passionate fan of various elements of geek culture who lets his passion override social graces.

It’s the combination of “fanboyism” and deindividuation that… “Distresses” is too strong a word, but these factors are why I largely avoid certain regions of the internet. I only frequent forums with good moderation, and generally avoid any Apple/Android, Glock/1911, 9mm/.45, or Xbox/PlayStation/Nintendo debates as vigorously as the plague, herpes, or YouTube comments. While the conversations have been done to death, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having them. It’s personal insults and trolling that make me question the state of humanity.

Most recently, this blog has been about motorcycles because that’s what I’m really into at the moment. But while I loathe cruisers, I don’t think buying or enjoying one makes you a moron, pretentious, child rapist, etc. (There’s a better than average chance you like classic rock, but that’s about it.) When I did the Handgun Podcast my loathing of Hi-Point pistols was no secret, but I never attacked those who owned them as a lesser life form. It’s the personal nature of the attacks that just bewilders me.

I’ve often wondered if it’s from identifying too closely with the item in question; if by pointing out shortcomings in a thing causes the owner feels personally attacked and, unable to distinguish between the two, the owner begins to personally attack the critic. It’s the only thing that makes sense to me. I hope it’s not a mental illness, because the pervasiveness of the behaviour reflects far too great a percentage of the populace for society to continue much longer. I definitely believe this ill-mannered behavior is more common of the younger generations. Is this the result of hippie child-rearing? Are we seeing the consequences of no spanking manifesting later as societal meltdown?

It’s worth noting that bad behaviour online is almost always couched in anonymity. Security isn’t a bad thing (there’s a reason I don’t post my home address, etc. online), but using anonymity as a license for bad behaviour is nothing short of cowardice and immaturity. There’s a reason I blog (and comment on select forums) with my real name. First, because I am unafraid of taking ownership of my words. But second, and more important, is that it both keeps me accountable and helps foster discussion rather than figurative bomb-throwing.

I weep for the future of America, because I spend too much time online and see a depressing lack of class. Basic civility has been forgotten, manners are mocked, and gentlemen seem to be a thing of the past.

I refuse, in person or online, to not be a gentleman. It won’t die on my watch.

In that spirit, here are a couple links that are always worth reading. Art of Manliness has a post of 6 Ways to Bring Civility Online. Another article that I should try to adhere more closely to is 37 Conversation Rules for Gentlemen from 1875, as they’re applicable just about anywhere in life.

I really do believe the greatest cause of societal ills is the failure of males to be men, or specifically gentlemen. Intellectual, artistic or athletic gifts (nerds, weirdos, and jocks) shouldn’t matter nearly as much as a code of honorable conduct that we pass on to our sons (and daughters). No man is perfect, but a dad who tries to be a better man and teaches their kids to to the same is a boon to any community.

I guess there’s no real point to my essay today, since this narrative has wandered so much. I can repeat maxims like the Golden Rule, or “if you don’t have anything nice to say…”  Or the great philosophers Wyld Stallyns, “Be excellent to each other.” But I’ll break the rule my high school English docked points for and end this post with a quote. Worse, a quote that contains a quote! From the linked article above:

One simple antidote to this seems to rest in the very old-fashioned idea of standing by your good name. Adopt a pseudonym and you are not putting much of yourself on the line. Put your name to something and your words are freighted with responsibility. Arthur Schoepenhauer wrote well on the subject 160 years ago: “Anonymity is the refuge for all literary and journalistic rascality,” he suggested. “It is a practice which must be completely stopped. Every article, even in a newspaper, should be accompanied by the name of its author; and the editor should be made strictly responsible for the accuracy of the signature. The freedom of the press should be thus far restricted; so that when a man publicly proclaims through the far-sounding trumpet of the newspaper, he should be answerable for it, at any rate with his honour, if he has any; and if he has none, let his name neutralise the effect of his words. And since even the most insignificant person is known in his own circle, the result of such a measure would be to put an end to two-thirds of the newspaper lies, and to restrain the audacity of many a poisonous tongue.”

The Final Weapon

Man cannot survive except through the use of his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon. Animals obtain food by force. Man has no claws, no fangs, no horns, no great strength of muscle. He must plant his food or hunt it. To plant, he needs a process of thought. To hunt, he needs weapons, and to make weapons–a process of thought. From this simplest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and everything we have comes from a single attribute of man–the function of his reasoning mind.

But the mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought. An agreement reached by a group of men is only a compromise or an average drawn upon many individual thoughts. It is a secondary consequence. The primary act–the process of reason–must be performed by each man alone. We can divide a meal among many men. We cannot digest it in a collective stomach. No man can use his lungs to breathe for another man. No man can use his brain to think for another. All the functions of body and spirit are private. They cannot be shared or transferred.

-Howard Roark, The Fountainhead

Brain food

Growing up, I heard the term “brain food” bandied about as if to say certain foods would improve cognitive function and make me smarter. Somewhere along the way, popcorn was believed to be a brain food. Whether or not popcorn is biochemically beneficial for thinking ability isn’t really the subject of my post today (though I would argue that dousing it in butter and salt then setting mindlessly in front of a movie isn’t exactly intellectual stimulation). In fact, what we call brain food is really just what we need to perform up to par rather than excel. For the past ten days off from this blog I’ve been engaging in real brain food- writing a daily letter to my wife back home, journaling, and reading lots of books.

Daily writing has proven to be good exercise not just for my penmanship, but my imagination. One hopes love letters never get stale, but there’s still the motivation to try and keep each letter unique and interesting; it becomes an exercise in creativity to constantly come up with a new idea or angle on “I love you” to write home. Some days I resort to using the letter as a journal about the day’s events. [I’ve also finally begun to write in my actual journal about my thoughts and observations here in Afghanistan. Alas, these have a slim chance of ever being published on the blog due to OPSEC. Nothing classified gets written down, it’s just… personal.] But other days, the Groundhog Days, a little more creativity is required. [Sweetheart, quit reading the rest of this paragraph unless you want mild spoilers about letters still winging their way home to you in the mail.] Some of my proudest ideas and missives home have come from defying convention of the letter home and penning my own poem to her about our life and courtship, or deciding to poorly illustrate a story using stick figures and overt comedy. These breaks from the typical letter are remarkably refreshing as the author because they remind me that the only limitations being imposed are that of the paper’s dimensions and my own imagination. The sky isn’t the limit when you’re writing- you can sail right past atmospheric limitations. What goes down on the paper is a new world to be crafted with no rules but those set by its creator.

Which brings me in an unexpected fashion to discussing one of the books I’m reading, actually. Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, basis of the Coen brothers’ 2007 film of the same name, is like nothing I’ve ever read before. In some ways I’m glad I saw the movie first because the book is so unlike any other leisure reading that I could imagine having trouble constructing its tone in my mind. Having Tommy Lee Jones’ voice in my head for Sheriff Bell’s narration doesn’t hurt, either. But another startling realization for me is that whether by McCarthy’s artistic choice or a product of poor e-book transcribing there are no quotation marks signifying any of the dialog. Conversations still happen, but there are no defining queues establishing its rhythm. There’s very little in the way of punctuation at all, actually. The language is steeped in ruralization or capturing the dialect of the region and time, much like reading Mark Twain. And there are run-on sentences galore as McCarthy describes the actions of Llewelyn Moss, using “and” four or five times to stretch small actions into one longer process. I haven’t noticed this in the passages describing Anton Chigurh and I can only assume McCarthy does this as if writing in deference to the character. It’s fascinating and effective at making me pay much closer attention the words used in deducing the action, rather than “coasting” through with punctuation as my guide.

I accidentally left my kindle [left lowercase a la the logo] back in the tent tonight, and I can’t recall an exhaustive list of everything I’ve read from memory. Among them was The 4-Hour Body (interesting, scientifically based, and fun to read), Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness (just scratched the surface so far, since philosophy truly requires study to absorb), Rich Dad, Poor Dad (which has me thinking about saving and investing in a whole new light), and finally what I think might be the most interesting book of them all, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? by John Fea.

Fea does something really interesting in this book: he actually looks for the answer to the question and even questions the question itself, rather than cherry-picking examples of text to support his own predetermined conclusion. The result is one that Daniel Walker Howe was quite right in describing as “a scrupulous presentation of evidence that may surprise people on both sides of this hot topic.” Fea truly comes across as having no agenda at all, but simply presenting the evidence of both arguments and, as such, much more honestly than so many other voices in the debate. I’ve only read the preface, introduction and Chapter 1 so far, but already it is like a breath of fresh air without any axe to grind or “fisking” and skewering of others’ work (though that may come later). The narrative is clear and easy reading, with the establishment of the time and cultural climate done well. Expect more updates on this book.

Some of what chapter one makes stand out in my mind is that the United States were not formed as a Christian nation as a de jure standard (not du jour), but as a de facto existence owing to the overwhelmingly Christian population. Christ and Christianity are mentioned precisely nowhere in any of our government’s founding documents, and yet plentifully abound culturally at the time in personal correspondence and around our framing documents. Most interesting is the example of the American Civil War, where both sides firmly believed they were on the side of angels while the other was atheistic and hell-bound. (The Confederate states even had God directly written into their constitution.) Looking at it from a historical point of view, one can even see the origins or similarities to today’s “Bible belt” South and New England liberal elitist stereotypes. What seems very clear already is that the question and the answer are much more complicated than the simple black/white answers sought or used for political posturing.

Both the North and the South interpreted the Bible and their view of history to how they saw fit in order to compliment their lives. This is probably not so different than what people have always done, or what happens today (on both sides of the issue). The truth is, we’re discussing real people who lived back then and had stories to tell, circumstances to live through, and events shape their lives. How accurate would it be for somebody else to tell your story after you’re dead and gone and simply peg you as “this” or “that” with no further dimension to who you are? This is what Fea avoids, because hinging the argument of America’s founding as a Christian nation is too deep a subject to simply declare that “the documents prove we’re secular” or “the culture proves we’re Christian” and never the twain shall meet. The truth, and the story, is nuanced just like the people who wove it.

One of my favorite podcasts is Hardcore History by Dan Carlin, and one of the things he says is that you can predictably see a trend in historians’ accounting of an event over time. First there will be an overwhelming trend to portray the event or time period in a certain light, and this can be either positive or negative. But as time passes, it becomes more fashionable for the historians to become contrarian to the previously established history and begin to portray the event in a completely different light which, relative to my last sentence, would now be either negative or positive, respectively. Eventually, as enough time passes, cooler heads (perhaps further removed from the circumstances) begin to discern the truth that lies somewhere in the middle as they empathize with both sides while taking neither. So far, it seems like this is what Fea has done, and I can’t wait to read more. It’s early in the book for me to be recommending it, I know, but it seems like something both the pious and the secular need to read for a little bit better understanding.

Like I said earlier, expect an update as I read more. At only 246 pages (excluding notes and references), it should be a quick read.

Hours in the Day

I finally had to take some time off from writing here simply because there’s so much else to do. I’ve written about this before- trying to consciously choose doing something constructive with my time and thoughts here on the blog rather than fritter away the hours I have on Facebook or browsing celebrity gossip. And even then, there’s so much to do it can’t all be crammed in to each and every day.

So for the past while, I’ve been reading every single chance I’ve had. A physical book may still be preferable to e-readers, but my kindle lets me slip a thousand books in the back pocket of my jeans. And considering weight and space limitations when deployed (as I currently am) to Afghanistan, this little thing has become my best friend over here. Well, my kindle and the cans of flavored Blue Diamond almonds my wife sends me to break up the chow hall monotony.

I’m guessing it took me a total of about three weeks to read all seven Harry Potter books, and I’m really glad I did. I enjoyed them immensely. This deployment has been really good for me in some ways, as my last one was spent mostly writing in this blog, then watching movies and playing video games. I feel more… Aware? Quicker thinking? The description for what I’m feeling is escaping me at the moment. I think I’m just happy to love reading again. I loved reading as a kid, and then television slowly took over… Some books by Ayn Rand and then The Art of Racing in the Rain rekindled my love for reading a scant few years ago. I loved reading a novel that seemed to qualify as “literature” and actually finding it engaging instead of boring and dry (or relying only on thrillers).

I thought for a brief moment I was going to get to be one of the literati, a high and mighty intellectual snob looking down my nose at those simpletons that watch American Idol. Turns out, not so much. (Though I still shake my head at the popularity of reality TV.)

I’m guessing I don’t read as quickly as I used to. And certainly the chaos of my office mates raucously shouting at each other, launching aircraft (actually having to work), and letters home to my wife or messages on Facebook all conspired to slow my reading. Because of this, I sometimes wonder how educated on a topic some people can really be. There’s so much to be caught up on, and seemingly even peer pressure to be aware of everything in the news. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead, the latest book or album, the movie sure to be nominated for an Academy Award… That’s before the quite possibly endless amount of distraction on the internet from YouTube, Facebook, etc. (Fun fact: more hours of video were uploaded to YouTube in the last year alone than ABC, CBS and NBC have ever broadcasted in their existence combined.)

Frankly, this makes me think a lot of those oh-so-learned folks are full of it. Everyone who claims to have been through The Chomsky Reader and Dharma Bums and also professes to speak from any position of authority when combating, say, the Tea Party or Ayn Rand’s views or Cato Institute… And then turn around and comment on the latest in pop culture… No, I think it’s far more likely that even those who preach from on high simply fill their heads with what they prefer and take summaries or allow their opinions to be dictated to them by others. There’s just no way they’ve actually read all sides of so many social arguments. I just can’t believe any men’s magazine like Esquire is staffed by people who are actually up on everything they publish (which is why they have so many different contributors to create an issue).

So I don’t feel that bad about skipping my blog for a few days in order to read more or write my wife more love letters. And I certainly don’t feel bad about not seeing this movie or that TV show. I still have my vices, and can’t wait for the last few episodes of Breaking Bad. And I don’t feel inadequate or “lesser” for reading what I assumed were kids’ books instead of the latest hoity-toity novel by some pompous author. (Right now I’m thinking of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. The books becomes monotonous and excruciating to read, while the film made the same points much more succinctly.)

And even now, with all the noise from aircraft, phones ringing, and a coworker who is the stupidest, loudest, and most boorish individual I’ve had to bite my tongue around in years… I’m still somehow strangely appreciative. Because as much as the interruptions frustrate and annoy me, or even fluster me when I’m under pressure or time constraints, it’s reminded to me to prioritize and maintain a clarity of focus. If I have to ignore the blog to prioritize writing to my wife (or reading books she loves so I can share that with her), then it’s worth it. And if it’s ignoring inane reality television, so much the better.

I know the best way for me to try and cram all my goals into the time I have is probably to block off certain hours of the day, or even dedicate certain days of the week to certain projects. But I still wish I had 37 hours a day so I could accomplish even more.

Flyover Country

While researching a brand of wristwatch yesterday I chanced upon an article where the term “flyover country” was levied most certainly as a pejorative.

I’ve been guilty of this myself a few times. It’s no secret that I don’t see eye-to-eye with the local culture/way of doing things in Fargo, ND where I currently reside at my employer’s pleasure. I only volunteered for the Fargo posting because nobody else wants to go there and I was sucking up to curry favor with management for my plan to request Italy, Germany, or England in another year or two. It became very apparent to me that I’m just not a midwest personality. I ache to be out west again, in mountain country and to have a city large enough to support a Cheesecake Factory within an hour’s drive. My wife heard an old man from Bismarck say they couldn’t live with the “hustle and bustle” of Fargo. We cracked up laughing, not derisively, but in amusement at our own culture shock. How two different people observe the same subject but see two different things. He sees “hustle and bustle” where we see a quaint, small town.

But as miserable as Fargo sometimes makes us (Arizona natives in a Fargo winter are a pretty bad match) and as firm as we are in our plans to leave when possible, one thought keeps shouting at me from the back of my mind.

These people that big-city folk like to call “hicks” grow and provide all our food.

Let that sink in a minute. I might really enjoy big city life, but you tell me what metropolis in America isn’t a net importer of everything that sustains living? Millions upon millions of people in America would starve if it wasn’t for those “hicks” or “bumpkins”. Think California or New York could feed their own state’s population if they had to? Not on your life. Texas could probably feed Dallas/Ft. Worth. The pacific northwest (where my wife and I dream of moving) would be fine. I don’t know how well Arizona could support Phoenix and Tucson.

My point is this: I don’t like living in the midwest or the way they do things here, but I also don’t grow my own food and wasn’t raised as a hunter. My food comes from the grocery store. So now I do my very best to keep my mouth shut and be grateful, because my well-paying job doesn’t actually make me self-sustaining.

Believe me, this is flyover country and there is little if anything noteworthy here. But for the sake of manners, consider what you eat for a month and then consider being nice.