A World of Difference

Written Nov. 16, 2019

And now, to boldly go where everyone and their brother has gone before.

No, not the well-traveled corridors of the starship Enterprise – though this will take us to the final frontier. Namely, to the vicinity of Pluto, the frozen world with the simmering debate: is it a planet, a dwarf planet, or a really lost California skier?

For the head of NASA, it’s incredibly obvious.

“I am here to tell you, as the NASA Administrator, I believe Pluto should be a planet,” Jim Bridenstine said earlier this month to the International Astronautical Congress – as opposed to the International Astronomical Union, which demoted our distant neighbor to dwarf planet status 13 years ago, making grade-school textbooks around the world obsolete at a stroke.

If this sounds like a really weird thing to argue about – well, yeah. But the most passionate arguments can flare up over the smallest things. Daylight Saving Time. The “real name” of This-Sponsor-Here Stadium at Mile High. Heck, if you want to inflame a group of Star Wars fans for the next 40 minutes, just sidle up and ask them whether Han shot first.

In the case of the Pluto War, everyone’s got their official-sounding reasons, such as whether the planet “clears its orbit” (or whether any planet does), or the presence of moons or an atmosphere, or maybe even eventually whether there’s ever been an Elvis sighting there. All of which underscores the fact that “planet” is a really fuzzy concept – about as fuzzy as “continent.”

What’s that? Everyone knows what a continent is? Well, sort of. Some of us were taught in school that there were seven. Others learned that there were six, since Europe and Asia aren’t truly separated by anything but history. An alien from outer space might argue that there are four – the big American land mass, the big Europe/Africa/Asia land mass, plus Australia and Antarctica. And is Australia really the world’s smallest continent, or just its biggest island?

It’s a matter of perspective.

Debates like these are safely amusing because whoever wins, it doesn’t really change much. (Except for the textbook budget, of course.) But when they get so passionate, they can edge into a gray area where strongly-held opinion takes on the power of fact.

From there, it’s a short step to the genuinely dangerous area: the belief that facts are malleable. The idea that every fact is just someone’s opinion, and that if the facts disagree with what I think, then the facts must be wrong.

That’s not a funny debate at all.

It has consequences for human dignity. For law and justice. For anything that relies on reason and inquiry – which is to say, our ability to live side-by-side with each other at all. Anything becomes justifiable and correct if you get enough people to agree with you. Our history, past and present, has some very scary examples of that.

Granted, even our capacity for wishful thinking has limits. If you’re firmly convinced that you can fly, and you step off a 500-foot cliff, the physical universe will quickly disabuse your notions. (“See how quickly I flew downward?”)  But if we have to hit those walls, the ones where Captain Obvious gives us a dope slap, then we’re already in trouble.

As I’ve said many times, we all have a story. But our own stories aren’t the only ones that matter. We have to step away. To see the stories of others. To digest the facts that we don’t want to hear but that aren’t going away.

I know. Easy to say. Hard to do. But you have to acknowledge the need before you can start. And as a species, we need some perspective.

How much?

Well – I hear Pluto’s nice this time of year.

Elementary, My Dear Auto

Leroy has us on the move at last.

Some of you may remember that our car came to an untimely end last month. That prompted a lot of research for a new vehicle – price, mileage, and all the other crucial factors that go into acquiring a new family chariot. And once we finally made that fateful choice, all our friends wanted to know the same thing.

“So, what are you going to name it?”

Ooh. The big questions.

As I’ve mentioned before, naming a car is not an insignificant decision. We’ve known several in our life from the Battered Blue Buick – christened after a major Kansas hail storm – to the E-Z Bake Oven, which was seemingly designed to magnify heat. Mozart was a Sonata whose life ended too soon, while Harvey Dent was hit in the driveway on its third day with us, temporarily giving it a polished look on one side and a mix of torn metal and a shattered turn signal on the other.

So there’s a bit of history involved. Which is why, as with certain baby naming traditions, we took several days deciding.

It was Mom who put us on the right track, shortly after we’d clarified to a friend that the car was dark brown and not black.

“Well, all I can think of right now is Encyclopedia Brown references because of the color,” she said.

And that’s when it clicked.

Hello, Leroy.

Like all the best names, “Leroy Brown” has multiple meanings. In an odd way, it has a tie to when I first started driving in the early 1990s. One week, the local oldies station was even more predictable than usual, and would play Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” just after school let out, filling the speaker’s with that infectious rhythm.

But Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown is a tie to my childhood. Some of the first books I ever got under the Christmas tree involved the mysteries of Idaville’s greatest boy detective and his friend Sally Kimball. The pattern was always the same – a setup that took five minutes or less, a break at the crucial moment to see if you’d spotted the error or inconsistency that would unravel the case, and then a quick flip to the back of the book to check your answer.

In retrospect, maybe that’s how the seeds of a journalist got planted in my head in the first place. All the key questions were there: did the facts as presented make sense? What was the person really saying? And why did anyone trust Bugs Meany after all this time? (OK, maybe not that last one.)

Call it curiosity. Or skepticism. Or just thinking things through instead of taking them at face value.

By any name, it’s an attitude we still need.

Plenty of dubious claims get made every day, and they’re easier to spread than ever. Most of them are about as transparent as one of Bugs Meany’s schemes – if you bother to take 30 seconds to check. But many people don’t.

Maybe it’s because the person saying it has an important title and a famous name.

Maybe it’s because it was bundled with a cute infographic and a provocative headline.

Maybe it’s just because it seems to confirm what the person already believes – why check what you “know” to be true?

Always check. Always confirm. Even when – no, especially when the claim seems to boost your own side. It’s frustrating when you’re wrong. But it’s downright embarrassing when you’ve committed to it, and a lot harder to pull back from.

If a rolling brown Hyundai helps me keep that in mind, so much the better.

Just as long as it doesn’t end up like the other Leroy Brown.  You know, the one that looked like “a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone.”

Let’s stick to cracking cases – OK?

To Tell the Truth

It was so much easier in the days of Snidely Whiplash.

Remember Snidely?

For those too young to have a proper cartoon education, Snidely Whiplash was the ongoing villain of the “Dudley Do-Right” tales. Snidely was evil and you knew it – he had a black coat and hat, a mustache that begged to be twirled, and a dramatic, sinister laugh. There was no secret about who he was –  even somebody as dimwitted as Our Hero Dudley could tell “Hey, this is probably the bad guy here.”

As we got older, things got a little more sophisticated. Oh, there were still blatant figures of evil like Darth Vader with his black armor, blood-red lightsaber, and habit of choking minions who failed their job reviews. But we also got characters that seemed oh-so-charming, ready to smile all the way to the bank, with your money in their hand. Stories like “The Music Man,” “The Producers,” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” gave us flim-flam artists who could talk anyone out of anything – to the amusement of we, the audience, who knew so much better.

After all, we knew the whole script.

We like to think we’re that good in real life, too. That we can spot the phonies and the fakes. That no one is going to spin a line on us, because we’re smart. We’re aware. This is our story and we’re the hero, so that means we have to be right, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. It never was.

We’ve had a lot of painful reminders of that over the years. Bill Cosby, loved by millions as America’s Dad, going to prison on sexual assault charges. The sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, where trusted figures proved to have terrible secrets. And now we have in front of us the Supreme Court hearings, where a nation is weighing whether nominee Brett Kavanaugh or his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, is more credible.

Nobody gave us the script. Nobody put us in the room where it happened. And that means we’re left leaning on two things – evidence, which is often slow and painstaking to gather, and our own impressions and experience, which can be put together oh-so-quickly.

Maybe too quickly.

A recent piece in FiveThirtyEight noted studies that show we’re a lot worse at gauging liars than we think we are. Even professional observers – police, journalists, prosecutors – turn out to have a success rate that’s only a little above 50 percent. Even the cues we watch for aren’t a sure tell, the piece notes. Since “everyone knows” that certain cues indicate that someone is straightforward or a liar, they’re easy to fake – actors do this all the time – or easy to stumble into by someone who’s nervous about being mislabeled.

The result is that two people, watching and listening to the same individual, can reach completely different conclusions. One person’s “Obviously sincere” is the other’s “well-rehearsed phony.” For one, anxiety is proof of guilt, for another, the sign of understandable stress. And as observers try to convince each other, they often talk right past each other, because they are literally not speaking the same language.

I’m not pretending to be a sage who’s above it all. I have my thoughts and impressions, too; I have a conclusion that seems likely to me. But it is easy for anyone – rightly or wrongly – to reach a conclusion based on the story they expect to see. The charges on Cosby, for example, had circulated as rumors for years before they ever reached a courtroom. And it was easy for most people to dismiss them as merely rumors … until the grinding weight of evidence made it undeniable.

It was slow. Painfully slow, especially for those at the heart of it all. But by taking the time, by persisting in the investigation, a conclusion was finally reached. One big enough to shatter the stories that had already been drawn.

We need to take the time. On this case and any case. Yes, there’s a lot of pressure to decide this quickly. But with so much on the line, we need to be sure. It can’t just sound right – it has to be right.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data,” Sherlock Holmes once observed. “Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Keep digging. Always.

It doesn’t have to be as fast as a Whiplash.