Have a dose of healthy skepticism

When my children were between 5 and 8 years old, we happened to be driving south on the San Diego Freeway below El Toro when I saw a strawberry field that was covered in plastic sheeting and said, “Look kids, that’s where they grow plastic.” All three responded with words like “Really, Daddy, really?” I just kept quiet. And then, about 20 miles later, one of my sons said something like “Oh come on, that’s not true.”

I view that experience as one of the important lessons I have provided to my children, which is to question information, regardless of the source. Now, obviously, one cannot question everything at once, or there is no point of reference. But children should be taught to think about whatever they are told, no matter how much authority the provider of the information has.

So this is my 96th column in this Daily Pilot series. Included in prior columns are suggestions about how to address our nation’s drug policy, health care, illegal immigration, foreign policy about Cuba, educational system, justice system and more. I have recommended we as a country convert to the metric system and utilize transcendental meditation in our schools and prisons, and I have provided you with lots of facts and figures. Have you believed what I have said? Have you believed my statistics? I am a trial court judge who retired after 25 years on the bench. That is a responsible position, and I at least try to be objective. Do you simply accept what I tell you?

You shouldn’t. Not with me, and not with anybody else. I am not encouraging cynicism, just skepticism. Just because something is in writing does not mean it is true. Just because someone who has a responsible position in government, the media, the church or an impressive charitable foundation says something does not mean that it should be accepted without us applying our own sense of reason.

Everyone has biases, including judges. Judges try to recognize and correct for them, but that is not always possible. And people also have motives, with some of them being good, and some not. Why would someone create a computer virus that would cause lots of harm and needless expenditures to the rest of us? Who knows? People do things, and sometimes they are harmful. Why do some people commit arson by lighting mountains on fire? Some people are sick. But other people in responsible positions occasionally act in a similar fashion for lots of different reasons. We have the blessings of being in a mostly free society that allows us to never accept anyone’s information and conclusions by rote without our own verification. Just like my children with the field of plastic.

Is global warming actually happening? If so, is it related to actions by mankind? The CATO Institute in a recent advertisement lists about 100 scientists and educators from all around the world saying that the cause and effect relationship is anything but clear. So do some people have other motives underlying their attempts for developed nations to cut back on carbon emissions? Are there people in our government and elsewhere who have other motives for perpetuating the War on Drugs, our present system of government schools, or converting our private healthcare system into one that is fundamentally controlled by the federal government? It would not be hard to replace our failed immigration system with one that works. Is there a reason why our elected representatives in Congress only talk about changing it, but don’t actually do anything about it?

I don’t particularly have any more information than you do on these questions, although I do spend time thinking about and researching them. But honest skepticism should always be employed. Remember, William Randolph Hearst really did have some unstated vested interests when he printed numbers of untrue or greatly exaggerated stories in his newspaper chain about the supposed harms of marijuana. There also was a movie released in 1936 titled “Reefer Madness” that purported to show innocent high school students being lured to try marijuana and soon thereafter committing murder, rape and suicide as they descended into madness. No such thing has ever been known to have happened, but it was “on the screen,” so people believed it and acted upon it. Instead, they should have been skeptical.

So we should at least get a second opinion and maybe even a third, and think about every question, before we accept something important as true. As a judge, I was called upon frequently to determine who was telling the truth. How could I know? Actually, I’m sure sometimes I was fooled. It is true that sometimes people with beady eyes fidget, perspire and look furtively all around the room when testifying, but they still tell the truth. And others who are calm, self-assured, confident and smooth sometimes lie pathologically. I was trained to be aware of that, but I was also trained to look for biases and motives. We as voters and citizens should be similarly aware, and should similarly pass that honest skepticism on to our children and grandchildren.

Of course, there is also such a thing as “paralysis by analysis.” If we carry “I’m from Missouri” too far, we could all become Hamlets, and then we would never get anything done. So, like everything else, we should employ a balance. So use “Snopes” on the Internet to see if things are true, or a hoax.

But how do you know Snopes is true? Good question.

And by the way, where do they raise plastic?

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)