Thursday, March 19, 2015

Burden of Proof

In 2003, the American Film Institute released their lists of the all-time 50 greatest heroes and villains in American movies. The lists themselves could spur many discussions and debates, but it is interesting to note that the greatest hero, according to the AFI, is the principled Southern lawyer Atticus Finch, from To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). Finch represents the perfect man: a gentle, caring father and a model citizen with a hunger for justice and truth. What the list seems to ignore, however, is that heroes typically save the day - and Atticus, while successful in passing on his virtues to his daughter, ultimately fails to convince the jury that Tom Robinson is an innocent man, in spite of sound logic and a heck of a closing argument.

 To begin with, this case should never have come to trial. The state has not produced one iota of medical evidence that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place... It has relied instead upon the testimony of two witnesses, whose evidence has not only been called into serious question on cross-examination, but has been flatly contradicted by the defendant... 
The witnesses for the State, with the exception of the sheriff of Maycomb County have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption... the evil assumption that all Negroes lie, all Negroes are basically immoral beings, all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women. An assumption that one associates with minds of their caliber, and which is, in itself, gentlemen, a lie, which I do not need to point out to you. And so, a quiet, humble, respectable Negro, who has had the unmitigated TEMERITY to feel sorry for a white woman, has had to put his word against TWO white people's! The defendant is not guilty - but somebody in this courtroom is. Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system - that's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality! Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review, without passion, the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision and restore this man to his family. In the name of GOD, do your duty. In the name of God, believe... Tom Robinson.
Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the all-white, all-male jury still finds Mr. Robinson guilty. The facts of the case couldn't even create a reasonable doubt for the men who had likely made up their minds before the trial ever began. It should be noted, however, that such a tale of willful ignorance is not exclusive to the rural South, nor to decades past, nor to the subject of race.

In the 21st century, the inability (or perhaps more precisely, unwillingness) to reason is more clearly visible through the technological advances of the internet. There are entire sites built around sensational "click bait" - undocumented stories that play on known biases in an effort to generate ad revenue. These sites tell people what they want to hear, which in turn, cause people to feel like there is some legitimate support for their own views; each click is a small but instant pat on the back, an assurance that their views are legitimate, and that the views of others are not. Like Mr. Robinson's jury, the public can remain assured without the interference of fact.

The irony, of course, is that this same internet allows those of us with an interest in reality to obtain reliable information within a fraction of a second. If someone posts that unemployment is getting worse, for example, one can quickly prove the opposite with official numbers from the Department of Labor. A rumor concerning the death of an actress yesterday can be easily squashed by her tweet today. With such access to information, how can these shady sites continue to exist?

In blunt terms, it's because we don't want information, we want to be right. In a 2006 study, researchers at the University of Michigan found that "when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs." In other words, even the strongest evidence will not be enough for some.

Take, for example, the "birther" controversy concerning President Obama's place of birth. In one poll, over 40 percent of those identifying as Republicans believed that Obama was born in Kenya. Of course, there was no documentation to support this claim, but the cry continued to build for Obama to release the document proving he was born in the United States, and he eventually did so. Logic suggests that this would be the end of it, but rather than concede to the evidence, birthers merely suggested that the image was a fake. If Obama had paid for millions of official copies, and all were notarized by raised seal, and mailed directly to every household in America, there would still be many who would suggest they were fraudulent. There is nothing that could be produced that would convince those who refuse to be convinced. 

The desire for evidence is not in itself a problem, but rather the inequitable burden of proof. Nearly anything can be "evidence" to support an idea to which one is already inclined, while mountains of evidence may be easily dismissed if it is contrary to what one wants to see or hear. In terms of these bias-catering websites, they are often shared on social media without a second look (sometimes, it appears that it was sent based on a headline alone, and that the re-poster didn't even read the entire article), and if I attach a contrary synopsis from Snopes to my reply, I can expect to be "informed" that Snopes, of course, is fake. 

In church circles, this inequitable interpretation of "evidence" can be easily seen whenever a well-known church member encounters some significant tragedy. If Jim loses his job one week and his wife leaves him the next, then what does this mean? If another church member had a negative perception of Jim, then this is evidence that God is punishing him for some sin, or at least that Jim's life is falling apart because of some diminished faith. However, if Jim is well liked, then the same circumstances are evidence that - because he is so godly and therefore a threat - Satan is coming at him, trying to destroy his witness. The only difference is how much one likes or dislikes the subject.

Surely, everyone has opinions, and almost by definition believes that such opinions or positions are superior to others (or else, why would you have them?), but as J.P. Moynihan once said, "everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts". If two friends who root for opposite teams come together to watch the Super Bowl, there is nothing wrong with each believing that his team will be victorious. But what does it say about our society if, after the game is over, they continue to disagree about who won? Is the sports page now suspect? 

Each of us carries the baggage of personal bias, yet we have a moral duty to at least attempt to reason, to acknowledge the evidence with some measure of fairness. In the name of God, do your duty.

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