Lies, damn lies, and statistics
Last night Bill Clinton—DNC arithmetician, saxophone player extraordinaire, and author of 101 Creative Uses for a Cigar—appeared on the Daily Show, calling for more honesty and straight talk in politics (except of course when it comes to the minutia of sexual semantics).
For all my faults with Clinton, the interview was a powerful one: “The problem with any ideology is that it gives the answer before you look a the evidence.”
Ryan Morgan wrote an article two days ago about why we should vote in this coming election, raising the question of how the students at this supposedly activist university could say such statements as “I’m not that into politics.”
In reality, I think the causes of apathy among the student body are pretty clear. As I wrote about last week, when you look at politics from what we deem to be an educated, rational perspective, it’s pretty depressing. Politics these days is about ideology, not evidence.
The key for us, as students, is to not be turned off. Instead we need to find constructive solutions to make the present political situation less of a clusterfuck.
I think one of the first places to start is the rampant lying that pervades today’s political campaigns. Lies are a calculated risk that politicians work into their strategy. The majority of voters—who I would hazard to say are not the most informed, rational group of people on earth—probably aren’t going to run to the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org or Washington Post’s Fact Checker the second after they watch the latest political ad.
These non-partisan groups don’t get enough visibility because people often rely on news sources that only highlight the mistruths of the other side. And under these circumstances, the campaigns know they can get away with lying because the lie will still have it’s intended effect to the people they’re trying to reach.
Just like we have to cite our sources when writing papers, politicians should have to cite their sources when using numbers and figures. Something like this is the perfect issue for college political groups to take on—not too unreasonably ambitious in its scope, but powerful enough to make a real difference. They could perhaps even start by advocating for the best idea I’ve heard so far about how to keep politicians more accountable: a live fact check ticker running across TV screens for the presidential debates.
The ticker would be universal to every network, and it would have to be run by the same third party, non-partisan organization, like FactCheck.org. The candidates and their staffs know the facts they are going to use for the debate well in advance, so they would submit the list (complete with source and rationale) to this third party organization before the debate (under strict security, of course) for the organization to research ahead of time. During the debate, whenever a candidate used quantitative evidence, there would be an update on the screen with its citation and accuracy.
I’m not saying this is likely for the 2012 election by any means, but now is the perfect time—with the issue relevant and potent—to start pushing for the 2016 election. Moreover, if successful, it could eventually be pushed for in political ads and even the conventions.
Even more powerfully, it’s an entirely non-partisan idea. If campus political groups at Columbia—the Dems, the Republicans, the ISO, and CPU—worked together to make this a real student issue and then spread it to other campuses, this could really be changed for the next election.
Students can make a difference, and politics can be made into a fairer game, one baby step at a time. Let’s start with accountability.
Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. He also believes that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert should moderate all the debates. Baby steps.
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