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County Hall Corner: Bearing or Burying the Truth

In this day of endless information sources, it is very challenging to know what to believe, who is right and who is wrong, and how to tell the difference.

I learned a lot about human nature while living in the former USSR for sixteen years. In those early days of the early 1990s, the Berlin Wall had already come down (November 9, 1989, to be exact), but the USSR was still clinging on.

The government still banned all outside media, even to the point of forbidding at the entrance of the country things like blank cassette tapes for tape recorders or even reams of blank paper as these could be used to spread news.

Their ‘official’ news came from nightly newscasts and the two major newspapers in the country: Pravda (“Truth” in Russian) and Izvestia (“News”). The joke everyone told was, “There is no truth in the ‘news’ and no news in the ‘truth.’”

I once asked a doctor if people in the USSR knew anything about the events in the United States. She said, “Yes, they tell us about race riots, union strikes, and other bad things about America. We did not know what to believe, but we were sure it wasn’t what the government was telling us.”

Where do we go for truth? The battles going on in our country right now between Republicans and Democrats, red states and blue states, First Amendment freedoms and Progressive protections, etc., have divided our country radically. Yet, there are important challenges that require unity. How should we prepare and respond to another major epidemic? How concerned should we be about the saber-rattling of China, North Korea, Iran, and other countries? What about the mounting federal debt? This list could go on and on.

The civility of the past, where people could agree to disagree and seek to find an amicable compromise, is almost like a fairy tale today. In fact, the sad part of this is that in a great number of cases, many on each side do not stand on their own principles as much as they dislike the positions on the other side. It is like the Russian doctor quoted above, except it is self-induced.

There are numerous examples, the most recent in Lycoming County was the packed house at the Lycoming County Commissioners in early March protesting the status of Lycoming County as a “sanctuary county.”

Commissioner President Scott Metzger explained that this was not true and that the source of the rumor was not affiliated with the federal government. For an hour and a half, all three commissioners were responding to the gallery’s claims of sightings of illegal aliens being flown into the Williamsport Airport and being housed in local hotels. As Shakespeare would say, it was much ado about nothing.

Voting integrity is another hot spot. The Democrats declare emphatically that there were no (or very minute) voting violations in recent past elections, and the Republicans are just as emphatic that there were severe infractions in the elections.

I cannot speak for the rest of the USA or even Pennsylvania, but when it concerns our area, I believe we have as secure and accurate a voting system as possible.

Lycoming County Director of Voter Services Forrest Lehman is one of the most honest and hard-working public officials I have ever known. His staff is extremely professional and works diligently to ensure that every “i” gets dotted and every “t” gets crossed. Yet, Forrest still gets raked over the coals on social media and in public meetings for lack of integrity. I am made aware of this as I get labeled as a denier, with the evidence being that I have not written articles on false voting issues in Lycoming County. I don’t write on unicorn sightings for the same reason.

Failure to even consider alternative information from present convictions opens up biases that limit understanding and decision-making. Examples of these biases are confirmation bias (refusing to listen to an opposing side), cognitive bias (using your own perspective as the only reliable source), and consensus bias (believing something because it seems everyone else does).

My favorite example of consensus bias was James (Scotty) Reston and the 1984 presidential election. For many years, he wrote for the New York Times, won two Pulitzer Prizes, and was arguably one of the most famous editorial columnists of the 1970s and 80s. Yet, Reston was shocked when Ronald Reagan won reelection in the 1984 presidential election. Reston admitted in his column right after the election that he did not think Reagan had a chance because he did not know a single person who voted for him. His bubble made him look like a bubblehead, as Reagan carried 49 states with 59% of the popular vote and 525 electoral votes, to Walter Mondale’s 41%, 13 electoral votes from Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Even the best and brightest become somewhat dim because of their biases.

To be an informed citizen requires us to be heads up and not heads stuck in the sand, to be thinkers and not stinkers. The great French philosopher stated, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Ironically, I have learned of late that Voltaire did not say this; it was written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography of Voltaire, summarizing his beliefs. As I tell myself, live and learn, Larry.