Tim (littlebluedog) wrote,


The PARADE news magazine in this Sunday's paper included an interview-based story about Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan, which discussed the woman's political views, her future, and the ramifications of her possible return to power in tomorrow's Pakistani election.

The problem is, of course, that she was assassinated on December 27. The issue, which bore yesterday's date of January 6, mentions nothing about this.

A visit to the publication's website reveals that the issue went to press on December 19, and explains that there wasn't enough time to recall, reprint, and redistribute the issue. Nearly 400 responses have been posted so far, the majority of which roundly criticize this editorial decision.

My own personal barometer of doubt was triggered upon scanning the printed article and realizing it was written as if the woman were still alive. Immediately I tried out several explanations, discarding "there wasn't enough time to change it" as specious as "massive conspiracy" and "robot attack," and finally setting on "really careless editorial decision." Surely someone knew, I reasoned, but they decided not to change it. Knowing nothing about the logistics of periodical distribution in the electronic age, I also reasoned that at least ten days would be plenty of time to make a change, assuming perhaps that a national news magazine distributed with a local newspaper would electronically transmit the issue to the newspapers to print, rather than print more than millions of copies and ship them to hundred of locations across the country.

The biases I employed in my reasoning were based on personal experience and rational speculation about the way I think things operate, and included a basic, optimistic precept along the lines of in general, people don't do shitty things intentionally. Some of these biases turn out to be accurate, and some don't, and I learn new things about how the world works by comparing my own conclusions with those of others, and, if I'm lucky, with a factually correct answer.

In this case I found that an assumption I made was apparently wrong (the issues are printed remotely and shipped to local distributors). However, I'm still comfortable with my conclusion. Not that it matters to me much in this case; I never read this publication because for the most part I find it banal and poorly-written.

In other contexts, though, the presence of doubt is not so easily ignored or dismissed as inconsequential. What if a friend, for example, tells you something that doesn't ring true? A loved one? A parent, or child?

For me, the instinct the same as that above: to search for the correct explanation, after concluding that the statement is false (or at least not entirely true). But even though the context is more familiar -- the source of doubt being a person with whom you have a relationship and presumably a developed environment against which to frame the statement -- the resolution of such doubt often involves navigating murkier waters than investigating a statement or decision made by someone you don't know, or one that does not affect you. It is, in fact, because of this familiarity that the resolution becomes more difficult: there are far more explanations and nuances to consider; there's much more of a history to assess; and much more rides on the resolution than on a casual question raised by reading the Sunday paper.

This analysis is fundamentally directed by the reason(s) I think the statement is not true, and usually involves several difficult questions. The initial triggering of doubt is usually caused by what I can sometimes only describe as a "gut feeling" or an innate, instinctive presupposition. Maybe it's an honest statement but based on facts that aren't true. But once I suspect dishonesty, I ask where it lies in the communication chain. I break it down like this: is this person being dishonest (1) with himself, (2) with me, or (3) both? In other words, is he telling me what he superficially believes or wants to be true, even though he does not actually know it to be true? Or, is he telling me something other than what he believes to be true?

Personally, I'd prefer the correct answer to be (1), because of the precept above. I believe in the inherent goodness of people. Or maybe I want to believe that I choose to be friends with people of integrity, and I'd rather place the doubt on their choices than on my own. Probably both.

As if the complex, branching tedium above isn't challenging enough, one of the most difficult things is how to proceed once a conclusion is reached. I can't dismiss it because it's a goof-up in a publication I don't read or care about. My friend/loved one/parent/child has told me something that is untrue because he is not being honest with himself. The next step is crucial in determining how the relationship develops, and relies as much on the relationship itself as it does on the nature of the untruth.

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