“If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts”

Einstein got that right – so did the acclaimed journalist Walter Lippman who said the news and the truth are not the same thing.

Lippman believed many people, including journalist, make judgments by condensing ideas into symbols that are stored in the brain and released when triggered. When journalists take this shortcut, it is their opinion, not fact, that influences public opinion.

Once triggered, these shortcuts to judgment are a cognitive map governing the processing of new information – denying some and inventing other.

Here, ‘cognition’ can be used to refer to the mental models, or belief systems, that people use to perceive, contextualize, simplify, and make sense of otherwise complex problems. Put more simply, cognitive maps are a method we use to structure and store spatial knowledge, allowing the “mind’s eye” to visualize images in order to reduce cognitive load, and enhance recall and learning of information.

Hurricane Katrina created a host of complex problems that triggered an explosion of mental maps – many stemming from the handling of insurance claims.

In many cases, public opinion on the new and complex problems of post-Katrina Mississippi was shaped with little or none of the discernment, analysis, and evaluation needed to form a solid judgment that reconciles scientific evidence with common sense – critical thinking.

Critical thinkers gather information from all senses, verbal and/or written expressions, reflection, observation, experience and reasoning. Critical thinking has its basis in intellectual criteria that go beyond subject-matter divisions and which include: clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance, and fairness.

No where has the absence of critical thinking been more noticeable than in the rush to judgment over the intended meaning of facts contained in the various legal documents related to the federal indictment of five including attorney Dickie Scruggs and the public indictment of others such as Attorney General Jim Hood – bringing to mind the everyday application of Einstein’s wisdom – if facts and theory conflict, ignore the facts and keep the theory.

All would do well to remember this simple rhyme from one of Rudyard Kippling’s Just So storiesThe Elephant’s Child – else they, too, may be seeking something they’ve already seen and denied:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Today’s Clarion Ledger contains a related guest opinion column, Tendency to Oversimplify Scruggs Case. Marc Harold, senior counsel and visiting professor at the National Center for Justice and the Rule of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, noted In certain cases, media outlets have exaggerated the impact pretrial motions may have on the outcome of the trial itself…

…the media almost inevitably attempt to simplify the events or stages of the trial process. This is not a negative, in and of itself. One of the major goals of any type of news reporting is to distill information into a digestible format for a broad audience… In most interviews, the “expert” is asked to put the legal or procedural issues “in simple terms… While explaining the law in lay terms can certainly be helpful in informing an interested general audience, oversimplifying what is not simple can act to misinform rather than educate…

The motions are often based on complex legal theories; in other words, like in math, sometimes giving the answer without “showing your work” is of little value.
Finally, and perhaps most damaging, is our desire to predict. Admittedly, this can be fun, and everyone likes to ultimately be proven correct…

In most of the interviews the legal “expert” is asked to speculate on the strategy of the prosecution or the defense. Attorneys should always be hesitant to engage in this type of speculation. Again, as in other facets of news coverage, it can, when undertaken irresponsibly, act to misinform rather than educate as the line between speculation and fact can become blurred…

Exactly Lippman’s point and ours as well– the news and the truth are not the same thing.A journalist’s version of the truth is subjective and limited to how he constructs his reality. The news, therefore, is “imperfectly recorded” and too fragile to bear the charge as “an organ of direct democracy.”

7 thoughts on ““If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts””

  1. Promise I was very happy to see that guest column in the Clarion Ledger. I’m not a lawyer but was involved once professionally in a very complex racketeering case in Louisiana back in the late 1990s. There is no way these motions in isolation do justice to the case or even provide a comprehensive picture of what will happen.

    That is not to say that the analysis found on other blogs could not be useful for entertainment or even for furthering understanding for non lawyers of the criminal justice process. The problem is that somewhere along the line the commenters forgot they were engaging in speculation and started holding out their opinions as absolute fact. This sequence from Rossmiller’s blog illustrates it well:

    “Belle, I published this last comment of yours only as a warning of the kind of stuff that can get folks banned from my site, and that is keep repeating the same stuff that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

    Of course it was part of the sequence of events, that’s why we are talking about it. Obviously no one including Jim Hood, if he thought about what he is saying, would claim you can start a grand jury investigation when you have the belief you have already determined no crime was committed. So let’s have some comments in the future that aren’t just parrotting the Hood line and don’t keep going over ground I have already covered. If you want to comment here, I really would appreciate it if you would at least pretend to read what I write here — I have refuted this malarkey a number of times.”


  2. Rossmiller had put this question out: And why then did he start up another grand jury investigation in July 2007?

    I replied:That is what State Farm wants to know, and I don’t think they ever found out. The speculation is it is because of State Farm’s use of the NFIP.

    Rossmiller: Belle, that makes no sense. Hood and others were saying long before July 2007 that insurers were ripping off the NFIP. I saw Gene Taylor nearly have a stroke in testimony before Congress about this. So to say that this was something people didn’t know about long before then is to deny reality.

    bellesouth:David, yes, and Hood testified too. Robie, State Farm’s attorney was asking all sorts of questions about Hood’s testimony to Congress. He was fishing all day. At the end of the day I asked the press guy next to me what he thought it was and he said it was obvious it was about NFIP. I really don’t know! Nobody does. It makes SF squirm, that is for sure.

    To which he replied as quoted before: “Belle, I published this last comment of yours only as a warning of the kind of stuff that can get folks banned from my site…

    He challenged me to research everything he had written:

    Show some courtesy and actually get familiar with my site, if you were you would know I have written dozens of times about the NFIP “ripoff” and that there is no evidence of this.

    Here’s my reply:
    Well I have researched your site, under NFIP. There are 8 posts in the last year (hardly dozens of times). It does look like there is some evidence of this. It seems Gene Taylor’s federal multi-peril insurance is the way to go, that way all the premiums go to this program and then they can pay them out since they have to pay for it already.

    “From certain political figures representing Mississippi, there has been a great deal of talk about how insurance companies allegedly ducked their responsibilities to pay Katrina wind damage under homeowners policies. According to these people, the way insurers did this was by sneaking through flood insurance payments under the auspices of the National Flood Insurance Program.

    True, insurers since 1983 have been involved in the Write Your Own program, where the insurance companies actually write the flood policies, and premiums go into the NFIP, where FEMA and the federal government disburse them to pay out claims. In the minds of some, this presents a conflict of interest that insurers took advantage of by pushing through flood payments, counting on these payments to satisfy losses, thus reducing or eliminating their obligations to pay for covered wind damage. To which I say: if paying out these claims was wrong, then accepting a claims check was wrong. “

    …claims you file with your own insurer for damage to your house or other property are called first-party claims. An adversary relationship is assumed to exist between the insurer and insured from the time the claim is filed, and generally speaking, no fiduciary duty arises on the part of the insurer. This doesn’t mean it’s OK for insurers to cheat you, merely that it is understood that an inherent conflict exists.

    Rossmiller responded in kind to another commenter on his site:

    Re “Letters”: I see from your IP address you are new here. Seriously, try reading a few other things I’ve written on this prosecution, I’ve covered it longer and written more on it than anyone out there. Seriously, have you read anything else I’ve written? Seriously.

    My comment didn’t make it: David, certainly you know as a journalist that when you write something you can’t expect your reader to google back through all of your articles you have written in the past in order to have the intelligence to question what you have written at the present time. And I can’t imagine that you think you are the sole authority on this subject and that other people do not have the right to their opinion because you have already decided for them in the past.

  3. Belle, if people knew the behind the scenes treatment Rossmiller has accorded you and others they would not be so quick to be citing him as anything definitive except perhaps an ego-manical ass.

    His blog could not exist without people like you feeing him information like that court order for the Scruggs contempt case dismissal yet he calls you a shill for presenting an alternative view of Jim Hood, limts your posts to three per day and allows the other contributors to his blog to personally attack you. I’m normally not this blunt but in this case the shoe fits.


  4. I thought the guest column was excellent and found it reassuring that others see “predicting the outcome” of this or any case – although I addressed that point the other day in “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”.

    I want to be clear about the value of blogs and the positive contribution they make to the discussion of this and other issues. The blogs have provided all but immediate access to official documents – an invaluable resource for those interested at that level. The selection of selected text for examination was beneficial up to the point that it became “the right way to think” – and that’s what I think prompted the writing of the guest column.

    Blogs can also be informative and entertaining in general- one that I read often is very much that way and several of the blogs that are more along the lines of a personal journal have left me ROFLMOA.

    I suppose the bottom line for me on content in general – not the content issues in the guest column – was written by Jim Ewing for the Clarion Ledger – “Be nice. Act like your Momma is watching. She could be.”

  5. Someone really needs to call his mother!

    What else can I saw at this point, belle, since your comment came in and Sop even got in a second comment while I was typing away on my reply to his first?

  6. per the original post:

    From what I have observed on an informal basis the “expert legal opinion” offered up on large trial cases is not much better than random in its predictions. They tend to be correct on certain detail items (most of them are lawyers after all), but tend to miss minor details that change the overall outcome.

    That is just about what you would expect from expert opinion trying to predict outcomes of complex events.

    If I offered firm predictions within my area of expertise (which would often involve issues of timeing or magnitude), I would do no better.

  7. All such good points Russell – but particularly about “minor details that change the overall outcome”.

    I can’t think of a better explanation to account for the “disconnect” between law governing behavior and the context of behavior.

    It’s such a big issue in this Case that, at times, I’ve wondered if some of the lawyers making comments live a “shelter life” and only come in regular contact with others who also live such lives – too many of those “little details” are being discounted and/or overlooked.

    In that regard, IMHO, Jim Hood’s biggest mistake has been allowing others to describe his behavior as “evasive” when he should have just said, “I don’t know WTF you would ask that”.

    Hood grew up in a tiny rural community – so small that if you didn’t come in daily contact with people from all walks of life, your address was the local cematary.

    Folks without that experience likely don’t understand “ask a stupid question and you’ll get a stupid answer.”

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