Should you believe everything you read about Mitch McConnell?

Did you know that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has spent the last few months spearheading the behind-closed-doors drafting of healthcare legislation that would take away health care from millions, would not have been cured of polio but for government assistance? 

McConnell's callous disregard for the people suffering from the same kinds of afflictions he suffered from as a child is ricocheting around social media

But it's not true. Well, the polio part of it, anyway. McConnell may very well have callous disregard for the millions of people who will be negatively impacted by the new bill should it pass. But the U.S. government didn't pay for his polio treatment

Why am I writing about all of this on a blog that's ostensibly about parenting? Because I'm increasingly convinced that good parenting requires good research skills. That doesn't mean you need to hold a PhD to be a good parent. It does mean that you need to be a critical reader of all of the messages you read, whether they be on your cereal box or in a viral facebook post. 

This McConnell "story" and other ones like it are why I'm not going to give you a summer of "easy reading" on snackdinner. Many parenting bloggers reasonably take the summer off because their homes are descending into the happy chaos of school vacation. Many of the big-name blogs transition to lighter fare, and that's reasonable. Not everyone wants to read heavy theory or philosophy poolside.

For me, summer has always been a time to be "on." It's a time to dive deeply into the research questions I didn't have time for during the school year, with its day-to-day requirements of teaching and grading. In that spirit, this summer I want to offer an improvisational crash course in good research. I'm working without a syllabus, so I'm not yet sure what we'll be studying here. Instead, I'll take some notable piece of news and use it to teach a research skill. 

So let's look at the McConnell story from a research point of view. Why have so many people fallen for the polio story? And how can we avoid falling into the same trap for the next sensational headline? 

This McConnell story, like the man himself, is sneaky brilliant. There are three main reasons why the story is so believable, and all of them have to do with good storytelling. 

1) It starts with the facts. McConnell did have polio. He did attend Warm Springs for rehabilitation. He is a Senator currently writing health care legislation. It may also be true that, without the "government," McConnell wouldn't be able to walk today. But it's misleading to say that the government was responsible for his care. Instead, it's the head of the government--President FDR--who established the center where McConnell would later receive treatment. But he did not establish that center by a formal act of government. It's more reasonable to say that FDR's high profile--achieved because he was President--allowed him to collect impressive sums of money, which in turn led to the nonprofit center he was able to create to treat polio. 

2) It builds on an already widely-held belief about McConnell. The story "works" as truth because it merely extends what many on the left already believe to be true about McConnell: that he has a callous disregard for the poor and disenfranchised. The story fits so well with what people already know about McConnell's voting record. He has already pledged to gut the healthcare bill, so it's not too hard to imagine that he would do so in spite of his own benefit from government healthcare.

3) It fits with a narrative some want to tell about Republicans. Perhaps you read the McConnell story and said to yourself "that figures," or "of COURSE he benefited from government assistance but now wants to take it away from everyone who isn't white and rich." You might have even shared the story with friends and family members, or argued with strangers about it online. If you're of one party, it's easy to paint the opposition with a broad brush. It's much harder to see nuance in people you are currently casting as the enemy. 

How do you avoid getting taken in by a story that seems perfectly aligned with what you already know, or with a story you desperately want to be true? Be suspicious.

1) Be suspicious of any news finding meant to discredit a single person. The Occupy Democrats story was framed as a personal attack: Mitch McConnell, mastermind of this terrible legislation, is a hypocrite. When you read things like "His own brush with disability seems to have left no impact on him – or else he sold his soul to the ruinous powers so long ago he is no longer capable of any kind of empathy" you might very well agree. But you should also note that these statements, designed specifically to target McConnell, don't really add anything to the overall debate over health care. They just make McConnell look bad. You know what already makes McConnell look bad? The bill coming to the Senate floor. If you want to dislike McConnell, there's plenty of textual evidence for it already without ad hominem attacks. 

2) Be suspicious of stories that change the emotional weight of the story but not the outcome. The Occupy Democrats story is designed to make you mad at McConnell. But unless he's one of your Senators, he's not the right target for your anger, and being angry with him won't change the outcome. If you want to change the outcome--or even if you like this bill and want to make your opinion known--the way to push for the outcome you want is to call your own Senators.

3) Be suspicious of the storyteller. Occupy Democrats, meme machine and self-described "counterbalance to the Republican Tea Party," doesn't have a great track record with truth. It has picked up a bunch of "false" and "pants on fire" ratings on Politifact. There's an argument to be made that Occupy Democrats is borrowing Tea Party tactics in order to beat conservative Republicans at their own game, but I'd personally rather see fact and logical reasoning win the day. Real or Satire puts it this way: "We don’t particularly care if this was to counterbalance all the false Right-leaning memes out there, sloppy reporting (and shitty meme-creation) is problematic, no matter which side does it."

But wait, what does all of this have to do with parenting? Shouldn't I be telling you how to find credible sources or how to identify bias? Those are of course helpful skills, and we'll look at those later. But I would argue that to be a good researcher, you have to start with stories. Because all research--good, bad, and deliberately fabricated--is telling a story about the world.

I look forward to diving into some of those stories over the next two months.