03 July 2007

In a previous post I pointed to several inaccurate facts in Edward Friedman’s diatribe on “Living Without Freedom in China”, meant to train high school teachers how to teach about China, among other blighted democracy-challenged countries. Several assertions I could completely verify as false, but one I just had a gut feeling about. I said:

“It’s also the world leader for people dying in industrial accidents, and about 400,000 each year die from drinking the water, which is unpotable.” - As far as I know, 400,000 die of air pollution, while millions drink unclean water but the number of deaths attributed to this is unclear.

Well, the news that China pressured the World Bank to excise statistics on pollution fatalities confirms Friedman mixed up a couple of things:

Cut from the report were findings that air pollution levels in Chinese cities cause 350,000 to 400,000 premature deaths each year, the newspaper said. Another 300,000 people die from exposure to poor air indoors, and more than 60,000 die due to poor quality water, it said.

As I said before, who cares about quoting accurate facts to high school students? As long as they get their ideology straight (“China Bad, Democracy Good”), we’re all good, aren’t we? And isn’t that the very same pedagogical model China uses, just in reverse?

Consider again how Peter Ford begins the Christian Science Monitor article on the Tangshan armored car story:

Sometimes you come across a story that sounds too good to be true. When that happens in China, where the authorities keep a tight grip on the media – and when the news first appears on the Internet, a hotbed of intentionally spread lies – I have learned to ask two questions right off the bat.

Is it really true? And regardless of how true it is, why are we hearing about it now?

Those question also apply not only to Edward Friedman’s sloppy bit of propaganda, but also every printed assetion of fact, anywhere, ever. If you are not applying that advice to all news, everywhere, all the time - you seemed to have missed one of the fundamentals of the nature of written information since time immemorial. Especially in this day and age when a New York Times reporter who co-wrote certain infamous articles with Judith Miller is uncritically quoting a single anonymous source about the evils of Iran.

This is not about China. This about critical thinking, the lack thereof, and the miserable failure of the press and experts to teach the public how to do so. Perhaps its because they’re terrible at it themselves. Maybe you don’t have the time to do the research on anything you read in the paper because you have a life. Fair enough. But at least remember to ask the questions while reading. Peter Ford at least posed the questions, but he could have also used his own article as a teachable moment. Then again, Edward Friedman has less of an excuse: he’s a teacher.

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