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Judge's View: Like it or not, facts are facts

Judge Dale Harris

There is an old joke about three umpires discussing how they call balls and strikes:

Umpire 1: I call 'em like I see 'em.

Umpire 2: I call 'em like they are.

Umpire 3: They ain't nothing until I call 'em.

I often tell that joke when talking to jurors after a trial. In our legal system, juries are called upon to decide disputed questions of fact.

Whether or not someone pulled a trigger.

Which driver was at fault in a car accident.

What a person's damages are.

The facts, at least as far as the legal system is concerned, are whatever the jurors say they are. They are the third umpire. But we all know there is still an objective reality, regardless of what a jury finds. We all just hope that the verdict accurately reflects what "really" happened.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there nowadays who think they are the third umpire all the time. Don't like a story in the newspaper? It's just "fake news."

Politicians make statements that are easily disproved by reliable websites like Politifact or FactCheck, but they no longer retract such statements. Instead, they double-down on them and keep repeating them.

Wild rumors get spread quickly via internet memes and "infotainment" shows, where the lines between reporting and commentary are blurry at best. One of those rumors gained enough traction that NASA felt compelled to deny that the agency is running a child slave colony on Mars.

"Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth" is a quote often attributed to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, but there is some truth to it. Recent social science experiments at Vanderbilt University demonstrated that people really are more likely to believe something is true the more times they hear it.

The good news is the same study showed that, even though repetition makes things sound more believable, it typically does not overcome a person's actual knowledge of a verifiable fact. In other words, facts still matter.

It is on all of us to care about the facts. It is far too easy to take the lazy way out, and accept something at face value, particularly if it conforms to what we already believe.

One commentator recently remarked that our country used to decide policy based on the facts, but now we decide the facts based on our policy views. This is called "confirmation bias," and you don't need to watch a couple competing cable news shows for very long before you see it in full bloom. We have to be willing to dig a little deeper.

Read critically, check sources, ask questions, and — most of all — care about the actual truth more than about what we might want to be true. Finally, we have to hold people accountable when they say something that is not true.

Our system requires jurors to be the third umpire and decide facts in a court case. But the rest of us can't approach facts that way. It's time us to be more like the second umpire, and call it the way it is.

Judge Dale Harris is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District, working out of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. He was born in Two Harbors. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Hermantown with their four children.