Many people are full of shit. To define the colloquialism I’ll restate in more literary terms: they talk out of their ass. They make stuff up, state it emphatically, and expect you to believe it. And if it’s done well enough, it works. After all, that’s how wives tales, urban legends, and cultural myths get started.

This is even true with people who are typically honest, forthright, and trustworthy, which is what makes it all the more difficult to detect. Close friends, whom I know and trust, have used this very tactic in the heat of a discussion and I have acquiesced in the face of their sureness and confidence. Then later I do a little research and find out…it was their ass talking. And that’s fine, because in the end it didn’t really matter what the two of us were arguing about anyway. Nonetheless, I love…LOVE…that instead of having to go to the library, and pore over periodicals and reference materials in hopes of finding something to disprove the BS, I can sit down at my computer, in my PJs if I want, and do the same-if not more-research on any issue and detect the BS from the comfort of my own home, and in less time!

It’s even better when discussions like the one mentioned above happen within range of an internet-connected device! There they are, spewing fecal rhetoric with no regard for the fact that their own shame is only a couple of feet and a few short keystrokes away. It’s like they are daring you to reach over and prove them wrong, only they already know that you will. I’ve seen their faces droop the second I open a web browser. They shuffle their feet, they backtrack and say things like, “That’s what I heard,” or “I think that’s right,” or “so-and-so told me” to shift the blame. Really? You know, 10 seconds ago you wanted to bet $1000 on it, hoping I would yield, and now you “might be wrong?”

Mind you, this isn’t about proving someone wrong. It’s about holding someone accountable for their actions. If they heard it elsewhere, did they verify it before they repeated it? If they’re willing to get all huffy about something they only heard from someone else, why don’t they do a little research first to make sure it’s worth all of the vim and vigor?

This, of course is especially true in regards to public policy and politics. Thanks to email chain hoaxes, media blowhards, crusading ideologues, corporate manipulation, and political hackery we are swimming in a constant sea of lies and misinformation. And when it comes to policy and politics, misinformation seems to be the name of the game. How else do we end up with ridiculous beliefs that John McCain fathered an illegitimate, mixed-race child (not to mention, why do we care?), that Barack Obama is a Muslim (again, why do we care?), or that John Kerry wasn’t honest about being a swiftboat captain?

Not that I particularly care about the character assassination that goes with politics. If you open yourself up to that line of work, you’ve gotta know it’s coming at some point. Frankly, I generally don’t care what gets said about any politician, they can fight their own battles. But when lies defeat good public policy, that’s when I really get pissed.

I get pissed because the right answer to serious problems is actually out there! And it never falls plainly on the left or plainly on the right. It’s never purely capitalistic or purely socialistic. The right answer almost always lies somewhere in the middle. And it takes a lot of work to gather the data, do the research, and then the analysis. The last thing we need are lies, distortion, and public ignorance muddying up the waters.

Not that there isn’t lots of BS out on the inter-tubes; quite the contrary. But this isn’t about there being less crap, this about having access to something other than crap. The secret is being able to identify crap as crap when you encounter it…and hopefully before you step in it.

Some tips on spotting or avoiding crap:
1) Does the piece cite its sources? Are those sources reliable/independent/legitimate or is it just another person stating opinion?
2) Don’t read comments or any other general-use forums for real information.
3) Don’t cite opinion pieces and commentary as evidence.
4) Stick to reputable websites (Government reports from certain offices (CBO, GAO, most dept. websites), non-partisan think tanks with accessible data, independent/non-profit news, some mass-media, but only the NEWS, not the opinion).
5) Be wary of sound bites.
6) Be wary of political majority/minority leaders (and they love sound bites!).
7) NEVER trust a chain email. Email is never a reliable way to “get the word out.” It is, however, a reliable way to spread lies and misinformation. Just because you got it from someone you know and trust, doesn’t make it true!
8) Use Snopes and Urban Legends religiously any time you get a chain email. Despite attempts to discredit them or label them as “very democratic” (I don’t even know what that means) they continuously are proven very methodical, impartial AND, most importantly, they cite their sources.

The truth is, so many of the chain emails are of an anti-(liberal/democrat/government) bent, one might get the impression Snopes is merely protecting the left. In actuality it appears the right is more susceptible to, and therefore more likely to use, that style of misinformation, which accounts for the implied bias. If ever there were truth to the “facts have a liberal bias” statement, it was never more true than here.

So the next time you hear something outrageous about a public policy being debated, or when your blood boils because you just read that something seems to threaten the way you want the world to work, calm down and consider your source before you parrot what they told you or before you forward off that email chain of crap. Are they an expert in the area? Are they even knowledgeable? Did they cite their sources? Did the email end in “Pass it on if you care” (because I seldom receive one that turns out to be true)?

And even if none of these warning signs appear, go and do a little research. The World Wide Web is currently hosting all kinds of reliable, legitimate, and well-supported information; all you have to do is take a little time to go find it-and you don’t even have to leave your home!

Finding something reliable to back up what you want to believe about something is the most powerful thing you can do. It feels great; it is self-affirming; and it makes it so much easier to defend your beliefs intelligently. On the flip side, proving your own thoughts and beliefs wrong with a little research is a growing experience; it challenges you; and it teaches you humility. Either way, you come out better off. It’s a win-win!

So please, don’t parrot; don’t freely accept; and don’t “pass it on” without thinking. Be skeptical; be thoughtful; be curious. The truth is out there, just waiting to set you free.