John Leo
Writing in Rolling Stone, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. assures us that the 2004 presidential election was stolen. This popular conspiracy theory has attracted many Democrats, from the clearly unbalanced to John Kerry himself. (Professor and activist Mark Crispin Miller of NYU says Kerry told him he believes the election was stolen.)

Kennedy thinks it's fishy that the recorded vote didn't match the exit polls in four battleground states where Kerry was supposedly ahead. He also thinks the Republicans discouraged voters by creating long lines at voting stations in heavily Democratic areas. But bitter surmise isn't proof. And according to a long and detailed analysis on Salon.com -- no hotbed of Republican thought -- the evidence Kennedy cites isn't new, and his argument is filled with distortions and the deliberate omission of key data.

Why would Kennedy damage his credibility this way? This may not be breaking news, but if an assertion reflects a widely shared emotion, it can make great headway in this culture without any need to prove its truth. We have been through this many times. The 2000 election was allegedly stolen, though no credible investigation backed up the claim, not even the one by the Civil Rights Commission, which was then firmly in Democratic hands.

The Katrina theory that blacks died because of racism wasn't true, but it fit both the emotions and the beliefs of the political and media establishments. The Duke rape case also unfolded along the lines of conventional liberal beliefs about privileged whites and allegedly dumb jocks. The leadership at Duke should be ashamed. As the facts emerge, ever so slowly, it is becoming apparent that the prosecutor should be disciplined for his shocking behavior.

Assertion doesn't always beat facts, but it happens a lot. For example, many of President Bush's detractors are saying that his argument for keeping troops in Iraq -- to achieve a democratic transformation -- is a new rationale meant to distract from the missing WMDs. The New York Times made that charge in an editorial on April 27. But it isn't true. Bush listed democratic transformation in Iraq as one of his aims before the war, as the Times acknowledged in an editorial on Feb. 27, 2003. Distilling the president's various arguments on Iraq down to the one on which a lot of people think they were snookered -- the WMDs -- is a distortion, but it accurately expresses a popular feeling, so who cares if it isn't so? Not the Times, apparently.

Some fact-free assertion still fails. For a while, many people seemed to believe (wanted to believe) that abortions in the United States rose 25 percent after Bush was elected in 2000. Howard Dean was sure of it. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, too. But no, facts unexpectedly intruded. Abortion continued to decline, albeit slightly, during the Bush years. And lots of people seemed certain that anti-Bush voters would flock to Canada after the 2004 vote. Despite the many predictions ("Canada Awaits American Influx," was one headline), the expected stampede turned out to be a trickle. U.S. migration to Canada declined in the six months after Bush won.

With a big boost from the news media, assertion managed to topple Larry Summers at Harvard. Some reporting mangled Larry Summers' controversial comments on women and science. A headline in The Washington Post magazine said, in part, "When Harvard's president questioned the scientific aptitude of girls ..." But Summers didn't say that the best women couldn't achieve at the level of the best men. He said that there are more males than females at the very top, "about five-to-one at the high end," which is roughly what the research shows. The bell-shaped curve for the distribution of intelligence is flatter for males than for females; there are more very bright males at the top and more very dull males at the bottom.

Discussing this evidence is a no-no at Harvard, so Summers would have been driven out even if he had been understood and quoted correctly. But he was ousted by yet another fact-free assertion -- that he had somehow demeaned women. He hadn't, but the strategy of his detractors worked. Summers apologized and then quit for hurting some people's feelings. That's what happens when emotions are allowed to beat facts.


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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