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updated: 4/13/2011 11:49 PM

Critical thinking important when reading opinion

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How's your knowledge of transitional human fossils faring these days?

Whatever the state of your expertise, I'm going to go out on a fat, safe limb of man's evolutionary tree to guess it's at least as good or better than mine. So, if you write to tell me something about transitional human fossils and how they relate to the debate over creationism and evolution, I'm going to give you a fair amount of leeway. I'm not necessarily going to trust you, mind you, unless you show me a relevant doctorate and a solid bibliography of your research, but I'm also not going to put up much of a fight.

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This week, a reader -- who didn't care to provide any identification -- took great umbrage at that stance. His (and I'm just taking a 50-50 shot at gender here) indignation was stirred by a statement in a Fence Post letter about the validity of transitional human fossils. The Fence Post writer suggested such fossils, implying an evolutionary path from apes to humans, don't exist. My anonymous critic insisted that that statement is ridiculous and anyone with "COMMON KNOWLEDGE!" (his caps and emphasis) would know that and refuse to allow it to be printed.

"Sixty-three percent of Americans don't know how many Supreme Court justices there are! Would you print a letter from somebody saying there are 12 of them?" he wrote.

To answer that question, no, we would not let a Fence Post writer misstate the number of justices on the Supreme Court. And, to the degree possible, we correct or eliminate misstatements of fact in Fence Post letters regularly. But, I don't think many people outside the science community would deny that the number of Supreme Court justices is a more commonly familiar detail, even among discerning, well-read individuals, than the quantity of transitional human fossils.

It's important to realize that the topics that stir readers to share their opinions and passions in Fence Post are diverse and abundant, far too much so for us or any daily newspaper to be able to investigate every item presented as fact.

So, at some point, we have to rely on you to use your critical faculties when you read items presented as fact in letters -- and on other knowledgeable readers who are not hesitant to jump in and correct the record. Fence Post is a forum for expression of opinion, and people expressing opinions often interpret facts to their own purposes. That doesn't make them unreliable, necessarily; it merely emphasizes the importance of Ronald Reagan's famous Cold War adage "trust but verify." I might add it puts the emphasis on verify.

Many years ago, I wrote a column in which I compared the development of some stories to the Doppler effect, contending that their frequency steadily increases over time until they reach a peak beyond which they sort of fade away, like the sound of an approaching and then receding train. Before writing the column, I consulted a dictionary to make sure I was interpreting the Doppler effect correctly, but even so, I received two letters from obviously knowledgeable scientists deriding me for so stupidly misrepresenting a notion that, in their world anyway, any idiot knows.

One of them, mercifully, gave me a little break when I quoted him the dictionary definition I'd consulted, but he scoffed at my reliance on something as scientifically unreliable as the dictionary. The experience emphasized to me that one person's "COMMON KNOWLEDGE!" may be very much more precise and thorough than another's. That's a useful maxim to keep in mind when you read anything -- especially anything promoting a particular opinion from a source you cannot verify.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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