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April 01, 2018 Chair's Column

It's Typed...

Hilary H. Young, Joy & Young, L.L.P., Austin, TX

The British comedy troupe, Monty Python, did a skit many years ago called “Stake Your Claim.”  The premise was a game show where contestants write in to stake an outrageous claim, then appear and try to defend the claim against John Cleese, the host’s, challenges and arguments.  Graham Chapman, in drag, appears as Mrs. Mittelschmerz of Dundee, who states her claim:

Mittelschmerz:  That I can burrow through an elephant.

Host:  (Pause) Now you’ve changed your claim, haven’t you.  You know we haven’t got an elephant.

Mittelschmerz:  (Insincerely) Oh, haven’t you?  Oh dear!

Host:  You’re not fooling anybody, Mrs. Mittelschmerz.  In your letter you quite clearly claimed that…er…you could be thrown off the top of Beachy Head into the English Channel….

Mittelschmerz:  No, you can’t read my writing.

Host:  It’s typed.

Mittelschmerz:  It says “elephant.”

The evidence is clear, and the skit does not end well for Mrs. Mittelschmerz.

These days, however, many false claims and scams fly around the internet in typed and graphic form.  Parsing fact from fabrication is not always easy.  We are quick to accept questionable claims or stories that are difficult to verify.  An educated, bright relative of mine claimed recently that two tablespoons of asparagus a day had been determined to cure cancer; she saw it on the internet.  If it was on the internet, written by someone with several initials after his name, and referred to a study, it had to be true.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article by Elizabeth Bernstein about this problem, entitled “Fine-Tune Your B.S. Detector:  You’ll Need It.”  (  Bernstein distinguishes between lies that are being told deliberately and B.S. as a form of persuasion “that aims to impress the listener while employing a blatant disregard for the truth.”  She cites research finding that false information spreads faster than truth, hearing a false claim repeated can override disbelief, and people tend to believe false information more readily when it aligns with their thinking.

As lawyers, we studied the rules for establishing and challenging evidence.  Persuasion is also one of the tools of our trade, whether we work in the courtroom, contend with regulators, or negotiate transactions.  We are well equipped to challenge misinformation through thinking critically, checking sources, asking questions, and looking for supporting evidence.  These skills are as important now as ever.