Looking Forward by Ted Bellamy

How did “hearsay” come to mean evidence?

As you know, I went to sleep in 1961, and only woke up a couple of weeks ago. One of my favorite TV shows back then was “Perry Mason.” Great spooky theme music, Barbara Hale, perfect.

In nearly every show, when DA Hamilton Burger was trying to pin the crime on Perry’s client, a witness would say “Well, Joey told me so” and Perry would thunder “Objection!! Hearsay!” The judge would sustain, the witness would crumble, and, often as not, admit that HE was the murderer.

Imagine my surprise to awaken in a world where anecdotes are now accepted as evidence of fact. Callers to radio shows report that “a friend of mine has a friend who is getting his unemployment checks in Cancun” – which obviously means that unemployed people don’t WANT jobs. It seems I slept through a presidency where social policy was based on wild tales about welfare recipients buying new Cadillacs – tales that later proved to be fraudulent. Just last month TV news was filled with video of a young man dressed in a ridiculous pimp outfit applying for government funds. Video that has turned out to be… you guessed it… fake.

The cause-of-the-moment is runaway automobiles. There have been fewer than 20 deaths reported from this problem in the last 10 years, while 7500 people have been killed by drivers running red lights. Another 150,000 died at the hands of speeders. Hmmmmm. *

Next week we’ll try and figure out why this is happening. But for today, we’ll turn to Mark Twain to tell us why we’re so bad at understanding this sort of thing. In 1871, he wrote the following:
“I hunted up statistics, and was amazed to find that after all the glaring newspaper headings concerning railroad disasters, less than three hundred people had really lost their lives by those disasters in the preceding twelve months. The Erie road was set down as the most murderous in the list. (…)
By further figuring, it appeared that between New York and Rochester the Erie ran eight passenger trains each way every day—sixteen altogether; and carried a daily average of 6,000 persons. That is about a million in six months—the population of New York City. Well, the Erie kills from thirteen to twenty-three persons out of its million in six months; and in the same time 13,000 of New York’s million die in their beds! My flesh crept, my hair stood on end. “This is appalling!” I said. “The danger isn’t in traveling by rail, but in trusting to those deadly beds. I will never sleep in a bed again.” Mark Twain, “The Danger of Lying in Bed”

*Numbers courtesy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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