Recently, while sitting in the back room of my job on a break, I was somewhat captive audience to a conversation between two coworkers that required a little personal research after the fact. The conversation spring-boarded off of the topic of the Texas School Board’s destruction of legitimate education, turning to the tyranny of history.
You see, don’t you know, Obama is not the first black President of these here United States. Furthermore, America’s very first president was black. Believe it. You know how I know? The internet says so.
It should be said that the coworker making this assertion about America’s supposed first Black President was, herself, black, and her conversational partner was white. Her point was that the American history we are often taught in schools is biased and white-washed (in more ways than one). And she is, of course, right. Howard Zinn, anyone. You can’t get a liberal arts education and not learn about how important women, blacks, gays and other minorities have been unjustly ignored by mainstream history.
If history is written by the victors, no one has been more victorious than White Males.
But I’m not here to decry the ills of pasty penis ownership. It is what it is.
I’m interested in this historical “fact” that went unchallenged in the break room. Including by me. The tidbit sounded faintly familiar and like the sort of sufficiently preposterous hooey that always proves to be, at best, an urban legend (usually, just plain bullshit). But I couldn’t recall specifically where I had heard it before and whether or not I knew it to be debunked, so I remained silent while the history of America was rewritten (ironically, for the goal of greater truth).
My younger self would have scoffed and asserted my incredulity, and probably would have started a fight (I mean, debate) over it. In my older, wiser years, I’ve learned to bite my tongue a bit more (not in writing, though), especially when I don’t have the appropriate research to support my skepticism.
I should have spoken up.
John Hanson was not our first president. Hell, he wasn’t even black.
Here’s where my natural skepticism serves me well, and why I should trust my instincts.
“Common knowledge” is often wrong, but believe it or not, uncommon knowledge is even more frequently wrong. As a naturally skeptical person myself, I appreciate a healthy dose of questioning the Status Quo and Damning the Man. It’s a hell of a way to pass a rainy Tuesday afternoon. But there is a limit.
You’ve heard the phrase, “Too good to be true.” Let me offer a corollary: “Too amazing to be true.” In other words, if something is so absolutely mindblowing, so preposterously history-changing, or basically the most unbelievable thing you’ve ever heard, do yourself a favor, don’t believe it.
Now, this is not me saying that you should always believe the official story. Republicans, Democrats, they all lie from time to time. Priests and atheists, all capable of bending the truth. Lovers and friends, family and coworkers, they’ll all deceive you at some point. Everybody lies. (Where have I heard that before?)
But the more insidious untruth is that which is spread by a person who believes what they are saying. My coworker who was passing off erroneous information as history was not trying to deceive anyone (I don’t think). She genuinely believed that a man named John Hanson was both black and the first President of the United States. On the latter point, she was only technically wrong. On the former, not even close.
I have no idea where she got her info originally, and more importantly, I have no idea if the person who first made this error thought it true themselves, or if this misinformation is the product of an intentional effort to abuse the open doors of the internet. Either way, it took me little time to find well-documented pages discounting the myth, as well as little effort to see how a nifty, unsourced article could have spread it.
I’ve touched on the topic of not taking information at face value before. It was one of my law’s: Nothing upon another’s word.
This recent work experience is a good example of why I live by that law. Hours after the break room conversation, I heard the guy comment to the girl that he had looked it up online and he was amazed. In other words, this little bit of misinformation had just spread to another mind and will likely go uncorrected (I could go up to him and explain the truth, but A- that’d be creepy and B- it would likely do no good). This speaks to the importance of knowing for sure before you claim to be an expert on any topic. Do your research.
I am not telling anyone to trust Snopes.com completely, but it’s a good first stop in the pursuit of fact checking, specifically because they provide sources. Easy tip: if someone makes a claim but offers no sources to support that claim, pull out the Red Flags. Just as I’m telling you to be skeptical of people’s claims, you should be skeptical of debunkers, too. Anyone can be misinformed, and anyone can lie.
Some tips for not being duped:
– Be wary of sources with obvious biases (political, religious, personal, etc.).
– Compare contradicting sources. Does one do a better job of supporting their claims with indisputable facts (a good liar knows how to dazzle with presentation).
– Remember, a source can be wrong once and that doesn’t mean they should be forever discounted. But demanding a higher standard of proof in the future is not out of the question.
– If a source is found to be intentionally misleading, even just once, then that source loses all credibility. Obviously, it’s hard to prove intent, but it’s not impossible, and anyone found intentionally deceiving their audience deserves to be blackballed.
Finally, remember, if something sounds too amazing to be true (or even just faintly amazing), go ahead, indulge that little skeptical voice in your head and do the research. You’ll look like less of a credulous simpleton at your next party.