You’re to blame for Fake News


I’m sick of the term “Fake News”.

It’s one of those intentionally simplistic terms – like “The Big Bang Theory” – that exists because the general public can’t deal with complex concepts without them being stripped to their basest form. Still, it’s the term du jour, so for the purposes of this article, I’ll use it.

As it relates to the US presidential election, “Fake News” is more accurately known as propaganda: distorted news stories and statistics used to push lies about immigrants, urban crime, Muslims, and other boogeyman designed to scare you. This form of propaganda isn’t unique to the US, of course; Brexit was fueled by it, and fear of the “other” has been the politicking weapon of choice since the first politician gave a speech.

But in the broader context of our lives, “Fake News” has always existed, and it has never been a liberal or conservative issue, just a matter of laziness and opportunistic cynicism.

A Long and Tortured History of Fake News

I’ve been calling out my friends’ tendency to spread fake news for years – and lost some for doing it – only to see the same people lambaste Trumpers for spreading fake news. The irony physically hurts.

The uncomfortable truth about the current form of fake news – the Facebook-viral, Russian bot-pushed, grammatically-indifferent breed – is that it didn’t just appear out of nowhere with perfected tactics for reaching the most susceptible (gullible) targets. These tactics have been deployed and honed for years by all kinds of sources pushing their dubious claims, most of them not inherently political. Some you probably trust.

I didn’t call them “fake news” back then, I called them bullshit.

To help explain this, I’m focusing on one website (though there are many) and how it fits into both the current political moment and the road that got us here:

Natural Bullshit

Natural News is one of the most unapologetic sources of bullshit I’ve ever seen. There was a time a few years back when it would pop up in my Facebook feed almost every day.

Natural News

In its heyday, existed as a poorly-designed, green-hued nightmare of circular reasoning and supplement peddling. It ostensibly existed to provide information about “alternatives” to Western Medicine (a.k.a. “medicine”). There have always been snake oil salesman, and there always will be. Natural News just did it digitally.

Natural News became a phenomenon largely because it pushed the roundly debunked and thoroughly bullshit idea that vaccines cause autism. Even now, as I type this, the top link on the site declares “Highest AUTISM rates found in countries with highest VACCINE compliance” (playing the hits). It also went all-in on the “evils” of GMOs, another bullshit scare tactic that you – yes, I know you’re reading this – probably still believe is a big concern.

What made this site so effective and so useful for people spreading its lies is that when you clicked on an article, it appeared to be a legitimate news article, with quotes from relevant experts and links to supporting articles. For a reader ready to buy what Natural News was selling, that’s all it took to be convinced that the article was properly researched and well-sourced. Click, share.

But those articles were garbage.

The quotes were almost never actually quotes. They often referenced “a person there” or “an expert”, but never gave a name, as if they had to maintain the person’s anonymity lest Big Brother snuffed them out.

Worse, if you clicked on a link embedded in the article, it inevitably took you to a different article on, generally written by the same guy (or avatar, at least). Keep clicking and you’d go further and further down the rabbit hole of that website, perhaps even coming right back around to the original article. It was an ouroboros of bullshit, and goddamn was it effective. The creators of the site knew, if you’re predisposed to believe them, you wouldn’t check their work.

The site’s most dedicated readers were usually those who called themselves skeptics, those people who never trust the “official story” and pat themselves on the back because they voted for a third party candidate once. Self-proclaimed skeptics are always the easiest to fool.

If you go to now (I wouldn’t recommend it; except to check my claims, so I guess you should do it), the website has transformed, unsurprisingly, into a pro-Trump, “Deep State” conspiracy-pushing, manure factory. Still poorly designed, but at least it’s keeping up with the latest bullshit. 

I say “unsurprisingly” because, as someone who has been tracking bullshit for my entire adult life, as soon as I saw the political “fake news” websites during the election popping up in my feed, I recognized all the same tactics being used, both in terms of self-referential links and the way they preyed on “skeptics” and “free thinkers.” 

Nowadays, Natural News has gotten a little more sophisticated: Its links go to other websites, sites with names like “Deep State News.” Regardless, it’s the same tactic as always, linking back to different like-minded (almost certainly interconnected) sources to give the sheen of authenticity to its claims. The snake is still eating its tail, one source of bullshit feeding another. (Who would have thought that “The Human Centipede” would turn out to be the most culturally astute film of our times?)

It’s possible that Natural News’ turn to Trumpism is just a natural development of its anti-establishment roots. If you don’t trust doctors and the medical establishment, it stands to reason you probably look askew at the political establishment, too. 

On the other hand, if you’re a bit more cynical –  as I am – you might note that Natural News always had a political slant at its core. I don’t mean Republican or Democrat, or even conservative or liberal. Rather, its politics were about persuading its readers that all “official” sources were lying, so you could only trust them. (And while we’ve got you here, why don’t you buy some vitamin supplements?)

“Everyone else is lying but me.” Sound familiar? When Trump praises Fox News and calls all other news sources “fake” he’s relying on the same tactic that Natural News used to secure a loyal and defensive audience. As soon as you’ve earned someone’s trust and, more importantly, built their distrust of others, they’re yours for life.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying Natural News was a Russian-backed front for spreading fake news (unless it turns out it really was, in which case, I’m also not not saying that).

What I am saying, though, is that all “fake news” sources use this same tactic to create loyalty. It’s not a new tactic. It originated with the original – and still best – purveyor of lies the world ever knew: Religion.

In the beginning…

Once you’ve convinced your followers that only your book, your prophets, your preachers, your celebrity spokesperson have access to the truth, it becomes impossible to dispute your claims.

I said above that I have been tracking bullshit my entire adult life. What I meant was that, as soon as I de-converted from Christianity at the age of 20, I began to look for all the ways that religion convinced its followers – convinced me – to stay in its grasp, even when so little of it made sense.

As a young, firebrand atheist, I was obsessed with debunking Christian myths and disproving its claims. I followed a pretty standard trajectory for an atheist, from excitable (and mean) reactionary to stately but acerbic provocateur, to where I am now: an old man tired of the fight. I mostly don’t write about it anymore, because the debate has gotten tiring, and the results non-existent.

But I bring up my young atheism because that’s where I first noticed the tactics of modern “fake news”: utilize self-referential sources, engender distrust, muddy the waters around what can be known (i.e. facts).

In one specific topic, I saw those tactics being used to prolong a debate that had long been settled: Evolution vs. Creationism (Intelligent Design).

Creationists like Ken Ham have no chance of winning the debate on the merits of facts or reason, so they turn to other methods for winning adherents to their political views: repeating assertions ad nauseam, no matter how baseless (repetition creates the illusion of veracity); arguing that one can’t trust what is seen with one’s own eyes; and proclaiming that biologists (all scientists, really) are part of a conspiracy to trick the world.

Sound familiar?

These same tactics are used by Climate Change deniers, Natural News quacks, and Donald Trump, among others.

When writing article after article about religion in my early 20s, I felt a bit like Chicken Little screaming that the sky was falling. Some people humored me, some even agreed. Turns out, the sky really was falling, and everyone thought they were safe under their particular awnings.

The future is bleak

Things are going to keep getting worse because of technology. Don’t get me wrong, technology is amazing, but its most amazing feature is also its greatest danger: it makes what isn’t real look like it is. Whether it’s getting us emotionally invested in the arc of a talking raccoon in a space epic or creating a video in which Obama appears to be calling Trump a dipshit, our world is increasingly virtual; in other words, fake. Eventually, our tech will overwhelm our ability to tell the difference.

For those looking forward to 2018 or 2020 in hopes of the truth winning out and Trumpism being eradicated, well, don’t hold your breath.

It’s not enough to know that “fake news” exists; we need to be humble enough to acknowledge that we are susceptible to it, and to blame for it.

You are to blame. I am, too. 

I’ll admit, I reposted that fake Trump quote about Republicans. I’m at least partially responsible for that “quote” having more legs than it deserved.

False Trump Quote
He never said this.

This is the simplest form of fake news, and it’s one that was pretty easy to debunk because it gives the supposed source. Trump never said those words, and obviously he wouldn’t have. The fact that I reposted it speaks to my own willingness to put aside common sense when something feels true enough.

(There is a similar damning “quote” going around, with George Soros supposedly admitting to using Black Lives Matter to stir up violence in America. It’s just as bullshit as the Trump quote and proof that tactics know no political allegiance.)

When I read that the quote was fake, I double checked and was dismayed to find I’d been suckered. I deleted my post and now tell other people when they post it. People often smugly respond, “Well, even if he didn’t say it, the quote is true,” not getting the irony that they’re making fun of other people for believing lies. We have to be better than this.

Calling out these blatant lies is a small thing, but it’s some effort towards stopping the deluge. Sadly, I fear it’s a bit like cleaning up an oil spill with a teaspoon.

You’re to blame for Fake News.

You have spread fake news. I don’t care who you voted for, I don’t care how much of a “skeptic” or a “free thinker” you are. You have helped spread false information. Maybe you found out and corrected yourself, maybe you quietly buried the evidence, or maybe you are still convinced of its veracity. Whatever the case, you’re guilty.

And to prove it, I will list some lies that you believe or did believe. I won’t provide my sources, but I assure you, these are all facts. If you doubt me – good, that’s the first step – I encourage you to do the research yourself and learn why these lies became so massive that most of society accepts them as truth.

Here are lies you have undoubtedly believed at some point in your life:

  1. Carrots improve your night vision
  2. Diamonds are rare
  3. It’s dangerous/too difficult for women to get pregnant after 35
  4. Vitamin C will cure a cold
  5. Milk strengthens your bones
  6. Mary Magdalene was a prostitute
  7. You need to drink 8 glasses of water a day
  8. A woman frivolously sued McDonald’s for spilling hot coffee on herself and that’s why we live in a nanny state

We not only live with our lies, we love them. We define our world by them. Like it or not, there is a good chance your idea of the world has largely been shaped by at least one of those lies above (I used to drink a big glass of OJ every time I felt a tickle in my throat).

The spreading of lies isn’t going to stop. Liars aren’t going to stop. The only way to make a better world is to be better consumers of information. 

It’s not enough to just be a “skeptic.” We need to be curious. We need to be invested in the truth. We need to be interested in the wider world.

But, before all that, we need to admit, we’re part of the problem.

“Everything You Know Is Wrong”

Move around enough, meet enough strangers, come face-to-face with enough gray-haired 30-year-olds, and you will inevitably be confronted with this confounding “truth”:

Everything You Know Is Wrong

Gravity is a lie. We never landed on the moon. Obama is from Pluto. Jesus wasn’t white (nor was he Jewish). Your broccoli isn’t organic.

There is a certain portion of the population whose entire raison d’être is convincing anyone who will listen that the reality they know is a lie. For them, the Matrix isn’t just an excuse for Keanu Reeves to have a career, it’s a philosophical treatise on par with anything Johns Locke or Calvin ever produced.

You can recognize these people with a simple test: If someone posits the idea that we all live in an alien’s virtual reality simulation, and they not only nod along but attempt to extrapolate moral philosophy based on this idea, they might be a dipshit.*

I’m sounding bitterly dismissive, so I should explain. I have no problem with questioning or doubting. The scientific process is built on challenging established understanding and launching ourselves into new realms. The greatest scientific accomplishments of human existence would never have occurred without people willing to take the ‘known’ and test it. A mind that says we know everything we can possibly know and there is no new information is, essentially, religious. I cannot support such thinking.

But, just because I respect the inquisitive mind, doesn’t mean I give credence to the cynical dismissal of all knowledge.

My problem with people who make the statement, “Everything you know is wrong,” is that they are inherently dishonest. They tell you to question everything, then check their iPhones for the latest updates on We live in a society where scientific advancements completely shape every aspect of our lives. Someone can pretend like they ‘question everything,’ but test that resolve and they’ll prove to be empty-headed charlatans.

Medically, everything from flu shots and vaccines to heart transplants and brain surgery rely on a firm understanding of biology and human physiology, all brought to us by hundreds of years of research and study. A very select minority truly rejects all medical science, and they’re called Christian Scientists. And we don’t have to pay much attention to them because natural selection is pretty much killing them off.

How about technology? Unless you’re Amish, you’re probably reading this on your laptop, smartphone or virtual reality glasses. None of that technology would be available to you without decades of established and verified scientific research. Scientific knowledge is partially about challenging preconceived notions, but even more importantly it’s about building on the work of those who have come before.

The mantra of “Question Everything” is meant to suggest humility, by insisting that we humans are incapable of understanding the mysteries of the universe. But, in fact, the philosophy that claims “everything we know is wrong” is the most arrogant worldview available. It suggests that we, as individuals, can simply dismantle the work of millions of thinkers, scientists, doctors, researchers and philosophers who have come before us. And all because we took the blue pill. Or the red pill. I don’t actually remember which is which.

These Universal Cynics are liars and fakes. Like relativists and religious fundamentalists, if you actually put their philosophy to the test, one of two results will occur: Their hypocrisy will cause them to buckle, or they’ll die.

Everything you know is most emphatically not wrong. A lot of what you know is, in fact, completely, unquestionably true. Gravity is real. So is evolution, and the germ theory and Obama’s birth certificate. If you’re going to question someone, start with the people who use a website to tell you to doubt everything, a website powered by decades of established scientific research.

Yes, we must challenge, question and never grow complacent with our search for greater understanding.

But, no, we must not begin from the solipsistic view that if we don’t understand an answer, or don’t find it personally satisfying, it cannot be true.

Instead, we must begin with the realization that all human thought and inspiration stands on the shoulders of giants, and to dismiss those generations of advancements is like willfully climbing Mt. Everest from the base when we have a helicopter to carry us above the death zone.


*My issue isn’t with the idea that we might be a virtual simulation. While I don’t buy it, even if it were true, it’s meaningless to discuss. Our reality is still our reality. If there are rules that can be learned in our universe, we should be trying to learn them, not wasting our time looking for the theoretical exits.

Are You Taking Notes?

With all the people I meet who learn of my project, I inevitably end up rehashing a lot of the same material.  The list of cities I’ve lived in gets rattled off with all the rhythmic precision of a scripted speech.  My favorite city? How do I pick my cities? What will I do when I’m done with ten cities?  All those frequently asked questions.

But once those details are covered, most people want to know if I’m keeping a record of my years.  Am I actively taking notes or keeping a journal?

The truth is, no.

Obviously, I have this blog, and from time to time I write out an amusing anecdote about an evening out, but I’d say 90% of the content on this site has little to do with the personal moments of my life.  This blog was never meant to be a diary.  I don’t even keep a Captain’s Log.  Over the years I have flirted with writing down my day to day happenings in a notebook, but such habits have never lasted more than two consecutive days.

The problem is that I hate writing about myself.  It’s really a loathsome activity.  Not exactly the greatest attitude for a would-be memoirist, but in all fairness, when I started this project I never expected to write about it.  This is your fault.  Everyone I met who said, “This would be an interesting book,” you’re to blame for my cognitive dissonance.

The truth is, I’m flattered when anyone takes an interest in my banal life, so I’m happy to talk about it.  But sitting and scribbling down a play-by-play of my daily activities strikes me as being one of the more particularly vicious circles of hell.  I don’t care how interesting a person you are, most of your days are filled by strings of boring happenings that no one needs to read about, even via Facebook.

When I set out to finally write this book, I’ll have notebooks of essays, poems, attempted journal entries and random scribbles to help piece together the chronology of my life (because, lord knows, my whiskey-addled mind isn’t remembering most of it).  But I believe the majority of the material I’m going to abstract for the final product will be derived from interviewing old friends and acquaintances in each city.

When the time comes, I hope to fly back to each city for a week, one right after the other, and revisit old haunts, reconnect with people there and see what sorts of flashbacks I can trigger.  Maybe when the time comes I’ll create a Kickstarter project to help fund my 2 1/2 month journey around the country and through my past.

Memories are notoriously unreliable.  Mine sure as hell is.  It’s not that I believe getting other people’s versions of my history will help me craft a more accurate chain of events.  If anything, it’ll probably corrode my own memory further and distort reality to an even greater degree.

But the very thing that makes memories so capricious is what makes them so fascinating.  Our mind stores memory in a complex neural net that puts very little emphasis on accuracy.  It’s all about associations and mental links, and those ways in which each mind remembers an event tells us more about the individual than the actual occurrence.

When we take the collected memories of a group of people and try to form them into one cohesive narrative, we get something far more powerful than a memoir or history.  We create a myth.

10 cities in 10 years is not a goal.  It is not a dream.
It is a story I tell at parties.  It is the thing people attach to my name like it were a title.
It is the root of a myth.

That tag has been in the About section of this site since I first created it.  Don’t let me be misunderstood.  I’m not attempting to craft a false history to seem more interesting, a la James Frey.  What will end up in 10 Cities / 10 Years: The Book will be as factual as I can manage, with as much research and secondhand supporting evidence as I can amass.

But no memoir can ever aspire to 100% accuracy.  Until someone invents a time machine out of a Delorean, there is no hope of truly recapturing a personal history.  Even with the most fastidious note-taking over the previous 7 years (and the next 3), I couldn’t hope to get everything right.  Sure, it’d make remembering dates and names easier, but greater details don’t make for a better myth.

So, no, I’m not taking notes.  I’m living my life, and in a few years when it comes time to type it all out I’ll sew together my memories with those of others and fashion my own myth.

And then I’ll start a religion.

The complete lack of evidence is the surest sign that the conspiracy is working

Conspiracy Theories

Everyone I meet seems prone to imagine conspiracies.  There are always the flashy ones like, “9/11 was an inside job” or “The moon landing was fake,” and then there are the more grounded ones where [Fill In The Blank Group] is manipulating [Fill In The Blank System] for some agenda, secret or otherwise.  Some believe in aliens, or the Illuminati, or spirits.  Others take a more pragmatic take and think that the government is being manipulated by corporate interests, or corporate interests are being manipulated by government, or both are being manipulated  by something bigger.*

Rarely do all of these conspiracies tie together, because just like any good faith, they tend to contradict each other.  That said, I have met at least one person who has never met a conspiracy she couldn’t love.  She drops the name ‘Illuminati’ like it were just another established fact and believes in global conspiracies that range from the forced emasculation of males (literal or figurative?) to the notion that a unique isotope (my word, not hers) of gold transforms people and allows us to use more than 10% of our brains**, and the world governments secretly possess it and fight over it.

I have no interest in going through all of these conspiracies and trying to refute them.  There’s no point.  If you believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya, still, it’s obvious nothing will ever convince you otherwise.  You’re not looking for evidence, you’re holding onto a reason to remain prejudiced (or you’re just trying to goose ratings for you reality TV show).

It’s kind of an accepted fact that the best conspiracy theories (like the best religions) are those that cannot be proven wrong because there is always a window open for adaption.  But, frankly, even crap conspiracy theories will survive as long as someone is willing to believe it (Flat Earth Society, anyone?).  The mind that seeks conspiracies is a mind more interested in a compelling story than facts or logic.  Note, I said ‘compelling,’ not coherent or cohesive.

We all seek stories to explain experiences or phenomenon.  It’s an evolutionary trait.  It’s the reason for myths, fairy tales and religions (I mean, other than that one true religion, [Fill in the blank]).  It’s the reason science exists.  It’s also the reason that we sit around obsessing over what that girl meant when she said, “We should hang out sometime.”  We create narratives.  Smart people do it.  Dumb people do it.  People with faith do it.  Atheists do it.

Conspiracy theories are just another form of narrative building, but on crack.  The classic conspiracy theory usually assumes some body of power exists which has a secret agenda (presumably that we normal humans would oppose if we knew about it).  They have devised a complex, almost certainly nefarious means of achieving their goal, which has resulted in an ever widening net of lies, misdirections and false ‘facts’ to throw us plebeians off the scent.


When I hear a conspiracy theory (in whatever form it may take), my first thought is: Where is this going?  In fact, instead of trying to argue facts with conspiracy theorists, I’ve taken to pulling a maneuver out of every 3-year-old’s handbook and just ask, “Why?” ad nauseum.

And I usually get a pretty obvious answer, at first.  A conversation might go like this:
“Why did Bush and Cheney (or whoever) arrange 9/11?”  To invade Iraq.  To get oil.  To create opportunities for Halliburton. 

Those are all things Bush/Cheney/Whoever very well might have wanted.  “But you didn’t answer my question.  Why did they arrange the 9/11 attacks?  Because, if they wanted to invade Iraq, why pin the attacks on a ‘terrorist’ who had no connection to Iraq and required that we get involved in a war in Afghanistan first?  They had to falsify evidence to get us into Iraq, so why not just create a story where Saddam Hussein funded the 9/11 attacks and skip the middle man?”

And the response that follows starts to break down.

OK, but maybe 9/11 wasn’t about money and oil.  It’s just about power.  They needed a terrorist attack to create an atmosphere of terror in order to seize even greater power through the Patriot Act and other means. 


“So they could control the populace.”


“So they could have more power.”


Either this conversation turns into a big circular argument (they wanted power to control people, and they wanted to control people to have power) or there is some long game being played here that either has failed or is completely staggering in its scope. 

Sure, under Bush the Executive branch finagled some extra powers and some rights were curbed.  But, really (unless you’re Middle Eastern), how much have your personal freedoms really been hampered?  To borrow a Chris Rock quote, is there really anything you can’t do on Wednesday because Bush won?  Obviously, there are some troubling aspects of laws passed by both Bush and Obama, but they’re hardly of the Orwellian scale one would expect from the sort of global conspiracy necessary to fake 9/11. I guess what I’m saying is, this fascist takeover is kinda a let down.

If you want me to believe your conspiracy theory, you need to do a little better job of explaining why such elaborate schemes are needed to bring about rather unimpressive results.  I know we’re never supposed to trust the “official story,” but usually the official story makes a whole hell of a lot more sense than what ever cockamamie theory you are spouting.


People love to believe in secret power pulling the strings.  Maybe it’s God, maybe it’s the Illuminati, maybe it’s the Boy Scouts.  But somebody has to be manipulating the world, right?  Because the alternative is that we’re just a bunch of people on this planet with pretty basic wants and desires and sometimes in the pursuit of them we come into conflict with someone else.  Sometimes we’re bad people; sometimes we create plans in order to meet our needs and those plans hurt other people.  It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just humanity.

Most of the supposed conspiracies in the world can be explained by ‘emergence.’  There are multiple, intelligent actors interacting, all in pursuit of their own ends.  These interactions create networks of events and circumstances and then we stand back from them and we see patterns, like the shape of a butterfly in a cloud.  These patterns couldn’t possibly have arisen by pure chance and chaos (we think), so there must be a conspiracy to explain it.

The funny thing about conspiracy theories is that while they are often very cynical and even dire in their conception of the world, they are actually an attempt by their propagators to make sense of the world and, by turns, create a comforting sense of order.  “I might not be in control, but somebody is and that’s something.  (Maybe I will usurp the powers that be, or join them.)”

Your average conspiracy theorist is like your average American Christian: You have these beliefs but rarely do said beliefs play a substantial role in your day to day life***.  The Illuminati might control the world’s gold supply, but you’re still going to go to work today and buy your Starbucks coffee and log into Facebook and generally play into the world system that you decry as a sham.  It’s enough to have your story, you don’t really care about the consequences.

Occam’s Razor

You might not believe in the Illuminati or 9/11 conspiracies or anything of that sort.  But there is some conspiracy lurking in your mind that you flick at like it was a loose tooth.  It’s probably about the pharmaceutical companies or Wall Street or food manufacturers.  It’s not just that you think they pursue policies that might be harmful in order to make greater profits.  You think that they are secretly controlling politicians, laws and government policies all in order to get richer.

Maybe.  But it begs the question, “Why?”  Considering the amount of years and money it would take to set all these pawns in place, might it not be more realistic to believe that [Fill In the Blank Profiteer] is using legal, albeit ethically questionable means to benefit themselves, the same way you might use your friendship with a manager to get a better schedule at work.  Yeah, the system might be rigged in certain groups’ favor, but I’m not convinced it was a conscious decision by a secret panel of shadowy figures. 

Occam’s Razor tells us that the simplest answer is usually the best answer.  Rarely is a conspiracy theory simple.  In fact, complexity is one of the strengths of a good theory, because it makes it harder to disprove or even completely understand.

Generation and generation of Hollywood movies and comic books have bred us to believe in evil villains who aim to control (or, for some reason, destroy) the world****.  But reality is far more prosaic.  There are certainly dictators in the world, and that’s a whole other issue.  But here in America, most of the ‘villains’ are really just people whose individual goals don’t align with our own.  It’s possible for me to find certain Republican policies repugnant without thinking they all hate women.  And it’s possible for you to oppose ‘Obamacare’ without having to claim it’s an attempt to turn America into a Socialist State (it’s not).

No matter how compelling or reassuring it might seem to believe in a great story, it’s always worth stopping and asking yourself, “Why?”

And if the answer requires more steps than the ‘official story,’ you’re probably just enjoying a good ol’ fairy tale.

*When I say that government being manipulated by corporate interests is a conspiracy theory, I’m not talking about Citizens United or Super PACs or lobbyists.  It’s a well established fact that corporations use their money to influence politicians.  I mean on a larger scale, a more systemic manipulation that involves buying off scientists (or relevant experts) and any governmental official all to line the pockets of a small group of power players.

**The 10% myth is a frequent player in a variety of conspiracy theories, as well as for homeopathic ‘cures’ and mystic healing.  If we could just rid our collective consciousness of this utter bullocks, we might save a lot of gullible people a lot of money.  Probably not, actually.

***And just like any religion, there are fanatics whose beliefs completely guide every aspect of their lives.

****Notice how these movies about World Conquering Villains usually fall apart in the 3rd act?  Because even the best writers have a hard time coming up for a legitimate reason why anyone would want to conquer the world.  Any villain smart enough to take over the planet would realize that he could just make a billion dollars and have the world hanging from his nuts.  No henchmen required.

For Science So Loved The World…

Hey class, let’s dissect a “Science” article:

Will March 19 ‘Supermoon’ Trigger Natural Disasters?

Starting from the beginning:

According to the article, the moon’s natural orbit will bring it as close to the earth as it has been in 18 years.  18 years!  By golly, who can remember that far back?  Dinosaurs could have been roaming the earth.  Or, you know, it could have been 1993.  As we all remember, that year was notable for horrible earthquakes and tidal waves.  You remember that, right?  Right?

Okay, well, maybe not, but that was different.  You see, this time, the moon will be full.  And we all know what that means:
Full moon is a lunar phase that occurs when the Moon is on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun.” (Wiki)

Which has nothing to do with anything.  Full, half, new, these are just phases based on the position of the moon, earth and sun.  There is no cosmic (or seismic) significance.

Let’s move on to the next part of the article.

“Richard Nolle, a noted astrologer…”  Woah nelly!  Where to begin?  Noted?  Noted for what?  For being a crank?  How can you be a ‘noted astrologer?’  That’s  like being an esteemed idiot.  Since astrology is a meaningless ‘field of study’ representing nothing based on no evidence, how does one become ‘noted’ in it?

Feel free to click on his link,  I’ve seen more professional looking websites in the 90s.  Geocities called, they want their aesthetic back.

Of course, the writer of this article obviously expects people to be skeptical (being ostensibly about science, there are going to be people who want more than just one random guy’s opinion), so they go to some real scientists for their input.

Not their opinions on the specific topic of the article, mind you, just on the general topic of the moon and the tide.  You see, the writer of this article didn’t interview anyone for this piece.  She merely took quotes from different sources (affiliates) and combined them into a loosely connected story.  Someone likely asked the quoted scientists their opinions (maybe even about so-called ‘supermoons’) but I doubt any of them thought they’d be quoted in an article giving voice to some wackjob astrologer.

In fact, by the end of the article, the various scientists questioned have all pretty well dismissed the entire premise of the article.

“The moon’s gravitational pull at lunarperigee [supermoon], the scientists say, is not different enough from its pull at other times to significantly change the height of the tides and thus the likelihood of natural disasters.”

In other words, the answer to the question in the title of this article:  No.

But the order of the article is important.  The takeaway from any article (whether in the New York Times, the Washington Post or on Yahoo ‘News’) is the first two or three paragraphs.  Every article is going to have a counterpoint, but the writers (or editors) know the part you’ll focus on is the original assertion, not the dissenting point of view, no matter how intelligent or credentialed the opposition is.  Hell, most people will only read the first two paragraphs of any given article.

Read up.

My Point

A recent ‘discovery’ of alien life has gotten me interested in how our culture processes scientific stories.  The truth is, most scientific discoveries are boring.  Like, 99.9999999% of peer-reviewed scientific journals would put you to sleep.  But, despite this nation’s war on real science, there is still an appeal among the common man for scientific wonders.  The United States has a long history of discovery and exploration, and there is no greater realm for such endeavors than science.

So, sometimes (frankly, usually), when I see a ‘science’ article being passed around on Facebook or on popular sites, my alarm bells go off.  If the world at large is taking interest in a scientific discovery, either it’s a load of bollocks or it’s an article asking if Star Trek could be real.  Real science demands a lot, of the researchers and of the consumers.

Questions to ask yourself when reading such an article:

Who is being quoted?  What are their credentials?  Is the source reputable (does the scientific community as a whole acknowledge it)?

Has their discovery/research been peer reviewed?  What were the research methods?

A good scientist should be skeptical.  A good reader should be, too.

I get accused of being a cynic fairly often, but I really don’t think that could be further from the truth.  A skeptic questions, a skeptic wonders, a skeptic finds answers.  A cynic just says ‘no’ to everything.  Frankly, I think a cynic has more in common with credulous people than with skeptics.  Both cynics and the credulous have kneejerk reactions, they just tend to be in opposite directions.

Skeptics discovered that the earth wasn’t flat.  Skeptics discovered that the earth goes around the sun.  Skeptics discovered evolution and germ theory and all the great wonders of the past 200 years.  Skepticism is based on reason and a desire for truth, that’s what distinguishes it from cynicism (or credulity).

There has been no single greater tool for the betterment of mankind than science.  Yes, scientific advances have led to things like nuclear bombs, but humanity has been finding ways of killing each other since the very beginning.

Whereas healing the sick, giving hearing to the deaf, helping the lame walk:  Those aren’t miracles of Jesus, those are the achievements of science.

Let’s not take Science’s name in vain.

Now that I’ve offended you, come vote on my next city.

The words we say aren’t meant for anyone.

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 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.