Monday, August 17, 2009

Credulity and skepticism

Fans (I am one) of, the “searchable database of urban legends and myths, email hoaxes, computer virus warnings, and folklore,” can only marvel at the boundless credulity represented by the nonsense that Barbara and David Mikkelson painstakingly research and refute.

There is the patently false report, propagated by Betsey McCaughey and subsequently spreading faster than the swine flu virus, that a health care bill before Congress requires that senior citizens be given counseling on euthanasia every five years.

There is the Internet petition to President Obama protesting a Senate decision to grant illegal immigrants Social Security benefits. (The petition to President Obama is a repurposed version of a comparable petition to President George W. Bush from 2006.)

There is the image showing deplorably low grades and SAT scores on Sarah Palin’s high school report card — a fraud that demonstrates how easily images can be manipulated and falsified.

This proliferation of — let’s be frank about it — lies tells us something about ourselves:

People believe what they want to believe, crediting information that reinforces those beliefs and rejecting information that challenges those beliefs. Many of these beliefs are inextricably intertwined with people’s fears about the world and their place in it. Today’s intense anxieties about economic well-being leave people easily moved to share their fears, with demagogues standing by to exploit them.

If you fear that oppressive government regulations are going to endanger your freedoms and personal security, or that illegal immigrants are a threat to the nation, or that Sarah Palin is dangerously uninformed, you are liable to seize on any report that confirms your suspicions, however ludicrous and unsupported. (Before I go on, am I being clear to you that this is universal, and that the left, the right, and the center are equally credulous?)

And not just in politics. The range of rumors and legends that people are willing to entertain and spread abroad, and which the Mikkelsons explode, is astonishingly wide. Some examples:

Mussolini did not make the trains run on time in Italy.

Mariah Carey did not say, “When I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry. I mean, I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.”

It is not true — I may have readers who will find comfort in this — that a woman older than forty is likelier to be killed by a terrorist than to get married.

It was once thought that the job of journalism was to sort out the true from the false and enable the public to make informed decisions. Rumor and fabrication were left to the supermarket tabloids, so that credulous could be entertained and the informed amused by reports such as “Stroke victim falls in garden & is eaten by her Venus flytraps.”* But in a world in which, for example, Wikipediasts can insist that it doesn’t really matter than some of the information in the “free-content encyclopedia” is not accurate, and journalists can uncritically publish bogus information taken from it, it is not clear how much journalism takes its old responsibility seriously.

If I were designing a journalism curriculum, I would experiment with a course, Skepticism 101, in which the students would have to analyze press releases boasting unsupported claims, polls with unreliable samples, scientific studies with questionable methodology, statistics that don’t add up, rumors, and the other free-floating nonsense that is as much a part of the atmosphere as the polluted air we breathe.

* An actual Weekly World News headline.


  1. I was under the obviously mistaken impression that other Journalism course work produced journalists who practiced the skills described in Skepticism 101. I am afraid that those holding a BA in Journalism just add tot he problem you describe in your opening paragraphs.

  2. The unstated side of this is that people will invent the most preposterous things to serve their own agenda and then present these invented "facts" to others with not just a straight face, but with 36-point bold red Helvetica text. While it is our collective job to learn healthy skepticism, perhaps a few of the more creative authors were occasionally subjected to a little libel litigation, it would pour a drop of water on the conflagration of lies. (Or not, but it is satisfying to think so.)

  3. As a public school educator (elementary) I tried to teach my students that what is in the newspapers, magazines, and online is not necessarily true. One must be able to discern fact from fiction.

    I agree with what Mike said that "people will invent the most preposterous things to serve their own agenda and then present these invented "facts" to others with not just a straight face, but with 36-point bold red Helvetica text." It bothers me tremendously that people forward emails that contain outrageous and erroneous information to everyone on their email list; that they seemingly blindly forward this without thinking about the legitimacy of the information.

  4. I got my Skepticism 101 from Mad Magazine.

  5. While most of us can reliably identify "unsupported claims" and "free-floating nonsense," analysis of methodology and statistical relevance is harder for those of us who are not mathematically trained. What looks absurd might be completely valid and what looks rock-solid may be completely bogus. We must, therefore, rely on those who interpret such studies and reports to do the math and honestly report what they find. I would doubt that the average journalism student has the background for this, and most liberal arts curricula do not provide more that a skim-the-surface understanding.

    Retired in Elkridge

  6. Nearly 40 years ago at the Des Moines Tribune, I was assigned to track down a rumor that a coral snake had been found in the lining of a coat made in an Asian country and sold at a local department store. The person who called the paper about the snake didn't know much about it but knew someone who did. That person, it turned out, knew next to nothing about the snake but knew someone who could tell me everything. And so it went through several calls. As I worked my toward the supposed source of the snake story, people, if anything, knew less about it. If we'd had byline counts in those days, I would have written something. Years later in Norfolk I wrote for an editor whose barber gave him tips. Reporters wrote stories establishing that the tips were wrong, which must have been confusing to readers who knew nothing of the original tips.

    The great columnist Donald Kaul wrote that people who believe in absolute truth have never interviewed the witnesses to a two-car accident.

    The Skepticism 101 course would be a terrific idea in normal times, but if most journalism grads go into advertising, PR, or sales, they might have greater need for a course called Gullibility 101: how to believe what you're paid to believe.

  7. Editors of Wikipedia are known as Wikipedians, not Wikipediasts. And exactly where has a Wikipedian insisted "that it doesn’t really matter than [sic] some of the information in the “free-content encyclopedia” is not accurate"? You don't cite a source for that.

  8. Mr. Hemsley, not wanting to retrace well-traveled ground, I did not go into the extensive exchanges with Wikipedia enthusiasts that took place on the previous blog site at For further information:

    This is a selection of posts, and I suggest that you might find the comments of the true believers instructive.

  9. Some responses to this post transcribed from Facebook:

    Joyce Weinstock
    Just confirms one of my favorite sayings "you can't argue with stupid".

    Mary Curry
    Skepticism 101. I think it would be a great course for everyone to take, especially people called to sit on a jury in a court of law. Lots of different renditions of truth according to each person's experience and perspective. Some of it was mind boggling.

    Susan Rothschild- OConnell
    When I get chain emails with petitions or diatribes against someone, I Snope them. Just about all of them are false, so of course I trash them. It amazes me the junk that gets passed around.

    Pam Robinson
    The question is, why haven't every single major media outlet immediately denounced this, in both news stories and editorials?

    Paul Soucy
    The answer is: Because "objectivity" has gone from meaning "asking tough questions of everyone" to meaning "asking tough questions of no one." Because "objectivity" has become a cover story for laziness and cowardice. Because "objectivity" means that even if someone says the sky is red, who are you to say he's wrong? Because "objectivity" is the big lump of fat that the news media is choking to death on. It's not showing "bias" to point out that someone is telling an enormous, preposterous lie, whatever his or her political affiliation (it was Democrats who were telling this sort of scare-the-old lie 25 years ago)."

    Judith Taylor Hefley McFadden
    Objectivity does not mean showing every point of view--just the credible ones with support.

    JoAnne Schmitz
    Too bad you didn't participate in the Snopeses' training ground, the newsgroup alt.folklore.urban, back in the day. You would have felt quite at home. It still exists but is a shadow of its former self.

    The Skepticism 101 I received was from Mad Magazine. They would deconstruct advertisements in the harshest and funniest terms possible.

    Phillip Blanchard
    Those of us with sensitive bullshit detectors -- once a great asset in the news business -- are deluged daily even if we're not working.

  10. That's a class we all need to take, several times, starting in elementary school.

  11. I'm somewhat acquainted with your distaste for Wikipedia (that may actually be how I came across you in the first place), but I'm glad it wasn't addressed much in the time since you've had to become an independent blogger, because that would've made me look foolish.

    I began reading the posts that you'd linked to, as well as their comments, but I wasn't able to see much more than isolated complaints about particular article you came across.

    In the first post (about Mitty), you cite a couple of sentences that are poorly written and (I guess, based on your word) incorrect. If that bothers you, as it wont to do to copy editors, your duty as a citizen of the Internet is to edit the article and correct the problem. Wikipedia is open for you to do that, and it certainly does not complain about having qualified people within the fold.

    In the second article (about you having a cow), you end with the adage: "If you put a teaspoon of sewage in a barrel of wine, you get sewage; if you put a teaspoon of wine in a barrel of sewage, you get sewage." However, that doesn't apply to Wikipedia, as it is really not an entity to be taken as a whole. Each individual article has its own quality independent of the other articles. In fact, many articles have been specifically rated. And articles fall under the umbrellas of different WikiProjects, members of which are in charge of maintaining their quality, based on their current rating and their priority of importance.

    But now I'm going to cede my time on the soapbox to one of the first comments on that same article:

    "The issue is much more complicated than this.

    1: wikipedia is wikipedia, and nothing else. (not a newspaper, not a paper encyclopedia). It is a category of its own. At most it is content wise modeled after an encyclopedia.
    2: Wikipedia is useful
    3: Wikipedia is not the holy grail. Any of its editors that think that it is are too young (in experience) to understand that there is no holy grail.
    4: Wikipedia is not a primary source, not a secondary source and again does not claim to be any of these. (An encyclopedia is not a newspaper, nor a research paper).
    5: Wikipedia is free. This is something oft overlooked. But just imagine that there was no wikipedia. A lot of information would be a lot less accessible to many people. This aspect of wikipedia is very much part of it's core identity. A non-free or a fre resource that is written by professional authors/editors is hard to imagine reaching as many people as Wikipedia.

    The big pro/con regarding flagged revisions is very much related to the above points. It is an existential debate about the nature of Wikipedia. If something like that flagged revisions feature is used, does it take away soo much from what makes Wikipedia work/be useful now, that wikipedia is becoming either a newspaper or an old fashioned encyclopedia and thus losing part of it's identity causing perhaps that it will become less useful and have less right of "being" at all. If wikipedia collapses under it's own weight, then we are doing injustice to all the people who have problems having access to this information at all (think especially of the 3rd world countries).

    These are all very complex systems that everyone that participates needs to be educated about, explained etc etc, before any decision can be taken. Wikipedia as a community is being careful in order to protect itself and its goals. Just as journalists are discussing wikipedia all the time lately because they are trying to protect what they are doing.

    Saying Wikipedia is "the root of all evil" is as shortsighted as anyone saying that proper newspapers are overly expensive forms of news aggregators. The truth is always complex.

    Posted by: Derk-Jan Hartman | January 29, 2009 3:42 PM"

  12. Please! Please! Enough about Wilkipedia. If you don't trust it, don't use it. How difficult is it to come to that conclusion?