I’ve been interested in crazy ideas for a long time. What follows is a 15-year-old (at least) article I wrote, reproduced here as an introduction to some things I want to write in the following weeks more specifically on conspiracy theories, and Obama theories in particular. (It’s interesting how this theme keeps recurring in my life.) What I want the reader to get from this article is that people believe all sorts of crazy things for all sorts of reasons.
A FAQ about Facts
“Just the facts ma’am,” Sgt. Joe Friday.
Updated July 6, 1996, March 7, 1997, December 2, 1997, June 6, 2011
I was prompted to start this project by an exchange I had with a fellow on USENET. He had posted some remarks in support of the authenticity of a verse from the New Testament. I, of course, had the facts and I lit into him pretty strongly with them. He replied with some facts of his own. This dispute was not over interpretation, but over whether evidence exists in ancient manuscripts. That is, it is a dispute over facts. Yet we each had different facts from sources we consider authoritative. This exchange has led me to consider how many disputes are really about facts.
It is said that 3% of the population cannot think rationally; that is, they are crazy. Perhaps more have recognized thinking disorders. But by in large, most people can think rationally. I suppose that many disputes are over values and preferences and at least, in theory, facts are facts. Nevertheless, I find, more and more, that people are disagreeing because they work from different (and sometimes conflicting) “facts”.
I guess I first became aware of the questionable nature of facts in jr. high school. I read a book on ESP and in that book was a sentence that said “It is a well-known fact that if a dozen people concentrate on a playing card at the same time, they will be able to transmit the card’s value to another person. This is easily verified.” At that young age, reading a book from the library, which looked like a serious book–a book which mentioned scholarly research at Duke University, I accepted the statement as fact. When I actually tried the experiment, however, it didn’t work.
That “fact” had (for me at that time) all the hallmarks of credibility.
- It came from a trusted source: the library.
- It was written by a person with a Ph.D. after his name.
- It was associated with a University.
- It was easily verified. (How could someone lie about something that anybody could check?)
Later, in college, I went to see a movie called The Bermuda Triangle which was a documentary-styled film giving evidence that something truly strange was going on in the Bermuda Triangle. One of the “facts” from this film was a story about an experienced boatman who took his boat out in perfect weather into the Bermuda Triangle–and was never seen again.
A skeptical person might come up with any number possible explanations for a boat being lost in good weather and conclude that nothing strange is necessarily going on; however, most people will not question the underlying facts.
Years later, there was another documentary about the Bermuda triangle. This time from a skeptical viewpoint. In particular it examined the same missing boat story that I had seen in the earlier film. According to this film, a check in the Miami Herald showed that the weather was not “perfect” but rather that the disappearance happened in the middle of a hurricane!
So here is another “fact” which has all the hallmarks of credibility:
- It came from a trusted source: Public Television
- It was written by a person with a Ph.D. after his name.
- It was associated with the National Science Foundation
- It was easily verified. (Just look up the Miami Herald.)
- It made sense (boats sink in storms).
The debunking film had all the hallmarks of credibility. How many viewers of that show checked the information in the Miami Herald? Not many, I’ll wager, and not me.
[Are you with me so far? I hope not! The problem with the story of the two Bermuda Triangle films above is that both stories are from memory–and not recent ones at that. The title of the first movie is almost certainly wrong.I’ll see if I can replace the fuzzy recollections above with some real facts. A little research reveals that the boat in question was named “Witchcraft”.]
So where do “bad facts” come from and why do we believe them anyway?
I’ve come up with a few sources for bad facts:
- Lies. I think that it’s likely that one of the two “facts” about the boating accident weather was a lie–either intentional or fabricated in the absence of information.
- Mistakes. If the Miami Herald had shuffled weather reports, it might have printed the wrong information.
- Interpretations. Take for example a statement like: “Joe Smith, Ph.D., examined the so-called Nazi gas chambers and stated that they could not have been gas chambers because the doors did not seal.” One might think that the interpretation (that they could not have been gas chambers) comes from the fact (the doors did not seal). However, the statement that the doors did not seal may be an judgment about the primary evidence, the doors. That is, some things which sound like primary facts are actually conclusions.
- Outdated information. One might read a book published a few years ago which states this fact: “There is no archaeological evidence to substantiate that King David in the Bible was a historical person.” However, some evidence was found, and what was once a fact is no longer a fact.
- Different viewpoints. If a book says something like: “the majority of competent scholars conclude…” the “fact” that it is a majority opinion may well depend on who the author considers a “competent scholar”. For some, this means scholars that agree with him!
- Incomplete information. The facts are there, but not all of the facts. We may read a factual source that omits important evidence which does not agree with the facts presented. This is the factual mistake in the story of “The Blind Men and The Elephant”. A group of blind men came upon an elephant and proclaimed it “at tree” (leg), “a leaf” (ear), “a wall” (side), “a rope” (tail), “a spear” (tusk) and “a snake” (trunk).
- Biased Reporting One of my favorite examples here is over the effectiveness of “Natural Family Planning”. If you check out the pro Natural Family Planning pages on the World Wide Web, you will find effectiveness rates up to 99.8% cited with the US Dept. of HEW the source (there hasn’t been an HEW for some years now). However, if you check out the Web page of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, you will file a typical failure rate of 18-20% for the method. Part of this is manipulation of definitions, and part is selective presentation of evidence.
It is impossible to verify everything for oneself. We take the information in our mathematics textbooks as fact; we take the information in our physics textbook as fact (even though both may be out of date). We believed what Walter Cronkite said. We end up selecting some sources which we trust, and we look for certain marks of credible information:
- Authority. Authority is something we have to rely on in many cases. We cannot do the cyclotron experiment; we cannot go to Egypt and measure the pyramid ourselves. But we must be careful even of expert sources. Is the Ph.D. giving his opinion on an ancient inscription an authority, or is his Ph.D. in marine biology?
- Verifiability. Just because someone says that a corporate CEO admitted on the Phil Donahue show, that part of his profits went to the Church of Satan, doesn’t mean that it actually happened. Just because this is easy to check out doesn’t mean that it’s true. And on the other hand, just because someone says on the net “I wrote the Donahue show and they said that the CEO was never on the program” doesn’t mean that this is true either–even though anyone could write Donahue and check up on it. [This is a real example, and similar exchange has appeared dealing with the question of whether the Smithsonian uses the Book of Mormon as a guide to archaeology.]
- Plausibility. One of my least favorite sayings is “where there is smoke, there’s fire.” This phrase could be restated this way: “all accusations are well-founded” –which few would agree with. It could well be that someone is just blowing smoke! Contenders for facts can play on our suspicions and our expectations. Nevertheless, plausible “facts” are reasonably accepted with less confirmation than highly implausible ones.
- Friendliness. This item, friendliness, is an interesting one. One tends to trust sources that have similar views to oneself. For example, I suspect that most skeptics trust what appears in Skeptical Inquirer magazine pretty much at face value. Liberals tend to trust what liberal commentators say and conservatives believe Rush Limbaugh.
- Peer review. We may trust a scientific journal because the articles undergo a critical process called peer review. This is a powerful tool, but be sure that what you think is a peer reviewed journal really is, and that the peers are qualified.
- The Government. Government agencies, or world agencies such as the World Health Organization have a lot of intrinsic credibility. But even these sources can put out interpretations in the guise of facts.
- Our own senses! [See also: Magician.]
There are just a lot of these contradicting fact issues around today. Things that come to mind are: Vince Foster suicide, Kennedy assassination, weeping icons/bleeding statues, UFO sightings and alien abductions, psychic reports, Historical Jesus reconstructions, holocaust denial, genetic homosexuality, recovered of suppressed memories under hypnosis, Satanic ritual abuse, facilitated communication (of autistic children), health foods (megavitamins, hormones, bee pollen, DHEA, etc.), anti-aging drugs, freemasonry, Mormonism and religions foundations of all sorts, Bermuda Triangle, cold fusion, Waldensian day of worship, IRS abuses, conspiracy theories of all kinds, archaeological reconstructions, school prayer abuse, political voting records, pyramid and crystal power, pyramidology (prophecy based on the measurements of the Great pyramid at Giza), Afro-centrism/melanism, homeopathy, nicotine addiction, chiropractic, 200 MPG carburetor, racial theories, the effectiveness of Natural Family Planning, ancient Sumerian knowledge of Cosmology (pro and con), Darwin deathbed conversion, the King James only movement, and related issues and on and on.
Well, what’s a body to do?
- Be humble and keep an open mind. Not every contender for “fact” status is equally qualified; on the other hand, remember that each of us is a human being and subject to failures in judgment. We need not go about being tentative all the time, but we should also listen to hostile views.
- Check primary sources from time to time. If you are familiar with a particular body of information, seek out an opposing viewpoint and test it. Go to the newspaper archive, look at the pottery shard in the museum and dig out the ancient author.
- Don’t presume that everyone with a college degree is competent or trustworthy.
- Be particularly careful listening to people you totally agree with.
- Check peer reviewed publications.
- DON’T BELIEVE ANYTHING YOU READ ON THE INTERNET.
I think most people will draw the right conclusion given the facts, but in an era when most of our facts come from published sources, we have to be aware of the difference between facts and statements which only appear to be facts.
Now here’s a test question for you. Is the following a fact? How will you decide?
Marshall McLuhan’s book is commonly thought to be The Medium is the Message, but the actual word is “Massage”, not “Message”. The full title of McLuhan’s 1967 work is The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects.
If you don’t believe me, look it up in the Britannica or look up the book at your local library; Telnet to the Library of Congress Card Catalog. Oh, but don’t look in Grolier’s Online Encyclopedia–it’s wrong; trust me!
March, 1997 notes
When considering “alternative facts” I have found that one of the differences lies in the process by which ideas are screened. And I would like to coin a phrase “net.facts” to refer to facts which have been published without going through scholarly debate or peer review. Certainly the scholarship route does not insure truth, but I believe that it is the best approach we have, short of going to primary sources which is almost always impractical.
While the Internet may be an “open marketplace of ideas”, it is rather difficult to judge the value of the ideas being sold.
June 6, 2011 notes
The Witchcraft sank on December 22, 1967 according to Charles Berlitz’s book Without a Trace: More Evidence from the Bermuda Triangle. December 22 is obviously not part of the hurricane season. Indeed, there was no rain that day and winds were 9.2 knots at the Miami airport, according to Farmers Almanac.com. The best I can figure was that the first film I saw was The Devil’s Triangle (1974). The second film may have been Nova: The Case of the Bermuda Triangle (1976). Neither is readily available to me. This web page on the Witchcraft gives some details. Oh, and did I mention that the boat’s owner was named Burrack? Full circle.
This article is from the Understanding the Birthers series.
Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
Facts are getting the best of them
Facts are nothing on the face of things
Facts don’t stain the furniture
Facts go out and slam the door
Facts are written all over your face
Facts continue to change their shape
Talking Heads – Crosseyed and Painless
I very much enjoyed your article and thought it brought out a lot of very important points. Thanks for deciding to reprint this.
I was really shocked to learn that there are conspiracy theorists who deny that an airplane flew into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. They think the plane was shot down, and the government exploded a truck bomb at the Pentagon to cover that up. Others believe that no planes hit the World Trade Center, but rather that the were toppled by a missile; the planes were holograms.
The “it was an inside demolition job” lines are the worst, to me because they seem most plausible to the uneducated. Ironically, I had edited and laid out a book by an NYC fire chief on high rise fires just the year before, it went into great detail about the danger of collapse, and what the chain of events would be. Even worse, I was laid off on 9/10/11, and woke up the next day to watch what i had edited play out on wall-to-wall national TV.
The arguments they make (God help Jesse Ventura) are so easily refuted, yet they persist.
It was the most witnessed event in history, on television and in person, and yet they persist.
I, too, look forward to your writings.
these are the ones that blow me away (no pun intended) every time.
the people who repeat this one normally have no idea how complicated a cotrolled demolition is, how long it takes to set up, and how many wires are left trailing around.
the thermite fans are another fun bunch, claiming that the steel supports were cut through using thermite (or thermate depending on if they read wikipedia that week). they get a bit flustered when you explain that termate or thermite cut vertically, and to channel burning thermite to cut a support horizontally would be hard to say the very least. add into the mix the fire which would ignite the composition and you´ve got a very uncontrolled demolition.
Politics and religion have taught me one thing: People believe what they want to believe. If the facts they find do not agree with the conclusion they desire, they will reject those facts and continue searching until they find the facts that conform to and reinforce their beliefs.
So did anyone else actually look up McLuhan’s book?
I agree 100%
As I mentioned in another thread, I know a guy – a very intelligent guy – who was in D.C. on 9/11 and he believes that the plane was shot down and that the government is covering it up. He was in a taxi at the time, several miles east of the Pentagon, and he insists that he heard a news announcement on WTOP radio that a truck bomb had gone off at the Pentagon.
Later I found a transcript of WTOP’s broadcast on 9/11, and guess what? No mention of a truck bomb. My friend now insists that the transcript was scrubbed on orders from the government. His other argument is that he never saw the plane, and he remained unconvinced when I pointed out to him that he was too far from the plane’s flight path to have seen or heard it. I live 12 miles from an airport, and I never see or hear any planes unless they happen to use an approach or takeoff which takes them right over my neighborhood.
And of course there are numerous eyewitnesses who saw the plane, and I know that the plane sheared off the top of at least one street light – I’m not sure how a truck bomb could have accomplished that. Not to mention the obvious question of how a truck loaded with explosives could have gotten next to the Pentagon in the first place.
There were reports on 9/11 of a truck bomb at the Capitol, and early speculation on TV was that a truck bomb exploded at the Pentagon after the plane fist hit.
In the enfolding chaos (or “fog of combat”) a lot of erroneous info gets reported. It is quite common in quick moving events, and by no means indicates any kind of coverup or “scrubbing”.
Some people cling to the first thing reported “truck bomb” and refuse to let it go after the facts emerge, as if somehow “first” reported automatically means “correct”.
A good example would be the day Reagan was shot. In the confusion, reports went over the air that James Brady had died from his gunshot wound in the head. (it was certainly plausible seeing the severity of the injury). A while later, the news made the correction and announced he was still alive.
If the truthers/birthers were active then, they would claim with certainty that Brady was, in fact, dead, because all the networks reported it. (maybe the retraction paradoxically buttresses the case for the original report being the true and accurate version)
I am not sure how they would explain Brady himself being alive and active ever since then, maybe they would just ignore Brady when he appeared on TV many times over the years.
They saw the movie “Dave” and think that happens all of the time.
So since we’re talking 9/11 conspiracies today… anyone know of a rough equivalent to this site that deals with Truthers? I’d love to have something to throw at my Truther uncle.
I trust the Doc but I checked anyway.
The Truther Debunking Site of Truther Debunking Sites.
Thanks dude. That looks familiar. I’ve probably been there but forgot the URL.
Kind of off topic, but that’s an extreme form of cognitive dissonance, and also tends to be associated with conservative thinking. That is, there’s been some scientific research comparing the way that conservatives mentally process information compared to liberals, and conservatives tend have a harder time reconciling newly acquired information with previously learned facts, whereas liberals tend to be far more flexible in their thought processes. (I assume the studies are done with neutral information, but don’t have time to go dig them up right now). Although I think you could also define that as the difference between extremists on both sides of the political spectrum and moderates.
But you can definitely see how it fits birtherism. Birthers are people who started out with the belief that it was impossible for Obama to be elected president.
Well, you know, trust but verify, right? I would have given about 3 to 2 odds that it was a trick, and it would turn out to be mEssage after all. So then he could be all like, “Well, I told you not to believe stuff you read on the internet.”
Agreed. Frankly, this one is quite common, particularly when something they’ve heard or understand has been reported one way for a long time and then a legitimate change occurs. Many people simply never hear about the change and continue to go with based on their older information. Quite a few people for whatever reason, will revert back to their original understanding of the info over and over and over again, even when presented with the new data.
I wonder if somehow the original info made it into their long-term memory but they retain the newer info only short term? Some of these folks seem to sincerely understand the change when it is presented to them, but then over time, revert back to their previous memories and forget all about the new info…until it is told to them again…and *sigh* often again and again.
I think a lot of old wives tales and urban legends continue to thrive because of this difficulty in certain mindsets to update their thinking when presented with new information.
This happens in a lot of science or technology discussions I have, where the previous “understanding” of how things work or where limits of capability are are valid, until NEW discoveries change and revise the picture, rendering the old “understanding” now incorrect or irrelevant. A lot of well-meaning folks seem to have trouble letting go of the older info they relied on for so long.
It happens a lot in political grievences too. Someone will argue about a broad issue, complaining that X needs to be fixed. In those situations where congress actually gets around to making a change that addresses part or most of X, (at least to the extent that the original complaint argument is no longer correct), a lot of people never seem to grasp that and remain angry under a constant perception that X is still broken…
Many of the complaints about taxes and Social Security fall under this category all the time.
“Never have we seen such a tool of knowledge as the internet but we must always be alert to the misuse by unscrupulous individuals of this wonderous facility.”
Yep. I deal with them all the time over at Op Ed News. They are indeed some sorry people.
If you read “The Psychopath Test,” one of the chapters concerns a woman who was in the 7/7 bombings in London, and only survived because she was damn lucky. She was later shocked to find out that a group of truthers was claiming that she never existed at all, and was some kind of government plant. So she goes to one of their meetings to say “look, here I am, I’m real!” Hilarity ensues.
Yes, I’m almost finished with the book now. Fascinating book.
I referred to the most reliable source one could ever desire: Wikipedia.
Its article on the phrase “the media is the message” reads:
I don’t know how some people can look at unadulterated repeatable demonstrated proof of something and still deny it till they are blue in the face.
I have had several exchanges with people claiming the Pentagon plane left a 12 foot hole in the outside wall even though they themselves present photographic evidence of a 90 foot hole. It’s ludicrous.
Here is another good article on the “conspiracy mind” that came out today. It examines why people believe that way through looking at typical NWO world-domination conspiracies, such as the Bilderbergs. Good reading:
And the ports have names for the seas.
The funny thing about computers today is, with spelling checkers you might expect the Auden misprint to be actually introduced by the computer, while, considering that MacLuhan had probably typed the correct version hundreds of times before, a good spelling checker would probably have flagged ‘massage’.
One problem is characterizing “The Medium is the Massage” as “Marshall McLuhan’s book”. If you had to pick one book that represents his work (of which I know nothing), it would be “Understanding Media”.
I like the touch of using the phrase “is commonly thought to be” which is definitely implying facts not in evidence. There is no evidence the titles of any of his books are commonly known at all. Then there is the whole conflation of the phrase from the 1964 book with the joke in the title of the subsequent 1967 book. It does show how powerful the phrase was that he felt he could make a joke about it three years after he introduced it. He might have written another book about the consolidation of media into a few mega corps and called it “Global Pillage”.
We had something similar happen just this winter, when Rep. Giffords was shot. The first reports I heard over NPR indicated that she had been killed on the scene. Of course she was very much alive….
Could it have been “The Devil’s Triangle”?
I remember that one from when I was a teenager in the 1970’s.
Narrated by Vincent Price. Probably it’s the one.