By Donna L. Halper
Even the most skeptical among us have had this happen: A friend or relative forwards an e-mail from an organization with a safe-sounding name (“The Clean Air Initiative,” “The Center for Consumer Freedom”), but the e-mail is filled with scary assertions, usually of a political nature. If the Obama-care health bill is passed, Grandma will face a “death panel” that will decide if she lives or dies; if Barack Obama is re-elected, America will soon become a Marxist or Muslim nation. Some of the chain-emails are obvious partisan propaganda (There is little if any chance of any president, whether Barack Obama or anyone else, imposing Marxism or Islam on America; and the Affordable Care Act [its official name] contains nothing about “death panels”). But some are more subtle, relying on truncated (or fake) quotes, or manipulated facts. And while we most often see these sorts of false (but credible-looking) assertions made during elections, they can also be generated by interest groups trying to peddle unproven cures for diseases, or anti-science advocacy groups who oppose fluoridation or vaccination.
I’m a professor of media, and I focus on critical thinking in every class I teach; but it’s not just college students who can benefit from a skeptical approach to what they see from both print and online sources. Every school—from elementary right on up—should encourage students to become media literate: the ability to evaluate and assess the claims made by commercial advertising as well as by politicians and advocates. We are supposed to live in an “information society,” but sadly, much of what we see and hear is not entirely accurate. As a researcher, I’ve noticed the tendency on the Internet for some “fact” to be posted on one site and then reposted hundreds of times, as if the amount will somehow prove it’s true. As any student of philosophy knows, this is an aspect of Argumentum ad Populum, or the Bandwagon effect—if millions of people believe X, it must be true. Or, as my students will often tell me, they saw it on Wikipedia (or some other frequently read site), so it must be true.1
In fairness to Wikipedia, although I much prefer encyclopedias where the articles are signed (so that I know who wrote the piece), some of their articles are quite thorough and informative. But others contain well-traveled myths and rely on volunteers to correct them. It’s often a losing battle. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve refuted the myth that radio station KDKA was the first station in the United States (or in the world, depending on which source you read). This is a durable myth, promoted very effectively in the 1920s by their corporate owner—Westinghouse—which had an impressive publicity department. And that is rule number one of media literacy: Know who created the message, so you can factor in whether the creator was pushing a special agenda. Not all agendas are malevolent. Westinghouse may have indeed believed their station was unique and the company sought to promote that fact. But they were not alone: the Detroit News (which owned a station in Detroit), AMRAD (owners of a station in Medford Hillside MA), and several other American companies had stations on the air at that time, as did the Marconi company in Montreal, and these owners certainly wanted to spread the word about what their stations had done. Yet Westinghouse was so effective in asserting KDKA’s primacy that to this day, the claim is treated as historical fact by otherwise reputable textbooks.2 History can indeed be written not just by the winners, but by powerful publicists.
Many contemporary media critics treat the proliferation of fake news and erroneous information as something modern, but the truth is we can trace it back several hundred years. In some cases, the misinformation was even intentional, created in order to sell newspapers (a technique still used by today’s tabloids). A good example occurred back in late August 1835, when the New York Sun published an authoritative-looking piece about a famous British astronomer who had discovered life on the Moon, thanks to an amazing new telescope. It was a time when a college degree was only available to the privileged few, and the Sun used techniques that are still being used even now: they cited an “expert,” used scientific jargon, and claimed that his “discovery” had appeared in a prestigious overseas journal. In an era where fact-checking would have been difficult, few readers asked the questions a skeptic might ask today: Was the expert a real person? Did the expert really write what the article claimed he wrote? Did the journal exist, and was his work really published in it? The case came to be called the Great Moon Hoax and a good summary of it can be found on the website of the Museum of Hoaxes.
Of course, even in 1835, there were skeptics (including some at rival newspapers), and eventually, the story was shown to be an elaborate fraud. But this would not be the only time a media outlet hoaxed the public: the Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast from late October 1938 is another frequently cited example. In this case, the broadcast was a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel about a Martian invasion of earth. But so realistic was the presentation, complete with scary sound effects (including the special tones used by radio stations when airing a news bulletin), that many listeners were certain they were hearing news, rather than a play. The effect was further enhanced by the deep-voiced and very serious narrator (Welles), who kept providing new and more frightening “details” about the “invasion.” Today, we know that reports of mass panic after the broadcast were exaggerated (the show didn’t even air in some large cities, Boston among them),3 but it sounded so authentic that millions of listeners were convinced the United States was under attack from Martians, and there is evidence that some people did in fact run from their homes in terror, convinced the end was near.4 The broadcast was a mixed blessing for Welles, whose Mercury Theater program previously suffered from very low ratings. After the “War of the Worlds” hoax, the show got lots of attention, but not all of it favorable—many people were furious that they had been fooled, and some critics demanded that such programs be banned. As for Welles, he claimed to be shocked, shocked that anyone would believe a science-fiction play, and yet many people did. And to this day, there are programs on television about “ghost-hunting” or about houses that are allegedly haunted; and because they are often well-produced and make good use of special effects, gullible viewers think they must be true.
Unfortunately, there have been many times when the media themselves gave credence to pseudoscience, and not just to sell papers or get bigger radio and TV ratings. It has been noted by some critics that far too often, journalists who lack a background in science simply repeat what a press release claims to be true, or quote from someone else’s article without checking into its veracity. Also, in fairness to journalists, the job of any reporter is to tell a story, and when confronted with a very dense and jargon-filled academic essay, the tendency is to find a way to give it more excitement and mass appeal. The media’s misadventure with science is nothing new: in 1922–1923, many otherwise reputable newspapers were eagerly touting a new “miracle man”—a doctor from France named Emile Coué, who could cure people by teaching them positive thinking, and having them chant “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”5 Of course, Coué was not a doctor (at most, he was a pharmacist), and there was little objective evidence of any cures, but that didn’t stop reporters from going to his presentations and marveling at the people who were no longer (pick one) blind, lame, asthmatic, or terminally ill. By most accounts, Coué was quite charismatic, and a number of reporters who saw him seemed genuinely convinced that he was a miracle-worker.6 The many articles praising him led to the emergence of an entire cottage industry, with radio programs devoted to American “experts” in the Coué method, and schools that claimed to teach anyone how to derive amazing results.7 Radio also became home to a number of other frauds: fortune tellers, faith healers, and assorted other quacks, some of whom were criticized by the press, but most of whom became very popular anyway. One of the most famous examples was Dr. John R. Brinkley, another fake physician, whose “cure” for impotence involved goat gland implant surgery for men, many of whom underwent the painful procedure in hopes of improving their performance in the bedroom. The story of his successful radio career and his eventual downfall, is well told in R. Alton Lee’s 2002 book The Bizarre Careers of John R. Brinkley.
These days, it’s not just scary chain e-mails that should warrant skepticism and critical thinking. Politicians love to give non-threatening or positive names to laws that would otherwise inspire debate and controversy. Two good examples: After 9/11, Congress quickly passed the PATRIOT Act, which evoked emotions of standing up to terrorists and showing pride in being an American. But the act, which was an acronym for “Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism,” contained some provisions that are still being debated today, and a number which civil libertarians and privacy advocates have vehemently opposed.8 Another example was the 2002 “Healthy Forests Act,” which certainly sounded like something worth doing: who isn’t in favor of healthy forests? But when skeptics, many of whom were also passionate about the environment, delved further into this act, which was a priority for President Bush, they found it actually encouraged more logging in national forests. Whether logging is a good thing or not, the name did not reflect the provisions the act contained.9 Another media literacy rule: Find out who is actually behind the innocuous-sounding name, so you can decide whether the facts they are presenting can be trusted.
And then there are fake quotes. Did you know that the Founding Fathers said America is supposed to be a Christian nation? Did you know that they also insisted that a nation that did not rely on the Bible would never prosper? If you believe the chain e-mails sent by conservative Christian advocacy groups, often citing the work of David Barton (an evangelical Christian minister, former co-chair of the Republican Party of Texas, and the founder of WallBuilders, a Texas-based group that claims the separation of church and state is a myth) then you have probably been told that the American founders were opposed to the government helping the poor (especially the undeserving poor), and that they especially feared the rise of socialism.10 In journalism, it’s a truism that “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” In other words, just because you got the quote from Mom, that doesn’t mean she had accurate information. I always encourage my students to fact-check quotes, because even if the person actually said it, often the quote is taken out of context (this can frequently be seen in political ads, where both parties try to make their opponent look bad by using a particular quote to fit a narrative of what a horrible person he or she is). The Internet has been a great benefit in finding actual sources for quotes, but it has also been part of the problem: It is very easy to put up an authoritative-looking website with a very ideological agenda. When it comes to quotes, skepticism is especially needed, to make sure that: (a) the person really said it, and (b) the context supports the way the quote is being used. This is not just a good rule for political ads: it even applies to classic movie quotes: The words “Play it again, Sam” were nowhere to be found in the movie “Casablanca,” but millions of people think that’s what Ingrid Bergman said.11 Thus, in order to make sure your evidence is accurate, take the time to fact-check the quotes, even the ones that “everybody” believes to be accurate.
The bottom line is that it pays to be skeptical because so much of what we encounter in the media turns out to be entirely false, mythically inflated, politically charged, ideologically loaded, or a mixture of facts and fiction. And as we see with the “Birthers,” that percentage of the public who insist that Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya, no matter how much credible evidence is presented that he was born in Hawaii, some people have trouble distinguishing between verifiable fact and unproven opinion.12 But this is not just a problem that affects Birthers, climate change deniers, or people who think we never walked on the Moon; as we see every day, it is surprisingly easy to misinform the average person. Back in 1938, after the furor over “War of the Worlds,” the Boston Globe’s pseudonymous “Uncle Dudley” gave readers some good advice, words that still resonate today. He said that we all have a duty to think for ourselves and not rush to judgment just because of something we heard in a broadcast. And whether the information is in print or broadcast, he concluded, “…a robust will to doubt, to examine statements, and to measure them alongside common sense and experience… is a hallmark of the civilized mind.”13