Not too long ago, futurists believed that as communication became easier and access to data became more universal, people would be better informed and better educated, which would result in a society that makes better decisions; ignorance and superstition would become obsolete, and old animosities rooted in myth and distrust would evaporate. Sadly, it seems the internet has served to speed up the dissemination of urban legends, hoaxes and disinformation.
Did you know the world is secretly ruled by shape-shifting reptilian aliens? That if a US courtroom’s flag has gold fringe on it, that court is secretly a military tribunal at which the defendant has no rights? That not only is the world only 6,000 years old, it’s also flat? That the Mayans built a city in northern Georgia and aliens built the pyramids? Of course you didn’t know these things, because they are utter nonsense (and there is ample evidence to refute each of them); nonetheless, there are people out there who believe them, and they write books and create websites trying to convince others of their false beliefs.
Georgia attorney Loren Collins, in his new book, Bullspotting, takes aim at the logical fallacies that underlie many of today’s most popular delusions. (Disclosure: I’ve known Collins for at least 15 years; I was a regular contributor to an earlier site of his, Suspension of Disbelief, where we examined the accuracy of plot points in comic books and movies; when he ran for Congress as write-in candidate for the Bull Moose Party, I designed his Bull Moose logo. I’m reviewing his book here not because he’s a friend, but because his book is very good.)
Where websites such as Snopes and the About Urban Legends page diligently catalog and refute individual examples of net-based misinformation, Bullspotting aims to equip the reader with their own internal “baloney detector” by teaching them to recognize the telltale signs of a phony story when they see one. Following in the footsteps of Carl Sagan and James Randi, Collins systematically addresses hoaxes, invented and erroneously-attributed quotations, rumors, and popular misconceptions regarding law, science and history, concluding with a lengthy explanation of the actual harm caused by popular acceptance of demonstrably false beliefs such as conspiracy theories.
Bullspotting had its genesis in the 2008 Presidential campaign, with the emergence of the rumor that Barack Obama was ineligible to be President because he was supposedly born in Kenya. Collins, a Libertarian who opposed Obama’s candidacy, nonetheless recognized the “urban legend” nature of the stories, and created a website, “Barackryphal,” at which he investigated each new claim and documented its source, evolution and accuracy. His position was that people should focus on the substantive issues of the election rather than getting caught up in irrelevant and irrational trivia. He considered turning his Obama blog into a book, but soon realized that the methods he used in dissecting the “Birther” claims applied equally well to the many JFK assassination, 9/11 and moon landing hoax conspiracies, as well as hundreds of other such stories, and the project shifted focus to the general principles behind the myths.
According to Collins, the fundamental element of successful baloney detection is an awareness of confirmation bias (our tendency to focus on information that reinforces our beliefs and ignore evidence that contradicts them); from there, one needs to look for anomaly-seeking, cherry-picking of data, omission of contradictory evidence, claims of secret knowledge, and appeals to one or more fake experts, all of them in service to prove some global conspiracy to suppress the truth.
In each chapter of his book, Collins addresses a particular category of malarkey: denialism, in which one merely attempts to refute an accepted theory rather than produce a viable alternative; conspiracy theories, such as the young Earth creationist’s assertion that all the world’s scientists are colluding to foster belief in evolution or the truthers’ claim that the 9/11 attacks were “an inside job” by the CIA; as well as rumors, quotations, and hoaxes. The three major sources of misinformation, pseudoscience, pseudolaw, and pseudohistory each merit their own chapters; Collins concludes the book with an explanation of the very real harm caused by the belief in demonstrably false ideas.
One such example is the late Steve Jobs, who delayed possibly life-saving surgery for over nine months to explore alternative treatment for his pancreatic cancer; after acupuncture, herbalism and a vegan diet failed to reduce his tumor, he eventually underwent the surgery, but it was too late, and he expressed regret for his decision in his last days. Another example is actor Wesley Snipes’ conviction for tax evasion, the direct result of following the advice of a “tax protestor” whose theories had already been dismissed by the courts as frivolous on several prior occasions. Because Snipes believed a self-appointed pseudo-expert, he served three years in prison for a crime he did not intend to commit; he really thought he was taking advantage of a legal loophole, not committing a felony. Believing internet nonsense can have catastrophic and permanent consequences for the gullible, such as the roughly 8,500 people taken in by Nigerian scammers every year.
Critics of the current state of education often mention the failure to teach critical thinking as a major failing of our public schools, with too much emphasis placed on “teaching to the test.” Bullspotting would be a good resource for addressing that lack; the text is approachable and entertaining. Teens would have no trouble reading it, and given the adolescent propensity to buy into popular hokum, they really ought to be the target audience; equipping them with the skills to recognize when they are being hoodwinked before they reach voting age would be a great benefit to society.