Being a skeptic is not trite, but it’s also not difficult. Simply put, don’t believe anything until you have a good reason to believe it. This is true for almost all claims. While it’s unreasonable to expect evidence for claims like “I have a pet hamster,” religious claims, political assertions, and wild accusations demand evidence and, in many cases, demonstration prior to acceptance.
During the most recent US presidential election I incorrectly assumed most voters would dismiss preposterous #pizzagate stories and their ilk as nothing more than Onion-esque comedy. Previously I chuckled at stories claiming the democrats were trying to marshal Sharia in Florida. I smirked when “ABC News” (dot co) alleged Hillary Clinton was paying actors to protest at Trump rallies. Who would believe these stories, especially when the sources are so ridiculously and obviously fake? Skepticism is easy.
As we know I was wrong. Many, many people believed these stories. An entire election was in some ways swayed because of fake news (although let’s not put all the blame on gullible voters). And post-election the problem has imploded, forcing Trump, religious pundits, and, well, everyone to acknowledge that fake news is a problem. Unfortunately, the laws of cognitive dissonance have stolen fake news criticism from skeptics.
The laws of cognitive dissonance per Leon Festinger (in no particular order)
- When confronted with truths that contrast with our beliefs we will either double down and deny the truth and hold onto our beliefs,
- or accept the truth and change our beliefs,
- or work the truth into our preexisting set of beliefs.
Number three appears to be what Trump and religious pundits are doing.
Recall Trump’s first post-election press conference where he attacked CNN and Buzz Feed News as “fake.” While Buzz Feed is strictly an entertainment website with left-leaning stories (and a lot of “facts” that don’t pass simple scrutiny), CNN is a strictly center entertainment news source.
Let me back up a second. CNN is not the Agence French Presse or the British Broadcasting Corporation or National Public Radio. CNN is concerned with selling adds more than providing substantive information. CNN’s job is to entertain us with sensational stories so that we tune in or click a headline. It’s important to understand the limits of CNN’s merit as a news organization, but CNN is—hands down—a much better source of correct and balanced information than Info Wars, Natural News, or RT. But to call CNN fake is problematic and dishonest.
Today I stumbled across this blog post by the Friendly Atheist. Apparently the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue has usurped the “fake news” accusation and lobbed it at a man who simply called his husband his husband. (Here is the press release where Donohue does this). The way he phrases it is very strange too. “The Catholic League does not tolerate fake news.” It’s as if he’s saying “You can always trust the Catholic League. Nothing we ever say is fake.”
I want my fake news back
Trump and Donohue (and scores of others) have been forced to accept fake news sources exist. For Trump, rather than accept that fake news propelled his campaign, he has turned fake news accusations back on a legitimate—albeit sensational—news source. He has worked the fledgling anti-fake news phenomenon to his advantage.
Donohue has taken the condemnation of fake news sites and worked it into his anti-same-sex-marriage beliefs.
Neither accepts the reality of fake news unless it gives them a narrative advantage.
This is frustrating, simply put. Both Donohue and Trump are influential enough that they can turn idiots into pseudo-skeptics who believe a news source must be fake simply because someone they admire calls it fake. From personal conversations I’ve had with friends, family members, and students, it appears more people believe CNN is an actual fake news organization.
Am I going to have to spend the next few years defending legitimate sources? What’s next—is Mike Pence going to call Nature a fake peer-review science journal?