Monday, May 11, 2009

Don't believe everything you read, especially if it sounds good.

People have a propensity to believe falsehoods provided those falsehoods correspond with other beliefs they already hold. When it comes to falsehoods that contradict what they already believe they will be quite skeptical. We all do.

Tomorrow there is a reasonable chance that Carrie Prejean, the bimbette who won Miss California, will be relieved of her position. As sure as I’m sitting here typing the Religious Right will spread the story that it was because she dared “criticize” gays and “stand up for traditional family values.” That is pure rubbish. If Prejean loses her position it will be because she has violated her contract and lied to her employer — the pageant. Any detrimental action tomorrow will because of her own moral shortcomings not because she was “standing up for morality.”

Prejean’s contract says she may not make public appearances without the permission of the pageant. Prejean has been quite busily promoting herself and her political agenda and doing so without pageant approval. Yet, when she appears, she is referred to as “Miss California Carrie Prejean.” She dishonestly presents herself as the face of the pageant without pageant approval. For instance, Prejean has appeared in political ads on behalf of anti-gay groups. The pageant wouldn’t approve a sitting pageant winner appearing in any political advertisements at all.

In addition, Prejean has also lied to the pageant. When she joined the pageant she agreed to tell the pageant of any photos of a scantily-clad nature that might be circulating. She hid the existence of such photos from the pageant. Now, that they have surfaced, the pageant is also dealing with that. When it is all added together, the Miss California pageant is probably wishing they had never run into this fundamentalist nutter. She has caused them nothing but grief. And, since she is clearly in violation of the contract she willingly signed it is their right to remove her as their public face.

The Religious Right will ignore all that. Instead, they will focus on the remarks she made weeks ago. That those remarks are not relevant to her removal is immaterial. They want to portray her as a victim of censorship, even though no censorship is involved. Oddly, while Prejean is screaming free speech in her own case she has attorneys threatening lawsuits against anyone who displays the racy photos she had previously lied about. Like most fundamentalists Prejean only believes in “free speech” for herself and her cause, not for others.

Some years ago a conservative type individual used to send me daily e-mails. They typically included some outlandish claim about something that raises the ire of conservatives. Repeatedly I would write him back outlining the facts in the case and showing that what he was spreading was a dishonest urban legend.

Often these were false claims of a religious nature. I found religious folk particularly inclined toward believing any story, without verification, simply because it corresponded with their own theology. The fact that a story is absurd on the face of it doesn’t matter. Once you are in the territory of virgin births and resurrections then anything is possible. For decades the fundamentalist Christians have been claiming that unnamed NASA scientists supposed discovered a “missing day” in history. This is supposed to prove the Biblical claim that God stopped the sun in the sky during a battle for Joshua so he would have more light to fight.

Of course, the Bible got it wrong. The sun, at least in relationship to us, is stopped in the sky. It is the earth that is moving. And putting the brakes on the earth would be rather deadly to life considering the speed at which we are traveling. Any sudden stop would fling us all into space. But this is all immaterial. No NASA scientists ever discovered any such thing. Some charlatan made it up and the gullible have been regurgitating that falsehood for years now.

Fake “death bed” conversions are practically an industry among the religious. We are told Darwin converted just before he died. His family denied it. When Thomas Paine died it took only a short time before Christian ministers were publicly lying about how he was converted by them just before his death. The actual people who were present said no such thing happened. When one of the greatest orators in history, the great agnostic Robert Ingersoll, died the Christianist movement of his day spread stories of his last-minute conversion far and wide—stories denied by his wife and children.

One of my favorite Christian urban legends was the claim that unnamed scientists (they really love unnamed scientists) were probing the earth for oil and had drilled deeper than any previous well had gone. But, for some unexplained reason, they lowered a microphone to this depth. The scientists were horrified to hear the screams of people burning in Hell through their earphones. Sure, I believe it, don’t you?

I’ve had correspondence with Christians who insist that people are being resurrected from the dead today. Yet none have offered anything remotely resembling evidence. I usually get pointed to someone else making the same claim but also failing to provide details. Usually the stories point to some difficult-to-reach area of the world where an unnamed person was resurrected. Often the story includes minute details about the incident except for the name of the recipient of the miracle and any confirmation that they had actually been dead. Pressing believers on this matter is useless as they insist that the non-evidence they present is sufficient as proof.

One of the “conservative” e-mails I got was about a supposed Secret Service agent assigned to protecting President Clinton. Allegedly this agent had protected every president since John F. Kennedy. He supposedly wrote a letter outlining how evil Bill and Hillary were in the White House and how badly they treated people. I did some very simple research by checking out the qualifications to be a Secret Service agent assigned to the President. And one of those is an age requirement. Agents over a certain age cannot occupy that position. The agent in this e-mail would have been well over the right age when Clinton came along since that was thirty years after Kennedy. I also found that any duty with the president has strict time limits on it. Agents are rotated out of the job routinely because it is considered stressful. But the e-mail said what conservatives wanted to hear so it was spread widely.

To this day there are people who seriously take the claims about a “NAFTA Superhighway” and the alleged “Amero” currency seriously. Ron Paul has helped spread this loony Birch Society rumor mongering. One Right-wing blog, among many, has this photo of the alleged Amero coin. They claim it was a “test” coin that “leaked out.”

Nope, not at all. You can buy them if you want them from the designer who runs his own private mint. The designer, Daniel Carr, runs a private mint producing medallions in various precious medals. Having heard about this alleged “Amero” coin he decided to produce one, on his own, and sell it as a profitable enterprise. So a 100 Amero coin, of one troy ounce silver, can be purchased from him for $65.00. No doubt he is doing brisk business selling copies to the conspiracy crazies who then show it around to others as proof that the North American Union is coming.

I should note that libertarians are not exempt from this tendency either. Recently the story went around that a 16-year-old boy had been arrested under the Patriot Act. Like most urban myths this one takes some facts and twists them. The mother of the boy has been making this claim. But the boy was arrested for making bomb threats against Purdue University. The Patriot Act, as odious as it is, had nothing to do with the arrest.

Stories have claimed the boy has been denied legal counsel and his right to appear in court. Both claims are false. The boy has an attorney and has appeared in court. The mother spread the false claims and some libertarians helped spread them without checking the facts. The insane Alex Jones, who believes in any conspiracy nonsense that anyone invents, had the mother on the air. Unfortunately her answers to him didn’t verify what he wanted to hear.

The student in question was a well-known prankster who posted his phone-call pranks on-line. Using a service a program known as Ventrilo he could allow as many as 300 people to listen while he made on-line phone calls. Thinking he was immune, the boy offered to make bomb threats against a school if a student there would pay him $5 for the call. The boy’s mother admits the boy made prank calls; she admits he was paid to make prank calls. She denies he made the bomb threat for which he was arrested.

One of the boy’s “listeners” recorded the prank calls the boy was making. I have listened to the call the boy placed for Mill Valley High School in Shawnee, Kansas. You can hear a badly disguised voice claiming that “tomorrow afternoon at 11 am (sic)” there will be twelve bombs throughout the school. He told the school they would have one hour to find all the bombs and disarm them. “That is all I have to say. All will be cleansed.” The boy’s threats were recorded. He very stupidly gave out his e-mail address so that people can make PayPal donations to him for having done so. After numerous bomb threats he tells his listeners that he is going to bed and will wake up in the morning and make more bomb threats to close more schools the next day. He then wishes his listeners “have fun missing school tomorrow.”

The mother in this case, Annette Lundeby, is seriously deluded. In spite of audio recordings of her son making bomb threats she insists it has to be someone imitating his voice, even though she knew he was making prank calls regularly. The mother simply refuses to believe the facts that her son was maliciously making threatening calls to others. The mother is stoking the false claims about the case because it corresponds with her own personal delusions about what her son was doing.

Yet this is a story that some libertarians fell for. Some in the media fell for it as well. All the initial reports were based on the unsubstantiated claims of the mother. When she started backing down on some of the claims it should have been apparent she has her own agenda. And, as more and more evidence came out, it becomes clear that the boy in question was making these calls. Wired finally did a story on the case and provides the audio recordings of the calls from the boy.

Libertarians, I would hope, would be more skeptical. But we too can be tempted to turn off our skepticism when the target of a rumor is someone, or something, which we dislike. I didn’t post about the boy’s arrest because the stories had nothing to substantiate them. One person sent me an email on it citing the crazy people at World Net Daily as his source. I know from personal experience that WND is prone to report lies and falsehoods as if they are true so I cautioned him to find a better source. Others sent me other links to the same story but nothing I saw amounted to proof so I never reported the claim. Now, Wired, and others, have done a stellar job disproving the claims. (Even though the story has been completely discredited the ideologues at World Net Daily have yet to revise their false accusations.)

Libertarians, who generally hold to the concept of reason, ought to have higher standards for what they report. This ought to be especially true about stories that have gone viral on the Internet. The Internet is a great resource for truth but it is also a great resource for lies. What you get it out of it depends on what you are looking for. Looking for truth doesn’t always mean finding things that verify you own beliefs. If your response is to change the facts, instead of rethinking your beliefs, then you have become a fundamentalist of one kind or another.

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