Every time I mention one of the vilest conspiracy theories ever to vomit from the mouths of quasi-literate cretins — the 9/11 “truther” rubbish — some self-anointed Pharisee finds something new and disgusting to say about it as a comment. The most recent example of this, posted to one of my articles, was a comment saying that flight 93 wasn’t crashed by passengers but shot down by the Air Force and the story of the onboard heroes who really crashed the plane was all invented moonshine.
This vile piece of crap was spewed — without evidence — as an attention-getting device invented to atone for the poster’s inadequate masculinity. His one and only upvote came from himself. (Pro tip: for the inveterate self-promoting and self-upvoting, hovering your cursor over the upvote reveals who you are.)
I only mention this pathetic cretin to illustrate a point. We now live in an era different from the era many of us grew up in. I’m old enough to recall a time when it was more often true that opinions had to have merit to achieve publication. If nothing else they had the merit of hard work. I don’t doubt, for example, that Erich von Däniken had to work and work hard to get his thoroughly debunked and discredited piece of invented-from-whole-cloth balderdash called “Chariots of the Gods?” published.
Today any idiot can toss off anything they want and, if posted to a site with high traffic, enjoy the instantaneous benefit of having his or her idiocy read by tens of thousands (or even millions) of people. Frequently there exists no responsible editorial board keeping their destructive and moronic opinions out.
Let me be clear on this, this is not an example of First Amendment rights being thwarted. No one has the Constitutional right to have their nonsense broadcast around the world. It’s an example of the downside of an otherwise marvellous era that we now live in, where, unfortunately, any idiot with a computer and a grade school education can achieve counterfeit parity and be heard. Thankfully there is, as a countermeasure, such a thing as freedom FROM speech, and it is enforced by such marvellous inventions as Facebook blocks and website bans and all manner of devices that can roughly and metaphorically show such people the door.
The common banality that there are two sides to every story isn’t always true. I don’t doubt that Jack the Ripper had his reasons for doing what he did 70 miles and 133 years from where I am now typing this. But in the world of civilised adults those reasons don’t count. We don’t have time to entertain every piece of junk science and garbage journalism floating through cyberspace. It is therefore truer now than ever before that all theories must come equipped with extraordinary evidence to be credible. Whether they admit it or not, the burden of proof always, and I do mean always, rests with the claimant.
Which brings me at last to Fox News. It is a network cloaked in the sheep’s clothing of legitimacy and it has therefore become one of the world’s most virulent evils. The lies being promoted by the likes of Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity are bad enough by themselves. But when those lies are spoken in reasonable tones by millionaires with worried expressions on their faces they enter the ears of the homicidally uncritical and get echoed back out into that great echo chamber known as the internet. That is where the real damage happens, and it could literally mean the end of the human race.
We don’t have time to hear “the other side” of vaccines. We don’t have time to hear “the other side” of global warming. We are living in the middle of an extinction level event known as anthropogenic climate change, and we may even be on the cusp of another one in the form of this worldwide pandemic. With our very survival on the line we no longer have time to listen to idiots.
What can we do about it? As individuals, very little. As a coalition of enlightened adults, quite a lot. For one thing we can cultivate the habit of caution. If enough of us do that we can become a force to be reckoned with.
The incautious hysteria created by anti-vaxxers and global warming denialists exists because promoters of such ideas are themselves incautious hysterics and blithering fools. We can cultivate being their opposites. We can stop automatically believing everything we hear, including (and especially) things that are pleasing to us or reinforce our own pre-existing biases, and instead carefully weigh the existing evidence. And there’s nothing wrong with having no opinion about something, or withholding judgment until all the facts are in.
We also need to cultivate the habit of giving greater weight and credence to the experts. While this may sound like the logical fallacy known as Appeal to Authority, it nevertheless remains true that people who have studied a topic for years and have PhDs and scientific credentials usually know better than we do. Anyone who has a job of any description and has known the indignity of some ignorant outsider coming in and telling them how to do their job knows how infuriating that can be. It’s infuriating because we who are experts at something really do know better than they do. Experts are experts for a reason.
Two useful quotes come to mind. The first is from Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The second is from Christopher Hitchens: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” Real evidence is easy to spot once you know what to look for. It isn’t just plausible, it also has weight and substance. It explains itself. It fits like a jigsaw puzzle and often comes equipped with a careful examination of why it might not be true.
Above all, real evidence is free from idle and irresponsible speculation, common generalisations, hearsay and magical thinking. It has a heft and solidity to it. If enough of us learn to rely on evidence, listen to experts and check things out before repeating them, we might be able to turn the tide of ignorance and save ourselves. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.