There is a quiet allure to the abdication of rational thought. What comfort there must be in answering the siren song of ignorance and falling into radical emotionalism, blind allegiance to authority, religion or the latest internet conspiracy theory. When our tenuous grasp on truth of any sort is dangerously uncertain, one could hardly be faulted for grappling any plausible story that floats by.
From social media to the nightly news, we are deluged with an overwhelming stream of information that seems to represent alternate realities.
While it would be nice to have a weatherman tell us which way the wind blows, we do not have that luxury. The truth, it seems, is not likely to come from our elected officials, the media or our friends and neighbors.
But now is not the time to let our guards down. For in this reality crooks, charlatans and snake oil salesmen reign supreme. Without rational thought and a measure of practical skepticism, bombast and balderdash will win the day.
In a Honey Boo Boo extension of President Trump’s Lügenpresse campaign, the President of the United States recently issued his “Fake News Awards,” in which the reality television star turned leader of the free world used his bully pulpit to call to task media outlets he saw as unfair in their coverage of him.
Despite its puerile absurdity, the White House PR stunt highlighted an issue of importance to all Americans: news is only as valid as its source. In the midst of an open war for truth between the White House and the American free press, US citizens would be right to ingest any “news” with a grain of salt.
And Americans, for the most part, are aware of this. Trust in the Fourth Estate is at an all-time low. A recent study by the Knight Foundation showed that fewer than half of those surveyed could name a news source they considered to be objective in their coverage. Further, the respondents overwhelmingly believed the news outlets themselves were responsible for spreading inaccurate information on the internet and were influenced by the political biases of the companies’ owners.
It is ironic that the nature of the Information Age has been not to bring greater knowledge to people, but to allow them to find and read only the sources of information that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs. There may be two sides to every story, but the manner in which information is delivered ensures most will only see the side they want to believe – or that someone else wants them to believe.
“Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.”
Highlighted by Trump’s Fake News Awards, the very essence of truth itself has come into question. In such an environment, there is a tendency to dismiss all news as fake, or at the very least: biased. But by its very definition, actual news cannot be fake. And if factual, it is true regardless of the political bias of its messenger.
Bleep Bloop Bleep
Facebook, which has become the de facto news source for many Americans, reported that in an effort to influence the 2016 US Presidential election, a Russian company called the Internet Research Agency placed more than 3,000 ads on the social media platform. In a coordinated effort, the Russian ads were then amplified by the use of fake accounts that liked, shared and commented on the posts, ultimately boosting the propaganda messages to a total of 126 million people.
Sample Russian Ads:
Facebook’s dimwitted stepbrother Twitter recently announced they identified more than 50,000 bots and fake accounts run by the Internet Research Agency in the months leading up to the election.
The Russian bots were able to exploit the nature of how we consume information by infiltrating digital social communities to contort, amplify and reinforce news that furthered the Russian government’s objective (i.e. to put Donald Trump in the White House).
While it is unclear how effective the Russian propaganda machine was in influencing the election results, it is evident they devised and executed a successful marketing campaign that reached millions of Americans. Marketing executives at Coca-Cola and Nike should take note.
As consumers of this constant barrage of information spewing from our phones and computers, a healthy level of skepticism is advisable. Information is not fact just because it comes from a preferred outlet or someone we follow on social media.
It is important as thinking beings to differentiate between truth and belief. For if there are any objective truths in the universe, those truths are valid whether we believe in them or not. They are true whether proven or not. Without certifiable proof, they are only beliefs. And no matter how firmly or widely held – a belief is just that.
In the absence of absolute knowledge, it is important to hold a space for the potential that one’s beliefs may be wrong.
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocket full of mumbles, such are promises
All lies and jests
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.
~ Paul Simon, The Boxer
But if the news media can’t be trusted and the politicians themselves can’t be trusted, where should society turn for information?
In an ideal situation, information consumers would be able to go directly to the source of the information for clarification and verification. But who has time for that? And who has direct access to Harvard researchers, political operatives or astrophysicists?
Short of access to direct connection with news sources, we are left with the word of information brokers. Be they journalists, content aggregators or our social networks. Whenever news is presented, therefore, it is important to consider the source. Nothing should be accepted nor rejected without considerable evidence. Every thought, notion or belief should be approached this way.
From scientific studies on the banal (Is coffee good for you?) to allegations of the President of the United States colluding with Russian operatives there are countless news reports and articles to support both sides of every argument.
The more outlandish the claim, the more proof it should require. As Carl Sagan noted, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
But there’s a fine line between skepticism and denial. Healthy skepticism demands evidence, but denialism rejects sound evidence when it’s provided.
In general, we should favor the result with more evidence and choose the answer that has been intensively and repeatedly verified by many – not just the truth that supports our personal beliefs. For knowledge is not gained by dogmatic adherence to preconceived notions. Rather, it comes in the constant questioning of reality and pursuit of answers with scientific rigor.
Occam’s Razor Be Damned
One needn’t look further than the millions of conspiracy theorists around the globe to see the results of refusal to accept overwhelming scientific evidence. There is enough bogus information on the internet to fuel legions of flat-earthers, illuminati conspiracy theorists, amateur UFOlogists, anti-vaccine activists, lizard people, Holocaust deniers, and chemtrail believers.
For conspiracy theorists, the world is a dark and evil place ruled by forces most of us cannot see. They find comfort in elaborate theories that explain why the world isn’t as they hoped it would be. The world, to them, is in turmoil and only makes sense if there is some identifiable force to blame for the pandemonium.
The less control people have over their environment, the more likely they are to grasp at even the most far-fetched notion that gives them even the slightest illusion of control or at least understanding of the machinations of the world around them.
But … you know … not all conspiracy theories are wrong.
Russian meddling in the US election is, after all, a conspiracy theory … and it’s shaking out to be true.
And if that is the explanation of how the United States ended up with Donald Trump as its president, what else might be true?
I Want to Believe
“Is that it? Is that all you’re gonna ask me? Well I got a couple of thousand goddamn questions, you know. I want to speak to someone in charge. I want to lodge a complaint. You have no right to make people crazy! You think I investigate every Walter Cronkite story there is? Huh? If this is just nerve gas, how come I know everything in such detail? I’ve never been here before. How come I know so much? What the hell is going on around here? Who the hell are you people?”
~ Roy Neary; Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Those aforementioned amateur UFOlogists are all in a titter over recent revelations from the US Government.
The Pentagon confirmed last month the existence of the previously top secret Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program (AATIP), which investigated UFO sightings from 2007 to 2012, before the program was allegedly shuddered.
The existence of AATIP was made public by Luis Elizondo, the former head of the program who quit over disagreements regarding the level of secrecy around the program. In his resignation letter, he wrote, “Why aren’t we spending more time and effort on this issue? There remains a vital need to ascertain capability and intent of these (UFO) phenomena for the benefit of the armed forces and the nation.”
In an interview with The Telegraph, Elizondo said, “In my opinion, if this was a court of law, we have reached the point of ‘beyond reasonable doubt.’ I hate to use the term UFO, but that’s what we’re looking at.”
Elizondo, a career intelligence officer, said of the UFOs, “I think it’s pretty clear it’s not us, and it’s not anyone else, so one has to ask the question where they’re from.”
It’s important to note that alien life is not the only explanation for unidentified flying objects. The fact that the objects are unidentified means we don’t know what they are. Or where they’re from.
But to Elizondo’s point, alien technology sure seems the most plausible explanation for the object that was spotted and tracked by US F-18 fighter pilots over the Pacific Ocean in 2004.
The object, filmed by the pilots’ weapons tracking system, shows an object the Navy had been tracking from the USS Princeton for two weeks. One of the pilots, Commander David Fravor, told the New York Times the object was about 40 feet long, had no plumes, wings or rotors and easily outpaced the Navy fighter jets. It was big enough to churn the water 50 feet below, he said.
“I have no idea what I saw. It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Fravor said.
Military pilots have, for years, told stories of unexplained objects they spotted while flying.
One of the largest reported mass military sightings of UFOs occurred over the German-occupied Rhine Valley in December of 1944. Over the course of several weeks and dozens of missions in German airspace, US B-17 pilots and crews reported multiple sightings of bright red, orange, and green lights that flew through the air at high speed – seemingly tracking their aircrafts.
The men called the mysterious lights “Foo Fighters” or “Kraut Fireballs.”
They said the Foo Fighters flew alongside their aircraft at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour, appearing by themselves or in groups of up to 10 or 12. They reported the objects were highly maneuverable and would even occasionally pass directly through the aircraft, but caused no damage. The lights were reportedly also spotted on radar, flying at 10,000 feet and moving at “fantastic speed.”
The Foo Fighters were investigated, but ultimately dismissed as ball lightning or St. Elmo’s Fire (a weather phenomenon in which luminous plasma is created by a coronal discharge from a sharp or pointed object — like a plane’s control surfaces — in a strong electric field in the atmosphere).
And they may have been. Because as scientists are quick to point out, just because something is unidentified doesn’t mean it’s alien life.
“The universe brims with mysteries. Just because you don’t know what you’re looking at doesn’t mean it’s intelligent aliens visiting from another planet.”
~ Neil deGrasse Tyson
But when buying into any unbelievable story, it is important to remember to connect the dots in a way that makes sense … emotionally, if not logically at least.
And if you consider the possibility of alien life in an infinite universe, it seems highly unlikely that Earthlings are the only intelligent life forms out there.
There’s even an equation to show how unlikely it is that we are alone. The equation was formulated by American astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake, who developed this probabilistic argument to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy.
The Drake Equation is:
N = R * fp * ne * fl * fi * fc * L
N = The number of civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable.
R* = The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.
fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.
ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.
fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.
fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.
fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.
L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
The original numbers used were: R = 10 | fp = 0.5 | ne = 2.0 | fl = 1.0 | fi = 0.01 | fc = 0.01 | L = 10000
And when plugged into the equation they produce a value of 10 for the number of broadcasting civilizations in our galaxy.
While there is a great deal of uncertainty around all of the equation’s parameters, NASA programs like the Kepler Mission, K2, and the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST) are working to develop more quantifiable data to populate the equation.
Meanwhile, the SETI Institute Drake helped found continues its work searching for evidence of life in the universe by looking for signatures of its technology. The organization operates under the principle that given our current understanding of life’s origins on Earth, “given a suitable environment and sufficient time, life will develop on other planets.”
While skeptics may point out that in more than 50 years, SETI has yet to find proof of life elsewhere in our galaxy and there has been zero proof of any alien contact with Earth, I would argue that there is no proof THAT WE KNOW OF.
And if you had told me in 2015 that one of these things would be true in 2016:
- We will be contacted by extraterrestrial beings, or
- Donald Trump will be President of the United States …
I’d have put everything I had on E.T.
But I’m a skeptic.