Monday, 9 January 2017

"Post Truth" Wasn't Born In 2016, It Hit Puberty.

Normally at this point of the year, I'd be putting together some of the most humorous, interesting and embarrassing paranormal images and photographs from the last twelve months and loosely presenting it in the form of my annual awards blog "The Caspers".  It's been the highlight of the blog for me from the past two years and it tends to be the thing that attracts the most readers and positive feedback, so it may seem a bit odd that I won't be doing that this year. There's certainly been no shortage of face palmingly bad ghost images in 2016, Hayley Stevens has collected some of them here as she also does each year.

When people ask me, infrequently though it may be, what I write about on this blog and the select other places I post, I rarely mention the words paranormal, ghosts or pseudoscience. What I write about are misapprehensions, misunderstandings and the misrepresentation of the truth in various mediums. That's what concerns me about paranormal reporting in the tabloid press. That's what concerns about with the circulation of "ghost" images on social media. It's what concerned me about the creeping infiltration of creationism and the rebirth of presuppositional apologetics a few years ago. It's what concerns me with the spread of alt-right ideas and their counter balance the ideology of the progressive left. I haven't changed the things I write about, I've just moved the lens to focus on different things from time to time. If my main concern is the misrepresentation of the truth I can't in good conscience end 2016 and enter 2017 laughing about ghost images, fun though it may be.

Many major media outlets have declared 2016 as the birth of the post-truth era, the Oxford dictionary made "post-truth" their word of the year, even though it's existed as a concept for at least a decade.



  • Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief
 I would suggest that the journalists who have made "post-truth" the narrative of the past twelve months haven't been paying too much attention to the tabloid press, especially the sillier, more clickbaity output churned out by the Mail, Sun and Mirror. I doubt they've been looking too hard at paranormal groups on Facebook and other social media sites. They may well be aware of "science" sites like IFLS, which regularly publish stories that are vastly exaggerated or patent misrepresentations of actual research at best, and present findings from nonsensical online surveys as actual research at worst, but they certainly aren't fact checking the output shared by millions on social media. As serious journalists and commentators ignore and dismiss the legions of cranks who believe nonsense like ghosts, UFOs, conspiracy theories, without evidence because it conforms to their own beliefs, they fail to grasp that the underlying cognitive failings displayed by these people plague all of us. Much like a well-educated, intelligent respectable professional who repeatedly visits mediums and psychics to indulge their fascination with the afterlife or in search of comfort, we will all ignore evidence and facts to follow what we want and often need to believe. Many of us will believe a lie, even if we know it's a lie if it conforms to our beliefs, and further, many of us simply won't do the most modest amount of research to confirm what we are saying or sharing is accurate. None of us, atheists, skeptics and critical thinkers are totally free of this tendency. For exampIe. had a discussion with the founder of a moderately successful atheist group on facebook in September regarding his belief that the result of the UK referendum on membership of the EU should be upheld and actioned immediately. I pointed out to him that the referendum was an advisory, non-binding referendum, all UK referendums are because they aren't actually part of our democratic process. He stated that the only people who knew that had read some arcane document regarding referendums, the general public couldn't be expected to know that fact.

I found the information on Wikipedia.

I often find myself often repeating the idea that my children are playing up because of the amount of sugar or colouring they've consumed. I know there's no study that confirms this relationship, I just believe it. It gives me comfort when my four-year-old has crayoned every wall in the house, to believe that better dietary choices could've prevented this atrocity. It's harder to admit, even to myself, that I should have been supervising her better or that my beautiful angel can be a bit of a brat sometimes. 

Over 40 million people with an avid interest in science were tricked in October into believing they were watching a live feed from the International Space Station broadcast across social media. Sites like Unilad told them it was live and they, for the most part just accepted it. Even when the actual origin of the footage was revealed, many became angry not with the sites that deceived them, but the naysayers who weren't blindly going along with the narrative. I myself was accused of being a "flat Earther" several times whilst trying to explain the footage wasn't live. The sites that prepatrated the hoax for profit escaped with very little criticism.

The general public didn't become "tired of experts" in 2016 as one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign and haunted toby jug Michael Gove, famously stated in an interview earlier this year, the general public never wanted to listen to experts.

Don't believe me? Know any smokers?

The fact is that we all have the opportunity to avail ourselves of information instantaneously and we just chose not to do it. When a public school buffoon stands in front of a bright red bus suggests that £350 million pounds a week is being sent to Brussels, why not check? When a bigot with clear mental health issues tells you that his opponent supports a completely open door policy on immigration, or that doctors rip healthy babies from their mother's wombs days before birth, why wouldn't you check if that's true? If you're a rational, reasonable person there's only one reason not too. You want to believe them. You want them to be telling the truth. Researching these ideas is taking a pin to the balloon of credibility these liars have inflated in their mind. It's too fragile to question. We all see exactly the same when we post a skeptical response to faked ghost image on any internet forum. Most people will simply ignore it, those less confident in their beliefs will request it, and you are blocked or removed.

2016 wasn't the birth of "post-truth" it's the year that the training wheels came off. Post-truth moved from the realms of the cranks on the internet and flooded the mainstream and politics in 2016, those of us who practice skepticism should have known this was bubbling under the surface waiting to erupt. Some of us did. The psychological factors and failings we've seen all these years in the audiences that lap paranormal TV shows, those that buy and recommend alternative medicines and talk about the risks of vaccines and GMOs have influenced the course of western history in a major way. Indeed, as of January 20th, the most powerful man in the Western world will be a global warming denialist who has publically stated he believes that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese and that vaccines cause autism. Much like the setback Trump represents to campaigners for racial, gender and sexual equality, scientists and skeptics face an equally difficult fight to ensure that the progress made over the last few years isn't lost.
The following words taken from Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted world have never seemed more prescient.

So what do we do? We work harder. Offer clarity where and when we can. We don't let anyone tell us that debunking something is a waste of time, only idiots believe it. We talk about critical thinking, show how we find good reliable information, show the difference between bad sources and good sources.

I'll leave this post with a personal story, something I rarely do. In September 2015 my son's primary school asked parents to make suggestions of how their children's education could be improved, what elements could be added that were not present in the curriculum. I suggested critical thinking, teaching the children to examine claims and in the light of given evidence, assess them. Teach the children not what to think, but how to think. When I asked my son's teacher how the idea was received she told me, quite bluntly, that the headmistress didn't really see the point in the exercise. The school decided to introduce meditation sessions instead. Maybe I'll pursue the idea again when suggestions are solicited, maybe by September 2017 the "point" will be patently obvious.

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