When Mars did not Attack: Fake News to the Max

When Mars did not Attack: Fake News to the Max October 31, 2018

They panicked over the fakery in the news. As many as a million people may have believed that Mars was taking over New Jersey in 1938 when Orson Welles and his merry geniuses of the radio did an episode based on the forty year old story War of the Worlds (HG Wells).

The first tip to the audience should have been the implausible nature of any advanced race voluntarily expending resources to conquer New Jersey. Most Americans, including a majority in New Jersey, would cede northern New Jersey to the Martians and see what the Newark airport would do to their high technology.

Yet we should not grow smug. Our ability to believe nonsense that we see in the “news” remains. I have fallen for stories (and even repeated them) that were not true. My favorite was a report that Mr. Rogers was a marine. This was false, but I bit and passed it on.

Why?

Unlike the War of the World confusion, this was just a lie put out by someone for some unknown reason . . . Mayhaps to see how many of us would buy. I did and was reminded of the first principal of research:

If a story fits what I wish was true, double check. 

Just now we are nearing an election, so the temptation is to read the stories that have my team doing well and discouraging the stories that I do not like. This is a temptation much to be avoided and so when I see something that seems very, very good for my point of view I should double check it. 

One good rule when checking is to see what reputable sites with the opposite bias are saying about my story. When I saw a story that made the soft spoken Rogers a war hero on top of his other heroism, I wanted it to be true. Mr Rogers as Captain America is exciting, but also false.

A quick Google would have kept me from repeating an error. Having made the mistake, I had to follow the second rule of research:

If the story is wrong, correct, and learn. 

The Rogers story was not that important so the correction was easy on my ego. In another case, I read a book referred to Alfred Wallace, the c0-discoverer of evolutionary theory, as a “Lord.” I used the term, only to discover this was entirely false. The error was embarrassing, but I was wrong and the correction had to follow.

The truth was important since this particular notable scientist did not come from the gentry. He is a good example of the ability of Victorians to achieve social mobility through intellectual advancement. I would have missed this interesting backstory if I had not looked up his life.

What about the World of the War hoax? Surely few people wished the Martians to be invading, so what was happening that made them buy doom?

If a story is terrible enough, don’t panic, double check it. 

Sometimes the Titanic is sinking and sanguine notions that the ship is unsinkable may ice your fate. That’s lesson one: bad news is sometimes true. In some of us, however, more fearful perhaps or cautious, bad news sells. Every bump on our cruise ship means that the band will soon by playing “Nearer My God to Thee.” This feels like prudence, but is panic. The people who did best on Titanic were those who kept calm and carried on, not those who lost their heads in panic or who trusted overly much in the White Star Line.

Bad news gets our attention and feeds into any latent sense we are losing control. Health news in particular is full of lies designed to make us think we will live forever if only we don’t eat or drink the wrong things. Bad news demands we act now, and when the evidence is overwhelming, the train is seen coming down the tracks, then act we must. However, this is very rare.

Stop. Think. Act.

The cynic in me says that all of this amounts to telling myself to double-check everything. Who has the time?Nobody. So we can hold to one last general bit of advice.

We cannot check everything all the time, so weigh the importance we are giving the story and check when we can. 

The Mr. Rogers story was not very important, I passed it on, and had to take it back. That’s life. On the other hand, asking the leaders to call out the National Guard because the Martians are coming is a more serious error. People should have taken the time to check or even to question the plausibility of the tale.

Would there be a commercial during a Martian invasion?

Panic is a demon that never serves humankind well. Gullibility impedes our conversations and a refusal to check important claims can damage a Republic. Let’s keep calm, show proper skepticism, and double check important data.

And Mars, if you are reading, we will trade you the areas explored by our probes for New Jersey. No need to invade.

 

 


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