The US Civil War and Historical Revisionism

It’s very common these days to hear claims that the US Civil War, often referred to by southerners as “The War of Northern Aggression,” was not in fact caused by a debate over slavery. It was, so modern apologists claim, a matter of states’ rights and resistance to the “tyranny” of the Federal government by southern states intent on maintaining a more decentralized system of government.

The latter represents a very contrived view of a very complex issue. A review of events leading up to the war makes it evident not only that the war’s direct cause was the slavery question, but that the “states’ rights” issue is largely fabrication.While there was considerable debate over the Federal issue, i.e. whether the central government should be strong or weak (the South generally favored a weak model), the use of “states’ rights” as an excuse for the war by modern apologists totally misses the context of the debate.

In fact, and as will be demonstrated shortly, the Confederacy was actually less friendly to the question of states’ rights than the US government.


To build the case for slavery as the primary cause of the war, we must first review a series of events that started roughly at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. This event can arguably be seen as the instigating event of the slavery debate, although the subject had been a major factor in the language of the US Constitution in the form of the Three Fifths Compromise, which defined slaves as being worth 3/5 of a “whole person” in terms of population counts for purposes of Congressional representation. This clause was insisted upon by southern representatives, along with preservation of the institution of slavery itself, as a condition of those states signing the Constitution into law and remaining in the Union.

US map showing Louisiana territory (in green)

US map showing Louisiana territory (in green)

Once Louisiana was acquired, the fledgling US gained 828,000 square miles of nearly empty territory, into which settlers and explorers poured over the next several decades. As areas were settled and became more firmly defined they were delineated first as territories, and eventually as states. This caused friction between the North and South, with often acrimonious debates breaking out over the question of whether new states should be designated as slave-holding or free. This led to the Missouri Compromise, in which the state of Missouri was admitted as a slave state while Maine became a free state, thus maintaining the balance of power between the two camps. This defused the immediate problem, but clearly some mechanism was needed to handle the admission of new states in the future. To address this, the bill included language stating that aside from Missouri, slavery was to be excluded from Louisiana Purchase lands lying north of latitude 36°30′.

The compromise was liked by few, but it allowed the nation to kick the can of the slavery question further down the road for the next generation to decide.

Further friction was created by acquisition of more territory from Mexico following the Texas war of independence and the subsequent admission of the Texas Republic to the Union as a state. In 1846 the Wilmot Proviso was introduced, which sought to ban the adoption of slavery in new states created in territories gained during the War with Mexico.

In 1850 the next major debate arose, and was settled by a group of bills generally referred to as the Compromise of 1850. This admitted California as a free state, settled some territorial disputes between Texas and New Mexico, and abolished the slave trade (though not slavery itself) in the District of Columbia. These bills also had the effect of diluting the Missouri Compromise, since the 36°30′ boundary was traversed in several instances.

Another major legislative event prior to the outbreak of the war was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This settled the issue over the two states for which it is named, but also effectively nullified the Missouri Compromise by changing the rules under which states were admitted. Rather than the slave state/free state question being decided by Congress based on the Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska act actually gave residents the power to decide at the time of admission to the Union whether the state would be slave or free. This last point underscores the speciousness of the “states’ rights” claim made by modern apologists who are attempting to rewrite history from a southern point of view.

slavery map

Map of the US circa 1850, showing free & slave states

Competing Interests

Alongside the bills and events noted above (and many others could be added, such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850) it is also important to understand sentiment regarding slavery as an institution during this period. Many abolitionist groups sprang up in the US during the early parts of the 19th century, creating the Underground Railroad and advocating for the elimination of slavery across the nation. Various states, such as Ohio and Vermont, included specific language in their Constitutions to exclude slavery. Further impetus was given to this movement with the abolition of slavery in England in 1833, and the divisiveness of the issue both created and destroyed political parties. The Whig party, once a powerful actor in American politics, was basically torn apart when northern members broke with southern groups over the slavery question.

Whig document noting opposition to slavery

Splinter groups such as the Free Soil Party, the Barnburners and Hunkers in New York, and many others were formed along pro vs. anti-slavery lines.

“Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Freesoiler”

With abolitionist sentiment on the rise, pro slave states saw threats to their long term ability to block attempts to abolish slavery throughout the US. If more “free” states were admitted to the Union, anti-slavery forces would eventually be able to push the issue through Congress and abolish the “Peculiar Institution” that was the foundation of a great deal of southern wealth. Given that the southern economy was almost entirely agrarian and founded on the easy availability of cheap slave labor, this represented a major threat.

The election of Lincoln, an ardent supporter of abolition, in the 1860 elections is almost certainly the straw that broke the camel’s back. The South, fearful that Lincoln would push for nationwide abolition, felt it had no other alternative but secession. Initially each state seceded on its own, but later joined in the loose coalition known as the Confederate States of America.

The CSA Constitution

Again recall that one of our initial assertions was the issue of states’ rights. While the Missouri Compromise was eventually seen as unconstitutional in terms of prohibiting self-determination of the slavery questions by residents of a new territory, this restriction was abolished by the Kansas-Nebraska act in 1854 and states were specifically given the right of self-determination in terms of slavery when drafting their Constitutions. This clearly alarmed southern leaders, who imagined (rightly or otherwise) hordes of Free Soil and other abolitionist-minded settlers flocking to new territories in order to establish a large enough majority to ensure they were admitted as non-slave-owning states. So the southern states and their Congressional representatives were worried that, as more states entered the Union in opposition to slavery, their position would become untenable. Rather than acknowledge that slavery was outmoded and unsupportable from both a social and moral viewpoint, they chose to cling to the past and preserve their profit margins by seceding from the Union.

But there’s more.

One need only read the Confederate States of America’s Constitution to see that slavery was a defining article of the nascent nation. Article IV paragraph 3 specifically states (in regard to the admission of new states to the Confederacy)

In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States. [Italics mine]

Here we effectively see the Confederacy forcing all new states admitted to the nation to accept slavery. No provision is given for self-determination by individual states — if a new state was admitted, it must allow slavery and the importation of slaves from adjoining territories or states.

This is a clear abridgement of states’ rights by the leaders of the Confederacy. Whereas the Union had placed the slavery question in the hands of residents of newly created states, the Confederacy mandated acceptance of slavery by all newly admitted states.

Additionally, the creation of anti-slavery bills is prohibited by another clause (Article I, section 9.4) which states “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed [italics mine].”

In fact, the CSA Constitution specifically mentions “negro slavery” multiple times in a number of contexts — it specifically forbids slaves from becoming free by fleeing from one state to another, forbids residents from aiding escaped slaves, and provides penalties for those violating these laws. Slaves are specifically stated as property…except that the “three fifths” nomenclature from the US Constitution is maintained in terms of population count for purposes of Congressional representation.

In other words, slavery was a defining element in the Confederacy’s thinking. It is mentioned everywhere in the nation’s founding documents.

Likewise, Texas and other CSA states amended or otherwise modified their state Constitutions to preserve slavery as an institution. And the Declaration of Causes of Secession written by each southern state specifically cites the slavery question, and the growing “anti-slavery sentiment” in the North, as a principal cause for the South’s decision to secede.

Georgia: “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. ”

Mississippi: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

Texas: “[Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?”

Virginia: “The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.” [italics original]

As a final nail in the coffin we have only to look at the much-discussed Confederate flag’s history. One iteration, known as the “Stainless Banner,” used the common starred cross as its “canton” (the quarter of the flag occupied by the 50 stars in a modern US flag), but the rest of the field was pure white.


The “second Confederate flag,” known as the “Stainless Banner” (Wikipedia)

The reason? One of the flag’s designers said it best:

As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.

—William T. Thompson (April 23, 1863)
Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders also believed strongly in the idea of “negro slavery” as a “natural” state based on the “superiority” of the white man.
“African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing.”
“My own convictions as to negro slavery are strong. It has its evils and abuses…We recognize the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him – our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude…You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.”
(Both quotes by Jefferson Davis)


As noted earlier, arguments that the US Civil War was “really” about states’ rights do not hold up under scrutiny. Primary documents from the period, and the legislative series of events leading up to the war clearly point to slavery, based both on a need for cheap labor as well as an overriding belief in the inferiority of non-whites and the right of slave owners to hold such peoples as properties, as the primary causes of the war. This is not to say that the North was solely on a noble, egalitarian mission to free the slaves; slavery was basically a context or vehicle in which a power struggle between the “strong vs. weak” Federal model was played out. While large numbers of abolitionists certainly were engaged in a struggle against slavery, the motives of governments themselves are often far less pristine.
Any assertion that the Civil War was not about slavery totally disregards over 50 years of often acrimonious debate in both Congress and on the streets of every town in America. The South seceded before anti-slavery forces grew strong enough to abolish the “Peculiar Institution” throughout the nation. Those are the facts. It is politically motivated historical revisionism of the most heinous kind to suggest otherwise.


Yellow Journalism, Sensationalism, and the Decline of American Reason

The conversation on Facebook started innocently enough, when an old friend posted a link to an article expressing disgust at a recent “revelation” that the Planned Parenthood group was “selling aborted fetal body parts on the open market.” I’d seen a link about this on another site, and decided to take a quick look at the allegation since I know Planned Parenthood to be an ethically managed, above-board organization with a long track record of helping families. It was also obvious that the allegations were being made by the Live Action organization, a religious group with a history of mounting “sting” operations in efforts to discredit their opposition.

It wasn’t too difficult to find other articles that effectively refuted the claim, which was being loudly trumpeted by anti-choice forces as yet another example of unethical behavior. Reading through the other material, a Planned Parenthood spokeperson is quoted as saying

“At several of our health centers, we help patients who want to donate tissue for scientific research, and we do this just like every other high-quality health care provider does—with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards.” He notes that there is “no financial benefit for tissue donation.” The prices that Nucatola cites, after being pressed to come up with a number in the video, likely refer to the “cost to transport tissue to leading research centers.”

I pointed this out to my friend via a Facebook comment, at which he responded that P.P. were clearly “selling fetal body parts for profit” which was a “violation of Federal law.” I yet again cited the same quote, also noting an article from The Daily Beast saying that

“The law cited by the Center for Medical Progress—42 U.S. Code § 289g—2—prohibits the acquisition and transferring of human fetal tissue “for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce.” A definition within the code notes that “‘valuable consideration’ does not include reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.”

In other words, transferring human fetal tissue is legal in the United States provided that payments are for processing and transportation costs.”

It’s also fairly obvious that, were P.P. actually engaged in illegal activities, the Federal government would have shut them down long ago or levied significant fines. Said friend absolutely refused to accept that this was the case (because, obviously, it failed to support his anger against any organization that engages in abortion), but went with the tack of asking “What tissue? What scientific research? Which diseases have been cured or ameliorated by fetal hearts or livers?”

Again, this was easy to address and it took approximately 1 minute to find numerous citations (here’s one example) about vaccines and other treatments developed and under development using fetal tissue, not to mention

“In the mid-20th century, researchers used fetal tissue to discover multiple vaccines still in use today. The 1954 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to scientists who developed the polio vaccine using cultures from fetal kidney cells. One version of the rubella vaccine also came from research done on tissue taken from an aborted fetus.”

Another article specifically addresses concerns Catholics and others have over using vaccines developed using fetal tissue, indicating a long standing discussion regarding the ethics involved. And given that the use of fetal tissue dates from at least the 1950s (as evidenced by its use in development of the polio vaccine), some level of accommodation has obviously been reached with concerned organizations. It should also be noted that this was long before the Roe V. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the US.

My first concern was that my friend had made absolutely no effort to research the subject before making a totally uninformed statement asking what use fetal tissue had ever been in curing  disease. This is, sadly, all too common in modern society — people engage in blind, often venomous attacks and unsupported assertions without taking time to reach even a basic understanding of the topic. In this day of constantly-accessible information (much of it very bad, admittedly) via the Internet, there is no excuse for not educating yourself on a topic before attempting to discuss it.

My fear level rose even further when my friend, apparently angered at being confronted with material that threatened his world view, took another tack.

Oh yes, I freely admit my opposition to Planned Parenthood, whose founder, Margaret Sanger said in Pivot of Civilization of immigrants, “They are…human weeds,’ ‘reckless breeders,’ ’spawning… human beings who never should have been born.”

The quote itself is immediately suspicious, as it would be to anyone with a history of evaluating bogus claims and researching controversial topics. Any alleged quote containing that many ellipses is automatically suspect, since it suggests the person offering the quote has removed a great deal of context in order to “massage” it to fit their agenda. Again, it was easy enough to find the “human weeds” phrase (and indeed the whole quote, complete with ellipses) cited on a number of anti-choice websites, one of which conveniently provided a link to Sanger’s book The Pivot of Civilization, which allegedly is where the quote originated. As will be seen however, it’s also blindingly obvious the author of the accusatory article didn’t bother to read the book.

Again, modern tools came to the rescue and it was only a few minutes’ work to discover that Sanger never actually said this at all (or, if she did, her statement is from another work). The word “weeds” only appears once in the entire book, in a quote about a blind child weeding a beet patch. “Reckless breeders” is also totally absent, though a few out of context references to “reckless breeding” do exist. The meaning behind these will become clear very soon.

The only section of the quote that exists in its entirety in the book is a reference to people “who never should have been born.” This is found in several areas, most prominently in the context of a discussion of Eugenics — then a topic of much interest until it was misapplied and twisted by Nazis in the form of controlled human breeding experiments, and discussions of “inferior races”. I give the entire paragraph containing the quote in order to maintain its proper context — a practice which yellow journalists and other blackguards would do well to follow if they hope to achieve any level of journalistic respect.

Eugenics is chiefly valuable in its negative aspects. It is “negative Eugenics” that has studied the histories of such families as the Jukeses and the Kallikaks, that has pointed out the network of imbecility and feeble-mindedness that has been sedulously spread through all strata of society. On its so-called positive or constructive side, it fails to awaken any permanent interest. “Constructive” Eugenics aims to arouse the enthusiasm or the interest of the people in the welfare of the world fifteen or twenty generations in the future. On its negative side it shows us that we are paying for and even submitting to the dictates of an ever increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all—that the wealth of individuals and of states is being diverted from the development and the progress of human expression and civilization.

In this context, Sanger is referring to unwanted children, mainly in poor families unable to care for large numbers of children, born due to a lack of availability of reliable birth control. The “never should have been born at all” reference is in regard to children born as the result of unwanted pregnancies, which anyone reading the material in its proper context would actually understand.

Given the venom about Sanger uttered by my friend, it only seems fit to quote the exact text of the opening statements regarding Sanger’s American Birth Control League, to wit:

Everywhere we see poverty and large families going hand in hand. Those least fit to carry on the race are increasing most rapidly. People who cannot support their own offspring are encouraged by Church and State to produce large families. Many of the children thus begotten are diseased or feeble-minded; many become criminals. The burden of supporting these unwanted types has to be bourne by the healthy elements of the nation. Funds that should be used to raise the standard of our civilization are diverted to the maintenance of those who should never have been born.

In addition to this grave evil we witness the appalling waste of women’s health and women’s lives by too frequent pregnancies. These unwanted pregnancies often provoke the crime of abortion, or alternatively multiply the number of child-workers and lower the standard of living.

To create a race of well born children it is essential that the function of motherhood should be elevated to a position of dignity, and this is impossible as long as conception remains a matter of chance.

We hold that children should be

1. Conceived in love;

2. Born of the mother’s conscious desire;

3. And only begotten under conditions which render possible the heritage of health.

Therefore we hold that every woman must possess the power and freedom to prevent conception except when these conditions can be satisfied.

Every mother must realize her basic position in human society. She must be conscious of her responsibility to the race in bringing children into the world.

What’s The Point?

As noted in the preface, this article is not “about” abortion. Instead, it’s about how opposing forces use selective quoting, incendiary language, and outright falsehoods (all practices appropriate to yellow journalism)  to promote a specific agenda. This practice is not uncommon, sadly, and the Internet as well as some print media is filled with similar examples. Discussions about evolution, the age of the Earth and universe, and other controversial topics are frequently peppered with false references, bogus statements, and long disproved allegations. And yet, no matter how many times these red herrings are disposed of by people who are actually familiar with the topic, they arise yet again like dark phoenixes in subsequent conversations.

This is also about something even more pernicious: the apparent inability or unwillingness of most readers to consider a writer’s motivation and sources before accepting what he or she has written. The term “consider the source” is one of the bedrocks of research; if a source is potentially untrustworthy for any reason, whether a known bias or a lack of credentials in the area under discussion, their material must be treated as suspicious until verified via independent sources.

The fact that the fake Sanger quote noted above has been blindly copied from one anti-choice site to the next without any apparent effort at verification is simple laziness, probably coupled with a desire for “damning” evidence that allows these groups to dehumanize their opposition.

What we see here is a long trail of deceptive actions, twisting of facts to fit a group’s specific narrative, and alteration of previously published material in an attempt to demonize the opposition. These so-called (and frequently cack-handed) “sting” attempts are reminiscent gangster-era plots to discredit political opponents by planting a prostitute and photographer in the opponent’s hotel room. This practice is puerile, gutless, and reminiscent of Western cultures’ portrayal of African or Native American tribes as “sub-human animals” during the 19th century as an excuse for assuming control over their lands and resources (not to mention enslaving them).

During some closing remarks on the Facebook conversation that initiated this article, another poster noted (while citing Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews, mind you) that it’s easy to make use of a group for any purpose whatsoever  if you first dehumanize them. I wonder if the author of those words realizes that the people promoting and creating these false statements about one of their opponents is engaging in exactly the same practice.

Irony is an unforgiving mistress.

The Word from the Front, 25 June 1915


Some of Linsingen’s Army, After Terrific Four-Day Battle, Are Driven Across the River.


Army from Lemberg Also Halted in Attempt at Great Flanking Movement.


Say Foe is Sacrificing Troops with Desperate Recklessness in Bessarabia as Well as Galicia

Special Cable to THE NEW YORK TIMES

PETROGRAD, June 25, (Dispatch to The London Daily Chronicle.)-The first movement of the Germans after occupying Lemberg was to attempt to advance southeastward along the   Lemberg-Beregane Railway with the object of cutting off the Russian forces operating on the Dniester. This advance so far has been checked and on the Dniester itself the Russians ·are displaying great energy.

A large force of Germans which on Wednesday crossed the river near Zurawano has been jammed on to the bank and on to the islands. They have suffered enormous   losses.   Further east near Halicz, a very mixed force of Austrians has been thrown back to the river. In these engagements Russian light and heavy artillery save effective support.

The operations on the Dniester are at present the   only clear feature of the general military situation. The struggle f or possession of this important river means in any case delay or distraction for the Germans. And with the Russian Army   in full fighting order and daily improving its technical resources and with an immense front for maneuvering and counter-maneuvering the possibilities f or   conjecture   are practically unlimited.

For the moment of almost equal importance with the efforts of the army is a. remarkable revival of activity in Russia itself. From all parts of the empire municipal and zemstvo workers, manufacturers, financiers, and engineers are thronging to the cities with otters of help in the matter of army supplies.

Published: June 26, 1915 Copyright © The New York Times

Historical Context

These events are part of the campaign of 1915, in which the Russians scored some initial successes against the attacking German-Austrian forces, only to have supply and munitions shortages blunt their advantage later in the month.

The city Lemberg, referred to in this article, is now known as Lviv or Lvov, and is located in western Ukraine.

The Word From the Front, 23 June 2015

From the New York Times, 24 June 2015


But Germans’ Bombardment at 20-Mile Range Caused No Panic.

DUNKIRK,  June 23.  (via Paris, June 24.)–Thirty-six  tons of explosives and metal ,were  fired into  Dunkirk yesterday from the German position somewhere behind Dixmude. Several  civilians  were  killed   or wounded, and considerable material damage was done, but not a single shell reached the port, or any  other point of military importance. The impression on the inhabitants   differed in no way from that made  by  preceding  bombardments, and the first trains out of the city today carried no more than   the usual number of travelers.

The first shell struck in the city at the break of dawn and others followed at intervals of twenty-five minutes until 6:15 in the evening. They came without warning for through Dunkirk constantly hears the guns of the Allies along the Belgian front no I sound comes from the monster weapon that   hurls these sixteenth-inch shells from a spot more than twenty miles distant.  The shriek of the shell gives no warning of the missile’s coming as the noise is heard only in the last 200 yards of flight, and almost simultaneously comes an explosion that makes the earth tremble.
Scarcely had the smoke of the first shell lifted when red-colored notices reading: “Refuge in case of alarm” began to appear on the fronts of buildings having cellars safe from the shell fire. Many people, hastily clad, hurried to these shelters. Still more ran in the direction of the explosion, hoping  to aid the  victims whenever  one of these monster missiles falls. However the work of rescuers is reduced to a minimum, as the destruction the shell works   in the immediate vicinity is  nearly  complete. The streets were strewn in many places with broken plate glass, crushed paving stones and other  debris  before  the   work  of clearing away began.
In the intervals of this fifteen-hour bombardment melancholy calm  prevailed in the city. There was little excitement at any time,  and no panic whatsoever.
Then  the  fire  was  over  the streets  resumed  their ordinary war-time aspect and among the throng that went  about  their  affairs in neither  haste nor confusion street Arabs swarmed about the stricken   spots  hunting fragments of shells to sell  to passers-by.
The electric current was cut off in the city but gas could be burned as usual. Persons who had sought the cellar refuges came  out  before morning to the sound of violent cannonading from the Allies’ front that had continued all night.

The Year of the Money Pit

It seems the “History” channel, after having already broadcast one short series on the Money Pit in 2014, decided once was not enough and is running another series on the same subject. Different bat-time, but the same bat-channel and equally bad bat-material, with the usual parade of “theories” (read: “guesses”) and faux science. I guess they’ll just never learn.

All this activity has generated a lot of traffic on Critical Enquiry, as well as on our (admittedly tiny) YouTube channel. The two OI videos are being viewed, in all or part, by thousands of interested viewers. Comments are mixed, with the usual smattering of “nice job!” notes along with the usual “you don’t know what you’re talking about” blasts from the believer set. It’s to be expected, since so few viewers understand how badly distorted the history of the island and Money Pit has been by generations of treasure (and media) hounds.

During one conversation about the site, I dropped the following comment which probably sums things up more concisely than anything else that can be said. It’s all well and good to debate over whether a core drill really did go through 30 feet of “hand worked, puddled blue clay” while the pit was being plumbed yet again some years back (for the record this sounds like more wishful thinking along the lines of Dan Blankenship claiming to have seen “a severed hand” in the grainy CBC underwater video back in the 1960s) but this sort of debate is interminable and can never really be resolved, because none of the evidence actually can be reviewed by legitimate researchers.

But here you go, believers and skeptics. Chew this over, since it pretty much annihilates the whole concept that some huge underground working was created on the island.

As for recent findings, consider the following. If an excavation of the scale involved in creating the MP had actually occurred on the island, they wouldn’t find a few random coins (such can be found scattered along the whole North American East coast). Instead, they would find belt buckles, buttons, coins, broken tools, bits of clothing, remains of a huge pile of food remnants (animal skeletons, middens, etc.) from feeding the crew of workers who excavated the Pit, along with debris from excavating that 200′ hole. Add to this a massive amount of charcoal from cooking fires, along with huge brush piles from the trees cut and worked to produce all that cribbing. There would have been a HUGE clearing left over from the massive pile of soil and rock excavated during the operation, then put back in once the mythical treasure was placed. What happened to the windlasses, cranes, buckets, and other surface tools? Did these mythical crews clean the place so completely that it looked like near virgin wilderness when McGinnis & co. stumbled across it in 1795?

In other words, look at photos of the site during the period when Dunfield and others were digging. Take away the heavy excavation equipment, and that’s what the MP site would have looked like while the alleged treasure burial was underway. And sinking a shaft 200′ deep during that era was nearly impossible anyway, because they had no means of exhausting CO2 and other gases that would have killed diggers outright.

Money Pit during Dunfield Excavations (1950s)

Money Pit area during Dunfield Excavations (1950s)

And I didn’t even mention the massive and well-filled privy shafts that should also have existed at the site for the relief of that huge crew of diggers, planners, supervisors, and others.

In other words, if this hoary old tale is for real, why are they finding so little evidence on the surface? The only reasonable explanation for this dearth of evidence is that nothing actually happened there in the first place.

The TV presenters crowed over having found a coin. A single coin! And, of course, that coin simply had to have been dropped by one of the men who helped dig the pit back before 1795…according to the believer mentality, there’s no way one of the many post-1795 treasure hounds, or a random visitor to the island could have dropped it. This is simply ridiculous, and the reason they need actual archaeologists to perform actual work.

Had someone with real training found that coin, they probably could have examined its context and determined roughly when it fell there. Instead, the TV guys destroyed another piece of evidence by extracting it without any context. But I forget myself — showing archaeologists painstakingly extracting artifacts isn’t good TV drama.

When will the believers realize that treasure companies spin one yarn after another, totally ignoring contradictory evidence while always putting the latest “discovery” in the best possible light to keep the cash and media attention flowing?

I suspect the answer is, of course, “never.”

Oak Island: back in the news again

“in 1795, three boys went on an adventure to visit an island reputed to be the site of a pirate lair…”

This is, more or less, how typical accounts of the Oak Island legend begin. And over the last month, the latest in a series of TV “docudramas” about the story has been playing on the so-called “History” channel. As expected, it’s a typical mishmash of bad history, bad writing, long debunked allegations about the site, and the usual woo-woo drivel that attracts an audience.

The show’s content, in other words, has little relationship to the factual history behind the island. Long time readers of the Critical Enquiry site will know we’ve posted a great deal of original research about the topic over the years, and that I’ve been invited to a number of events related to the Money Pit search. In addition, I’ve long been in contact with people like Paul Wroclawski and Kel Hancock (the latter a direct descendant of Dan McGinnis, said to have been one of the “boys” who claimed to have found the Money Pit in 1795) who have done extensive research of their own. The fact that none of us have been contacted, and that no actual historians or folklorists are part of the show’s cast, is indicative of the derision with which networks like History treat the subject. Rather than engage in actual research using legitimate resources, they instead involve a parade of “believers” who, they think, will make good TV.

The American and Canadian public should be offended. Networks apparently are of the opinion that viewers aren’t capable of dealing with real research, valid evidence, or material based in fact. Instead, they offer fictionalized nonsense in the belief that it’s all we can handle. Having been interviewed for several shows on historical legends, I can attest that while hours of filming time might be devoted to what might be the “skeptical” view of these topics, most of it ends up on the cutting room floor. In one case, I filmed hours of material with a production crew only to find two snippets, totaling about 30 seconds, were included in the final program. This is the “balanced’ viewpoint according to most purveyors of pseudoscience and pseudo history.

This comment by Kel Hancock sums up only a few of the more glaring points in the show that are historically incorrect.

For fans of The Curse of Oak Island here are a few facts that are misrepresented by the show:

-The legend of three boys rowing out to the island to explore in 1795 is just that, a legend. Donald Daniel Macinnis and Anthony Vaughan were grown men. MacInnis lived on the island and owned about a third of it.

-Oaks ARE indigenous to the region. Nova Scotia is, and always has been, covered with a number of native species of oak; including many of its islands.

-Borehole 10x has sat there open to the elements for around 40 years. It is no surprise that there are bits of rusty iron and a few animal bones coming up in the flush.

– There is no evidence of anything Masonic about Oak island until the mid 1800s when certain Masonic hints began to appear in newspaper articles written by a mysterious “correspondent” who almost certainly was connected directly to the treasure hunters.

-There has never been any historical or archaeological evidence to show that any man-made ‘box drains’ and booby traps existed in Smiths Cove and the ‘money pit”. Conjecture and third hand hearsay only.

– There is no botanical evidence, nor has there ever been, to show that the Oak trees on the island where unique in any way.

– Although the carbon dating of the coconut fibre in Smith’s cove has surprised me, it is not evidence of a connection to a treasure. Just like many artefacts found on the island, it’s age does not conclusively indicate it provenance. I don’t deny that NS was likely much visited in pre-Columbian eras but I don’t think that indicates a ‘hidey hole’.

Treasure Lore and Ghost legends are not unique to Oak Island. One has only to read the works of Dr. Helen Creighton, particularly, “Bluenose Ghosts” and “Bluenose Magic” to see how common these things were amongst our predecessors on the Atlantic seaboard.

— Kel Hancock (via Facebook) 2/7/14

For the latest Critical Enquiry video on the Money Pit, detailing more of the history and folklore that’s accumulated about the site over the last 150 or so years, visit the link on YouTube.

I also encourage you to visit Paul Wroclawski’s excellent Oak Island Theories site, where Paul has amassed what is probably the largest collection of primary (original) research material on the topic. All this evidence, as well as the articles on Critical Enquiry, show that the Oak Island legend is little more than a hoax inflated over hundreds of years of retellings by hucksters and treasure hounds.

Thanks, Veterans

In 2002, I received a contact email from a gentleman in Connecticut regarding my work at Oak Island. He was appreciative of my efforts at demystifying the Money Pit tale, and we kicked off a lively correspondence about history, mythology, and folklore.

He was very interested when he found out my father had trained as an aviator at Yale University during World War II prior to being shipped to Burma. Turned out he was a Yale grad, which elicited lots of ribbing since I worked for that “other” university in Massachusetts. I also informed him my wife was an Connecticut Air Guard officer, which he thought was wonderful. He then revealed he was a retired Air Force Colonel, World War II veteran, and was living in a retirement community near New Haven.

A few days later I received the following email:

 Date: Thu,  6 Nov 2003 15:53:06 -0500
 Subject: By order of 0908464, LtCol, USAF (Ret)

 Richard: One of these days, when you and <my wife> are invading 
CT, howsabout pausing at 88 Notch Hill Road, North Branford,  for 
parade inspection and a not ungood lnstitutional lunch?

On our next trip, in 2004, we stopped by (she in full Class A, me in a suit).  Edward was extremely happy about this, and greeted us both with a warm hug.  I think he also enjoyed the attention his ‘VIP’ guests elicited among other residents.  I have a few photos from the event, but was unable to locate them since they’re stored in the archives somewhere.

We enjoyed a “not ungood Institutional” lunch in the main dining area, and he presented my wife with his original set of gold oak Major’s leaves “for her hope chest.”

LtCol E. Barnard, USAF (Ret) with CPT K. Joltes, CT-ANG

LtCol E. Barnard, USAF (Ret) with CPT K. Joltes, CT-ANG

During our chat, he told us a number of stories about his service and some of the adventures he experienced. I tried to remember them all, and wrote up as much as I could recall a week or so later. I emailed the document to him, which elicited a response of “I didn’t know I was being interviewed!” While I’d gotten most details right, he added and corrected some elements and sent back a final copy.

Edward’s story

I decided to enlist just a little while after Pearl Harbor. I’d been working as a newsman, a reporter, and was in the office when the Japanese attacked; we were all scrambling around trying to find out what was going on, and I remember this one Japanese reporter, a really nice fella who always wore a suit, who worked for one of their news agencies but came to our offices a lot. He was walking around as we were piecing together what had happened, and he had tears running down his face. He kept saying “this is the end of my country” and was crying like crazy. We felt really sorry for him; I never did know what finally happened to that guy.

A month or so later I went home after working nearly 24 hours straight, and the boss [Edward’s wife] came in, looked at me, and said “go sign up. You know you want to, you’re driving us all crazy here, and you should just do it. The babies and I will be fine.” So I went and signed up.

The recruiters asked what I’d done in civilian life and were very interested when I told them I was a newsman. They said they had the perfect place for me to work, at a building in New York City where a lot of secret work was being done. It was all very hush-hush and they just gave me an address, saying it was a secret location. So they gave me orders and off I went; when I got there I immediately knew which building to go to because, although it was just a normal office building, it was the only one around with lots of Army staff cars parked in front and lots of guys in uniform going in and out. So that was pretty easy.

When the 356th [Fighter Squadron] finally arrived in England, everything was supposed to be very secret. No one was supposed to know we’d arrived or where we were going; in fact we were all given 4-digit numbers to give to family members to use in place of our names while in England — that’s how they’d deliver the mail to us, based on these 4-digit numbers — and we were never supposed to tell anyone where we were stationed.

We started moving toward [location?] and arrived at our airfield. That first night, someone in the squadron — I don’t know who — turned on the radio and was tuning it around to see what he could pick up. Totally by accident he ran into Radio Berlin, and we heard a show broadcast by a guy who was known as “Lord Haw-Haw” by the British. He had a very high, upper-class English accent and we listened to the show, which we probably weren’t supposed to do, for quite a while. Then suddenly he said “and I’d like to offer a special welcome message to the members of the 356th fighter squadron, recently arrived from America and now stationed at [location?]. I’d especially like to welcome their commander, Col. Lowell, and the rest of his officers.” (“Domey” Lowell, of the well-known Lowell family, was the squadron commander.)

Lord Haw-Haw then named several of the higher-ranking guys in our squadron, and went on to say that “some of my friends are arranging a visit to welcome you to your new home, and you’ll be hearing from them very soon.”

The next night the Germans came over and bombed our airfield. It wasn’t a big raid, and some of the guys just stayed in the huts rather than go to the air raid shelters. “Domey” Lowell was one of them, and as he sat at a desk in his hut a bomb came down the chimney. It didn’t explode but it threw some stuff across the room, and a bit of it hit him on the right hand and injured him a bit. He put a bandage on it and didn’t think much else about it until later.

A few days after the raid, a general showed up and had everyone get in formation. He then proceeded to call “Domey” Lowell up and started presenting him with a Purple Heart — the first one awarded to anyone in the squadron. Domey walked up to the general and, really embarrassed, said “sir I can’t accept that, this is all that happened (showing him the cut on his hand) and I really don’t deserve a Purple Heart for it.”

The general leaned forward and said “take it!” So that was that; Domey got the first wound in the whole squadron and the first Purple Heart to go with it.

During the raid, one of the German planes was shot down near the base. It was a JU-188; the “188” was peculiar since it was the first time anyone had heard of one of these models, so the boys from intelligence wanted a look at it and also wanted to grill one of the flyers who’d survived and been captured. We had this guy in a hut when a Major from the British intelligence group arrived; the Major went into the hut, and a little while later he came into our offices and was just absolutely livid. He demanded to know who’d given that German a cigarette! One of our guys had just done it without really thinking about it, and didn’t see what the problem was.

The Major explained that you never wanted to let a prisoner relax until they’d been grilled — you wanted them off-balance and scared, not knowing what to expect, so they’d talk. Giving this guy a cigarette was a way of letting him get comfortable before anyone had gotten any information from him. So we didn’t do that very well, and the Major was really angry.

Later they put me through a course with the British, learning how to do evasion and escape so I could teach it to the pilots in our squadron. Some of the guys did what they were told, others didn’t. Sometimes it worked, sometimes they got caught.

I’ll never forget this one guy, shot down in France, who did everything wrong and still made it home. After his parachute landed he looked around and saw the tower in a big chateau nearby. We always told the guys not to go near places like that and to avoid large buildings because the Germans used them. This guy sneaked in fairly close to the chateau, heard guys speaking in German, and decided to lie low until nightfall. Then he sneaked into the motor pool, looked around until he found the biggest motorcycle they had, then rolled it down the hill until he was well away from the buildings. Then he kick-started it and rode like hell, right down the middle of the main North/South highway through France. Along the way he stole and begged for food and somehow got petrol for the motorcycle as well. Finally he got to the Spanish border, found a friendly young lady who was willing to help, and sneaked across.

When I saw him in England a few weeks later, he grinned and said “hey Captain, those German motorcycles are really fast!”

We exchanged emails and holiday greetings with Edward for several years. Then, one holiday season I received a letter from his son — also a retired Colonel living in Maine.

Colonel Edward Barnard, USAF (Ret.) passed away in 2006, at the age of 94.

This blog post is in his honor, and to help preserve the memories of World War II veterans like him and my own Dad, who are leaving us at an increasingly rapid rate.

Art Imitates Life

From time to time, someone manages to write an article that, while fictional in terms of context, contains a lot of very solid facts. I happened across one of these today and wanted to share it with all and sundry, because it’s total gold in terms of its content.

Here’s the link: Archaeologists Officially Declare Collective Sigh Over “Paleo Diet”.

I encounter a lot of people who are totally obsessed with diet, in the belief that controlling it will somehow magically transform their life or save them from aging. While it’s totally true that specific people are sensitive to one or more foods and should avoid them for health reasons, and that a major percentage of Americans (and others, mainly in First World nations) eat really horrendous diets filled with artificial ingredients, the idea that one diet fits everyone’s requirements is ludicrous. Everyone’s biochemistry is a bit different.

I know people who are gluten free (some justifiably, due to Celiac disease or other verified medical issues), vegetarian, vegan, insanely vegan (one guy limited his intake so severely that his cholesterol is actually too low, and has to take supplements to avoid a condition known as Pernicious Anemia), and another who’s on a diet that bans all Nightshade family plants as allegedly “inflammatory” (there’s no science backing the latter one up).

Probably the most annoying to me as a historian and science geek is the Paleo Diet, which allegedly uses foods that humans “evolved eating”. Some folks go as far as to do only raw foods, in the belief (also unsupported by science) that cooking “destroys essential nutrients”.

I have a bridge for sale, and suspect most members of the latter group would make an offer on it.

This is where the fiction-but-not-fiction blog comes in. Here’s the first (fictional but correct!) quote:

“As long as the diet of an individual keeps them alive long enough to successfully mate, then that diet has conferred an evolutionary advantage. By that metric, the agricultural revolution has proven to be the most effective dietary system in the history of our species. We are the most prolific higher-order vertebrate on the planet.” It is a point that he feels is overlooked by Paleo Diet enthusiasts.

Yep, that’s right — if what you’re eating keeps you alive long enough to reproduce, it’s all that nature requires. Whatever happens afterward is totally irrelevant from an evolutionary standpoint, as stated in no uncertain terms by yet another (fictional!) researcher: “In a strict evolutionary framework, all your body needs to do is keep you alive until you breed. After that, you’re just living on borrowed time.”

Here’s where things really get good, though.

“Nearly every food item you currently eat today has been modified from its ancestral form, typically in a drastic way, ” he began. “The notion that we have not yet adapted to eat wheat, yet we have had sufficient time to adapt to kale or lentils is ridiculous. In fact, for most practitioners of the Paleo Diet, who are typically westerners, the majority of the food they consume has been available to their gene pool for less than five centuries. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, potatoes, avocados, pecans, cashews, and blueberries are all New World crops, and have only been on the dinner table of African and Eurasian populations for probably 10 generations of their evolutionary history. Europeans have been eating grain for the last 10,000 years; we’ve been eating sweet potatoes for less than 500. Yet the human body has seemingly adapted perfectly well to yams, let alone pineapple and sunflower seeds.”

This is totally accurate, and supported by loads of data. Every food available in a typical western-culture grocery store, whether plant or animal based, is the result of hybridization and selective breeding over the period it’s been used by humans.

For example: what we know as “corn” (of the American variety, that is) was derived from Teosinte, a grass-like plant in South America that was rapidly hybridized by native cultures starting, as far as is known, no more than 4000 years ago. Every variety of plant now sold — even to so-called “Paleo” dieters — is a modern variety that did not exist when humans were evolving. And as the quote above notes, humans of European descent have only been eating New World plants — tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, yams, blueberries, avocados, and so forth — for about 500 years, max. And even New World natives, who migrated to North & South America no earlier than about 20,000 years ago, are themselves descendents of Old World populations who had no dietary contact with these New World foods.

So, if you want to eat a true “Paleo Diet” you need to move to Africa, live in the veldt, and eat more or less whatever you can catch while you’re not being chased by large predators like lions and bigger hominids. You’ll be noshing (constantly!) on grasses, other plants, small rodents, left-over meat from other carnivores’ kills, grubs, and more or less whatever you can lay your paws on and can wrestle down your gullet.

As “Dr. Hoyes” says in the article:

You really want to be paleo? Then don’t buy anything from a store. Gather and kill what you need to eat. Wild grasses and tubers, acorns, gophers, crickets- They all provide a lot of nutrition. You’ll spend a lot of energy gathering the stuff, of course, and you’re going to be hungry, but that’ll help you maintain that lean physique you’re after. And hunting down the neighbor’s cats for dinner because you’ve already eaten your way through the local squirrel population will probably give you all the exercise you’ll ever need

For myself, I’m insanely happy humanity long ago figured out how to cook food, because doing so is thought to have displaced the energy required for digesting meat and tougher plants away from the digestive system and into the fire. Liberating all the energy used for digesting raw foods allowed us to expend that energy evolving our massive brains instead. Had our ancestors not learned how to cook, we might not be arguing about diet and obsessing about health via the Internet.

For that matter, the agricultural advances that occurred as part of the Neolithic Revolution allowed human civilization to evolve from bands of hunter-gatherers to settled communities. Had we not learned how to plant and cultivate cereal grains, we’d still be limited to small groups fighting over limited resources in the wild. There would be no science, no medicine, and limited historical knowledge because everyone would be too busy foraging for food to do anything else.

I will also note for the record, even though it’s somewhat inflammatory to state it this way, that most of the dieting obsession involves relatively wealthy (in terms of world statistics), self-satisfied westerners with access to ready, plentiful food and ongoing medical care. This is, of course, to be contrasted with the starving masses in less developed areas of the world who’d give their eye teeth (if they still have them) for a bowl of generic macaroni and cheese that costs $.69 on sale at the local Mega-Mart. Basically, folks in developed countries have the luxury of obsessing over exactly what they eat. Well, mostly, unless they’re living in a low income area of the US where malnutrition is rampant.

As my mother used to say, “count your blessings.”

I’ll let one of the comments from the original article have the last word on this topic.

They didn’t thrive under [the real “Paleo” diet]. They *starved.*

That’s why you lose weight on a paleo diet; because you can’t get enough calories eating that way! Today you do well on such a diet because the availability of these foods is so high that you can get by on quantity even if they aren’t calorie rich, but you wouldn’t last a MONTH if you were kicked back to those times.

‘Nuff said.

Creating Lies for Fun and Profit

I’m not going to sugar coat this. We all know, or at least I hope we do, that the Internet is a sewer. One of the major issues with an free-form setup like the ‘Net, where anyone can open a website and publish anything they want, is that, well, they can publish anything they want. There are few rules. Certainly, there is no requirement that what’s published is factual, unless the website represents an official agency or other organization that can be held liable for spreading lies.


This was expensive. Your PC is not.

This is, however, nothing really new. Tabloid journals, the yellow press, and other venues have served in the past. The real difference between old-line purveyors of rubbish and their modern, Internet based descendants is that the latter is far cheaper to set up and maintain. The old guys had to buy printing presses and other materials, which made the “barriers to entry” (a business term) fairly high. As the cost of print fell, the number of ridiculous sources of totally unreliable information increased.

And here we are today, with systems under which anyone can open <cough…> a WordPress blog or a Facebook page and spread their own personal brand of disinformation. Or not. There are certainly some sites – of which I hope this is one – where facts are respected and errors are acknowledged when pointed out.

The cost is practically nil, aside from owning a PC or other network device on which to write.

What I find interesting is that so many people would far rather read a comforting lie than an uncomfortable (I won’t say “inconvenient” since some other guy has used that already) truth. The power of the confirmation bias is extraordinarily high. Sadly, it’s part of what makes us human.

The area I like to examine involves historical events, or pseudo-events, that people take as gospel true even though the evidence is slim, if not non-existent. A hundred and some odd years ago, for example, a guy named Ignatius Donnelly basically invented the myth of Atlantis when he wrote a book on the subject. Nearly everything in that book is totally fabricated, but it struck a nerve (in the same way that The DaVinci Code, which was easily as bad and void of facts) did a few years back. The general public, sad to say, is not known for its discretion or ability to discern the wheat from the chaff (hint: what did P.T. Barnum famously say was “born every minute”?). So the cranks and bad writers of the world have a steady stream of the unwary to prey upon.

One of the first subjects I ever researched was the hoary old Oak Island Money Pit mystery — you can read the results elsewhere on the Critical Enquiry site if you’re so inclined. What this research taught me was that those fraudsters we see every day on the Internet are nothing new, and that generations of writers will repeat (and, indeed, amplify) each  others’ mistakes without the slightest compunction.

What many folks who read about Oak Island don’t understand is that most of the “evidence” in all those books is totally illusory. The story as it’s told today is filled with lies of omission and commission, as well as invented “facts” and inflated claims. For instance, in about 1867 a group of treasure hunters hired a driller and geologist known as John Brown to bore holes into the bottom of their current pit. They hoped his report would tell them where to dig next. When that report was delivered, it basically caused the treasure hunters to close up shop and go home. Why? Because our Mr. Brown described, in gory detail, why there was no further reason to dig. When he drilled, he was able to tell the treasure hounds were digging into previously untouched soil. Therefore, there was nothing for them to find below the already excavated level.

In another section of the report, he also put paid to the idea that the grinding noises his drill was making meant it was drilling through “loose metal” that was thought to be coins from the treasure chest. He explained that a lot of gravel was being encountered at depth, and was being brought up by the drill. The noise it made could easily be mistaken for the sound of metal being ground up.

What happened, I hear you ask, to John Brown’s engineering report? I will note that this report has never, ever been cited by any Oak Island treasure hunting group. It has never been mentioned in any of the copious, and generally poorly written books on the subject. What happened was that it was basically disowned by the treasure hunting crowd, and effectively lost for well over 150 years. Only recently did a researcher in Nova Scotia find a copy in an archive and have it transcribed. You can read it here in all its glory.

This is only one example, albeit an important one, of how evidence about the Money Pit has been selectively culled, altered, added, and otherwise manipulated over the last 150 years. And the story is continually altered by subsequent generations of writers who add their own spin to the tale. Many of today’s digital authors repeat the same errors, even though the contrary evidence is available for those who want to find it.

This sort of selective use of evidence is extremely common in far too many areas: the pseudosciences (cold fusion, perpetual energy devices); “mystery” topics (Bigfoot, UFOs); historical revisionism; and politics are only a few examples.

There are basically three (okay, maybe four) reasons folks create and maintain this sort of fiction.

  1. Money.
  2. Power.
  3. Fame.
  4. Some or all the above

Fine the last one is a combination of the others, so I don’t count it as a separate factor. But it really does boil down to one or more of these. Some people want to make piles of cash, and are perfectly willing to invent a means — whether a religion, a useless product, or a fantastic story — to obtain the dosh they desire.

Others want power or control over their fellow citizens (many of these go on to become insurance salesmen, bankers, or politicians, but I digress…) and want to invent a story that taps into a collective social need. Think of Red Scare politicians like Joe McCarthy and others who claimed the presence of a vast conspiracy within the US government. They used this method as a means of gaining control over the political process.

"I have a list...of my political enemies, who I will smash"

“I have a list…of my political enemies, who I will smash”

Fame is closely related to power, but can be different depending on the subject matter involved. UFO contactees and others who claim to experience special phenomena fall into this category. They like the limelight, but aren’t interested (except maybe in an indirect way) in amassing power through their story.

Take me to your leader, and be sure to call the media!

Take me to your leader, and be sure to call the media!

The sad thing is that anyone could achieve the same sort of fame and fortune through honest means. Publish a great work of fiction (while acknowledging it as such). Do honest research that helps uncover a real historical mystery. Discover a new cure for cancer. Why are all these paths apparently so difficult sounding? Is it because they involve actual work, and possibly some level of talent, while inventing a tall tale or hokey religion is easy?

Many people have said it: “A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”

Researching Internet Claims for Fun and (no) Profit

On a fairly regular basis, email appears in my inbox asking about some Internet rumor or other that’s “going around” and whether I have any information on it. The same happens on Facebook, since most of my friends know I’ve been researching legends and folklore for a long time and generally have a good handle on these situations. As a result, and so readers can also be involved in the fun of dispelling loads of electronic horse-poo, I’m going to present a primer on how the process works.

First off, you have to take all your preconceptions and throw them out the door. It doesn’t matter how much you “want to believe” aliens are landing in Grover’s Mills, Obama is a closet Muslim, or some guy finally got photos of Sasquatch eating lunch in a Denny’s in Kalamazoo. You’re not Fox Mulder.

What we’re going to deal with are facts and evidence, not preconceptions and innuendo. If you want the latter two, just go watch Fox News and you’ll get all you can stomach. Or more.

Part One: let’s look at a rumor

Here’s a gem that arrived in my inbox a few days ago. I won’t reprint the (long) article since it’s entirely fact free. The title should suffice for our purposes.

>         *Subject:* *Fw: Can you guess where this is?*

The first red flag is the number of times the mail has been forwarded. This one had gone through at least a half dozen forwardings, indicating it was being passed around to a number of individuals in a “chain letter” fashion. This is almost never a good sign.

The mail contained a number of photos of a very posh-looking jail-like facility, with a modern design, beautiful rooms, and lush accommodations. Next, was the claim made by the author of the message.

>                                 IT   IS . . .
>                                 The New Cook County
>                                 Correctional Center
>                                 in Chicago , Illinois
>                                 Who was the US Senator who helped
>                                 arrange the funds to build this beautiful
>                                 "punishment center"???
>                                 Oh yes, it was Senator Obama!!!

This is pretty incendiary, isn’t it? It’s also obviously untrue, and the story has been “outed” as false by my buddies at Snopes for several years now (it is a jail but it’s not even in the US). In fact, this story first surfaced in 2008 and has been popping up for over five years. So, if that’s the case…why do the things keep circulating?

Part Two: There Are Suckers Born Every Nanosecond

The second indicator of a bogus rumor involves the message itself, and what evidence (if any) it presents to support its assertions. This one presents none. Zero. Zip. Nada. It’s a bunch of photos someone harvested from a website somewhere, used to make up a story slamming their least favorite politician, and sent off to a gullible population of Internet denizens. Then they sat back giggling, or maybe raking in lots of money for having acted as a paid political shark during the 2008 campaign.

Rule One: if there’s no evidence presented to back up an assertion, it’s only an assertion. It’s not real until someone presents the evidence.

The insidious thing about these rumors is that they all play into someone’s preexisting beliefs. Everyone has some level of what’s known as confirmation bias that colors their reaction to a piece of new material. If you already don’t like Obama for some reason, and receive this story, you’re not likely to look into the details or try to confirm it. You just accept it as another piece of evidence supporting your belief. It makes you feel better about having those beliefs. The fact that it’s an unsupported assertion is meaningless.

If you saw a claim that “Rick Santorum was sired by a space alien from Zeta Reticuli” on the cover of the Weekly World Drivel at your local supermarket counter, you’d probably laugh over it. You’d know it’s not possible, if for no other reason than that the aliens of Zeta Reticuli find human women really unattractive. But this claim is identical to the one about Obama and the jail facility — they’re both presented with no confirming evidence. No official memos showing Obama voting for the facility, no roll call about the event, and no medical tests showing alien DNA in Rick Santorum. But you believe one while rejecting the other.

Think about this.

Part Three: News Isn’t Always News

“So,” I hear you say, “what about the messages I get that are actual news stories from an Internet site? I mean, these sites have a masthead, and articles, and they’re real newspapers so they must do some research. Aren’t these valid articles?”

Ah, Virginia, I’m sorry to have to break it to you like this, but many Internet “news” sites…really aren’t. They’re just fronts for political groups, or individuals who want to believe they’re performing some public service by publishing anything they like. Unlike those halcyon pre-Internet days when you had to own a printing press, set type by hand, and print things at a relatively high cost, today anyone with $10 and a free copy of a decent HTML editor can turn out a website that looks, acts, and smells almost like a real news source.

Rule Two: repetition is no indication of accuracy. Again, repetition is no indication of…oh, you get it.

Here’s a handy tip for weeding these things out. If you receive an article with what sounds like an outrageous claim, take the following steps.

  1. pick a very non-generic sentence from the article.
  2. copy it (Ctrl-C for Windows users)
  3. paste the exact text into a Google search, surrounded by quotes (“) to tell Google to return only exact phrase matches.
  4. Examine the results

Here’s an example from a story claiming that a half dozen members of President Obama’s cabinet are covert “Muslim Brotherhood” members infiltrating the US government. The search term is the quoted phrase. Note the results (click on the image to maximize for easy reading).

Search Results

Search Results

First warning: here we see lots of sites with the exact text from the search embedded verbatim in one of their own articles. Lots of fake “non-news” sites copy and paste from one another freely, unlike actual news sources that are prevented from doing so due to basic journalistic ethics.

The funny (sad) part of this one is that the author even admits that “The [original Egyptian] story is largely unsourced…” [italics mine]. This means the Egyptian story offered no evidence supporting its allegations. Yet the author of the story about the story apparently felt no compunction over repeating it. Hello? McFly? This is one innuendo-based story using another innuendo-based story to support itself. By now, your highly attuned “Danger, Will Robinson” BS detector should be starting to go off. If not, keep reading.

Second warning: none of the listed URLs are actual news sites. They’re all right-wing blogs, Bible-related sites, or other organizations with absolutely no requirement to publish factual material. They’re not bound by any ethical requirements and can more or less say anything they like. They’re the web’s equivalent to the “National Inquirer” and other scandal sheets. It’s your choice how much to trust whatever they publish.

Third warning: bad sites and authors use themselves and others like them as sources. So if you see that story Y is based on material originally published by site X, and site X is still some unsubstantiated blog or nameless organization, then the “facts” in story Y still can’t be trusted. Conspiracy theorists and fringe science groups tend toward internally referential material on a scarily consistent basis. They seem to think that if they quote one another (like real scientists and researchers do) it somehow lends legitimacy to their nonsense. But zero times zero is still…yes, you guessed it, zero.

Again: consider the source. And the sources the source uses.

Part Four: Consider the Source

While you should never, ever judge material solely on the basis of its source, it’s a good idea to check sources in order to determine whether bias should be suspected. For example, a news article extolling the virtues of tobacco consumption that happens to have been written by or for a cigarette manufacturer should always be treated with suspicion. Likewise, stories about climate change fears being overblown are just slightly worthy of concern in terms of objectivity if they originate from the oil industry.

Google the author (if known) of the article or claim in question. If said author happens to be associated with a number of right- or left-wing groups (in the case of a political claim), a pro-business group (if climate science or consumer safety issue is involved), their claims should probably be taken with a huge grain of salt unless they can back them up with actual evidence from independent sources (also see the warning about internally referential material, below).

It’s also a good idea to research the actual website to see if you can figure out who actually owns it. This requires a bit of techie skill, but the process boils down to this:

  1. Every website can be traced back to a numeric IP address
  2. Find that IP address using a tool like nslookup or dig
  3. Using that IP address, query a Whois server (e.g. in the US) to get the IP address’s owner.
  4. See who that owner is and what credentials they might have for publishing so-called “news” articles.

In the case of the “Muslim Brotherhood” article, a trace of the publisher ( turned up an IP address of Entering this into a Whois query turned up a company called “Media Skillz” located in Hilton Head, NC. A Google search for “media skillz” Hilton Head turned up absolutely nothing but the name of the so-called company. The actual owner is totally unknown. Why trust material published by persons unknown, especially if written by people who generally write for potentially biased organizations? Again, such groups have no requirement to publish accurate material and can say what they like.

A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on.

Sum It Up

The lesson here is pretty easy, but it’s hard to accept that a source is invalid or suspect if a particularly juicy piece of chain-mail produced by it just happens to fit with one of your preexisting beliefs.

Bigfoot followers will immediately light up over any alleged new “revelation” that might confirm their belief in the creature.

Politically polarized individuals desperately want to believe their opponents are evil, twisted, baby-killing Nazis and are sure to pass along any story that seems to confirm this opinion.

Someone who wants to disbelieve that climate change is real, or that it’s a plot by Birkenstock-wearing hippies to take V8 engines away from God-fearing Americans, will pounce on material that seems to confirm that belief.

You get the picture.

So the next time one of those messages appears in your inbox…

  • Take a breath
  • Check it out using some of the tools we’ve discussed
  • Throw it away unless you can actually confirm its claims using independent sources

The Internet will be a happier place. Your friends will receive less junk mail. Your blood pressure (and theirs) might remain a bit lower. And we’ll all be a little bit smarter.