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 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.
- 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.
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.
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.”