Thursday, August 26, 2010

How email will lead to the demise of this country

People are stupid and will believe almost anything you tell them. For instance, in the last few months I’ve had people forward me emails telling me that if I eat cake made from expired mix* or answer my cell phone while it’s plugged in, I may die.

*Why you would want to eat anything made from a mix, especially cake, is beyond me. But that’s neither here nor there to my point.

And while people not answering their cell phones when plugged in or not eating expired cake mixes have no long-term consequences one way or another for the welfare of humanity, they’re symptomatic of endemic American gullibility that will result in significant long-term consequences, if it hasn’t already.

The problem is that people believe the garbage that they get in forwarded emails without checking the facts. There are a few of us fact-checkers out there, so email forwarders have started prefacing their messages with “Note that it's confirmed on Snopes.” The sender/propagandist is banking on the likelihood that the recipient won’t take the time to actually click over to Snopes and get the real story, because what’s on Snopes very likely differs from what’s actually in the email. But this supposed verification makes the message that much more believable.

Back in the days before Snopes and email, these rumors didn’t spread nearly so fast, but they were still around. I remember being told by a certain family member that buying Liz Claiborne clothing was bad because Liz Claiborne had made a deal with the devil. The person telling me this assured me it was true because she had been told this from a woman at church. Because nobody at church has ever lied or exaggerated about anything.

Today, however, the rumors spread faster because people can easily add dozens of friends to the recipient list of an email and forward it along. And when these emails are spreading a message of hate or misinformation, they’re truly dangerous.

I said at the beginning that people will believe almost anything you tell them. And while many will believe anything they read in a forwarded email, I said “almost anything” because too many of these same people dismiss what they hear from reputable journalists as “leftist propaganda.” This ridiculous gullibility and the abject ignorance it fosters will result in the election of incompetent policymakers and the eventual demise of this country.

What’s worse is that it’s not just the email forwards spreading the message of hate, but radio and television as well. As detailed in this must-read article in the New York Times, Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck drop “suggestions, hints, and notes that people are ‘questioning things.’” Their audience take this innuendo as gospel, and before you know it, 27 percent of the Republican party doesn’t believe the president is a citizen, even when ample evidence exists to the contrary. (The irony of this is that Limbaugh and Beck imply people are questioning things—actually using critical thinking skills.)

Further to this point, according to the Times article, 46 percent of the Republican party believe the lie that Obama is a Muslim, and a growing faction in the party is under the false impression that the TARP bailout for banks is an Obama deal when in fact we have his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, to thank for that one.

At the root of this problem is a general lack of critical thinking skills. We’re all guilty of it: we’re told from a source we trust or at least want to trust that the world works a certain way, and we accept this as truth without questioning it. Many accept these so-called truths out of wishful thinking; they want the world to be a certain way, and so when they’re told so by someone who seems credible, they believe that’s the way it is.

Unfortunately, just as wishful thinking won’t decrease the unemployment rate or clean up the oil in the gulf or end the traffic jam in China or rescue the Chilean miners, neither will it make a fairy tale come true. My daughter desperately wants to believe in fairies, but at some point she’s going to have to come to terms with the fact that Tinkerbell is only real in Disney films, and she’s never actually granted anyone a wish. Perhaps it’s time for the rest of us to start making sure the Tinkerbells we encounter are real before we forward the email Tinkerbell supposedly wrote to everyone we know.


  1. I'm still waiting for Bill Gates to give me a dollar for everyone I sent his e-mail to, what with helping him beta test his product 'n all. And although Tinkerbell might not be real, the shadow is. (What that has to do with your post, I've not a clue, but you mentioned Tinkerbell and now I'm remembering that part about the shadow.)

    Some people believe everything they read. I'm the exact opposite; I don't believe anything I read. I assume everything is either taken out of context or written non-objectively.

    You know what I find funny, and perhaps a tad ironic? That more columnists and political commentaries could be very persuasive if they started to present both sides of an issue -- objectively. Most garishly present "their side," which automagically causes an opposing reader to declare 'em "wacko." And then, readers who are already on "their side," drop to the knees and worship.

    Just an opinion, of course. From Vice President of the Pervertarian party.

  2. Rabid: If the Pervertarian party had candidates on the ballot, I would vote a straight ticket.

  3. I'd like more logic and reasoning to be taught in school. Seems it's mostly 'memorize this and regurgitate it back in class or on the test'. Easy to grade, but not expanding deductive powers. We try and do some at home, ask the kids to step through their reasons or prove something. We need to do more.

    BTW, that e-mail I sent you about iPhones brainwashing people to join a real Apple cult, I swear it's the truth.

  4. That whole pervetarian party thing, never mind.

    I like to think that these purveyors of mis information are agents of the one true FSM. And that those who believe and follow this misinformation will not be ensconced by his noodley appendages, but instead will have to settle for an eternity swimming in the less desirable spaghettios underling.

    Sadly, my parents will be in the canned food aisle.

  5. You so hit the nail on the head! This frustates me to no end.

    I couldn't understand for the longest time why people wouldn't fact check, like you, I came to the realization people want to believe this stuff. It feeds their hate and makes them feel they're on the side of right. And the really sad thing for me is that I get these emails from people who think of themselves as charitable christians.


  6. Oops, that would be "frustrates".

  7. I was doing some fact checking on this morning, and it will come as a great relief to all of you that Glenn Beck has been "saved":

    "I have interviewed persons who have talked specifically with Glenn about his personal salvation - persons extremely well known in Christianity - and they have affirmed (using language evangelicals understand), 'Glenn is saved.'"
    -Jim Garlow, "an influential California pastor"

    Of course, the logical conclusion is that mainstream Christians are now safe to believe everything that comes out of Glenn Beck's mouth as gospel fact. No further fact checking is required.

  8. Solid post, thanks for all the links.

  9. What? Tinkerbell is not real? Who am I supposed to believe in now?

    According to Snopes (OK, maybe not), from a psychological view, people are more likely to believe info from their peers/friends/family than those who actually investigate facts (whether as journalists, scientists, etc) as part of their job. So, email chains have proved quite effective to spread misinformation. People are also more likely to follow info streams that follow their point of view (regardless of how objective it is lack thereof) and dismiss other streams of info. People like to reinforce their beliefs and, if that means not thinking objectively or refusing to admit verified facts, well so be it. While this may not be true for everyone, I think it applies to a large percentage of people.

    Those who can think critically and dump ideas that don't fit the evidence are in short supply. Wish there was a test to find out who those people are so we could do this to politicians and narrow down the candidates to such people. Yep, where is Tinkerbell when you need her!

  10. The NYT article you reference is itself full of all kinds of errors and bad analysis. See

  11. Eric: Your comment and the article you reference simply prove my point: people are stupid and will believe anything. Want more proof?

  12. Good post.

    Let's be clear that every group: liberals and conservatives, believers and atheists, is often less than thorough in their fact checking, and all are guilty of group think, gullibility, depersonalization of those who disagree with them, etc.

    This is a human condition and seems to be part of the sociology of people groups in some way.

    It is so much easier to villianize someone than to understand them.

  13. Enel: precisely. The examples I cited reflect my bias. This is human. Overcoming this tendency to interpret data according to what fits the way we want to see the world requires a conscious effort.

  14. Once again, I've been bamboozled by a term used by Stupidbike. What the heck is FSM? Is it the Flying Spaghetti Monster for reals or have I misinterpreted something? Totally works with the spaghettios reference.

    So this church called the Flying Spaghetti Monster uses "Carbo Diem" as their mainstay slogan. I like carbs and have also used that term "Carbo Diem." I should join.

    I also must point out (because honestly I cannot resist a funny jab), is that Mr. Junkie was once known to fall for that Back To The Future gag that was going around not too long ago.

    Thank me later?

  15. Rabid: I'd say join the FSM crowd, but you might have trouble getting past question 7 if you do.

    As for the Back to the Future bit, notice I said "people are stupid," not "people are stupid, present company excepted."

  16. On the contrary, Sir Junkie, I'm not implying that you're stupid. However, if you would have said "accepted" instead of "excepted," I'd call you stupid. I'm good like that.

    Where do I get the FSM questions? I can't find the questions!

  17. Rabid: No, I was implying that I'm stupid.

    As for the FSM questions, there aren't any. I wasn't referring to the FSM questions. I was referring to the every-other-year questions that are part of the belief system to which FSM presents an alternative.