Jon Ronson is someone with whom you could sit down and just start up a conversation like you have known him for years. In fact that happened to me a few years back when Jon sat down beside me at a conference, I introduced myself and we started chatting. I feel I could always just start chatting to Jon. This is why his books are so enjoyable to read and how he gets people with interesting stories to talk to him.
I was very eager to read his newest book, So You’ve been Publicly Shamed, because I was sure he would tease out some amazing insights into this phenomena of the 2010s – the age of perpetual outrage.
The last time people were subjected to such public backlash, Jon writes, was almost 180 years ago. Stocks meant you were on display in the public square. You could not hide. The media does this very efficiently now but social media, namely Twitter and Internet search engines, are the most destructive of the current shaming tools.
Jon writes that public shaming is like mirrors in the funhouse – the image is so distorted that it makes the individual look monstrous. The small indiscretion gets blown far out of proportion; we overreact to the distorted story. I had a shaming attempt imposed on me one time years ago when a then-notable female skeptic with whom I was only casually acquainted decided that I should be “ashamed” of following a satire account on Twitter, one she felt was personally degrading to her and her friends. She announced this out of the blue in public to her followers. Who the hell did she think she was?
Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News
by A. Brad Schwartz, 2015
“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” – Poe
This quote is the frontispiece to this book. Hits me right in my skeptical soul. I run Doubtful News, a site that deals daily with questionable claims in news media. I don’t like fake news. But the story of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles’s historic radio drama that was said to cause a National panic, was NOT fake news, nor was it a panic.
It was perceived as fake news; it was always intended to be a drama, nothing more. What surprisingly spiraled from it is at the core of this book. The story of the National panic over a Martian invasion was what turned out to be fake. The US ended up with a giant storm about censorship and media trust in a time of uncertainty and change.
–TLC pulls “19 Kids and Counting” after a sexual molestation scandal is revealed which implicates reality show star, and anti-LGBT campaigner, Josh Duggar.
–Has the time come to stop referring to ourselves and others as black, white, etc? An article seen on Addicting Info prompts a discussion about the social construct of race, and why, despite the objection of many, we think it can still be useful.
–Shootout between rival biker gangs in Waco disproves the idea of more guns leading to polite society. But it also prompted us to think about the era of the Wild West, and finding out it wasn’t as “wild” as we once thought. –Recommendations: Bobby does his best to insert Star Wars into every discussion by recommending…Star Wars. Meanwhile, Jason thinks many will find value in the HBO documentary “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall,” which he feels is an…
It was not with conscious intent. It evolved organically. I want to know how and why a group functions the way it does (or doesn’t). First, I studied paranormal investigators, or what I called ARIGs – amateur research and investigation groups. One particular aspect I focused on was how these activities appeared to enhance their lives. I’ve always been interested in why people believe weird things. I think I understand a bit about why religious, paranormal, and superstitious beliefs play such a dominant role in human society. Of course, there is much left to learn.
Regarding the skeptical community, I started noticing pathologies and problems, groupthink and misplaced focus. Why did this happen and what happens next?
In a Fortean group, I asked about sharing questionable “news” sites – does accuracy matter?
Doubt and About is personal contemplation about stuff going on in my sphere.
I’ve been dreaming about flying rays, monitor lizards and leeches. These days, I have a surplus of tiny spiders on the back deck that enjoy crawling on me and using me as a launching pad for their silk ballooning. I should have been a zoologist, obviously. Meanwhile, my job is to keep writing up rational responses to crazy news stories on Doubtful News.
Does anyone not know that I do DN? It’s not unusual to come across skeptics who have never heard of DN. How does that happen? I do all I can to promote it. I’m pretty passionate. This stuff means a lot to me and has for 20 years. Well, this relates to a worsening problem I’ve noticed in the past few years – lack of support and cooperation among skeptical advocates. There are many good groups and bands of individuals that get together to do projects. But it seems like asking for a blog post, Facebook share, a retweet or even a mention of your latest project or important post is met with the sound of crickets. Why is that? Shouldn’t we be helping each other to spread the word about positive stuff?
When people think about “Skeptics” (capital ’S’), they often think about James Randi, Joe Nickell, Phil Klass, Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, etc. – the tough ones, the ones that did not accept the bullshit being handed out.
I’ve seen many comments aimed in particular against Mr. Randi (who retired from his Foundation this year but is STILL traveling and doing outreach). I think people epitomize Randi as the Leader of all Skepticism because of all he has accomplished and the real contemptible characters of the woo-woo world that he has taken on head to head – Peter Popoff, Uri Geller, Sylvia Browne, even Nostradamus.
But here is a funny thing I wish people would realize… Randi is human and understanding. Ken Frazier reports on the Australian Skeptics convention last November in the March/April 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. In his editorial, (page 4) he relates a comment James Randi gave to a question he was asked — how does one respond to a friend who is deep into nonsense.
I get emails. People tell me I should be more “open-minded”.
There is that clichéd saying regarding open-mindedness: “Keep an open mind — but not so open that your brain falls out”. This piece of advice is most often said to come from physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988), but also a slew of other more or less famous people, most of them from the field of science: Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, James Oberg, Bertrand Russell, J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s plausible that they all certainly said it at one time or another because it applies every time one is presented with a fringe or alternative explanation for something. It’s a fine saying.
I’m reminded about my narrow lack of vision (as they see it) when I report about recently deceased mystery mongerers or self-proclaimed miracle workers. Their followers chastise me not only for speaking ill of the dead (I’m sure they were all nice people, but that does not excuse their bad ideas), but that I did not experience their miracles or I fail to understand their work because I’m not thinking “out of the box”.
Here’s one example. Lloyd Pye was committed to the idea that a curiously-shaped skull he had is that of an alien-human hybrid. Called the “star child” skull, Pye promoted the story that this is proof that humans descended from extraterrestrial beings. You can read my post about his death. There is nothing offensive about it. Yet, I got a SLEW of messages telling me how horribly misguided I was. I disagreed with his crackpot ideas. I’m allowed to. The plausibility of it is practically nil. There is no decent evidence in support of it except a nifty sci-fi story. To accept it, we’d have to throw out all of what we know about human history, evolution, and a good bit of well-established physics. Just because of one odd-looking skull? No, thank you. That would be completely irrational.