Response to UFO stories are predictably rude and ironic

I posted this story on Doubtful News 3 days ago: UFO hoaxer fuels worry about an attack on Turkey

Since then, it was shared by several UFO-news-related sites bringing a certain vocal audience in to comment. I observed that this subsection of the audience didn’t actual understand what the story was about but instead created a straw man argument from me (and another contributor Scott). They assumed that our position is: UFOs are not real, UFOs are not alien craft, aliens aren’t real, humans are the only life in the universe, we know everything, all these claims are hoaxes, and so on…

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American society ignores learning how to think critically – it’s hardly surprising where we ended up

Several pieces have come out in the media since the election regarding the real people behind fake news. They say they didn’t affect the election, they don’t support Trump, they did it to show how easy it was to fool people, they don’t feel responsible or badly about it.

Sure, they don’t. They are greedy, unethical people who made a ton of money off of people’s naïveté and strong emotions and are now justifying it to themselves. I have no sympathy for such scum. I liken them to drug dealers – those who make poison and market it to the people who eat it up. If there were no drug dealers, it would be far more difficult to get drugs and people generally would be less likely to suffer from that. So, yes, you, fake-news dealers, you bear some responsibility for peppering the online communities with this blight.

But it’s not that simple, obviously. The deeper blame lies with the education system, American values, and parents who fail to teach their kids about how the real world works.

Many factors came into play to get us to the state of misinformation (and the current president-elect) we have now. It will be difficult to fix the problem that about half of the public can’t readily tell fact from fiction and they may not care. The problem seems far worse for those who identify with the political “right” but it is bad across the board. Liberals, too, fall for nonsense that “feels” good and perpetuate dross.

A piece came out today on a large study of students of various ages and incomes in the US intended to evaluate reactions to internet content – tweets, web articles, and comments – for credibility. The results were appalling.

“Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability To Tell Fake News From Real” 

I looked at the report that came with it. [PDF]  It’s a snapshot of how kids fail at thinking. THINKING: something that, as a parent, I know is taught very poorly, if at all, in public schools. The researchers are “shocked” at the results. How can kids be so oblivious? I’m not surprised at all. This result was inevitable. Kids are raised on fiction and no where along the line were they told how to judge veracity. HOW CAN THEY NOT BE OBLIVIOUS?

But the report released to the public is missing context. There was no reference to students in past generations who received their information from television. Were those kids better at telling the difference between real and fake “news”? Could they tell the difference between factual documentary shows and fictional? Did they think that stories in the National Enquirer were real? I’d like to know this because I don’t think kids are much different with regards to judging veracity now than they were in my school years. One social difference is that children now have incredible access to content across the spectrum – good, bad, satirical, and utter bilge. (They are also shielded from real explanations about the world from parents who don’t talk to their kids objectively about events in the world and how to make sound decisions informed by reliable knowledge.) With limited time to evaluate what they read, see and hear, and the social pressure to go with the information flow, kids mess up all the time (and so do adults). We could have forecast these results.

The solution proposed by the educators is to deliberately focus on teaching kids how to evaluate information sources. Fine, but that doesn’t go far enough. I would propose all schools REQUIRE a class (or classes) in critical thinking. Evaluations from college-level classes specific to learning about pseudoscience and why it’s faulty show this approach can be effective, at least somewhat. Students learn to recognize why some claims common in society are woo-woo by being shown how to dissect them and think more scientifically. Confronting bogus claims, including misleading information passed off as news or opinion, is a big topic and we encounter the beast every day. This is not just a problem with “fake news”, it’s lack of everyday practical skepticism, which entails employing critical thinking to fix.

The “skepticals”1 in the crowd have been aware of this for decades, even centuries. Sensational tales, fake news, gossip, and urban legends have been around forever! And people always fall for them. I grew up with tabloids and terrible “true” stories on television. I wasn’t always sure what was factual and there was no internet around to fact check. Today, we are pressured more than ever to be aware of what’s hot in world chatter. We hear not just what our immediate family, friends, and neighbors tell us, but we have a global and huge network of people and sources who shoot information at us every single minute, all day and night. It’s an information free-for-all like never before. Everything is news, everyone can be news, anyone can create news. No rules, no editors, no standards, no limits. None of us are prepared to adequately deal with this situation.

Kids of the past generations were not prepared to properly deal with evaluating news or any other kinds of claims, either. There was a good chance they didn’t learn how to think through claims as they got older and grew up to be adults who were uncritical thinkers. They had kids who never learned practical skepticism for themselves and it remained unemphasized and ignored, even discouraged, in schools. Now we are flooded with information and we are “shocked” that kids can’t properly navigate it? It’s no shock, most adults can’t either. Critical thinking is a learned skill. If a person is not taught how to do it, she can’t do it well.

The modern origin of organized skepticism was sparked by belief in astrology, psychics, ghosts and UFOs. We’re in far more treacherous waters these days because society hasn’t emphasized learning how to think about everything, all the information we are presented with as facts, and so news and information about political candidates and global affairs are full of lies and manufactured tales. This inevitably leads to poor decision-making and is a threat to democracy. We’re in deep trouble. 

There are few mechanisms out there to help teachers, school boards, state education agencies and parents teach kids how to think. It should have been a top goal for skeptical organizations to focus on education but aims were inward instead towards those who were already on board with the importance of critical thinking. The general public was ill-served by an entire society who failed to opt-in to thinking about the future.

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  1. I am moving away from using the term “skeptics” because of the common different meaning. “Skepticals” means those who have some understanding about applying scientific and practical skepticism to questionable claims.

Shouting into the void about doubtful news since 2011

Excuse my upcoming lament. It’s been a stressful year as I gave up for a while trying to keep a website afloat, and then came back only for it to be the usual situation – be generally ignored and at a loss to do much about it.

There has been so much media attention to news about fake news in the past week. The tone is that it’s worse now than ever, it may have influenced the election, it’s a shame that people are this dumb – really dismal sentiments. I believe you’ll find things are a bit more complicated than that. The saddest part is, though I’m trying to be  positive, I don’t think this surge of interest is doing any good.Read More »

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This story was NOT for you. Learn from it.

Early today on Doubtful News, I posted a story declaring the Michelle Obama photo holding a sign saying “An immigrant is taking my job” to be photoshopped. This produced a flood of repetitive comments to my personal and DN-based Facebook, Twitter, and comment threads alleging that it was OBVIOUS it was fake. Why did I bother to debunk it? Did someone actually think this was true?

Yes, they actually did. This SHOULD NOT have surprised you. Have you NOT been paying attention these many years when countless made up or misleading stories were accepted by the general public? There are simply too many to list as examples. I am frustrated you have not learned from several years of fake news. People REALLY DO believe this stuff. Read More »

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Visiting the Fringe

“Hello, Ms. Hill,” said the man at the registration desk before I had a chance to give my name. “We’re glad to have you here.”

So much for flying under the radar. I’m the skeptical one at the Fringe New Jersey one-day conference. I’m used to this, though, having gone to several paranormal-themed events. Why do I attend? As I said in this review of an academic parapsychological conference, I came to learn and explore evidence and ideas from new points of view. It’s always interesting. Listening to those who don’t think the same way you do is the key to understanding the bigger broad view regarding why we believe and why it matters. I don’t have to talk, just be part of the audience eager to hear what the invited speakers have to say.

audienceThere were five presenters this day. Each got to speak for an hour which is rather nice. They all had long, complex stories to tell, so the extended time accommodated this. Each story had a tone and purpose, contained information put forward as supporting evidence, and had a conclusion. Stories with arcs like these are not typical of scientific conferences or even skeptical conferences. For those, the audience is walked through information about a specific concept or hears a proposal with an argument, supporting evidence, and findings in an objective, usually detached, tone. The emotive story is clearly more appealing to a general audience. But, it can be trying to those listening who find your story to be a bunch of BS. I disagreed with many of the fringe ideas presented but I still learned a great deal and was entertained.

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Depressed? Tune in to some friendly voices

It’s really depressing out there, I know. It’s times like these that I think society’s collective lack of critical thinking skills and sheer ridiculous gullibility is going to do us all in. But we have to keep pushing to not let the power-mad conspiracy bullies win.

The world is not a simple place that can be fixed with empty statements. Complex problems can’t be solved with slogans and platitudes. Yet, about 50% of the public seems to eat this crap right up.Read More »

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Moving past the skeptical community era of constant offense and victimization

main-qimg-e50fc45a8a973c846fed73eb98a42039-cAn interesting piece appeared on the Center for Inquiry website exploring opinions about taking offense over others’ speech or actions, faux outrage, and being offended on others’ behalf: Offense by Proxy and the Moral Right to Indignation

This piece explains pretty well why I also do not agree with the views of frequently outraged social justice “warriors” and some outspoken feminist writers.

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