Of Facts and Fictions

William Harwood

Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation, by Loren Collins (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012, ISBN 978-1-61614-634-4) 267 pp. Softcover, $19.00.

President Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of the Interior, James Watt, “told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ.” Until I opened Loren Collins’s book, Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation, I had believed that Watt really said that. Now I learn that he denied ever saying anything of the sort, and there is no evidence to the contrary. Because I consider myself quite scrupulous in verifying questionable information before repeating it, I have to concede that even scholars on the right side of history can be sloppy about information that conforms to their preconceived mind-set.

I had also never heard of David Icke before reading Collins’s report of his theory that shape-shifting reptilians were taking over the world by impersonating prominent politicians, as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Wikipedia confirms that Icke really does make the claims Collins quotes but suggests that, after his less-fantastic conspiracy theories had made him a laughing stock, he invented the reptilian body snatchers as a joke, perhaps in the hope of getting the last laugh if people took it seriously.*

I was initially surprised that Collins made no mention of L. Ron Hubbard. But on reflection, I recognize that Collins’s recommendations for refuting conspiracy freaks who believe their own lies are not necessarily applicable to heads of movements, some of whom are mainly motivated by the desire for personal profit. While Holocaust deniers are as intellectually challenged as Scientologists, they lack a charismatic leader who guides them into believing what is fact and what is fiction.

The objectively falsifiable claims of religion, such as creationism, intelligent design, Noah’s flood, and a six-thousand-year-old universe, are discussed, appropriately, in the chapter titled “Pseudoscience.” The same chapter also deals with cryptozoology, alternative medicine, and visiting aliens.

While many writers have recognized that published statistics tend to report nontheism as far less prevalent than it actually is, Collins explains the reason for the underreporting: “survey questions can get different results based on nothing more than how the questions are worded.” I can attest to that. When I pointed out to Gallup that a survey on religious beliefs would obtain a more accurate result if the questions stopped implying that a particular answer was politically correct, I was told that rewording the questions would make it impossible to show how the answers changed over time. In other words, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” could not be changed to, “Do you beat your wife?” because that would invalidate all previous surveys.

The claim that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” can be rebutted at the point where evidence would exist if a claim was valid but does not. But how does one counter doublethink when “one of the difficulties of debating a conspiracy theorist is that the lack of evidence to support the conspiracy theory is so often treated as evidence in support of the conspiracy theory”? Also, “anecdotes would suggest that faith healers like Jim Bakker can heal the sick, but no serious researcher would accept that as good evidence.”

“When we do look for new information, we put our best efforts toward finding information that supports the things we already believe,” writes Collins. When I took my first ancient history course and learned of the abundance of virgin-born resurrected saviors who preceded Jesus, I sought diligently for evidence that would enable me to remain a believer. That was not the way it turned out. In contrast, “alternative medicine advocates regularly must deny the myriad of studies that show their treatments are no better than placebos.” Furthermore, “studies finding that acupuncture performs no better than a placebo are often wrongly reported as ‘acupuncture works.’” The solution: “Pointing out that a rumor began as sheer speculation, or that it was first introduced by a disreputable individual, can do far more to undercut that rumor than can pages of counterarguments.”

Collins’s reporting is a combination of good news and bad news. The good news is that, when the British doctor who first published the Big Lie that vaccinations cause autism was found to have falsified his data, he was stripped of his medical license. The bad news is that “criminal prosecutors have relied on claims supposedly made by autistic patients through facilitated communication. . . . One case even resulted in a conviction. . . . The judge even denied a request by the defense to ‘blind’ the facilitator during trial testimony.” This happened despite the fact that, when the facilitator and the patient were shown different pictures, the supposedly facilitated patient described the picture shown to the facilitator, not the picture shown to the patient.

The correlation between the wasting of taxpayer money and the ignorance of politicians and civil servants should not come as news. Collins spells out the extent of that correlation: “$666,000 was spent on a study to determine whether AIDS could be healed through distant prayer.** . . . Money that is spent on studying distant prayer or coffee enemas or acupuncture is money that isn’t being spent on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s or a vaccine for HIV or on better detection methods for pancreatic cancer.”

There is still a widespread belief that expertise in one field constitutes expertise in everything. Not so: “Isaac Newton . . . tried to calculate the date of the end of the world from supposed clues in the Bible.” And Linus Pauling, a double Nobel Prize–winner, claimed that large doses of vitamin C could cure cancer. “Scientific expertise does not always translate into expertise, or even adequate skeptical thinking, in other fields.”

Collins recognizes that programming on the History Channel “left no doubt that its new mission statement firmly embraced unabashed pseudohistory.” Unfortunately, he did not mention that the same is true of the Learning Channel, A&E, Discovery, and other pretend documentary outlets. And he does not cite references to God as more real than Mother Goose on alleged World News broadcasts.

Actress Jenny McCarthy is singled out as perhaps the most culpable disseminator of the falsehood that vaccines contribute to autism, her rationale being “post hoc, propter hoc” because her son is autistic. Collins repeats the statistics that failure to vaccinate in a five-year period caused 102,961 preventable diseases and 1,016 preventable deaths and that the number of autism diagnoses scientifically linked to vaccination numbered zero. He does not mention that the number of deaths from starvation and AIDS that can be attributed to the prohibition of condoms by the last two Catholic popes may be (including some not yet dead) as high as sixty million people.

Collins echoes Carl Sagan’s warning not to be “so open-minded that your brain falls out.” But he also recognizes that skepticism likewise has limits: “As little as I think of David Icke and his theory of shape-shifting reptilians, if I were to watch President Obama turn into a lizard-man during the State of the Union address, I would be forced to reconsider my previous stance.” And if God were to float down from the sky in the middle of a Super Bowl game and
turn the football into a flying pig, I would reconsider my conclusion that he/she/it does not exist. Let us say that neither of us will be holding his breath.

* Wikipedia.org, “David Icke.” According to Icke, George W. Bush, Queen Elizabeth, and Brian Mulroney are all reptilian humanoids.

** These are the same government agencies that spent a comparable amount researching whether parapsychologists could spy on Soviet military installations by “remote viewing.”

William Harwood

William Harwood has been published in skeptical and freethought journals around the world. The newest of his fifty books is titled Disinformation: Bullshit the Media Encourage You to Believe (World Audience, Inc., 2012).

A review of Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation, by Loren Collins.

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