Thursday, August 02, 2012

Snopes and 'What We Know That Ain't So'

August 2, 2012, 10:30 p.m.
"It's not what we don't know that's the problem, it's what we know that ain't so."
-- Mark Twain
[the quote, in a variety of forms, is variously attributed to Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and others. (The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations, 1987, attributes it to Josh Billings.)]

"Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts."
-- Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan
[as attributed to Moynihan by Robert Sobel.]

"A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth - some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say."
-- Michael Kinsley
[Kinsely gaffe, Wikipedia.]

"[I]in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously."
-- Adolph Hitler
[Mein Kampf, vol. I, ch. X.]

It's silly season. Presidential politics is in full swing. It has been said that "the first casualty of war is truth." Truth is also a casualty of politics.

Some of the things that are said of candidates during campaigns may strike us as so outrageous as to be funny. Others may prompt us to think, "that can't be right, . . . can it?"

We may not be paying close attention. The assertion may square with our beliefs, ideology, or prejudices. Whatever our condition and response, the assertion has entered that electro-chemical soup that is our brain, and continues to float around in there in one form or another.

Most K-12 school districts are not as candid as the Texas Republicans were in their platform -- a flat out opposition to "Higher Order Thinking Skills":

"Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority." "2012 Republican Party of Texas Report of Platform Committee," p. 12.

But before you start ridiculing Texas, remember that the absence of overt opposition to teaching "higher order thinking skills" is not the same as the existence of such programs. How many school districts are training our children how to use the two most powerful questions in critical thinking: "What do you mean?" and "How do you know?"? Is yours? See, Nicholas Johnson, "Governing America: 'What do you mean?' and 'How do you know?," Address at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, April 3, 1997, and Nicholas Johnson, What Do You Mean and How Do You Know? An Antidote for the Language That Does Our Thinking for Us (Lulu: 2009).

The reason I suspect these skills are not widely taught and practiced is because of the quantity of demonstrably false assertions that are passed along on the Internet by folks I know to be relatively well informed, intelligent, and sometimes highly educated individuals.

When my wife, Mary Vasey, and I are sent such assertions we sometimes check them out on Snopes and send the results to the originator, along with the suggestion that they might consider using Snopes the next time they are tempted to e-mail everyone they know something that seems questionable on its face.

"So what is Snopes?" you ask. Snopes is a Web site that self-defines itself as "the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation." For Snopes' origins, owners, history, and reliability, see, (And see also,,

And now for a little quiz, drawing upon the resources of Snopes. There are quite a number of assertions going around the Internet regarding our president, Barack Obama. Look over this list of a sampling, the first 55 of the 122 Snopes has checked out. (1)Note the number that seem to be outrageous on their face, and yet have received wide circulation. (2) See if you can guess which ones checked out as true, and which are false, and which are a bit of both. (To see the whole list go to Barack Obama. Snopes also has a list for Mitt Romney -- although with a total of no more than 9.)

Illinois senator Barack Obama is a "radical Muslim" who "will not recite the Pledge of Allegiance."

Barack Obama was sworn into office on the Quran.

Photograph shows Barack Obama without his hand over his heart while the U.S. national anthem is being played.

Barack Obama has been endorsed for President of the U.S. by the Ku Klux Klan.

Barack Obama's presidential campaign is being funded by Hugo Chávez.

Editorial criticizes anachronisms in Barack Obama's 2007 Selma speech.

Barack Obama urged his supporters to join him in changing "the greatest nation in the history of the world."

Photograph shows Barack Obama with various family members.

Editorial criticizes Barack Obama's political stances.

Access to Michelle Obama's senior thesis was restricted until after the 2008 presidential election.

Photograph shows Barack Obama holding a telephone upside down.

E-mail reproduces Barack Obama's statement about the U.S. national anthem.

E-mail from missionary describes Barack Obama's connection to political events in Kenya.

The Book of Revelation describes the Anti-Christ as someone with characteristics matching those of Barack Obama.

E-mail lists fifty lies told by Barack Obama.

E-mail lists quotes garnered from Barack Obama's books.

Barack Obama does not qualify as a natural-born citizen of the U.S. because his mother was too young.

During a campaign stop, Barack Obama said that he had visited fifty-seven states.

Barack Obama announces every time he claps a child in America dies from gun violence; kid in classroom tells him to stop doing that.

During the 1960's, Robert F. Kennedy said he believed a black man could become President of the United States within forty years.

The bulk of donations to the Obama campaign come from a handful of wealthy foreign financiers.

E-mail compares proposed changes in taxes after the 2008 presidential election.

Barack Obama's birth certificate is a forgery.

Insurance broker posts "A taxpayer voting for Barack Obama is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders" sign.

Barack Obama "blew off" U.S. soldiers during a July 2008 trip to Afghanistan.

Barack Obama removed the U.S. flag from the tail of his airplane and replaced it with his own logo.

During an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Barack Obama said, "a strong government hand is needed to assure that wealth is distributed more equitably."

Hundreds of people with physical ailments have reported being healed by a touch from Barack Obama.

Native Americans dubbed Barack Obama "Walking Eagle."

E-mail presents Bill Brown's assessment of Barack Obama's political record.

E-mail lists unpaid campaign debts incurred by Senator Joe Biden.

Joe Biden is planning to step down from the vice-presidential slot on the Democratic ticket in favor of Hillary Clinton.

E-mail warns of health issues associated with the Obama-Biden ticket.

Three former Fannie Mae executives are linked to the Obama campaign as chief economic advisors.

Barack Obama's education and house were paid for with money obtained from questionable sources.

Barack Obama filed a lawsuit to require banks to "make loans to poor people."

Barack Obama has an acquaintanceship with Bill Ayers, a former domestic terrorist.

The editor of the National Review has endorsed Barack Obama for president.

Photograph shows Barack Obama carrying The Post-American World, "a Muslim's view of a defeated America."

The Obama campaign sent Secret Service agents to visit a Texas woman after a volunteer worker deliberately misreported their phone conversation.

Barack Obama never mentioned Israel by name in either of the first two 2008 presidential debates.

Michelle Obama gorged herself on an expensive room service dinner while her husband was attending a meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

Barack Obama admitted to being a Muslim during an ABC News interview.

Barack Obama would not qualify for a security clearance due to his relationship with Bill Ayers.

Barack Obama asked law enforcement personnel to remain out of view during a campaign event in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Scholars at the Smithsonian Institution have uncovered new interpretations of Nostradamus that relate to Barack Obama.

The numbers 6-6-6 were the winning combination in an Illinois lottery the day after Election Day 2008.

President Obama issued an order "allowing hundreds of thousands Palestinians to resettle in the United States."

As part of the inauguration festivities, Tiger Woods gave a speech in thanks of the military.

Photograph shows a store's display window presenting books about Barack Obama with a book about monkeys.

Photograph shows the tail number of Air Force One to be "N166ER."

CIA director Leon Panetta's daughter is a "radical anti-American."

Statement reproduces President Obama's response regarding opposition to his veterans' health insurance plan.

Message details decisions made by President Obama in directing the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates.

Message details requirements of the GIVE (Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education) act.

To see how well you did, go to Barack Obama for the Snopes team's evaluations.

Then reflect on what this means for our campaigns, our democracy, our government. How much can a self-governing people "know that ain't so" and still survive?

Let's vow to do all we can to think before we repeat what looks questionable, to check it out with Snopes, and politely remind those with whom we exchange emails to do the same.

We'll miss some; we'll make mistakes. I'm sure I have. But we can all do better, and it's important that we do.

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Harold O.M. Rocha said...

What a great reminder that being well-informed is a highly critical part of our civic duties. Wasn’t it Gore Vidal who said something about one half of Americans not reading newspapers and one half not voting, and how he hoped both were the same half? What seems deeply troubling lately is that public figures, who should presumably know better, are often the source of inaccuracies, half-truths, and revisionism. If our leaders fail us, indeed, how can our democracy survive? By encouraging the rest of us to ask those two questions you pose -- "What do you mean?" and "How do you know?”

These are highly challenging times, but we have the tools to get us through. Thanks for posting this. I enjoyed reading the text of your remarks at the Hoover Presidential Library and look forward to reading your book. Warm regards.

Trish said...

Thanks for reminding us about this terrible problem and the negative effects on Democracy. Let's not forget about conservative talk radio. Iowa has 14 stations in every corner of the state that broadcast multiple hours daily of conservative talk. One Iowa station, KILR, broadcasts conservative talk 23 1/2 hours a day leaving a half hour for local news and sports. WHO Radio broadcasts 12 hours a day of conservative talk. Stations in Burlington, Sioux City and other communities broadcast 14-16 hours a day of the same stuff that goes around on the internet. Our publicly owned broadcast airwaves are saturated in Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage's opinions. It's no wonder people believe this stuff.