Sunday Nibble #16: Truth and fiction

Here’s an appropriate version of the telephone game. You’ve no doubt heard one of these quotes. Your job is to identify which was actually said by the person so named:

  1. “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” — Jonathan Swift
  2. “(A) Lie would travel from Maine to Georgia while Truth was getting on his boots.” — Fisher Ames
  3. “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”— Mark Twain
  4. “A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.” — Winston Churchill

The quote may or may not sound familiar, but who seems like the most likely source? I’ll get to that later, but the important point is that no matter which one of the quotes above is the actual one, each one of them does say something important.

Lies will spread like wildfire, and that’s especially true nowadays with the internet, social media, and the instantly shareable image macro, “news” post, or meme. We can see this every day when the latest outrage share or “shocking” news story goes viral (pardon the expression) before the debunking begins, but by then it is often too late.

It’s a problem that affects all political beliefs and I’ve seen both sides do it, which is why there are a few very important things you have to remember to ask yourself before you share that story.

  1. Does this offend my political sensibilities and confirm all the worst things I think about (insert hated foe here)? Then you may be getting played. Do a search, especially with sites like Snopes or Politifact, and especially if the claim seems too over the top. Hint: flip it so it’s your preferred person doing it, and see how plausible it sounds.
  2. For alleged news stories, always check the sources to make sure they are reputable outlets, and not places like shitpostnewslol.com or joeschmoemedia.me. A lot of satire sites will identify themselves as such, but you have to click the links and go to their “about” link, where it will clearly say, “Hey, we made this up.” And if you don’t know that the Onion and Borowitz report are mostly satire, you shouldn’t be online. Finally, while Forbes itself is reputable (if biased), if an article is under the URL forbes.com/sites/, then it could have been contributed by anyone, and shouldn’t be trusted.
  3. Avoid weasel words or stories without clearly identified parties. “Experts say” or “scientists believe” mean nothing. The same is true in a lot of “this injustice will outrage you” stories that happen to omit things like the location, at least the names of a local official or citizen interviewed. “Family kicked out of local diner for praying over breakfast” is a nice outrageous headline, but what does the story say? If all you get is “a local family of six is considering legal action” and “unidentified diner,” and not a lot more, don’t trust the story.
  4. You can ignore random opinion polls, because they can be made to say anything, depending on how the questions are worded and answer options are given, and the results can be spun as well. For example, the question, “Politicians accused of eating babies should: a) Be given a fair trial, per their rights; b) Executed on the spot because accusations are truth.” This can easily turn into the shock headline, “60% of Americans Support Politicians Eating Babies!” Again, ignore.
  5. Most science stories promising either miracle cures or killer asteroids are bunk, especially the latter. If you see a headline that says something like, “Mayo Clinic Breakthrough: Toe Jam Stops Cancer!” then you should look for the original study and ignore the story, because the reality was probably more like “toe jam kills 4% of foot cancer cells in vitro, peer review pending.” Translation: “Toe jam don’t kill cancer, and a petri dish isn’t a human body anyway.”
  6. Remember, most of all, that the authors of stories aren’t the ones who write the headlines, and the headlines are written to make you click. So do yourself the biggest favor of all, and don’t just read the headline. Read the entire story, and then research it further if it seems fishy.

Because… well, here are the quotes from above and the actual sources for them. Did you pick the right one?

  1. “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” — actually Jonathan Swift, 1710
  2. “(A) Lie would travel from Maine to Georgia while Truth was getting on his boots,” — attributed to Fisher Ames by William Tudor, North American Review, 1821
  3. “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”— attributed to Mark Twain by Burris Jenkins, in the Denver Post, 1921
  4. “‘A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.’” — attributed to Winston Churchill by Ernest W. Lefever as quoted by Francis X. Clines in the New York Times, 1981

Hint: although a lot of people think it was Mark Twain, it wasn’t. The closest to an actual and verifiable first-person citation we can come is… Jonathan Swift, whose quote isn’t at all like the others in wording, but which is identical in sentiment.

Don’t help the lies fly. Help the truth get on its boots and run.

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