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.

Wednesday Wonders: Fooled by famous frauds and fakes

It’s April 1st, but given the state of the world at the moment, I would hope that everyone refrains from any kind of pranks or jokes today in honor of the occasion. Instead, let’s look at five times in the past that scientific types have passed off a fake as reality.

I’ll take it in (mostly) chronological order.

The Mechanical Turk

In 1769, Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungray, invited her trusted servant, Wolfgang von Kempelen, to a magic show. Von Kempelen knew his physics, mechanics, and hydraulics. The empress wanted to see what he’d make of a stage illusionist.

In short, he was not impressed, and said so in front of the court, claiming that he could create a better illusion. The empress accepted his offer and gave him six months off to try.

In 1770, he returned with his results: An automaton that played chess. It was in the form of a wooden figure seated behind a cabinet with three doors in front and a drawer in the bottom. In presenting it, von Kempelen would open the left door to show the complicated clockwork inside, then open a back door and shine a lantern through it to show that there was nothing else there.

When he opened the other two doors, it revealed an almost empty compartment with a velvet pillow in it. This he placed under the automaton’s left arm. The chess board and pieces came out of the drawer, and once a challenger stepped forward, von Kempelen turned a crank on the side to start it up, and the game was afoot.

Called the Mechanical Turk, it was good, and regularly defeated human opponents, including Benjamin Franklin.  and Napoleon Bonaparte — although Napoleon is reported to have tried to cheat, to which the Turk did not respond well.

Neither its creator nor second owner and promoter revealed its secrets during the machine’s lifetime, and it was destroyed by a fire in 1854. Although many people assumed that it was actually operated by a human and was not a machine, playing against it did inspire Charles Babbage to begin work on his difference engine, the mechanical precursor to the modern computer.

In the present day, a designer and builder of stage illusions built a replica of the Turk based on the original plans, and watching it in action is definitely uncanny.

Moon-bats and Martians!

This is actually a twofer. First, in August 1835, the New York Sun ran a six part series on discoveries made by the astronomer John Herschel on the Moon. The problem: The press flat out made it all up, reporting all kinds of fantastical creatures Herschel had allegedly seen and written about, including everything from unicorns to flying bat-people, all thanks to the marvel of the fabulous new telescope he had created. When Herschel found out about it, he was not pleased.

The flipside of this came sixty years later in 1895, when the astronomer Percival Lowell first published about the “canals of Mars,” which were believed to be channels of water that ran into the many oceans on the planet.

In reality, they were just an optical illusion created by the lack of power of telescopes of the time. This didn’t stop Lowell, though, and he went on in the early 19th century to write books that postulated the existence of life on Mars.

Of course, Lowell was not trying to perpetrate a fraud. He just had the habit of seeing what he wanted to see, so it was more self-delusion than anything else.

The Cardiff Giant

This would be Cardiff. The one in New York, not the capital of Wales. The year is 1869. The “giant” was a petrified 10-foot-tall man that had been dug up on a farm belonging to William C. “Stub” Newell. People came from all around to see it, and that did not stop when Newell started charging fifty cents a head to have a look. That’s the equivalent of about ten bucks today.

The statue was actually created by George Hull, who was a cousin of Newell’s. An atheist, Hull had gotten into an argument with a Methodist minister who said that everything in the Bible had to be taken literally. Since the Bible said that there had been giants in those days, Hull decided to give him one, and expose the gullibility of religious types at the same time.

Cardiff, after all, wasn’t very far from where Joseph Smith had first started the Mormon religion, and that sort of thing was not at all uncommon in the area during the so-called Second Great Awakening.

Although a huge hit with the public to the point that P.T. Barnum created his own fake giant, the Chicago Tribune eventually published an exposé with confessions from the stonemasons. That didn’t seem to make one bit of difference to the public, who still flocked to see the statues. Hull and his investors made a fortune off of the whole adventure.

Piltdown Man

Less innocuous was a hoax that actually sent a couple of generations of anthropologists and evolutionists down the wrong path in tracing the ancestry of humans. In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, claimed to have discovered the fossilized remains of a hitherto unknown human species in Piltdown, Sussex, England.

The key part was that while the skull had a human-like cranium, it had an ape-like mandible, or lower jaw. In other words, having traits of both species, it could easily have been the long-sought “missing link,” a transitional form that provides the evolutionary bridge between two species.

The first so-called missing link, Java Man, had been discovered twenty years prior to Dawson’s. Unlike Dawson’s Piltdown Man, Java Man, now known as homo erectus, has been accepted as a legitimate transitional form between ape and man.

Dawson’s downfall came after the discovery of more transitional forms and improved testing methods that authenticated many of these. When researchers finally turned their attention back to the original Piltdown Man fossils, they determined that the skull was only about 500 years old, the jaw, only a few decades. Both had been stained to simulate age.

In 1953, they published their findings, which were reported in Time magazine, but the damage had been done, setting back anthropological studies, because more recent, legitimate discoveries were doubted because they conflicted with the fake evidence.

It seems likely that Dawson was the sole hoaxer. What was his motive? Most likely, he wanted to be nominated to the archaeological Royal Society, but hadn’t yet because of a lack of significant findings.

In 1913, he was nominated because of Piltdown, proving yet again that it’s possible for a fraud to profit — if they’re white and connected.

Vaccines and autism

We’re still feeling the repercussions of this fraud, which was first perpetrated in 1998 by a researcher named Andrew Wakefield. This was when he published results of studies he carried out which, he said, showed an undeniable link between childhood vaccinations, particularly measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and autism.

In Wakefield’s world, “undeniable link” meant “cause and effect,” and a whole bunch of parents proceeded to lose their minds over the whole thing. We’re still dealing with the fallout from it today, with diseases like measles and whopping cough — which should have been eradicated — suddenly causing mini-epidemics.

Eventually, when they could not be replicated, it came out that Wakefield had flat-out falsified his results, and his papers and findings were withdrawn and repudiated by medical journals.

What was his motive for falsifying information without any regard for the lives he endangered? Oh, the usual motive. Money. He had failed to disclose that his studies “had been funded by lawyers who had been engaged by parents in lawsuits against vaccine-producing companies.”

But, as with Piltdown Man, we’re still seeing the effects and feeling the damage a generation later. This is why now, more than ever, we need to rely on actual scientific findings that have been replicated through peer review instead of rumors, myths, or memes.

Happy April 1st!