An Alternate Fact History

While those of us in the sciences bemoan factual illiteracy, it might be worth recalling that widespread distribution of factually-challenged material is hardly new.

What is a bit distressing are the kinds of things such behavior leads to.

A few choice snippets:

The Mexican-American war was largely a creation of the Polk Administration, which desired to separate California from Mexico while absorbing the independent nation of Texas. In essence, by claiming a southern border for Texas at the Rio Grande that was well south of that understood by Mexico, Polk was able to claim American had been attacked in the U.S. This was challenged by, among others, Rep. Abraham Lincoln (W-IL). U.S. Grant, in his autobiography, lambasted the war as “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” And yet the nation, guided by Polk’s sophistry, initiated a war for territory.

Arguably the Civil War represented a nadir in sharing of facts, from a fiercely partisan press across the country to southern states that intercepted and destroyed Northern newspapers. Lincoln’s relatively mild stance on slavery (that it could not be allowed to extend into the territories) was twisted by southern papers into extraordinary claims such as he would force interracial marriage. Perhaps the most damaging “alternative fact” came after the war, when the myth that the war was over state’s rights instead of slavery made a glorification of the Confederacy possible and popular.

The later “yellow press” of the late 19th century has often been fingered as causing the Spanish-American War, largely through exaggeration but also through the creation of fictional facts that induced Americans to enter into war.

McCarthyism was, at its heart, the creation of fictional crimes by real people, allegations that were utterly unsubstantiated.

Certainly more recently we’ve seen alternative facts play out, as the tobacco industry made up stories to counter evidence that smoking was a health hazard.  Similar but less obvious efforts were made by the paint industry to slow the banning of lead-based paints and the fossil-fuel industry to discredit concerns of global warming. These efforts went beyond a straightforward advocacy for their industry to try to discredit scientific evidence about their industries’ products.

The most damaging alternative fact was the German right-wing myth that Germany did not lose World War I on the battlefield, but that the military was “stabbed in the back” by a new republican government backed by Jews. This helped fuel the rise of the Nazis in Germany (which, it is worth recalling, had considerable electoral success before usurping the republican government). It also fed a hatred that spawned the Holocaust.

Note that episodes of hysteria in the face of ignorance don’t really count.  So things like quarantining doctors returning from Ebola outbreaks or parents not inoculating their kids aren’t a response to fake news (which is a false story put out to achieve some agenda) per se. Such episodes do exploit the same emotional reactions that fake news is often designed to evoke.

And so alternative facts/fake news are hardly a recent invention, and recent invocations about crowd sizes or job creation numbers are certainly some the most innocuous applications of such misdirection. But it is clear that the creation of-and widespread belief in-false stories are tied to a lot of human misery. We all need to be on guard against emotionally satisfying (but untrue) stories that lead us to beliefs that are untrue and lead us to actions that are immoral or counterproductive.

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