Isn’t Receptivity for Fake News in Our Genes?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 29, 2016

When we are very young our parents convince us to believe in Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy and The Easter Bunny. We grow up believing in Super Heroes, Harry Potter like magic, and far out science fictional ideas. We are taken to churches and taught to believe in Jesus, God, angels, heaven, hell and eternal life. All of these beliefs are easily disproved with a good education. And when we want to keep these fantasies rather than accept reality, we learn denialism. Even our favorite adult art forms – television, movies and novels depend on us suspending rational thinking to enjoy.

Orson WellesWe are conditioned to believe in fantasies. Most people aren’t atheists because they can’t throw off their childhood brainwashing even when there’s amble evidence. And all the fantastic ideas we embrace are so much more appealing than the cold facts of reality. Is it any wonder we find it easier to rationalize what we want than to be rational thinkers able to discern fake news from validated facts? Homo sapiens aren’t rational creatures, but rationalizing ones.

Strangely, fake news is in the news like its something new. The Onion and Saturday Night Live have been doing fake news for decades (1988, 1975). Tabloids go back much further, but even the earliest of newspapers played fast and loose in their reporting. It’s also well established that first person testimony is unreliable. We all live in a sea of lies, so is it such a surprise we can’t tell shit from Shinola?

The Bible is promoted as the literal word of God by many, yet it only takes reading the book itself to reveal it was written by all too human people, expressing widely divergent opinions and philosophies, using different writing styles and points-of-views, and often showing contradictions and inconsistencies. And scholars of history, who study The Bible in-depth, have found parts of it to be fake history. Many books of The Old Testament appear to have been written to pre-date land claims in building of an ancient nation. And books in the New Testament were forged to shape Christian theology based on personal bias. To compound the many false aspects of The Bible, many thousands of books have been written to rationalize those falsities. Anyone who reads The Bible should at least get a scholarly study Bible, like The New Oxford Annotated Bible, and read what experts have to say along with the currently best translation of the oldest biblical texts we have. It would also help to read books about the history of The Bible before starting any serious Bible study, such as The Bible Unearthed or Who Wrote the Bible? to give a historical context why the The Bible was originally written, and by who. But we don’t do that, do we? We just embrace the good bits, using them to justify our current beliefs and wants, claiming “God” an an authority.

And remember that saying, “History is written by the victors,” that’s just the start of the distortion. Anyone who wants to shape current thought can write a history book. And the news media can say anything about history, as well as artists. Just look at JFK by Oliver Stone. Everyone thinks they know the truth. But reality is Rashomon 24×7. Truth is extremely elusive, unless you understand science, math and statistics, and only then it’s the best truth we can find at the moment.

How to deal with fake news is the talking-head topic of the month. Most discussions are about how to ban fake news, yet I can’t imagine a world where we can trust what we read, hear and see. Will we ban satire? Obviously we won’t ban lying politicians. Should churches have to prove the existence of eternal life before collecting tithes? Shouldn’t fantasy fiction come with the warning “Magic Does Not Exist” printed on the spine?

Fake news isn’t just those weird stories you see on Facebook. Fake news is any information you use to understand reality. I include religion because gospel means the good news. We assume its true, but isn’t it fake news too? Gossip can also be considered fake news, since it’s usually distorted. When it comes to spotting fake news, we’re piss-poor judges, and it’s everywhere.

To abolish fake news would require programming our kids to become hyperaware of lying, to think skeptically, distrust the media, history books, social institutions and other people, and carefully evaluate everything they read, see, or hear. We need to educate them about science, logic, philosophy, ethics, authority, evidence, scholarship and statistics. We’d have a wiser society if folks studied statistics and data mining every Sunday instead of going to church.

But will any of this ever happen? Didn’t Donald Trump win because of anti-intellectualism, denialism, fake news, unethicality, and mob rule social media? Doesn’t his success endorse its efficacy? Isn’t fake news an effective tool in the fight against science and enlightenment politics? Didn’t orthodox Christianity suppress liberal Christianity in the first three centuries of the common era with the same tactics? George Orwell’s classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four illustrated perfectly the value controlling the news. Aren’t the institutions of news always the first things revolutionaries take over in revolutions? Haven’t conservatives succeeded amazingly well with Fox News? Fake news is too effective to give up, especially if your objective is to get votes, change laws, or demolish reputations.

I’d like to believe we could change things for the better, but when I read history I’m not sure I see any signs of progress. I’d like to believe the pendulum swings back and forth between conservative and liberal eras, and overall we’re becoming more liberal over time. But that might be like climate change deniers taking tiny segments of temperature histories to claim a cooling trend, while ignoring the larger trend on the graph. Reading books like Collapsed by Jared Diamond suggests we don’t change. Our species has been extremely stable for a couple hundred thousand years. Evolution produces species that adapt to their environment, and we have adapted very well. But we have adapted because of the selfishness of individuals. We have not adapted because of liberal ideals. Fake news benefits the survival of the fittest individuals, not groups.


7 thoughts on “Isn’t Receptivity for Fake News in Our Genes?”

  1. Hi James

    I enjoyed your post. John Romer did a good program on the Bible called Testament: the Bible and History. I am intrigued by the Oxford Bible you mentioned and might give it a try after I recover from a pre-Christmas spending surge. (One present for them and since I am ordering one for me) And I see no sign we will take the trouble to behave rationally. Sigh!


    1. Guy, The Annotated Oxford Bible is over 2000 pages. I got the Kindle edition because I hate holding heavy books, but I want to warn people about the ebook edition. It takes a big hi-rez screen to read it easily because the pages are photos of the print edition. You can’t resize the font, just magnify the page. I’m near-sighted so I can read small print. I can even read it on my phone turned sideways, but the font is small. It’s better to read the Kindle version on a computer, where you can really blow it up. I’ve just started reading it and consider it a magnificent work. It’s dense, but the scholarship is impressive. It will take me years to read. You can get a feel for it by reading the sample at the Amazon site. (If you want an annotated Bible to read on the phone, Lumina is free, and is a NET translation. I’d prefer NRSV, but haven’t found a free book version of that.)

      I found a book by John Romer called Testament: The Bible and History, but not a documentary, at least not at Amazon. Where did you see it?

  2. There is no such thing as “fake” news, any more than a lamb bleating in fear is lying to it’s flock. Putting faith into believing that the lamb’s fear is reality has some possible benefit for that same flock. Sometimes.

    Oh Lord, in just a few paragraphs you call into question almost all of the dearest beliefs of Western Civilization. And you even list sources that would both support your argument and stand against it. (Please pardon the religious intro).
    However many Angels can dance on the pin is not a real argument. Nor is reference to specific tales told in The Bible. What is true is the stories and tales told of and by itinerant and tribal peoples in the Middle East during “pre-civilization” times. Those tales were true enough to survive over time because they provided a benefit to the flock. There is sufficient archaeological evidence to support their existence, even if not supported by the many and various biblical sources. What has been left by them for us to understand is…stories.

    The Word of God is something that we assume (in various flavors and attitudes) even though we now know that the Word as believed over time is not necessarily that which was received 2000 years ago. The Council of Nicea took care of that minor issue, and was soon followed by many other helpful “clarifications” of both writ and belief. The fact that some individuals benefited greatly by those clarifications of The Word is no doubt an inference for our current times.

    Human beings may well be the most advanced civilization on our planet, but that does not mean we are God’s Chosen. We do like to think that, and have murdered entire civilizations in order to preserve that belief. It is very difficult to see our planet’s human civilizations in any other light if we truly look for understanding. Unless we consider insects, and ants in particular. Should they ever accept Christ as their personal (and species-based) savior we are toast.

    Attempting to put into this perspective the behavior and attitudes of the 21st Century civilization is a laudable effort, but it must and can only fail. Individuals are intelligent, and can occasionally influence the masses. But in the long run, John Brunner was right; if The Sheep Don’t Look Up, then the game is already written and scored.

    And I fear that the few of us who consider that fact and discuss it here are not going to change a thing.

    1. Jim, I think it’s a matter of perspective. If our assumption is creation started with God, then understanding our place in creation means figuring out what God wants. If our assumption is humans are a byproduct of random evolution and we exist in a multiverse without intent, then we have to find our own meaning. I believe The Bible was written by people seeking their own purpose and some of them used the idea of God to back their desires. I believe the people who wrote the Hebrew bible were primarily concerned with building a nation and creating an ethnicity, and accidently created monotheism in the process. I believe the people who wrote The New Testament had a different agenda. They created a new form of afterlife to sell. Both books were meant to reform society. However, The Old Testament was for one group of people, excluding all others, and the second was for all people.

      It’s interesting to contrast the two. The old worked to convince people to live by laws so life would be better on Earth, and the second was all about believing in a life after death, which essentially rejects this world.

      I find exploring how to live in this world the more interesting discussion. Since I don’t believe in looking up, it’s up to us to decide the rules for living. Fake news and fake history shouldn’t be part of it.

  3. Hi James

    I think we saw Testament on PBS. they also ran his series the Tomb Builders in Egypt which was delightful. I notice Testament is on youtube, probably not a great copy but I have not watched it. I have bought the book as well but have only skimmed it. Thanks for the tip about the Oxford Bible, I did intend to get a paper copy, I am pretty old school. I can keep it next to the bed with my clunky copies of Dante’s Comedy, my Dad’s copy of the New Testament he was given when he joined the Navy in WWII ( Interesting concept ) etc. I will look at the sample on Amazon. I have enjoyed reading the comments around this post. The issues of faith vs science and how they inform both our lives and actions are all around us and they certainly deserve thought.

    Happy Reading

  4. People tend to hear what they want to hear. We have friends who only watch FOX NEWS and live in that Reality. We listen to NPR, watch PBS and MSNBC, and read a dozen newspapers and magazines. As you would suspect, our opinions differ.

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