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Skills of Selection PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Jamy Ian Swiss   

In the days since Thanksgiving, perhaps you’ve heard the tale of “Diane in 7A,” a story first tweeted in installments on Thanksgiving day by television producer Evan Gale of “The Bachelor.” The tale was told, according to him, of an obnoxious airline passenger who shared a flight he was on, who was rude to the airline staff and complained noisily about delays and the importance of reaching her destination on Thanksgiving, as if nobody else shared similar pressures.

According to Gale, he began by hand-delivering to her a couple of small bottles of vodka, and then continued a dialogue of sorts by sending notes to her – they were not in adjacent seats – written on cocktail coasters. This then turned into a contest of words, with both the woman and Gale becoming increasingly obnoxious. When they eventually encountered one another in the course of exiting the flight, she slapped him.

The story was covered in various news outlets, including this piece on Huffington Post.

HuffPo concluded its report by hailing Gale: “Elan, you are our Thanksgiving hero.” My take on the original version of the story is that he turned out to be as much of a jerk as the woman he was complaining about. It’s one thing to send someone a gift or a note to try to alter their situation. But it’s not much different than dealing with Internet trolls: if you get garbage back, walk away. Turn it off. If you’re trapped on a plane with an obnoxious lunatic, and the only choice you can think of making is to do battle in similar terms, you’re an idiot. Put on your headphones and turn up the volume.

But the story gets better – or it turns out, worse. We now know that the story was a “ruse” or a “hoax,” as many media outlets have termed it. Or, as I prefer to call it, a fiction told by a liar.

My exceedingly low opinion of Mr. Gale aside, an excellent commentary about these events subsequently appeared on the NPR blog, written by Linda Holmes, which includes several elements particularly worthy of attention from skeptics.

Of course, the first such element is the fact that both the media and the public should be a bit more careful before accepting, much less circulating and thereby confirming and promoting, stories that warrant reasonable skepticism. For the public in general and skeptics alike, it’s always wise to try to confirm such stories by consulting rational resources like the Skeptics Dictionary (skeptic.com), and the urban legends reference site, Snopes.com. I will add also that if the subject involves anything medical, I highly recommend visiting  http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/. It could save a lot of aggravation, and perhaps, even save a life.

Of course, falling for Internet fiction is nothing new. In the 1990s, the late Pierre Salinger, formerly press secretary to President John F. Kennedy, garnered headlines and humiliation for going public with the claim that he possessed reliable proof that TWA flight 800 had been shot down in 1996 by a U.S. Navy missile, a claim still supported by some conspiracy theorists today, and promoted in a recently released documentary, despite overwhelming evidence established by the NTSA that an electrical spark led to a fuel tank explosion that brought down the plane.

A subsequent urban myth that became attached to the tale recounted that Salinger had come across his “evidence” in a story on the Internet. In fact, he had been forwarded a discredited document, via email, by a retired pilot and crash investigator, Richard Russell, who in turn insisted that the claim about the missile had been provided to him by someone who had attended a high level government meeting on the subject. Thanks to the version that attributed the Internet as Salinger’s source, the story led to the phrase “Pierre Salinger Syndrome” coming to mean someone who is credulous when obtaining information from the Internet.

Whether Salinger was an innocent dupe or a determined fool, his was an early case in the annals of a phenomenon we see virtually daily in our Facebook and Twitter feeds, blogs and podcasts. The problem is clear; the solutions sometimes murky. There will always be some who say that the problem amounts to “too much information,” but the value of such a diagnosis may be quickly judged, in my estimation, by the fact that “too much information” is invariably a claim of churches and despots, who recognize that information of the reliable sort is the enemy of their power.

Rather I would say that that in an Age of Information, what are required are skills of selection. I wish my children were being taught an elementary school class about how to judge the quality and caliber of information they encounter in the world. It’s a critically important skill set and one related to science in particular and living life in general. And it’s an important ability and priority for skeptics.

Which brings me back to the NPR piece, which was topped by this headline: “Little Ditty About Lackin' Diane: Hug A Skeptic Today.”

I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s the best news of the story, and great news at that! I propose that “Hug a skeptic today” reflects a significant cultural victory for our movement, one that values skeptics and portrays us in a positive light, while also assuming that readers actually recognize what the label itself means. In the body of the piece, the writer goes on to say, “I am begging you: if you can't be a skeptic about stories that circulate on the internet, at least become friends with one and hug him or her tight to you, because they will save you from spending a lot of time rejoicing in the schadenfreude dished out by a TV producer who could literally have had an entire bucket of turkey innards poured on his head by a very real Diane and still arguably deserve, in a cosmic sense, far more comeuppance than she did.”

And so, let’s all celebrate the fact that in the aftermath of a lousy story perpetrated by lousy journalists, somewhere in the world a skeptic is being hugged today.

 

Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org