“Every science is made up entirely of anomalies rearranged to fit” – R. A. Lafferty
Every Tom, Dick, and Harriet with a word processor is talking about the “Fake News” phenomena these days. I’m sort of feeling left out. The increased use of the term “Fake News” in the popular parlance is a conveniently ambiguous way to refer to the vast amount of content floating out there in the infosphere that is unambiguously false, yet examined as if it had an independent reality. The earth isn’t flat. The sun will rise tomorrow. Dinosaurs and humans never crossed paths. Meryl Streep is a pretty good actress.
Yet as of late, a great deal of credence has been given to the impact of Fake News on politics and society, generally attributed to widespread use of social media as a vehicle of transmission. Really, we can trace the trends that brought us here to the advent of 24-hour news. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of interesting things going on in the world that could fill up a full day worth of straight reporting, it’s just that humans have always had a short attention span. We can only concern ourselves with so many facets of our world at a time. This led to the replacement of “news”, with “news analysis”. Experts must be consulted, debates must be had, and responses are demanded, and this led to a compartmentalization of news outlets into ideological platforms where we could talk about “alternate facts” with a straight face, and breaking news is announced each time a reporter says, “I done had heard…”.
There is a lot of breast-beating and rending of garments in the modern mainstream media over fake news, as it casts a pall on all news outlets who have been “making news” ever since they invented the printing press. The trivial can be made to seem of great import, or proposed as representative of the human condition. This is nothing new. Of deeper concern is “staged news”, fake or otherwise that is generated with social purpose, to muddy the waters, to distract, to play on emotions, to cast doubt, or to motivate to action. That’s what we call propaganda, and it is being generated at a furious pace these days. I’m sometimes stunned at the lack of faith in humanity evinced by our intellectual luminaries. There are certainly people who are stupid. There are people who are crazy. There are people with strange beliefs. By and large, the vast multitudes of humanity live by common sense and are just trying to get by. Many folks are willing to indulge in conspiracy theories, mostly because we have all been lied to by our parents, our schools, our governments, and our leaders so many times, it’s not hard to imagine that an effort is being made to manipulate us. Basically, we believe in conspiracies because there have been so many conspiracies. We’re just playing the odds.
When it comes to the world of strange phenomena and anomalistics, the recent upsurge in discussion of fake news is the “gift that keeps on giving” for the professional skeptics out there. They get to promote an “I told you so…” ethos that validates them as philosophically and analytically on the cutting edge, and they have hurried to conflate alternate facts with alternate viewpoints, or reasoned interpretations that differ from the accepted canon.
I admit that I trawl skeptic websites looking for ways to be annoying. Everyone needs a hobby. What I’ve noticed is that they’ve largely seized upon the notion of “fake news” with glee, and worked hard to apply it to those topics which they hold near and dear, or rather, those perennial whipping boys that can be used to demonstrate some sort of intellectual superiority through their presumed use of scientific epistemology as the end all and be all of unreflective methodology for inquiry into the universe, ignoring the central philosophical problem of direct realism vs. representationalism. Sudden public interest in “Fake News” is a “gotcha” moment for skeptics, who can now lump all those pesky anomalies that are discussed on the web into the cultural milieu that brought us Pizzagate. Given the state of world affairs today, this makes the anomalist not just wrong, but dangerous. An enemy of the self-appointed intellectual state. And it makes the skeptics positively giddy.
Of course, this is what is commonly referred to as Schadenfreude, that is pleasure derived from the misfortune of others, which has largely been a hallmark of orthodox skepticism when it comes to strange phenomena, but has never garnered such widespread acceptance as it has with the current concern over fake news. Now that all the weird news and strange phenomena organs out there in the universe can be comfortably lumped under the recognizable, yet vaguely defined category of “fake news”, one also sees the equation of all manner of inquiry into those verboten subjects that so irk the skeptic directly to the political climate of the day. Now, I’m not embracing every nutty notion out there, just remarking on the absolute relish with which the professional skeptics are now levelling criticism of the strange phenomena, alternate history, and folklore curious as (1) insidious activities designed to make money – which is the equivalent of criticizing someone else’s hustle because that’s your hustle, and (2) a deliberate and concerted attempt to suggest that the same people who take an interest in extraterrestrials, Bigfoot, Atlantis, ancient aliens, and all manner of critters and concepts that lurk about the margins of our consciousness, are the ones who sit in the trailer parks and uncritically digest any lie promulgated by social media.
Sadly, this is just another species of one-upsmanship, a criticism of the willingness of individuals to entertain the meaning of lines of thought that are considered outside the mainstream, and the manifestation of this is in the absolute jubilation applied in criticisms that equate our current state of political affairs with the explosion of “fake news”. Strangely, such behavior is often couched as “humanism”, an odd appellation given that the primary goal of skepticism seems to laud one’s own sensibility vs. the susceptibility of the common man to any idea that comes our way. Arthur Schopenhauer characterized it best when he said, “”To feel envy is human, to savor schadenfreude is diabolic”.