On the Misinformed

When lies make us stupid.

Mark Twain Quote

This morning, a typical quote + image meme appeared in my Twitter stream, shared by @Phillipdpl1974. The illustrious person in the photograph who was being quoted was none other than my favorite author of all time, Mark Twain.

The quote hit hard, primarily because of the events of the night before, which I’ll get to in a moment. It said:

It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.

Later in the day, while surfing Facebook, my friend Stewart shared a link to an article on Five Thirty Eight titled “Trump Supporters Appear To Be Misinformed, Not Uninformed.” It also hit hard because of the previous night’s events.

What Happened Last Night

It started innocently enough. I’d mentioned to my two companions — we’ll call them Sally and Joe — that I’d talked to guy at the concealed weapons permit booth at Quartzite. They were both familiar with him and both seemed to agree that the guy was a jerk. I told them that in the course of our discussion, he’d insinuated that California was not part of the United States. He apparently thought that was funny. But with all the NRA signage around his booth and his obvious close-minded, anti-liberal attitude, I didn’t think it was funny at all and let him know before turning my back on him and walking away. (In all honesty, the NRA signage was enough to prevent me from spending any money at all at his booth.)

My discussion last night with my friends naturally segued to the topic of the President’s recent executive orders related to gun controls, specifically those new rules for background checks. Joe immediately got testy. He said he didn’t understand why the president was making laws that already existed. When Sally and I asked him what he meant, he told us that background checks were already required for all gun purchases.

Sally reminded him that he’d bought a gun in Arizona at a gunshow and no background check had been required. I told them my wasband had done the same thing.

“When was that?” Joe demanded? “Twenty years ago?”

We admitted that it had been quite a while ago but that we didn’t think the laws had changed. Joe insisted that background checks were required in all states for all gun purchases. The discussion elevated to shouting, which really surprised me. Already yelled at by Joe for interrupting him “all the time,” I shut up.

While Sally and Joe continued arguing, I pulled out my phone and Googled, “In which states can I buy a gun without a background check?” Then, when there was a gap in the shouting match, I began to read:

Eight states require background checks at the point of sale for all —

Joe cut me off. “Where does it say that?”

“Wikipedia,” I replied.

“Oh, Wikipedia,” Joe responded in a tone of voice that made it clear he thought I was an idiot for relying on anything I read there.

I clicked another link. This one displayed the Gun Show background Checks State Laws page on Governing.com. I mistakenly identified it as “a government website,” but I still believe the information there is accurate. I read:

Known as the “gun show loophole,” most states do not require background checks for firearms purchased at guns shows from private individuals — federal law only requires licensed dealers to conduct checks.

I held up the phone to show him a map with states colored depending on whether they required background checks for all gun purchases, including gun shows and private sales.

“It’s on the Internet,” Joe said sarcastically. “It must be true.” He then started a rant about how you couldn’t believe anything you read in the media.

I told him that some sources were definitely better than others.

He asked me where I got my information from.

“NPR, PBS, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post. These are all pretty reliable as far as facts go.” (If asked again today, I’d add the Economist, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, BBC World News, and the Guardian.) I know better than to trust far right or far left media sources like FoxNews or Mother Jones.

He then went off on another tangent related to whether it was legal for felons to buy guns. Sally and I said no.

“So in these states where there’s no background check required, it’s legal for felons to buy guns?”

“No,” we both repeated.

“But can they buy guns?”

“Yes,” I said. “Because they can lie because there’s no background check. That’s the point. The background check would help prevent people who shouldn’t buy guns from buying guns. That’s why Obama made the executive order.”

Joe responded by telling us that he didn’t trust the president. That shocked the hell out of Sally and me. While Sally continued arguing with Joe, I took a huge step back, out of the conversation. I knew then that Joe was a lost cause.

Life’s just too short to argue wait people who can’t form their own opinions based on facts.

Oh, and I should mention that what I reported above is only part of a much longer, very angry conversation about laws, guns, truth, the media, and the president. Honestly, it went on a lot longer than it should have.

The Misinformed

This morning, after reading the Five Thirty Eight piece Stew shared, I realized that my friend Joe had become one of the misinformed.

We all get crap shared by our Facebook friends — crap pushing one opinion or another, often through the use of misleading or inaccurate data, charts, quotes, or statements. A lot of it is hateful or even racist. I’ve seen some pretty bad stuff and, in most cases, I simply stop following or even “unfriend” the person who shared it. I’ve blocked more than a handful of friends of friends who share inappropriate comments on my public posts. I have zero tolerance for hate.

Some of us get angry when we get crap we don’t agree with but cling to the crap we do agree with. Others disregard the obviously misleading crap — “Obama is a Muslim” or “Syrian refugees are part of a terrorist sleeper cell” — and spend time researching the crap that might just be true. Nine times out of ten, that “might be true” crap turns out to be just as wrong as the rest of it. But that one time it isn’t — well, then we can learn from it.

My friend Joe was from the first camp. He got a lot of crap from people who thought like he did — Sally confirmed this suspicion later that night — and he believed it. Yet ironically, he claimed that you couldn’t believe anything on the Internet.

How could you argue with someone like that?

The Five Thirty Eight piece discusses the differences between uniformed and misinformed people:

Uninformed citizens don’t have any information at all, while those who are misinformed have information that conflicts with the best evidence and expert opinion…. In the U.S., the most misinformed citizens tend to be the most confident in their views and are also the strongest partisans. These folks fill the gaps in their knowledge base by using their existing belief systems. Once these inferences are stored into memory, they become “indistinguishable from hard data”…

… When misinformed citizens are told that their facts are wrong, they often cling to their opinions even more strongly with what is known as defensive processing, or the “backfire effect.”

The article goes on to discuss various studies and actual examples of the use of misinformation as a way to more firmly connect with supporters. It’s not a very long piece, but it’s a fascinating look at psychology. I highly recommend it.

How Lies Make Us Do Stupid Things

If we believe things that aren’t true, we form opinions based on that misinformation. Those opinions can guide actions. If we follow a course of action based on bad information, we run the risk of following a bad course of action.

There’s a pretty good example of this from my own life. My wasband somehow got the idea that he had a legal claim to everything I owned, despite the fact that I’d acquired most of it before marriage and through my own efforts. He firmly believed that he was entitled to half of everything and, for the life of me, I can’t understand why his lawyers didn’t set him straight. Or maybe they tried and he refused to believe them. His misinformed belief caused him to launch a lengthy and expensive divorce battle that he eventually lost. Still believing he was right, he couldn’t accept that loss and appealed the judge’s decision, thus launching another lengthy and expensive court battle that he also lost. Clearly, his belief in incorrect information cost him a lot of money that would have been better spent rebuilding his life with the woman who likely misinformed him and goaded him to going after my money in the first place. (Talk about irony.)

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, who was then a medical doctor in the U.K., published a fraudulent research paper that linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. It was later discovered that the patients in his study were recruited by lawyers suing MMR vaccine makers and that those lawyers had paid both Wakefield and the hospital he worked for large sums of money. Further, Wakefield had applied for a patent on a measles vaccine to be used instead of the MMR vaccine; discrediting that vaccine would certainly benefit him financially. All of these situations were a huge conflict of interest for his research paper and probably explain his motivations for committing the fraud. The report was formally withdrawn in 2010 but the damage of his misinformation was already done: a huge group of people believed — and continue to believe — the now debunked results of his research. Although there is no link between the MMR vaccine — or any other vaccine — and autism, an alarming percentage of parents around the world refuse to vaccinate their children. The result: thousands of deaths and illnesses that could have been prevented by vaccines.

Nowadays, we’re seeing opinions based on misinformation dividing Americans and filling them with hate. These people are voters and many support candidates such as Donald Trump who, in the words of the Five Thirty Eight piece’s author, Anne Pluta, “has a consistently loose relationship with the truth.” This is a man who has made many public derogatory remarks about women, wants to discriminate against people based on their religion, and claims he’ll get a foreign government to pay for the cost of a border wall that is impossible to build. He’s a narcissist with a crass personality who makes the American people look like idiots in the eyes of the world every time he opens his mouth. Very little this man says is true, but the misinformed believe him and eat up every word he utters. I think it’s safe to say that the action they might take — actually voting for this man to be our president — is a foolish one.

My friend Joe’s concerns about trusting the media aren’t outrageous. There are many, many media sources that I can’t trust to present facts that are not tainted by opinion. I already mentioned two of them — FoxNews on the far right and Mother Jones on the far left. These two media outlets present opinions supported by cherry-picked “facts” and quotes often taken out of context. But they’re only two of the thousands of sources people — including voters trying to stay informed — trust every day.

What’s the solution? If you can’t find a truly objective source of factual information, there isn’t one.

I’ve got to think that it’s better to be uninformed than misinformed.

Stirring Emotions with Misleading Headlines and Photos

I’m sick of people sharing misleading information on social media.

The other day, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to an online petition on a site called Sum of Us. I won’t share the link, but here’s the top of the page:

Petition
This petition’s page is over the top when it comes to using misleading information to stir emotions.

When I saw the image at the top of the page, my immediate reaction was, “The Havasupai are building a mall?”

You see, the photo shows Havasu Falls, which is just down Havasu Creek from Supai, a tiny village on the Havasupai reservation inside the Grand Canyon. Supai is so remote that you can only get there three ways: on foot, by horse/mule, or by helicopter. There are no roads leading down to Supai. Because of this, it gets relatively few visitors — perhaps a 100 a day during peak summer tourism months. It’s widely known for it beautiful blue waters, waterfalls, and travertine rock formations. I’ve been down there three times and feel very privileged.

The idea of Supai having a “super mall” is absurd, so I clicked through to see what it was all about.

Apparently, I’m the only one seeing this post on Facebook who doubted the veracity of the headline/photo combination. Most of the people who saw it shared comments voicing their outrage that such a beautiful place should be ruined and assured the rest of us that they’d signed the petition.

Of course, the real story didn’t have anything to do with the Havasupai land in the Grand Canyon — which, by the way, is outside park boundaries. It was about the Navajo land on the east side of the Grand Canyon and a proposal to build a tourist attraction near the confluence of the Little Colorado River and Colorado River. These two sites are a full 50 miles apart as the crow flies.

Locations
The beautiful waterfall in the photo is 50 miles away from the actual confluence of the two rivers. On this map, green represents actual park land.

The leading paragraph spread more misleading information; they added the emphasis, not me:

Property developers want to build a super-mall smack dab in the middle of one of America’s most breath-taking world heritage sites, the Grand Canyon. The mall would include an IMAX, shops, hotels and fast food cafes. The National Park Service has called the plans ‘a travesty’.

I don’t know about you, but “smack, dab in the middle” should be somewhere near the middle of something — not on the far east end of it. As the map above shows, this development won’t be anywhere near the middle of the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is mind-bogglingly huge: 1.2 million acres or 1,904 square miles — that’s bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island. A development at the Confluence won’t be visible from the South Rim, which hosts at least 90% of the park’s visitors — many of whom spend less than an hour looking at the canyon — or the North Rim.

Grand Canyon Map
Here’s the big picture. Grand Canyon National Park is pink; Native American reservations are purple. You can download the whole map as a PDF. Note that there is a dispute over the exact location of the border between park and Navajo lands that would affect the ability of developers to move forward.

The truth about this story is that developers want to build a tourist attraction on the rim of the Grand Canyon inside the Navajo reservation. It would include shops, hotels, and a tram to the bottom of the canyon so people could actually access a part of the canyon that’s currently limited to hearty hikers, river runners, and mule riders — a tiny fraction of the park’s visitors. This isn’t too different from what the Hualapai have done on the west end with their Grand Canyon Skywalk or what the Navajo have done in Monument Valley with The View Hotel.

And maybe I should remind people that National Park Service concessionaires already manage six hotels (El Tovar Hotel, Bright Angel Lodge, Maswick Lodge, Yavapai Lodge, Katchina Lodge, and Grand Canyon Lodge) and well over a dozen gift shops on the rim of the Grand Canyon, inside the park. And a hotel at the bottom of the Grand Canyon (Phantom Ranch).

So what this petition page has done is used a photo of a beautiful waterfall that was shot 50 miles away, coupled it with a headline referring to a super mall, and led with an untrue statement regarding development in the middle of the Grand Canyon. Someone who doesn’t know the facts and relies on the information on this page might think there’s going to be a giant mall ruining the vistas at one of the world’s natural wonders.

So people sign. They provide their names and email addresses. Those addresses are likely harvested for use in other slactivism efforts. They’re likely followed up with pleas for donations to support the cause.

And people share the link to the misleading information, getting their friends to sign up, too.

And people talk about the “problem,” using the misleading information they read — if they bothered to get past the photo and first paragraph.

And this pisses me off to no end.

Now please don’t think that I’m in favor of more development at the Grand Canyon. I’m not. But I am in favor of Native American people being able to develop their land in ways that economically benefit them. I’m very familiar with the Navajo people, having spent quite a bit of time on and over the reservation. There are social problems including poverty, obesity (and related health issues), and alcohol abuse. Young people are leaving the reservation for better opportunities elsewhere. The native language — which was instrumental in our World War II communication efforts — and culture are being lost. If the Navajo people vote in favor of a project like this on their own land, I don’t see any reason why we should stop them. It would give them jobs, bring more tourists and tourism dollars to their part of the canyon, and help their economy.

Again, the Hualapai did this at Grand Canyon West and no one seemed to care. Why care about this now?

Oh, yeah. “Smack dab in the middle.”

My advice to people reading petitions like this: get informed before you let the authors manipulate your emotions to get the response they want. Don’t share misleading information.

We all know how difficult it is to find the truth on the Internet — and the problem is getting worse every day. Don’t be part of the problem. Don’t share information unless you know it’s accurate.

30 Years Ago Today

Half a lifetime ago.

On September 10, 1984, the man I loved asked me to marry him.

He got down on one knee in the apartment we shared in Bayside, Queens, and presented me with a diamond ring that we’d chosen together in New York a few days before. I said yes.

At first, we were like any other newly engaged couple. There were announcements — printed, if I recall — and even gifts. I seem to recall a party at in his parent’s backyard.

I don’t remember actually planning the wedding, though — nothing beyond vague ideas about an outdoor ceremony. There didn’t seem any reason to rush into it. We already lived together and things were fine. I didn’t want children yet — as it turned out, I never wanted children.

And then I started having second thoughts.

You see, I believe that marriage should be a forever thing. After all, you take vows, whether those vows are before God or a judge. When I vow to do something, I mean to do it. “Until death do us part” actually means something to me. It means forever.

And I wasn’t sure I wanted to be with this man forever. Things just weren’t quite good enough for me to make that commitment.

Still, we stuck together for years. Our relationship had its ups and downs. My biggest complaint was his habit of belittling me in front of family and friends. When we were alone together, things were usually okay. But when we were with others, he said things to me or about me that made me look stupid or foolish in front of them. It hurt me.

In the beginning, I didn’t say much to him about it. But later, as I matured and gained self-confidence, it led to huge arguments.

For a while, I stopped wearing my ring.

When I decided I wanted to move to Arizona in the late 1990s, I gave him the option of staying behind. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him — I did. But I wasn’t willing to commit to marriage and I didn’t think it was fair for him to give up his life in the New York Metro area for me. But he apparently didn’t see it that way. Despite the way he treated me, he apparently loved me enough to come west with me and build a life together there.

Horses
Here we are not long after moving to Arizona. I’m holding Misty, my first horse, and he’s holding Jake, the horse I bought for him so we could ride together. My dog Spot was showing his age in this shot.

We had a great life in Arizona — at least at first. We both worked out of our home and spend most of our time together. We’d take breaks during the day to run errands in town or go horseback riding. Our friends back east told us it was like we were living on vacation.

But then things changed. He left his job in New Jersey — he had been telecommuting since we moved — and tried to start an HVAC consulting business. And a solar business. Neither of them got off the ground. I gave him a do-nothing job working at the local airport for my company, making twice what my other employees were making, and he lasted less than a week. He got a job in Phoenix instead; that meant long hours in the car, commuting 70 miles each way.

I started building my helicopter charter business. He promised me that when he turned 55, he’d join me on the road half the year with the helicopter. He even learned to fly it so he wouldn’t be stuck driving the truck and trailer all the time when we traveled.

And then, due to a series of unfortunate circumstances that didn’t give me much of a choice, I married him. We’d been engaged 23 years and it looked like we were halfway to forever. If we hadn’t split yet, surely we wouldn’t.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Everything started falling apart after that. He bought a condo in Phoenix and lived there during the week with a roommate who didn’t like me and made me feel uncomfortable when I was there. I started going to Washington in the summer for cherry drying work. I still thought he’d remember and keep his promise, so I kept building my business so it would support both of us.

But I don’t think he ever intended to keep his promise. When I reminded him in 2011, he made an excuse about having to keep working to save up for retirement. I thought that if I waited patiently, he’d come around. After all, I was obviously enjoying the freedom of the lifestyle I’d built for myself. Surely he’d want the same thing.

Wrong again.

Things got rough in early 2012 and we went to a marriage counsellor who advised us to talk things out. But he never seemed ready to have that conversation, no matter how hard I tried to start it.

Just a week after I left for the summer in 2012, he signed up for a membership on Chemistry.com. While he was making tentative plans with me on the phone to spend the summer with me in Washington, he was dating other women in Arizona. He met the woman he lives with now — a desperate old whore eight years older than him who seduced him with 30-year-old lingerie photos of herself — only a month after I left for the summer. A month after that, on my birthday, he called and told me he wanted a divorce.

What followed was a series of nasty, vindictive actions and lies — including lies under oath in court — that left me reeling. I’ve covered so much of the bullshit surrounding my divorce in this blog — just follow the divorce tag. There’s more to come. His crap never ends.

Who was this man? I don’t know.

But it certainly isn’t the man who asked me to marry him 30 years ago today. That man is dead.