On Sunday December 4, 2016 Edgar Maddison Welch entered the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. armed with a Colt AR-15 assault rifle, a .38-calibre Colt revolver and a folding knife, and spent 45 minutes searching for underground vaults and hidden rooms. Fortunately, no one was hurt although he did fire a couple of shots during his investigation.
Why did he do this?
Because he had fallen for a completely bogus “news” story that had proliferated on social media in recent weeks – a conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign chair had been running a child sex ring in the basement of Comet (the place doesn’t even have a basement). He was not the only person who had targeted the poor restaurant over this nonsense (far from it), just the most extreme.
For some truly chilling reading, check out the hashtag #Pizzagate on Twitter, where you will see reams and reams of comments from an astonishing number of people who believe this lunacy, or felt it warranted consideration, and who said things like – I’m waiting for proof that Clinton did NOT commit these acts. That sentiment is horrifying; in a civilized society the onus of proof is on the accuser, not the accused.
I bring this up, Pal as just one example of why I am scared right now, and why we should all be scared. We are living in a time when facts, rational thinking and objective truth are less important than they used to be. There have always been people who are largely oblivious to reality, of course – and Pizzagate is an extreme example – but on Nov. 8 we all received a shocking bit of news that suggests these people have far more influence than we might have thought.
Yes, I am referring to the election of Donald Trump, who officially takes over the White House in just under a month. This phenomenon is not strictly about him, but his triumph in the 2016 U.S. election certainly brought the scope of the problem to the fore.
Trump lied constantly during the campaign and, in the end, was rewarded for it. His disregard for the truth was so striking that newspapers made games out of counting his lies. According the Toronto Star, who fact-checked his every statement from mid-September to early November 2016, he spewed 560 things that weren’t true (about 20 per day). A sampling:
- Canadian health care is a disaster in terms of cost
- The U.S. is the highest taxed nation in the world
- Clinton hired thugs to go to Trump rallies and beat people up
- There is no economic growth in the U.S.
Yes, Clinton lied too but Trump took it to a whole new level (104 to 13 during presidential debates). As quoted in the Star: “He lies strategically. He lies pointlessly. He lies about important things and meaningless things. Above all, he lies frequently.”
And, to repeat, he was rewarded for it.
The President-Elect also doesn’t hold much stock in science. He has said that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese to hurt U.S. business. And he’s an anti-vaxxer, as this tweet shows:
Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 28, 2014
When the President of the United States thinks like this, it will empower and embolden anyone and everyone who is inclined to ignore mountains of scientific evidence in favour of what feels right to them. Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to describe the phenomenon: people who disregard facts in favour of what their gut tells them is true.
This is not OK.
What happens when a presidential candidate is a pathological liar who ignores science, and his followers don’t care and are numerous enough to give him the reins of power?
I don’t know, but it definitely concerns me. They’re not all going to barge into pizza restaurants waving assault rifles, but they are going to influence really important decisions: decisions about the economy, human rights, the environment, social services and international relations. And these decisions will be made based on feelings, hunches, gut reactions, rumours and mob mentality – not on a rational view of facts and evidence.
A scary thought.
So what can we do about it?
Can I suggest that all fact-loving people do what I did and make a donation to the Skeptics Society, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to promoting critical, rational, scientific thinking. Let’s help make their voice as loud as it can possibly be. Are there other organizations dedicated to the same purpose? Then let’s support them too.
Another thing we can all do is make it a point to read, watch and listen to reputable news outlets, ones that hire trained journalists who get every side to a story and use fact-checkers. And teach your kids to do the same. The driving force behind the Pizzagate nonsense was fake news sites and, sadly, people are becoming less and less capable of differentiating between real and fake news because it all looks the same in tweets and Facebook posts. By the way, kudos to Facebook for deciding to do something about it – in December it announced it would begin flagging fake news stories with the help of users and fact-checkers. Thank you, Mr. Zuckerberg.
I know these little actions may not be enough to hold back the tidal wave of kooky “thinking” that appears to be washing over the most powerful country on the planet, but it’s better than nothing. Whether these people want to believe it or not, there is such a thing as objective truth, and we all have an obligation to rationally explore the facts until we find it.
Hopefully, this wave of irrationality will be a temporary blip and not a new reality.