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How does this happen?

In the distant past, illiteracy was the norm, and people relied on memory and the spoken word to pass along information. Humanity yearned for simple explanations of the complex world around them, of differences between each other, and of how the world got to be the way it is. Life was relatively shorter then, physically challenging for most, and beset with the danger of disease. The future was as threatening as the past was hazy, and fear often led to bizarre and hysterical interpretations of things which should have been the subject of rational thought. Without efficient communication, accurate records, or the help of modern technologies, most of us can easily understand how these people living in isolation, poverty, and ignorance invented fantasies to make their lives more comprehensible.

The real mystery, then, is why does myth and misinformation persist in modern times?


Ironically, some of the factors which should have assisted in dispelling myths seem to be responsible for propagating them. For example, the advent of the printed word resulted in cheap documents everyone could afford. That should have exposed recorded ideas to thorough criticism and checking, with printed rational rebuttals which everyone could weigh. However, the fact was that printing presses were very expensive - so expensive that meaningful dissemination of ideas was concentrated in the hands of a few. A typewriter or a pen simply cannot compete with a newspapers' rotary offset high-speed press! This also meant that the mass of the printed word was dictated by people who had to sell what they printed. The pressure to compete, combined with no restrictions whatever on what can legally be printed (aside from difficult-to-enforce libel and slander laws), was an irresistable temptation to exaggeration, sensationalism, fabrication, and all other means to attract the attention and pique the interest of coveted readers. (One can still barely walk down grocery store checkout lanes without being confronted by the most bizarre and obviously false printed pages you can imagine.)

The real danger in the printed page lies in the fact that, for whatever reason, people do and perhaps always will tend to accept what is printed as being true. This does not seem to have stopped writers, pushing to finish at a deadline, yearning to further their careers, anxious to grab the attention of readers from other writers, and watching the bottom line, from making things up.


The invention of film and television should also have helped to dispel myth. In principle, it should be difficult to lie with mechanically reproduced images. But in reality, the same pressures and self-interest seems to have carried over to both from print. The fabricated newsreel footage of "Hitler" brooding over his plans for world-domination in his "Wolf's Lair" (actually a hastily costumed actor in a converted garage) is a classical illustration of innumerable fabrications foisted upon gullible viewers. The unfortunate fact is that it has always been possible to create, modify, or edit images to convince viewers of almost any idea you want.

To give some idea of the power to slant the meaning of images, a "news" story recently aired on a major network which purported to show examples of tobacco companies advertising cigarettes to children, inevitably repeating the example of the "Joe Camel" graphic art. To add spice to their story, they added a tighly edited cartoon clip of "Fred" and "Barney" (cartoon characters from the 1960's) smoking cigarettes in a commercial from that time. The commentary bracketing the clip sounded harsh, critical, and sardonic, as though we all ought to be outraged at such a blatant attempt to sell the evil weed to children! I found this attempt to take the advertisement out of context for purposes of drama fascinating; and sure enough, everyone I asked was outraged about the fourty-year old animated clip! I then asked - "so, what do you think about the fact that cartoon characters in The Simpsons (a modern and very popular cartoon shown in prime-time), are regularly shown enjoying cigarettes, smoking a pipe, or tugging on fat cigars - or even smoke two cigarettes at a time!" Somehow, through crafty editing, narration, and shifting context, these "news" people had convinced people of normal intelligence that the fourty-year-old cartoon was an evil plot, where the modern cartoon showing the same thing (only more of it) had never raised an eyebrow!

If anything, the image has proven to be a more dangerous tool for spreading misinformation than the written word has ever been, because it has become pervasive through television, and also seems to be even more convincing.

If that were not bad enough, television (the way most of us still get our news) has a property which apparently attempts to destroy critical thinking. Images flash across the screen rapidly. This is supposed to keep the viewer from getting bored and switching to another channel. The pace of this flashing and switching has increased in recent years to give us the now common "strobe effect", intended to more or less mesmerize the viewer into watching (especially during commercials). There is no opportunty to contemplate what you see or hear; no chance to rationally evaluate what you have been told or shown, before the next image is flashed on your face or the next loud noise. The ideas are intended to flow through you without your thinking. They are counting on the fact that noone is going to slow it down, or write down, let alone analyze, what is said. This helps them to convince masses, while at the same time evading most criticism.


A recurring theme in these matters is self-interest. Self-interest seems to have been a factor in determining the truth as long as anyone has ever claimed to know what the truth was. Very often people can and do, to their credit, put self-interest aside. But, when the stakes are high, as in politics, education, commerce, and so on, there is a disturbing tendency for people in mass-media to succumb to the temptation to use it in determining exactly how to employ the tremendous power they wield. One must not carry it to the point of being absolutely cynical; however, when evaluating a certain belief, you cannot afford to ignore the question - "who exactly stands to benefit from my believing this".


An even more sinister motivation for fabricating ideas seems to crop up from time to time. Groups of people often seek to make themselves feel better by finding some other group of people, or sometimes an individual, to blame for all of their troubles. Alternately, bizarre ideas may be promoted about a group of people as justification for their opression. Classical illustrations of the former might be the German government singling out Jews as a scapegoat for everything that was wrong about pre-WW-II Germany, or communists blaming the "Borgeois Class" for the ills of every free society. As for the latter, pro-slavery "scientists" once claimed to document fundamental differences between negroes and caucasians, thus "proving" that people with dark skin were animals.

So, although misinformation and myth may have changed in complexion in modern times, there seem to be a number of persistent reasons why it has not gone away. Perhaps there is something even deeper in the human psyche; which compels us to take shaky and flawed ideas over leaving an issue unresolved; or to believe whatever everyone else seems to believe, perhaps just to get along.

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This page last updated 3 March 1999
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