Sometimes everyone gets it wrong

In a recent story of a “War on Christmas” hoax, everyone ended up looking bad. A satirical site called the National Report ran a story claiming a student at Argon Elementary School in San Francisco was suspended for a week after wishing an atheist teacher a merry Christmas. This never happened, and there is no such school.

There is, however, an Argonne Elementary School there, and many people who were directed to the article assumed that it was the site of a real event. “Loving” Christians made threats which disturbed school officials enough to hire extra security.

The National Report website is itself quite inept. Every article I click on right now is giving me a 502 nginx error. The total effect of the home page should give most people a clue not to take it seriously, but if people find links to the individual articles, it may not be so obvious. The disclaimer on the home page merely says: “The National Report is an online portal for ‘citizen journalists’. The views expressed by writers on this site are theirs alone and are not reflective of the fine journalistic and editorial integrity of National Report.” There is supposedly a disclaimer somewhere that says the site is fictitious, but it’s not on the home page.

A Reddit user claiming to be Paul Horner, the author of the story, stated that he intended to deceive people. He said that comments on the story pointing out that it wasn’t true were deleted, and school officials have confirmed this. The article used a name that was close to a real school’s name, whether intentionally or not. The absurd “zero tolerance” policies which some schools enforce give it a certain amount of plausibility. If it had been true, there would have been good reason for people, Christian or not, to be angry.

The people who made physical threats don’t have an excuse, though. Even if the school had done what the article claimed, violence would not be justified. More broadly, the people who accepted the article’s accuracy without checking the facts against other sources (which is easy to do these days) showed their gullibility. But I can’t point too strong a finger; I’ve been taken in by a satirical news story or two. It’s important to be skeptical about single-source reports, especially from an unfamiliar website.

On the one hand we have someone, possibly a 13 year old kid, who deliberately fooled people and was entertained by the abuse the school officials had to endure. On the other we have people who fell for a dubious claim without considering the reliability of its source and, in some cases, showed a distinct lack of the forbearance Christians are supposed to practice.

But it isn’t quite true that there are no good guys in this story. Kevin L. Jones’ article on ktvu.com, which I linked to at the top, is a fine piece of journalism on the mess.

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Wishes vs. facts

Wanting to tweet a link on a positive theme, I looked for a speech which Davy Crockett had supposedly made to Congress about the importance of staying within Constitutional limits regardless of how sympathetic you might feel to the beneficiary. It’s easy enough to find citations, such as this one from the Foundation for Economic Education. I noticed, though, that none of the pages I found gave a date for the speech. The FEE article just says he gave it “one day”; some pages mention secondary sources, but I couldn’t find any earlier than the second half of the 19th century. (Crockett died in 1836 at the Alamo.)

Chasing down various links, I eventually found this page, which looks like a plausible summary. In Crockett’s time, speeches in Congress weren’t meticulously transcribed, so we can’t get a definitive answer by checking Congressional Record. However, the inconsistencies in the account, the lack of a date, and the lack of contemporary citations all cast strong doubt on the story.

Libertarians would like the story to be true. It’s nice to have a famous historical figure to quote in support of your views, and that makes some people abandon normal caution. The supposed speech is quoted in full on the Cato and Lew Rockwell sites, among others. Maybe the people who posted it would have been more skeptical if they had been less eager to have it be real. When you close your eyes to questions, though, there’s a serious cost. The more obvious cost is to your credibility; if you’re caught in a falsehood, even an inadvertent one, you won’t be trusted as much next time. The more important cost is internal; if you skimp on judgment when you want something to be true, you undermine your own ability to think and trust yourself.

Whenever you see opinions on a question of fact divided along political lines, it’s certain that people on at least one side (not all of them, but enough to skew the numbers) are going by wishes rather than evidence. It’s very often both, since people will respond in kind to what they think the other side is doing.

Avoiding wishful thinking and sticking to verified facts can be hard work and sometimes make you unpopular, but it’s better than blindly following the crowd.

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