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Weird news: Believe it? Or not?

Sounds Sciencey

Sharon Hill

September 13, 2012

How to think about Weird News

Every day, I scour the Internet for news. Not just any news. Weird news. What bizarre thing was seen, heard, or found today?

This interest in the unexplained, mysterious, and Fortean is a perpetual thing for me. The first books I ever recall picking out as favorites were about ghosts, monsters, and UFOs. But the qualification for my interest was that I cared about them only because I thought they might be real.

Nature is pretty weird. People can imagine the darnedest things as well when they experience an odd situation. I am drawn to these anomalies. As Jack Palance used to say on Ripley’s Believe it or Not TV show, I am curious about “The strange. The bizarre. The unexpected.”

The Internet has been a boon to weird news. The tabloid tales of the late, great Weekly World News made way for online tabloids with their ghost photos and citizen-based news sites with their local UFO reports. “Weird News” or “Oddities” sections are now common on popular media sites like the Huffington Post and Yahoo.

I began a website to highlight these paranormal and anomalous news stories. While there are a lot of strange news feeds and news aggregators that do this, mine is different. I didn’t just want to share these stories so you can pass them along your virtual circles. I wanted to discuss these stories. What about them was true? What was missing? Why did people latch onto certain ones and enthusiastically share them with everyone they knew, even if they were almost certainly hoaxes or exaggerations? One of my goals was for my website to show up in online searches for these topics so perhaps interested readers would stumble upon a more thoughtful analysis than what was found in comment sections after the news stories or on Internet forums.

Sharing stories is a community bonding experience and good for our social well-being. There is, however, a down side. With the Internet, any story can be passed around the world in a day. If the story turns out not to be true, the correction is slow out of the gate and may never complete that same trip around the world.

Kids are really good at passing around urban legends and off-beat stories they hear from each other. They also glean bits and pieces from a passing glance at the news. Television shows are prime vehicles for perpetuating myths and rumors. Documentaries shown on what appear to be legitimate science-based channels give credence to ideas about ancient aliens, monsters unknown to science, folklore creatures, and UFOs out there spying on us. Kids eat that stuff up. I sure did! I was never taught how to think about weird things. No one showed me how to question, to consider the source or the way the “evidence” was laid out. Because we are barraged with questionable claims, teaching kids how to think about weird things is important. I set out to give it a try this past summer.

First, let me lay the groundwork. I have two kids of my own. They want to believe in paranormal things. It’s fun and they find it exciting to have mystery and the supernatural in the world. When we watch ghost hunter or monster chaser shows they like the dramatic (and inaccurate) recreations, whereas I’m quick to point out the edits, errors, and omissions of important information. While they may find the slip of paper in their fortune cookie compelling, I brush it off. “That’s pretty vague, isn’t it? Could apply to anyone.”

Yep, I’m the party pooper, the downer, the balloon buster. However, I don’t really see it that way at all. I say it’s best to know the truth instead of going through life being fooled by television and continuing the FW:FW:fw:FW!!! subject line emails. As a parent, I consider it my job to teach my children how to maneuver through life. As an advocate for science and reason, it’s my mission to show others as well.

I jumped on an opportunity to talk to local teens about the 2012 apocalypse. Eleven- to fourteen-year-olds are interested in this. They think about it. It worries some of them. They don’t know what information is valid because it comes from archaeology, astronomy, and mystical ideas based on prophecy and special knowledge—stuff they have difficulty judging as being science-based or not. The Mayan topic is especially confusing because it is an amalgam of streams from various sources, some of which sound very credible to a layperson. Even a cursory look into the claims about the 2012 apocalypse shows that it is bogus. Scientists aren’t hiding anything from us, but it wasn’t reputable scholars who came up with these fringe ideas. I explained to the kids that if giant Planet X was on its way toward Earth to wreck your Christmas, we would have seen it coming long ago. All the astronomers around the world are not in cahoots keeping quiet about forthcoming destruction. Those people who perpetuate this myth make imaginative interpretations about clues that are not backed up by other lines of evidence. Some of it was outright made up (to sell books and make films). I got the feeling no one had put it to these kids that way before. I think it worked. No one fell asleep and they were talking to me!

In early August I visited Camp Inquiry run by folks from the Center for Inquiry. My own daughter attended multiple years before. Once, when I picked her up, I sat in on a group discussion with Dr. Lawrence Krauss, astrophysicist. Those kids asked questions about the universe that were so sharp, so involved. I was amazed. They got it. But these were kids that came from families that already subscribe to the value of critical thinking and freethought. They probably already knew a lot about how to think about weird stuff.

My session was on weird news. First, I asked the kids to guess the true story (that had a twist) and then we picked apart media presentations of news events. A place to start when looking at stories about odd things is to ask yourself several questions: Did these things really happen as was said/written? What information is missing? What seems wrong or mistaken? What is the source? What doesn’t fit with what we already know about the world?

One doubtful story we discussed was a mystery photo of a giant white owl. The story appeared on a local Texas news site. It showed uniformed men holding what seemed like an inordinately large bird between them. The reporter had interviewed a pet store owner who said she never saw an owl that large. The original picture had come from an Internet site that often spawns viral videos or pictures that get spread widely. The kids were quick with their skepticism of the story. There was lots of missing information. So much so that we couldn’t say when or where this creature was captured or the circumstance surrounding the picture. The journalist for the original story never mentioned contacting wildlife officials (which seemed a very obvious thing, since the people holding the bird were in uniform). Finally, the size of the bird, as well as the way the two men were holding it (by a few feathers), didn’t fit with the reality of gravity. Everything was questionable. There were very good reasons to suspect that this was a hoaxed photograph and that the news reporter was quite out of bounds to perpetuate the ideas that it could be real and the basis for some local legend of an owl-woman.

We discussed many stories in the news and possible alternate explanations for them. At the core, we talked about why believing everything you see on the news without question is not a good thing. Some of it is fun; no harm done. But believing without questioning and passing it on to others can be dangerous. This is how misinformation is spread about health claims, business scams, and social scares. It’s hard to tell what’s true when the media only gives you part of the story and frames it in a way that sounds sciencey and credible.

My mission was over. I had introduced about fifty kids to critical thinking in a way that was interesting and engaging to them. Hopefully, it was done in a way that made them feel comfortable, empowered, and at least a little more prepared to tackle the world of information overload. I don’t know how much will stay with them, but I tried to plant the seed. Make sure to question doubtful news.

Sharon Hill

Sharon Hill's photo

Sharon Hill specializes in issues of science and the public and runs the Doubtful News website. Sharon can be reached at shill@centerforinquiry.net.