it ain’t what you know that gets you in trouble

Es­ti­mated reading time is 6 min­utes.

SINCE THE RISE OF TRUMP, he has co-opted a term that has been in use for sev­eral years—fake news. The term was orig­i­nally used to de­scribe the stag­gering amount and array of dis­in­for­ma­tion, mis­in­for­ma­tion, pro­pa­ganda, and lies that were cir­cu­lated by rightwing sources and echoed end­lessly by rightwing blogs. The “news” was so bla­tantly un­be­liev­able that it re­quired a religious-like faith to not gag or laugh uproariously!

While bringing some of my old posts up to snuff, I came across this one. While i didn’t use the term fake news any­where, the ar­ticle is about that very phe­nom­enon. I per­son­ally have been aware of the term fake news for years, al­though it’s so imbedded in my con­cious­ness at this time that I wouldn’t guess when I first be­came aware of it.

Here’s my old post with the text mod­i­fied both ed­i­to­ri­ally (mostly I re­moved some re­dun­dan­cies and tight­ened the writing) and vi­su­ally (I switched from a smaller san serif type­face to this larger, ser­ifed face and added a few im­ages). To sep­a­rate it from these opening para­graphs, the orig­inal text is below the hor­i­zontal line and indented:


Trouble: Cartoon by Nate Beeler of The Columbus Dispatch.

Car­toon by Nate Beeler of The Columbus Dispatch.

VIRAL RIGHTWING EMAILS are so common many of us don’t no­tice them any­more. The sto­ries within are al­most al­ways extraordinary—as in “unbelievable”—and it usu­ally takes only a few min­utes to track down the ac­tual facts. They in­vari­ably den­i­grate lib­erals (“Hillary is a con­gen­ital liar”) or praise con­ser­v­a­tives (“Pope backs Trump”). 1

I have a con­ser­v­a­tive friend who reg­u­larly sends me “in­for­ma­tion” gleaned from these rightwing emails. I send links to the fac­tual pieces back to my friend, but of course he never wastes his time by ac­tu­ally fol­lowing and reading them.

He usu­ally looks up some opinion piece—usually from Fox News or a con­ser­v­a­tive colum­nist or website—“proving” the orig­inal fab­ri­ca­tions to be so and then sends that back to me—without having read a thing that chal­lenges his opinion or belief.

Here is the latest such “in­for­ma­tion” that I just re­ceived from him. 

“America has al­ways prided it­self on its work ethic. Amer­ican cap­i­talism is sup­posed to re­ward you for working hard with a higher quality of life, while so­cialism makes sure that everyone’s life is av­erage. A new study shows that America has taken an­other step closer to socialism.

The Cato In­sti­tute re­leased a study showing that wel­fare ben­e­fits pay more than a min­imum wage job in 33 states and the Dis­trict of Co­lumbia. Even worse, wel­fare pays more than $15 per hour in 13 states.

Ac­cording to the study, wel­fare ben­e­fits have in­creased faster than min­imum wage. It’s now more prof­itable to sit at home than it is to earn an honest day’s pay. Hawaii is the biggest of­fender, where wel­fare re­cip­i­ents earn $29.13 per hour, or a $60,590 yearly salary, all for doing nothing.” 2

Trouble: Cartoon by John Darkow for The Columbia Daily Tribune.

Car­toon by John Darkow for The Co­lumbia Daily Tribune.

Homeless on $29 an hour!

Got that? Ac­cording to this, wel­fare re­cip­i­ents “earn $29.13 per hour” in Hawaii. Most of us would read that to mean that wel­fare is like a job and they re­ceive reg­ular paychecks.

The letter lists 27 states where wel­fare re­cip­i­ents re­ceive more that $25,000 per year—eight are in ex­cess of $40,000! The state of Wash­ington, where I re­side and which may be the Home­less Capitol of the United States, is claimed to be­stow an an­nual dole of $28,840 per indigent.

My home state, Pennsylvania—long one of the most glaring hard­ship states above the Mason-Dixon line—is equally gen­erous, al­lowing their im­pov­er­ished non-workers a chance to “earn” $28,670 a year!

Of course, “common sense” would tell anyone pos­sessing it that this just ain’t so. That these figures—this very argument—fly in the face of any rea­son­able aware­ness of the state of the union seems to have es­caped the Cato “fel­lows” and their followers.

In fact, fol­lowers of Cato and sim­ilar “think tanks” seem never to have heard of skep­ti­cism, a dash of which would go a long way for these people.


Trouble: Cartoon by Drew Sheneman for the Tribune Content Agency.

Car­toon by Drew Shen­eman for the Tri­bune Con­tent Agency.

Bring in the National Guard!

When I re­ceived the mes­sage above, I re­sorted to some mild sar­casm in my re­sponse to my friend: I asked him when the gov­ernor of Hawaii had called out the Na­tional Guard to pro­tect his shores from the in­flux of un­wanted and un­em­ployed im­mi­grants. I cer­tainly hadn’t heard any­thing about it.

Hell, I might even want to em­i­grate to a war, sunny clime where I could “earn” twice as much as a normal job in the cold, wet en­vi­rons of the Pa­cific Northwest! 

Forbes mag­a­zine is a bas­tion of Amer­ican cap­i­talism and cor­po­ratism. Nonethe­less, even they were called to arms by this in­for­ma­tion: in an ar­ticle ti­tled “The Con­ser­v­a­tive Case For Wel­fare Re­form Suf­fers Mas­sive Blow Via Cato In­sti­tute Study,” Rick Ungar says that the Cato find­ings are based on a “shocking bogus method­ology” and that their re­port to be “com­plete unadul­ter­ated nonsense.”

If this topic is of in­terest, please click on over to Forbes and read Mr. Un­gar’s column, es­pe­cially where he asks the ques­tion, “So, how did the Cato pro­duce this par­tic­ular mas­ter­piece of disinformation?”

You need to read the an­swer: it’s a ma­nip­u­la­tion of facts so that the truth ends up a lie.


Trouble: Cartoon by David Horsey for The Los Angeles Times.

Car­toon by David Horsey for The Los An­geles Times.

What gets you into trouble

As ex­pected, my friend sent me an ar­ticle from the New York Post re­porting on the Cato study as “proof” of wel­fare fraud. My re­sponse was that the Post’s printing the Cato find­ings does not verify those find­ings, as there as no re­search by the Post—they just posted the Cato’s ar­ticle from their news-feed.

The back-and-forth could go on for­ever in a manner too fa­miliar with every “lib­eral” in the country: I look up both sides of the story and argue with facts while my friend in­dulges in end­less con­fir­ma­tion bias and re­gur­gi­tates echo pieces and ed­i­to­rial opinion pieces. 3

I will end with a pair of quote—my fa­vorite de­f­i­n­i­tion of common sense comes from Tony Ran­dall (and I am para­phrasing from memory): “Common sense is that which every one is sup­posed to have but no­body seems to.”

And my fa­vorite maxim of all time is gen­er­ally at­trib­uted to a va­riety of 19th cen­tury Amer­ican ob­server: “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble—it’s what you know that just ain’t so.


Trouble: photo of a computer keyboard with FAKE NEWS written on eight of the letters.

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of the page was listed from an ar­ticle ti­tled “Fake News, dis­as­sem­bling it with sci­en­tific methods is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive” on the De­mo­c­ra­tica web­site. “A large amount of data from [a re­cent study] it is clear that rarely those who be­lieve in fake news come into con­tact with de­bunking pages. On the con­trary, these users di­a­logue within a closed con­text, a “sounding board” that re­in­forces their starting thesis.”



1   Is there such a crea­ture as a viral lib­eral email, be­cause I have never re­ceived one?

2   “The Cato In­sti­tute is an Amer­ican lib­er­tarian think-tank head­quar­tered in Wash­ington, D.C. It was founded as the Charles Koch Foun­da­tion in 1974 to have a focus on public ad­vo­cacy, media ex­po­sure, and so­ci­etal in­flu­ence. Ac­cording to the 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Re­port, Cato is number 16 in the Top Think Tanks World­wide and number 8 in the Top Think Tanks in the United States.” (Wikipedia)

De­spite their claiming oth­er­wise, most Lib­er­tar­ians are slightly to the left of most ex­treme rightwingnuts.

3   “Con­fir­ma­tion bias is the ten­dency to search for, in­ter­pret, favor, and re­call in­for­ma­tion in a way that con­firms one’s pre-existing be­liefs or hy­potheses. It is a type of cog­ni­tive bias and a sys­tem­atic error of in­duc­tive rea­soning. People dis­play this bias when they gather or re­member in­for­ma­tion se­lec­tively, or when they in­ter­pret it in a bi­ased way. The ef­fect is stronger for emo­tion­ally charged is­sues and for deeply en­trenched be­liefs.” (Wikipedia)

And everyone—regardless of which side of any issue they take in any kind of disagreement—falls into the trap of using con­fir­ma­tion bias. But it sure helps to know that when looking for facts . . .


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