Skepticism, Fear, and Forwards

As many of you know, I come from a very conservative Catholic family. While they have never seemed to be happy with the leadership of this country, since the recent election they seem to be under the impression that Obama’s presidency will mean the death of America. Some appear to be genuinely afraid.

I’ve been talking with various family members about different aspects of our current political climate, and have been privy to some, well, interesting email forwards, all of which have given me a peek at just what is going on within the larger conservative community right now, and frankly I find it a little bit sad. They get these alarmist emails and pass them along, unthinking, maybe not believing everything in them but taking from them the general idea that they are right to be afraid, that their way of life is under attack. I received the following today:


How Long Do We Have?
 About the time our original thirteen states adopted their new
 constitution in 1787, Alexander Tyler, a Scottish history professor at
 the University of Edinburgh , had this to say about the fall of the
  Athenian Republic some 2,000 years earlier:
 “A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist
as a permanent form of government.”
 “A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters
 discover they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public
 “From that moment on, the majority always vote for the candidates
who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the
result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal
policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.”
 “The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations from the
beginning of  history, has been about 200 years”
 “During those 200 years, those nations always progressed through
the following sequence:
 1. from bondage to spiritual faith;
 2. from spiritual faith to great courage;
 3. from courage to liberty;
 4. from liberty to abundance;
 5. from abundance to complacency;
 6. from complacency to apathy;
 7. from apathy to dependence;
 8. from dependence back into bondage”
 Professor Joseph Olson of Hemline University School of Law,
St. Paul, Minnesota , points out some interesting facts concerning
the 2000 Presidential election:
 Number of States won by:
 Gore: 19
 Bush: 29
 Square miles of land won by:
 Gore: 580,000
 Bush: 2,427,000
 Population of counties won by:
 Gore: 127 million
 Bush: 143 million
 Murder rate per 100,000 residents in counties won by:
 Gore: 13.2
 Bush: 2.1
 Professor Olson adds: “In aggregate, the map of the territory Bush
won was mostly the land owned by the taxpaying citizens of this
great country. Gore’s territory mostly encompassed those citizens
living in government-owned tenements and living off various forms
of government welfare…” Olson believes the United States is now
somewhere between the “complacency and apathy” phase of
Professor Tyler’s definition of democracy, with some forty percent
of the nation’s population already having reached the
“governmental dependency” phase. If Congress grants amnesty and
citizenship to twenty million criminal invaders called illegals and
they vote, then we can say goodbye to the USA in fewer than
five years.

As a skeptical person, I was naturally inclined to investigate these claims, and within a minute or two had found a Snopes entry on this very email. As is often the case with these things, the message amounted to a couple of true facts overlaid with a lot of rumor and speculation and thinly veiled racism, topped with a misattributed quotation and a misquoted college professor serving to feed into the worst fears of the target audience. This should come as no surprise.

My point here is that if a person exercises just a tiny bit of skepticism when faced with these things, they can find the source of the rumor and see it for what it is: baseless fearmongering. Red flag number one should have been the fact that this email’s topic is the 2000 election between Bush and Gore. Apparently somebody dug it up from the cobwebby depths of their inbox and decided to pass it around again.

This particular example comes from the conservative end of the spectrum, but liberals aren’t immune to this phenomenon.

I think we have a duty as skeptics to continue to point out and correct these claims when they pop up, however redundant or silly. I’ve sent that Snopes link to everyone on the forward list. I’ll probably piss some people off, but maybe I’ll make a few of them check things out for themselves, or at least think twice the next time they move their mouse to click “send”.

Feel free to share some of your favorite fallacious fearmongering forwards.

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  1. I used to check them and then forward the info and the link. Then I would send the info, the link and how to find it. Now I’m asked to check for the sender, who has already sent the bad info to an entire contact list.

    So I guess my friends are at that dependency stage.

  2. Oh man. Forwarding a snopes article got me publicly pilloried in an art community once. Apparently I took things too seriously and ruined everyone’s fun. I figured people would like the truth since the information was posted uncritically and with no skepticism at all.

    My family hasn’t responded much better. My father acted wounded, like I’d deeply offended him. My aunt yelled at me and called me ungrateful. At least they don’t send me political forwards anymore.

    Anyway, I hadn’t seen this one. Thanks for posting it and having the courage to forward it to your relatives.

  3. After listening to some televangelist talking about how countries who do not except Jesus I immediately thought of the Roman Empire. A quick wiki check showed Rome had been around for ~1100 years before Christianity became the official religion and it collapsed 80 years later!

    I have since had the opportunity to use this info several times; once when arguing with an old fogey at work who was saying the U.S. is a Christain nation and we had all better accept Jesus or our country is doomed.

  4. Evidence is the enemy of ideology – well done.

    Chew – your argument may be a good way to quiet the close minded though someone who is closed minded who has read their history will simply point to the Byzantine Empire as the Christian extension of a diminished Roman Empire that lasted for another thousand years. Simple arguments fall prey to simple counters. Though China may offer a better counter …

  5. There is a definitely a lot of fear. I’ve been trying to compare how liberals felt when Bush was re-elected to how so many conservatives, especially Christians, feel now. I am not sure there’s much difference.

  6. Chew – Byzantines didn’t consider themselves an extension, but good to know your opponent.

    Writerdd – There is one important difference between religious conservatives and liberals – both preach the end of the world, but religious conservatives tend to want to help God and Armageddon along a bit more. State of Israel. Tick. Wars and rumors of wars. Tick. Okay, what do we need to do next to get Jesus to turn up. Is there someone we can bomb?

  7. I’ve gotten a sort of melancholy thrill out of the ones that say that Barack Obama might be the antichrist, because I kinda wish he was. A quick rapture would solve a lot of long running political debates.

  8. I’ve been trying to do political skepticism on my blog for awhile now. It’s not very popular for two reasons. One, I’m only a good writer after pouring 6 to 8 hours into 1000 word blog, I have a family, so most of my blogs are pretty flimsy.

    And the big one: Skepticism means making reality more important than what you want or don’t want to be true. I’ve found just as many lies, half truths, and magical thinking on the left as on the right. This leaves everyone equally disinterest in what I have to say.

    I too get those emails. I too have really hurt people by sending them back real data. My family now refuses to talk to me about politics or religion. I don’t even argue, I just ask them questions until they point out their own inconsistencies, but even that is too much for them.

    It reminds me of what a friend of mine said about the Davinci Code. He said the most implausible idea in the whole movie was the concept that Christians would recant if just presented with solid proof.

    “The world is full of solid proof. The believe goofy things because they want to. All the evidence in the world won’t change what they want.”

    And thats the facts. People believe stupid things because it meets a need. Giving them truth is like taking away a druggies’ stash. It treats the symptom, but does nothing to treat the drive. It doesn’t cure them, it just makes them angry.

    Like the evangelicals, we have to concern ourselves with changing the inner man, not the surface.

  9. Democracy is over-rated. You only need consider “Strictly Come-Dancing” over the last couple of weeks to see what happens when you let John Bull loose.

    However, thankfully, most people will willingly (heck, they demand to be allowed to) anesthetise themselves with food, alcohol, watching TV and Heroin (£10 a twist, now THAT, AsdaWalMart if you’re reading this, is a saving you can’t beat), and so don’t insist on having a say in government.

    You only need read the supermarket tabloids to get an idea of what would happen if “The People” actually ran things; Public exicutions, prison camps, all non-whites expelled from Britain, War with France, Nuclear attack on Pakistan.

    Democracy is over-rated. “The People” are much more interested in stuffing their faces and getting new toys every couple of months than in Freedom. Lunch is more important than Liberty. The British Public actually actively WANT ID cards, retinal scanning and the whole V for Vendetta set-up, they WANT to trade liberty for security, they WANT suspects to be tortured, because they believe that will allow them to get back to buying shit they don’t need and/or drinking vast amounts of industrial strength Alcohol (Average UK adult spends £960[$1900] a year on Alcohol and Tobacco, therefore HALF of UK adults spend more than that).

    If asked to choose between liberty and cheap petrol I suspect 98% of the population of Britain would go with cheap petrol and ask if they could swap a bit more liberty to keep a Litre of Vokda at £3 a bottle (or complain about the governments high alcohol tax)

  10. My MIL, who is married to a right-winger, often asks me for confirmation/debunking (generally it turns out to be the latter) of the claims she hears from him. My favorite was when she asked me if Hilary Clinton was a Scientologist. I mean, I’m not her biggest fan, but I have no idea where that one came from.

  11. The real scary thing about that forward is not the doomsday crying, but what remains unstated and just implied: that the way to prevent said doomsday is to bring democracy to an end. Certain people don’t fear a dictatorial regime as much as they fear a dictatorial regime that doesn’t include them.

  12. I have been hearing a lot of conservative hysteria lately and it seems to fit a very specific demographic. Over 65, white and female. I think that might have something to do with a group that has always been relativly powerless and has watched a dminishment of what small power and standing they once had. I think this relates to the studies that show you are more willing to believe strange things when you feel that you don’t have control of your life.

    I was watching Colbert a few days (week?) ago and he had Michael Savage on to discuss the prop 8 vote in California. Colbert asked if it was the fault of the black citizens of the state. Mr. Savage said that it was really the fault of old people who had voted overwhelmingly for prop 8. I think this is true. The basis of conservative craziness in this country is old people. So the Republican party needs to rethink a strategy of counting on these people for votes.

    Oh dear I think I have been ranting.


  13. @danarra: I’ve been asked about the so-called ‘ban on Christian pilots flying together’ since the 1970’s. Airline crew schedulers have enough trouble keeping the crews legal and under their daily/monthly flight hours without adding that to the mix.

    I’ve gotten to the point that I delete e-mails like “How long do we have?” without even reading them anymore. @cola: I even had to quit talking to my only sibling (older sister) entirely, because she can’t have a conversation without rubbing everyone’s nose in her religious beliefs and about how soon all the “good” Christians will be “raptured.”

    @chew: Stop confusing the overly religious with the facts. We all know that they live in a “faith-based” world. They have told us so often enough. :-D

  14. Darwin’s Beard! This is such a pain for me. Many members of my family forward me crap. Much of it has “It’s True – Check Snopes!” at the top with a link – which if you click it takes you to Snopes – where it says, “False.”

    Dammit. They’re too lazy to check when the link’s in the friggin’ e-mail they’re sending.

    So… Lately it’s been politics, but the most recent was an e-mail bashing Pepsi for giving money to a homosexual-rights group.

    I’m weary.

  15. Actually it was DAN Savage on Colbert, not Michael.
    I agree, people who feel powerless tend to fall for these kinds of tales. I see it a lot with the my blue collar relatives in the rust belt. Every time they turn around someone is losing their job or is sick with no insurance. Needless to say, they start to believe any weird conspiracy theory or woo woo tale

  16. Hi guys,

    I’ve just arrived, but I would like to comment on Skepchick’s post, section “Murder rate per 100,000 residents in countries won by…”. I’ve laughed so much with this! All the preceding “facts” about both candidates are mostly neutral (states won, miles of land, etc.); it is this murders’ figure which turns the tables and paints such a colorful landscape of horror as regards Democrats. However, there’s no “murderers rate” per state: those figures merely indicate that there’re lots of murders in those states won by Gore, but don’t say whether the murderer was a local. Therefore, there are multiple interpretations for the data, including one in which the potentially very few Republican voters of Gore’s states, both a) gone mad because of fearing the election’s results due to their intrinsic suspiciousness of Democrats and b) each having a gun (due to the Rifle Association, I presume that there might exist a relevant statistical correlation between being a Republican and having a gun), are the ones killing.

    I mean, it’s just one of the possible ways to read those data. Naturally, without more data, all that stuff is meaningless. It’s sad that some people are willing to eat that up.

  17. @Mark Mulkerin: I agree with what Mark Mulkerin says on “simple arguments”, but I don’t completely agree with the example he used. In fact, there’s really no need to talk about the Byzantine Empire as regards Christianity preservation: the barbarian tribesmen who ruled Western Europe after the Roman Empire crumbled and who, incidentally of course, took it deep into the Dark Ages (Middle Ages), did that basically because of banning all previous ancient reason and philosophy and crowning superstition, religion and fear against the infidels as the new raw materials of contemporary thought (cool for a movie, isn’t it?), and that was simply because they were exemplary Christians (just converted: take-away Christians). On the other hand, the Byzatine Empire is the precursor of Orthodox Church, so I’m not completely sure that’s what Bush means by the word “Christian”. I’m sure he’s not even aware of the differences (or the fact that there’re some differences, either). So, I basically think that the Roman Empire’s argument pointed out by Chew is a pretty smashing one. I’ve kind of liked it. I was aware of the facts he refers to, but I had never linked them in such a meaningful interpretation!

  18. @Skepthink: first, welcome!
    and yeah, i though the same thing about the murder stats (which are blatantly false anyway).
    but basically what this whole thing implies is that democrats and minorities on welfare are killing good hardworking people (read: white republicans) and voting for officials who will destroy america.
    and the flat out assertion that legalizing mexican immigrants will accelerate the problem? really stupid considering the fact that many hispanics vote republican due to their catholic faith, and have even been cited as a major reason that prop 8 passed.
    so so stupid.

  19. @carr2d2:
    It’s really not so stupid to qoute bias statistics and factoids if you want to win at all costs. It’s called “propaganda.” Remember, many of these people will defend the status quo to the death because they are so fearful of change or because they want to stay in positions of power and privelege.

    This mindset is only reinforced by the Christers, who push the idea that they are fighting the Devil and his minions in their imaginary “End Times.” Add to that the concept of “holy deception,” which essentially is lying for church purposes, in spite of the fact that Christ clearly says that the ends DO NOT justify the means…

    Whipping up hysteria is great for fundraising – just ask James Dobson, Pat Robertson, etc.

  20. As we got close to the election, and it became clear Obama was going to win, my MIL started forwarding a bunch of propaganda emails to everyone in her address book. One was clearly quoting a bunch of stuff from Dobson’s “letter from 2012”. Another was info claiming that Obama isn’t a US citizen.

    In the interests of familial harmony, I didn’t reply. Turns out I didn’t have to. Her own sister (younger) responded, telling her she should really check her facts before sending stuff like that out. :o)

    I’ve also received a few things from friends, which I have no problem debunking publicly. One email linked to the video of Obama not putting his hand over his heart during the national anthem. It included a (obviously) fabricated quote, supposedly of Obama trash-talking the USA. It was simply ridiculous that anyone thought it was accurate, and I pointed this out. I conceded that he failed to salute the flag “properly”, but added that I thought our country was facing more important issues than whether or not a candidate was an expert on the flag code.

    As far as liberal fear-mongering… I don’t recall receiving any messages about how Bush or McCain were going to destroy the country in any of the last 3 elections. Certainly, there was a lot of talk about their policy statements, and how people thought they were heading in the wrong direction. But there was very little in the way of doom-saying. In fact, I think that some of the things Bush has done over the last 8 years are far worse than anyone could have imagined in 2000. I had hoped people would have realized this in 2004, but I was mistaken.

  21. JSug, perhaps you are right about the liberal versus conservative reactions. I delete all of this kinds of emails I receive, regardless of what the political message is, so I’m just speaking from memory. I wonder if Snopes is organized by topic so I could go back and see what kind of stuff was circulating after each election. This would make a fascinating research project.

  22. Note I’m not saying such propaganda doesn’t exist. Certainly there are fringe elements on both sides. It just seems like there are a lot more people on the right willing to believe it and pass it on.

    I’ve actually been tossing these thoughts around in my head for a few weeks now. I think it has something to do with how much trust a person is willing to put in their information sources. For those of us with a skeptical mindset, any piece of information is subject to scrutiny, no matter the source. But if, say, you are the sort of person who is used to receiving “absolute truth” without question from one source… you might be more inclined to trust other sources in a similar fashion.

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