Fake News

WL: Paul K. Davis
WA: Megan McMillen
Music: Jay Steele

Fake News

copyright 2017 Paul K Davis

The world’s military super-powers are engaged in a long-lasting war for control of Syria.  Each side believes it is on the verge of victory.  They have chiefly warred via proxies – supplying funding, military advisors, and weapons to local groups.  But they have increasingly needed to send in their own better trained, better organized, and better armed forces.

That is the situation, three thousand three hundred years ago, which led to the Battle of Kadesh.  Historians believe more war chariots were used in this battle than any other.

Pharaoh Rameses II, upon returning home, had this battle depicted on the walls of several temples and public buildings, with detailed pictures and explanatory captions.  These accounts describe a tremendous victory of Rameses over a coalition led by a person referred to as ‘the Wretched One’.

After hieroglyphics were deciphered, and his inscriptions could be read, modern historians began referring to him as ‘Rameses the Great’.  I have put a picture of one of his colossal statues of himself on the cover of today’s Order of Service.

You will also see, with the picture of Rameses, that my topic today is ‘Fake News’.  My goal is to enable us to discern fake news, and I will be using examples, from Rameses’s claims concerning the battle, to other historical fake news events, plus some examples from present times.

I think I probably do not need to emphasize how important this is.  But I do wish to say that I think we Unitarian Universalists have a weak point in the middle of our principles.  We talk a lot about the first principle, of the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  We talk a lot about our seventh principle, of respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.  In the middle, number four, is the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  As long as we don’t burn scientists at the stake, we tend to feel we are adhering to this principle.  As long as we condemn those who deny global climate change, we tend to feel we are adhering to this principle.

I don’t believe we can successfully advance our other principles unless we know relevant truth, and that’s not easy.  Con­serv­a­tives and liberals alike tend to relax into a state of listening to like-minded people, and to news sources they think they can trust.  This makes us all susceptible to fake news.  Then, when we meet, it becomes a shouting match.

Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  I believe application of the scientific method in our daily lives is essential to knowing the truth, and that without the truth our ability to advance our other values will not be free.

As an example, it is generally agreed that African-Americans are incarcerated in this country at a significantly higher rate than European-Americans.  But there is disagreement as to why.  Many people believe African-Americans are innately more dishonest and violent than others.  Many other believe our criminal justice system is prejudiced.  We can only act successfully on this matter if we know the truth about why it occurs.  Previous sermons and UU common reads have supplied much evidence on this subject.  Without this evidence I do not believe it likely anything positive would be accomplished here regardless of how much we respect and love all people.

So I will outline the process I believe is best for filtering out fake news.  I have both a short outline, and a fuller outline.  My short outline has two points.

The first point is “regulate your emotions”.  This is the term­in­ol­o­gy Mark Rahman used a few weeks ago in his sermon on ‘Tolerance’, and it is also essential in searching for truth.  As several of my examples will show, fake news is often specifically designed to play on emotions.

The second point is to follow reason methodically.  This is the part on which I will expand further, giving six detailed criteria.

The first criterion in my method of reasoning is to ask whether there is a statement of any fact in the supposed news item.  Rameses called his opponent “the Wretched One”.  Is that any sort of statement of fact?  Donald Trump called FBI Director James Comey a ‘showboat’.  Is that any sort of statement of fact?  I say, neither of those conveys any actual information, and should be disregarded.

The second criterion in my method of reasoning is to ask whether a claim of fact is actually possible.  Pharaoh Merneptah, the son and successor of Rameses II, also sent an army in the direction of Syria.  He encountered various tribes, including one name Israel.  He claimed to have exterminated this tribe.  Do we know whether this tribe was actually exterminated?

My third criterion is to ask whether any evidence is cited to support the claim of fact.  Where is the evidence that there were three million illegal votes in the recent Presidential election?

My fourth criterion is to ask whether there is a chain of evidence whereby the person making the claim could actually know about the evidence.

For example, in 2012 Joe Arpaio, then sheriff of Maricopa County, announced that an investigative team of his had de­term­ined that Barak Obama’s publicly released birth certificate was a forgery.  This was supposedly based on a news reporter’s in­ter­view of a 95-year-old former Hawaii state employee who signed the birth certificate.  But we don’t know the names of these supposed individuals; we cannot trace this supposed evidence.

My fifth criterion is to check for multiple independent sources.  In modern science a result is never considered definite until it is confirmed, preferably by another research team in another country using equipment built by a different supplier.  But this is not just a principle of modern science, it is perhaps the most valuable of the conditions I have enumerated.

In the case of Rameses and the Battle of Kadesh, a second source has come to light.  The archives of a city of thirty thousand people in central Turkey have been excavated and translated.  It turns out this was the capital of the supposed Wretched One.  Far from being wretched, he was ‘king of kings’ of a substantial empire, which had two writing systems, a code of laws, detailed treaties with a dozen nations, and, probably most importantly, knowledge of how to smelt iron.  Modern historians call his nation the ‘Hittite Empire’.

My sixth criterion is to ask whether the available information is sufficient to support the conclusion that I am being expected to draw.  One continuing problem is the glorification of war.  We must remember, the dead do not return to recount their horrible suffering, only the living return to claim the glory.  We can often be misled by even a few, or just one, fact when really we need a balanced assessment.

For example, we have been bombarded with news articles about an illegal alien murdering a woman in San Francisco.  Does this mean illegal aliens are likely murderers?  Do you ever see a headline saying “woman murdered by citizen” or “woman murdered by legal immigrant”?  Yet, unless the news media consistently report the citizen or immigrant status of all suspects, the single case should not lead us to any conclusion.  Note, also, if the victim is a woman or a child our emotions are more likely to steal the show before we apply our reason.

Wars have been started by news which is real but inadequate.  A notorious example is the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.  Otto von Bismarck, Prussian chancellor, released excerpts from a conversation between the Prussian king and French am­bas­sa­dor, edited to make it look like national pride had been insulted.  France declared war.  Bismarck was prepared and quickly captured Napoleon III of France and besieged Paris.

Recapitulating, my two main points are: regulate your emotions, and follow reason methodically.  My six criteria for analyzing news are to ask: is there an actual claim of fact, is it possible, is there a claim of evidence, is the chain of evidence to my source solid, is there more than one independent source, and is the evidence representative and sufficient for the conclusion.

Now I’d like to present, and analyze, a piece of fake news I generated myself.  This is an email I sent out a couple of weeks ago to some friends, perhaps including some of you.  I put the list of recipients together rather hurriedly.  It read as follows:

“I just received a bulletin from the American Astronomical Association giving more details on the rescheduling of the total solar eclipse. According to AAA, totality is now scheduled for 3:00 PM Sunday, along the same path previously announced.

“A spokesperson explained that the rescheduling was based on popular demand. The new schedule will not interfere with work or religious services.

“The spokesperson went further, explaining that the AAA hopes the Association of American Climatologists will reschedule global climate change, and adopt a new practice of paying attention to the will of the people rather than scientific data.

“Hope you enjoy the eclipse with certified eclipse glasses.”

This message passes my first test.  There is a claim of fact.

It fails my second test.  Astronomers cannot reschedule an eclipse.  They can recalculate, which may result in a change of some fraction of a second concerning when it will occur, but not nineteen hours.

It would have passed the third test.  There is a claim that I have received a bulletin from a scientific association.

It fails the fourth test.  The evidence cannot be traced back to a source.  The ‘American Astronomical Association’ does not exist.  The professional association of astronomers in the United States is named the ‘American Astronomical Society’, and, if you go to their web site you will find no such bulletin.

It fails the fifth test.  No one else provided any such information about rescheduling the eclipse, unless it was someone resending my email.  Watch out for this.  A million people retransmitting or retweeting the same source is no better than one source.

In regard to my sixth test, I wasn’t actually trying to convince people to expect the eclipse to occur on Sunday.  My true pur­pose was to point out that scientists did not invent global cli­mate change, rather they discovered it, and they cannot change it, at any rate not without all of us working together.  I did not actually present any evidence point­ing to this conclusion, though, so I fail the sixth test.  But this does not mean my message wasn’t true, it just means you need to look elsewhere for the evidence needed concerning global climate change.

Now, before I conclude, I want to let you in on what we now know about the Battle of Kadesh.  Afterwards, most of Syria became part of the Hittite Empire.  It would appear that Rameses actually lost.  A few years later he actually signed a peace treaty with the new Hittite Emperor, brother of the supposed wretched one.  In the process of negotiating this treaty, Hittite ambassadors saw and read the Egyptian inscriptions.  The Hittites demanded an explanation for the misrepresentation before signing the treaty.

There’s also another lesson here.  Better not start off by insulting the leaders of China – you might need their co­op­er­a­tion in controlling North Korea.  Or, maybe we should just con­sider this another example of how regulating your emotions can be good.

By the way, the Hittites also used fake news.  They sent phony deserters to the Egyptian army claiming that the Hittites had already fled in fear.  Rameses, flattered that his greatness has already won the day, let his emotions get the better of him, and advanced into an ambush.

In summary, I believe we do not successfully advance our values without knowing the truth about problems, about un­der­ly­ing circumstances, and about processes.  With an objective method of finding truth, we might actually be able to replace shouting matches with reason.

To know the truth, we much each continually apply the scientific method to information impinging upon us.  We must regulate our emotions – the func­tion of emotion is motivation, not analysis.  Our anal­y­sis must look for the fact, know it is possible, look for the evidence, know it is faithfully reported, compare it with other sources, and check that it is sufficient for drawing a conclusion.

Truth and Love must work together.  Thank you.