There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about fake news lately, with lots of people advocating that social media sites and other information venues do something to protect stupid people from themselves, whether by banning fake news sites outright or instituting some kind of warning system to identify clickbait, satire, and hyper-partisan sources. Nearly all of the suggested solutions focus exclusively on evaluating the source of the information rather than the information itself. For sites that trade exclusively in fake news (like The Onion or The Daily Currant), this makes perfect sense. It also works (in a practical if not necessarily ideological sense) for sites like Addicting Info (which provides lefty clickbait articles paraphrased (often misleadingly) from other sources without citation) and Gateway Pundit (which provides unsourced (or outright made-up) wingnut speculation); both are toxic anti-news sites that have proven over and over again that they don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.
When it comes to sites like Daily Kos or The Drudge Report that deal in actual news as well as partisan slant and opinion, accepting or rejecting a story based on the URL alone (especially if your acceptance or rejection is based on an unsourced meme or the assertions of an anonymous “think tank”) is a bad policy. The source can provide some insight into likely biases and misrepresentations, but you have to evaluate the claims being made on their own merit or you risk throwing the baby out with the bath water. Most of the people who suggest otherwise are doing so in order to advance their own agenda, but some have simply resigned themselves to the fact that most people are lazy, anti-intellectual, and allergic to nuance. It’s easier to say “Wikipedia isn’t a trustworthy source” or “Snopes has a liberal agenda” and ignore anything from those sites that doesn’t fit your personal tribal narrative than to engage with the actual information being presented.
For the record, the crowd-sourced nature of Wikipedia does makes it a terrible source for information about current events and to a lesser extent controversial subjects, but otherwise it’s generally an extremely good source for factual information. As for Snopes, their editorial commentary does sometimes lean to the left, but the actual debunking is based on straightforward analysis of the available evidence. In both cases, the problem is that most people have trouble separating actual information from spin, opinion, and unsupported claims and verifying the veracity of (apparent) corroborating evidence.
Since I don’t particularly like the idea of a handful of people in Silicon Valley and D.C. acting as the Ministry of Truth (or worse, social media policy that requires satire sites to explain the joke), I’m going to dissect a hypothetical agenda-driven news story to help illustrate how one might, as the Discordians say, “think for yourself, schmuck.”
General Grant Vs. Bigfoot
One story about Ulysses S. Grant that you won’t find in most history books or even biographies of the man concerns his belief that he once killed a sasquatch. I first found the claim in one of Grant’s letters to Mark Twain, but a story in the Cairo,Illinois City Gazette titled “Grant Saves Soldier From Man-Beast, But Not River” seems to support the claim. During his time in Cairo, it was Grant’s habit to wander away from camp after dinner to enjoy a cigar on the river bank. One cold night in winter of 1861, his ritual was disturbed by screams coming from further up the bank. Grant readied his weapon and started moving toward the screams to find a young private being pursued across the iced-over Ohio by “a great hairy beast with enormous feet that caused it to move with a most peculiar gait.” Grant shot the creature, but the weight of its fall caused a section of ice to break away and collapse, taking the young soldier to the bottom of the river along with the monster.
But was it really a monster that Grant shot, or just a simple ice fisherman? With both the soldier and the “creature” lost to the river, Grant had no way of confirming that his theory of a flesh-eating missing link chasing a young Billy Yank across the ice. The story takes place at night in the dead of winter some distance from the lights of camp, so we must at least consider the possibility of a less controversial explanation of Grant’s encounter, especially given the General’s reputation for heroic consumption of alcohol. Is it not more likely that Grant shot an innocent ice fisherman, bundled from head to toe in heavy furs to protect him from the winter cold, who was chasing the soldier for some real or perceived slight (stealing the fisher’s catch to supplement the meager army rations, perhaps?)? The “monster’s” apparent size could have been an optical illusion or misperception born out of fear and faulty memory, while the creature’s odd walk could have been caused by snowshoes or some old injury. The theory that Grant actually shot the poor victim of a fish thief seems considerably easier to swallow.
It’s exactly because of incidents like this that we need to make sure that our elected officials in Springfield vote yes on the Primitive Ice Fisherman Awareness Act. As my fellow primitive ice fishers are well aware, we’ve lost far too many members of our community to people who’ve misidentified an innocent, fur-clad fisherman as a bear or wolf or even, as in Grant’s case, a folkloric beast. It’s time for the killing to end.
Can This Be Ignored?
This story is obviously nonsense but basically harmless, so you can probably just ignore it and move on without any serious critical analysis, especially if it appears on a website with a reputation for peddling nonsense. But let’s pretend for a moment that this story somehow turns into The Thing The Internet Cares About Today. Suddenly there’s a #MindThePelt hashtag and a “Don’t Shoot! I’m Not Bigfoot” T-shirts and politicians making tearful speeches about the importance of protecting the proud tradition of primitive ice fishing. Most troubling, the Illinois legislature have amended the Ice Fishing Awareness Act to divert millions of dollars in funding earmarked to repair the state’s crumbling levee system to a primitive ice fishing awareness campaign (which will of course be carried out by a marketing firm owned by the Attorney General’s nephew). Now that the story has become A Thing, we have to pay attention to it.
What Are We Dealing With?
Our first step in judging the merit of the story is to figure out what kinds of information we’re dealing with here. Luckily, each paragraph mostly contains one brand of information (almost as if by design). The first paragraph purports to contain factual information: That Ulysses S. Grant believed he had an encounter with bigfoot that led to the death of both the monster and a Union soldier. Factual information is either true or false and can be verified independently through experimentation or analysis of evidence (in this case the historical record).
The second paragraph contains speculation: That Grant actually shot an innocent ice fisherman who was chasing a soldier who’d stolen his catch. Speculation with enough proof can sometimes become gain a consensus as the best available theory, but it generally can’t be definitively proven or disproven with the tools we have at our disposal. We can only judge the likelihood that the speculation is correct based on how well the proposal fits with our understanding of the world and the available evidence.
The third paragraph is primarily opinion: That the Grant/Bigfoot story somehow proves that we need the legislation that’s about to be voted on. Opinions are subjective. They can be informed, uninformed, or misinformed. Understanding how someone arrived at a particular opinion can help you judge whether or not that opinion is worth taking seriously, but opinions can’t be objectively proven to be true or false, right or wrong. You either agree with them or you don’t.
Are the Factual Claims Bullshit?
Now that we know what kind of information we’re dealing with, let’s consider the author’s evidence. At a glance, the article seems to include both a primary source (Grant’s letter to Twain) and a secondary source (the newspaper article) supporting the claim that Grant believes he fought a bigfoot. If we can examine those sources, we can at least confirm that Grant wrote to Twain about his bigfoot encounter and that a newspaper reported on the event. Either source could potentially include more information that adds veracity to the story. For example, maybe the letter includes the unfortunate soldier’s name (which we may be able to check against army records to confirm that he was stationed in Cairo and died or went missing during the right timeframe) or the newspaper report contains corroboration from a witness that Grant didn’t know about or failed to mention in his recollection to Twain.
Unfortunately, the author doesn’t really make it easy for us to find these theoretically valuable sources. He doesn’t provide any reference information for the letter from Grant (is it in a private collection? The Library of Congress? Twain’s autobiography?) or any information about the newspaper aside from its name and the title of the story (was the story a news report of the encounter or as a fluff piece recounting a colorful local legend decades after the fact?). The vague timeframe of the alleged encounter (“winter of 1861”) gives us several months worth of newspapers to dig through if it’s a contemporary account, years or decades if the story was published later. While the lack of detail doesn’t necessarily prove the story false, it sends up a red flag that the author may be making things up or intentionally withholding exact details about the source material (perhaps because he knows that he’s intentionally misinterpreting it). At the very least, the author’s failure to provide more detailed citations suggests either carelessness or laziness.
Assuming we don’t have the time and resources to track down the alleged letter and newspaper story, we have to evaluate the story based on the information we can verify. Were Grant and Twain contemporaries, and did the two correspond with one another? Was Grant in Cairo during the winter of 1861? Was that winter cold enough for the river to freeze over enough to at least temporarily support the weight the running soldier and his pursuer? Was there ever a newspaper called the Cairo City Gazette, and if so when was in published? Do we have information form Grant’s memoirs or the accounts of other soldiers and camp staff to support the assertion that Grant regularly left camp in the dead of winter to enjoy a cigar at the river’s edge? For that matter, did Grant even smoke cigars? Was bigfoot a commonly accepted figure in American folklore during the Civil War era and, if so, is there any evidence that Grant believed such stories? While a single discrepancy probably won’t damn the whole story (after all, we’ve already established that the author is careless and lazy, so errors are bound to creep in), each “plot hole” gives us another reason to doubt the author’s credibility.
Is the Speculation Believable?
For the sake of argument, we’ll pretend that the author’s claim about Grant’s bigfoot story checks out. Short of time travel, there’s no way for us to find out what really happened, so the best we can do is decide whether the author’s speculation is more believable than the bigfoot hypothesis. The serious doubt about bigfoot’s existence, combined with the lack of prominent bigfoot legends in southern Illinois, seems to suggest that Grant didn’t really shoot a bigfoot. The likely falsehood of the bigfoot hypothesis doesn’t necessarily make the ice fishing hypothesis true, however. The author provides a lot of explanation as to how an ice fisherman could have been mistaken for a bigfoot, but ultimately he just appeals to Occam’s Razor without providing any evidence to support his theory. If he’d offered evidence about the tradition of ice fishing in 19th Century Cairo, historical data that the Ohio near Cairo was at least partially frozen in the winter of 1861, contemporary photos or drawings of Civil War era ice fisherman looking especially sasquatchy in their animal-skin suits and awkward snowshoes, or basically anything to suggest that fur-clad ice fisherman roamed the mighty Ohio in the 1860s, he could easily make his own hypothesis seem more believable than the “Grant shot bigfoot” theory. As it stands, he basically posits that a guy in fur is a more likely culprit than bigfoot and then turns that person into an ice fisherman because it provides a convenient launchpad for his political agenda.
Are the Opinions Expressed Worth Taking Seriously?
So yeah, the author is likely full of shit, but we’re not going to hold that against him in deciding whether we agree with his opinion that something MUST BE DONE about all the ice fisherman who are being shot and killed by people who think they’re assorted hairy beasts. Our author vaguely suggests that this happens a lot, but again offers no hard facts to support his claim. Maybe there have only been three fur-wearing primitive ice fishermen shot after being mistaken for wild animals in modern times and the author just happened to know all three of them, so to him it seems like an epidemic. Maybe he’s heard a lot of stories about this happening and believes them unconditionally because they were debunked by Snopes, a well known outlet for socialist propaganda. Or maybe he just really fucking hates levees and is spreading lies so the river can rise up and destroy the infidels.
Since the author doesn’t give us any insight into how he arrived at his opinion and we’ve already determined that he isn’t very credible, we need to consult more reliable sources before forming an opinion. If it’s only happened once (not counting Grant), the proposed bill is a huge waste of taxpayer money that could be spent on something that provides a greater benefit to the citizens of Illinois. If a multiple reputable sources can provide evidence that hundreds of thousands of Illinois ice fisherman are killed each year by people who mistake them for bigfoot, the state may save more lives by passing the legislation than by fixing the levees. If the truth (as it often does) lies somewhere between the two extremes, the problem may be worth addressing, but not at the expense of the levee system. If we can avoid breaking off into pro- and anti-ice fishing tribes that are fanatically dedicated to mutually exclusive extreme positions, it might be possible to promote both safe ice-fishing and flood protection.
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