Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Alien mass burials and the speed of nonsense

I know scientists say that nothing moves faster than light, but I bet that bullshit comes close.

The difficulty with getting a straight story these days is that with the click of a mouse, a story can make its way halfway around the world.  And since real news is generally more prosaic and boring than outrageous, wild tales, the bullshit always spreads faster and further.

I fight this constantly in my Critical Thinking class.  That curriculum is designed to give students some tools for detecting baloney, and one of those tools is "look at what other sources say."  I hammer it in constantly: before you believe something, look for corroboration.

So, one day a story pops up about, say, Bigfoot.  My student dutifully looks for other sources, and finds them!  And they all say substantially the same thing!  We have corroboration!  Bigfoot exists!

Well, not really, of course.  Take the story that came up a couple of days ago about a mass alien burial near Kigali, Rwanda.  Here is an excerpt:

The remains belong to gigantic creatures that bear little resemblance to humans. Head of research group believes that they could be visitors from another planet who died as a result of a catastrophe.
According to the scientists, they were buried at least 500 years ago. At first, researchers thought that they came across the remains of ancient settlements, but no signs of human life have been found nearby.
The 40 communal graves had approximately 200 bodies in them, all perfectly preserved. The creatures were tall - approximately 7 feet. Their heads were disproportionately large and they had no mouth, nose or eyes.
The anthropologists believe that the creatures were members of an alien landing, possibly destroyed by some terrestrial virus to which they had no immunity. However, no traces of the landing of the spacecraft or its fragments were discovered.
Of course, I'm immediately suspicious any time I see unnamed anthropologists (or any other scientists) "believing" in an alien landing.  So, following my own advice, I started looking for what other sources had to say about the whole incident.  I figured I'd either find nothing (i.e., this was the product of a lone wingnut) or a bunch of sites debunking it.

Instead, I found hundreds of sites reporting the story as fact.  Besides sites such as (where I found the original story), I found the same story reported on the Archaeology Daily News, the EU Times, TruthFrequency News, and Pravda!  So, I clicked on a couple of the links -- and not only was it the same story, it was reported in almost exactly the same words.  Basically, it had just been lifted in toto and republished, again and again.

Then, I noticed something odd about the dates -- while the story I saw was dated June 26, 2011, and was written as if it had just happened, a couple of the sites, such as the amazingly wacky David Icke Forum, had the same story dated to November of 2009.  Again, the wording was nearly identical to the recent publications, so it had to be the same original writer.  So I started trying to find the earliest reporting of the story, to see if perhaps I could figure out where the story started.  And the whole alien-mass-burial story seems to have begun with...

... wait for it...

The Weekly World News.

Yes, The Weekly World News, that stalwart bastion of brave news reporting on topics such as how Britney Spears is having Elvis's baby.   (Real headline from The Weekly World News:  "SANTA'S ELVES REALLY SLAVES FROM THE PLANET MARS.")  They apparently published the whole Rwanda alien story back in 2009, and even came up with an anthropologist to lead the team ("Dr. Hugo Childs"), whose name got dropped in later iterations of the story.  No need to worry about his feelings, though; Dr. Hugo Childs seems to exist about as much as Santa's elves do, judging by the fact that he doesn't show up in any searches in peer-reviewed anthropological or archeological journals.  So, suffices to say that their level of reporting has definitely not changed any.

What's funny (and by "funny" I mean "scary") is how somehow, this story made its way into the news stream, rather in the same fashion as a pipe dumping sewage into a river.  And the whole thing got passed along, gradually working its way up the "credibility" scale, until it finally reached the EU Times and Pravda.  This is scary for a couple of reasons.  First, apparently copy editors have not been sufficiently taught in critical thinking skills, and don't realize that "look for multiple sources" only works if the sources don't all come from the same original story.  Second, it seems that bullshit, unlike other substances, doesn't dilute away, but seems to become more concentrated with time, as more and more sites publish the same nonsense over and over.

And third, it travels fast.  Within two days of the publication of the first of the recent versions of this story (June 24) it had been picked up by dozens of other sites, from the dubiously credible to the completely reputable.  Which just goes to show, as I said initially; nothing travels faster than light, but bullshit has to be a close second place finisher.

No comments:

Post a Comment