January 13, 1920 Fake News

In the English Standard Version of the Bible, proverbs 12:15 translates: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice”. Socrates famously observed “I know one thing, that I know nothing. The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

It was a fine day in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. A good day to rob a bank. So thought 44-year-old McArthur Wheeler, but Mr. Wheeler was no ordinary crook. As they might say in the Shiddy o’ Bwahshtun, McArthur Wheeler was schmaht. Wikid schmaht.

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”. – Charles Darwin

As any 10-year-old will tell you, lemon juice makes a great, invisible ink. What better way to make Yourself invisible to bank cameras, (thought McArthur Wheeler), than to smear your face with lemon juice. The man even ran an experiment. A Polaroid selfie. The experiment was a success, notwithstanding the polaroid’s tendency to “wash out” subjects photographed, too close-up. No matter. The photo showed an over-illuminated blob where the face was supposed to be. Hypothesis: correct. Lemon juice Did make your face invisible, to cameras.

With his face slathered in lemon juice, McArthur Wheeler robbed not one bank on that day in 1995, but two. Law enforcement released surveillance video. By the end of the day, Pittsburg police had their man, incredulous though he was, that such a well-laid plan could have somehow, come off the rails.

That video must have been faked.

Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger got wind of the caper and thought they’d study the episode, a little more closely. PsychologyToday.com tells us: “The pair tested participants on their logic, grammar, and sense of humor, and found that those who performed in the bottom quartile rated their skills far above average. For example, those in the 12th percentile self-rated their expertise to be, on average, in the 62nd percentile”.

The article continues: “The Dunning-Kruger effect results in what’s known as a “double curse:” Not only do people perform poorly, but they are not self-aware enough to judge themselves accurately—and are thus unlikely to learn and grow”.

If you’re thinking that explains a lot about certain politicians, you’re probably not alone. And what of the ‘News’? The one thing we all expect whether Democrat, Republican or Libertarian, is accurate information. From our politicians and from our “News” media.

Are we then to believe an industry, merely because it buys ink by the proverbial barrel? After the last few years, I certainly hope not. From the Russia “Collusion” hoax to Fox News’ reporting that President Obama…”at the end of his rope…sent [a] rambling, 75,000-word email to the entire nation” (it was an Onion story), our news and information media have worked overtime to earn the epithet, “Fake News”.

In October 2019, ABC “News” broadcast man-on-the-street video from Syria, depicting an attack by the Turkish military, on Kurdish civilians. ABC later apologized that the video was shot…at a gun range in Kentucky.

In April 2020, CBS did its part to add to the national COVID-19 hysteria, using Italian footage as a stand-in for a story about the failure, of New York hospitals. A month later the company staged lines and faked “patients” at the Cherry Medical Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But hey, it all made for some swell footage, right?

And who can forget NBC’s exploding truck video, concocted at the expense of General Motors. Worried that the crash test might not show the desired result, NBC rigged an incendiary device, just to be sure. The test worked swell and the sight of flaming pickup trucks, sure does make for some great “News”. But rest assured, Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips apologized, concluding that “unscientific demonstrations should have no place in hard news stories at NBC. That’s our new policy.”

There’s a knee slapper for you. “Unscientific demonstrations”.

Back to Dunning and Kruger. On this day in 1920, an unsigned editorial in the New York Times, made mockery of none other than Robert Hutchings Goddard. Yeah. THAT Robert Goddard. The guy with the space center, named after him.

Robert Goddard, a man who all but invented the space age, has 214 patents to his name. Two of them, a multi-stage rocket and a liquid-fuel rocket were patented as early as 1914.

On January 13, 1920, the New York Times opined that space flight was an impossibility, because propulsion systems had nothing to push against. Such a position seems defensible in 1920, but the Times just couldn’t resist that snotty, mean-girl touch, replete with sneer quotes: “That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”

“The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. This tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their own skills”. – PsychologyToday.com

“The knowledge ladled out in high schools”. Good one.

In 1932, that same New York Times won a Pulitzer prize for Lying, about the systematic extermination by starvation of as many as ten million Ukrainians, by the Soviet government of Josef Stalin. To this day the “Grey Lady” has failed to repudiate that Pulitzer.

The “Newspaper of Record” printed 24,000 front page articles over the course of the second world war but oddly seemed oblivious to the Nazi holocaust, front page articles about which numbered precisely, twenty-six.

Front page, above-the-fold stories ran 44 days in a row about that mess at Abu Ghraib, just in case anyone missed the point. And the Times was certainly quick to defend that Dan Rather memo as Fake but Accurate. Never mind that the font didn’t exist, when the thing was supposed to have been written.

But fear not, the New York Times retracted that 1920 editorial. In July 1969. The day after the Apollo 11 launch. At that rate we can expect those East Anglia stories to come in, around 2050.