I have a problem with the term “fake news”. False news is a different matter. But fake news? There’s a serious issue with how that term is conceptualized. False news is news that turns out not to have been true. Maybe it was not true because the reporter was mistaken, or a news source lied or there was a misprint that caused a misrepresentation of the true state of affairs. Or maybe it was news that was planted on purpose to deceive people by someone with an interest in the matter.
That can happen, too, and is one kind of false news. But “fake news” implies something else. It implies that a certain news outlet isn’t a “real news outlet”, in the same way that somebody masquerading as “a real doctor” or a “real scientist” actually isn’t. Sometimes a doctor or a scientist is good, but the credentials just aren’t there.
We’ve all heard stories about the college professor who did great work, only after years in academia, it turned out that his diploma was fake. Or the healer who under the guise of being a doctor helped many, many people, until one day it was discovered he was not “a real doctor.” And we probably have all had the experience of pointing out a fact — about etymology or grammar or evolution or nutrition or the law or history — only to be told that the persons we are talking to won’t believe us, because we are not, according to them, an expert in the field. Instead of finding controverting evidence to falsify our claim, they play the credentials game.
In all these cases, the question of what is true is brushed aside, and everyone focuses on people’s right to speak on a certain topic, based on the presence or absence of appropriate, official credentials. Authority trumps truth. Some people, we are told, are not authorized to speak in public on certain topics. That notion flies in the face of our guarantee of freedom of speech and of the press.
Even in the case of people who have deceived others about their education and certification, what we ought to ask ourselves first is whether anyone was harmed by the use of “fake” credentials. If not, this should cast a doubt on the need for certification. But instead, we just assume someone not properly certified should be denied the right to compete on the free market with those who have been certified. This is problematic for the future of a free society. We are told that only experts should perform physics experiments or give medical advice and that only accredited journalists who work for reputable news outlets should write news stories.
But what about Benjamin Franklin? He did all those things. What were his credentials? The fifteenth son of a candlemaker, Franklin is the quintessential American. He attended Boston Latin School for two years but did not graduate. Most of what he knew, he learned on his own, due to his voracious reading and extemporaneous experimentation.
At the age of twelve, Ben Franklin was apprenticed to his brother James, who founded the first independent newspaper in the colonies, The New England Courant. He worked for many years as a lowly typesetter. But he also founded a subscription library, so as to pool access to valuable books among those interested in reading them. He became a newspaperman, and published Poor Richard’s Almanack, which included advice on preventative medicine.
Ben Franklin was a musician and a composer, but he also created his own instrument, the glass harmonica. He was very interested in electricity and conducted his experiments. He was a businessman and a politician, a philosopher and a musician and a scientist, and nobody ever questioned his credentials. He didn’t have any, and that was fine because the merit of his contributions to many different fields spoke for itself. Nobody referred to him as a fake journalist or a fake scientist just because he never graduated from high school or because he was self-published.
The first amendment to the United States constitution protects free speech and freedom of the press, despite the fact that false information can cause harm to an unsuspecting public, because the Founders knew that suppressing information by authority figures with government backing is more dangerous than false news or false science. But today, something can be deemed fake without even showing that it is at fault, and false news is not regarded as harmful when its purveyors are certified.
How can we save the public from false news? By trusting that the public has a critical faculty and can investigate for itself the value of the news it reads.
The National Enquirer for years spread patently false news stories. People bought them while standing in line at the checkout counter in their local grocery store. Occasionally, some celebrity would sue them for libel, but most of the time the powers that be tolerated their false news, because it was more amusing than convincing. Did some people actually believe the stories in the Enquirer? Yes, but those were a minority of largely illiterate people who were held in low esteem and who did not make important political decisions. Nobody was worried that the opinion of people influenced by the National Enquirer would sway everyone else.
That’s how things should work in a free society. There will always be people who believe patently false claims, whether they be about current events, famous people, medicine, physics or any other scientific field of endeavor. But the way we get around those people is not by suppressing their opinions or preventing them from speaking and publishing. The way we get around them is by most people using their critical thinking skills to determine that those claims are false.
Today, we are faced with a society that clamors to silence dissent. The fake news I worry about is that spread by the MSM, whose credentials are impeccable, but whose ethics are not. The Global Warming specialists with their “scientific consensus” are trying to replace falsifiable results with authority and credentials as the ultimate arbiters of the truth. Nutrition is being dictated to us by the government via an ever-changing USDA sponsored food chart. And people who are good at healing but have no credentials are hounded for practicing medicine without a license, while the DEA prosecutes people for possession of substances that have the power to heal.
We don’t need to get rid of fake news outlets, fake scientists or fake doctors. What we need is to get the government out of the business of trying to determine what the truth is. That is not their job. It is ours. To be free means being able to find out the truth for oneself.