Fake News Is Old News

Fake news is in the news. People apply this term to many things, ranging from any news they don’t like to strange tales spun by young men on the make in Tbilisi or zealots out to smash political enemies.

Of course, what counts as strange depends on your perspective. A recent report surfaced that a defeated national politician was running a child molestation ring out of a DC pizza shop. You might laugh that off as silly, even bizarre. But that’s just you, isn’t it? What are your hidden motives?

In response to fake news, pundits are busy analyzing this new phenomenon and what it means about who we are now. Only it’s not new. Fake news is an old story.

The medical world provides many examples. Fifty years ago the leading theory of the cause of autism was Bruno Bettelheim’s “refrigerator mother.” He claimed that a child who couldn’t express emotion must have been raised by a mother too cold to express love.

Besides being incredibly insensitive, his theory had clear weaknesses. For one thing, the same mother might also be raising other children who seemed warmly unrefrigerated. Yet you can always explain away inconsistencies. Maybe the fridge went on and off. Why let facts interfere with a good theory?

This notion went out of fashion after Bettelheim committed suicide in 1990, after which it was learned that he had fabricated his academic credentials. Another theory, in vogue at about the same time, lasted a bit longer.

The Doman-Delacato “patterning” theory held that autism and other brain defects resulted from disordered development. Autistic kids may have gone straight from sitting to walking without crawling in between. Advocates advised teaching grown-up autistic men and women to stop walking and learn to crawl in the correct sequence.

Unsupported by data and rejected by the scientific establishment, this nonsense was superseded by choicer nonsense: facilitated communication. Caregivers sat autistic patients next to “facilitators” with letterboards on their laps. Gently facilitated, the patient’s hand pointed to letters. In this way, parents came to believe that children who had never spoken a word in their lives were not only typing, “I Love You, Mom,” but penning lyrical poems and elegant short stories. The cruelty of the false and foolish hopes raised by such reports would be hard to overstate.

Skeptics at professional conventions who proposed objective tests of facilitated communication were met with threats of physical violence. Believers in fake news do not take kindly to doubters, as the publishers of the fact-checking website Snopes have been learning lately. Far from welcoming their efforts, believers revile fact checkers as heretics. What are their motives? What are they covering up? Why should anyone accept what they call “facts?”

Facilitated communication was tested, debunked, and finally collapsed of its own absurdity. But there is always something new to believe in.

In 1998 an article in the prestigious medical journal Lancet claimed to show that childhood vaccinations are linked to autism. After researchers examined the matter at great effort and expense, the British Medical Journal in 2011 published proof that the article was not just sloppy and flawed but fraudulent. The Lancet had retracted the article a year earlier, and its author was stripped of his license to practice medicine.

His response to this fact-checking was predictable: he sued for libel. Though his case was thrown out of court, he is still respected, even lionized, in prominent circles as a fearless and persecuted crusader against the establishment. One of his admirers has been tapped to lead a committee to investigate vaccine safety by the President of the United States.

The medical and research establishments are appalled. But that’s just them — and you know what those elitist, establishment people are like. Probably all on the payroll of Big Pharma. And even if that study was withdrawn, there must be other ones, mustn’t there? If not, it must be a cover-up.

In the end the truth will prevail. In the end the Messiah will come. Though they tarry, I wait for both every day. In the meantime, it is hard not to conclude that given enough ignorance, malice, aggressive grievance, or the hope born of utter despair, a lot of people are going to endorse many alternative facts for a long time. If you decide they’re wrong and think you can prove it, be sure to grow a thick skin and wear protective gear. Given the winds blowing in the US and around the world, such skin and gear should be in high demand.

Jews know a bit about fake news. As everyone once knew, we poisoned the wells of Europe. As many knew and some still know, we bake matzot with blood. More recently, people know that Israelis abduct children to sell their organs and grow melons that spread AIDS.

These tales may strike you as silly, even bizarre. But that’s just you, isn’t it? And we know what you people are like, don’t we?

Of course, there have always been fact-checkers. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was unmasked as a fraud by the Times of London in 1921.

On Amazon, you can choose among five editions of The Protocols for as little as $5.95, complete with hook-nosed cover graphics.

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About the Author
Avi Rockoff lives in Newton, Massachusetts
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