Sunday, December 2, 2018

When Fake News Kill: The 6 Most Stubborn (and Dangerous) Legends in History



Gary Larson's interpretation of the legend that Queen Marie Antoinette of France proposed that the people of Paris could eat cake when she was told that they had no bread. It highlights the absurdity of a legend which is, nevertheless, still widely believed today. It is the basic feature of a series of legends which are wrong, stubborn, and often kill people. 
 


A few weeks ago, I was chatting with the local people of a small Tuscan town in the countryside, when it came out that I am a member of the Club of Rome. At that point, one of them asked me, "Can you tell me how much the Club had to backtrack from their wrong predictions?" I was taken aback for a moment, but then I realized that even in a small town in Tuscany people are not immune from global propaganda. That I was asked that question is simply proof of the incredible resilience of some legends, that we may also call "fake news" or "memes".

It is an incredibly fascinating subject: why are people so easily fooled by legends which not only have no basis in facts but are also plainly absurd? Yet, it is commonplace, one of the features of our world. So, let me try to put down a list of memes -- fake news -- which turned out to be extremely resilient, with a lifetime of decades or even centuries, also dangerous legends which often kill people. The list below is not complete, but I chose examples that seemed to me especially fascinating and instructive.


1. Jews Eat Christian Children. This is one of the oldest and most stubborn legends in human history. Its origins go back to the Middle Ages, when untold numbers of Jews were accused and often murdered in Europe on the basis of this accusation which, it should go without saying, had no factual basis. From what we can read, it seems that when a child was found dead, maybe drowned, the people of the local village could find no better explanation than imagine that the Jews had killed him or her in a ritual sacrifice. It may well be that the remote origins of the legend go back to when the Romans accused their Carthaginian enemies to sacrifice children to their Gods. That was probably mostly propaganda, but it may have had some elements of truth: most ancient (and even modern) societies occasionally had to recur to infanticide in difficult times and it may be that the Carthaginians had ritualized it. But, here, the legend has expanded to tell of people kidnapping children from other national/ethnic/religious groups in order to kill and eat them -- a much stronger and nastier accusation. The legend is still alive with the Jews as culprits and has been applied to other groups, it was an element of the persecution against witches in Europe and, in recent times, it has been applied to Communists, North Koreans, and more.

2. "Let Them Eat Cake" A sentence commonly believed to have been pronounced by Queen Marie Antoinette  (1755-1793) of France when they told her that the people of Paris had no bread to eat. There is no record of the Queen ever having said that and the story seems to go back to a novel by Russeau which appeared in 1765 when Marie Antoinette was 9 years old. It was attributed to her only in 1843 by Alphonse Karr in Les Guêpes. So, not only the Queen never said anything like that, but she never knew -- or even imagined, that such a sentence would be attributed to her. And not even the people who sentenced her to death had heard of that story, either! Today, the story is well entrenched in the popular imagination. Searching for "Let Them Eat Cake" on Google produces more than 6 million results, even though a good fraction of them seem to be doubtful about the truthfulness of the report. Still, this old legend is remarkable for its persistence.

3. Thomas Malthus' prophecies of doom. It is commonly heard that Thomas Malthus (1766-1843) predicted a catastrophic collapse of the human population for some specific date, variously reported. In some cases, it is said that Malthus also argued for depopulation in terms of exterminating or starving entire ethnical groups. In reality, nowhere in his writings Malthus proposed specific dates for a future collapse and not only that: he never predicted a collapse! All he said was that the human population couldn't expand over a certain limit and that it would stay there, kept in check by famines, wars, and epidemics. Besides, Malthus was a man of moral principles and he never ever dreamed of recommending the extermination of anyone. The origins of the legends about Malthus are difficult to pinpoint but may go back to the 1972 book by John Maddox "The Doomsday Syndrome."  If so, it is a remarkably resilient legend that persists after almost half a century. As for the legend that Malthus recommended the extermination of the poor, it may go back to a 1983 book by Joel Mokyr, "Why Ireland Starved," where the author reported a truncated a statement from a letter by Malthus to make it appear that he recommended the extermination of the Irish. Today, many people still believe in Malthus' "wrong predictions" and may get angry if you try to explain to them how things stand.

4. Mata Hari: The Spy. In 1917, Margaretha Gertruida Zelle (1876-1917), renowned dancer known with her stage name of "Mata Hari," was arrested with the accusation of having passed secret information to the Germans and of having caused the death of tens of thousands of French soldiers. She was declared guilty and shot by a firing squad on Oct 15th, 1917. Today, more than a century later, it seems clear that there was no proof whatsoever against her. She was, simply, framed and killed in a classic propaganda operation, what we call today a "psyop." Nevertheless, the stories told about started to be diffused immediately after her execution and they stuck in the popular imagination. The name of Mata Hari soon became synonymous for the concept of "female spy," and "femme fatale," an evil woman who uses her charm in order to betray her country in order to make money or simply for pure evil. A remarkably stubborn legend that starts being debunked only in recent times. 

5. The Wrong Predictions of the Club of Rome. In 1972, a group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a report commissioned by the Club of Rome titled "The Limits to Growth." The report examined several possible scenarios for the world's economic systems, concluding that if nothing was done to reduce the consumption rate of non-renewable or slowly renewable resources, the world's economy would have collapsed at some moment during the first half of the 21st century. The report was often criticized but what caused its downfall was an article published in 1986 by Ronald Bailey where the author re-proposed a criticism picked up in an older article: picking some dates from a single column of one of the many tables in the book, Bailey claimed the Club expected some important mineral resources to run out on those specific dates. Since, at Bailey's time, several of these dates were already in the past, he claimed that the Club of Rome had made "wrong predictions." But the dates that Bailey had considered had nothing to do with the scenarios of the study, which never predicted that humankind would run out of anything before the late 21st century. The story is told in detail in a post of mine on "Cassandra's Legacy: it was a classic case of propaganda, but the legend of the "wrong predictions of the Club of Rome" went viral and it is still alive and well today. It is remarkable how the origin of such a diffuse legend can be pinpointed exactly to a single article written by a single person: Mr. Bailey deserves some fame for what he could accomplish, too bad it was a lie. 

6. The Climate Change Hoax. This legend says that there is no such a thing as "Anthropogenic Global Warming" (AGW). Rather, the whole story is a giant conspiracy created by scientists in order to gain money, power, and prestige, or perhaps to impose a global communist dictatorship. It goes without saying that there is zero evidence of this theory and that the motivations attributes to scientists are iffy, to say the least. The so-called "Climategate scandal," a corpus of publicly diffused private messages among climate scientists, revealed occasional cases that could be seen (maybe) as poor scientific practice, but never of collusion to sway the public. But this meme was hugely successful. It is relatively recent and its origin can be pinpointed with a certain accuracy: it was  with the popular movie "The Global Warming Swindle," released in 2007. Google "ngrams" (covering up to 2008) shows that there was no mention of climate science as a scam or a hoax up to 2007. Google Trends shows how the idea that climate science is a scam or a swindle becomes a search term only after 2007. It picks up interest in the news with the "Climategate" story of 2009 and, today, the legend remains alive and well, we can see it as the thread linking the various forms of criticism against climate science (not based on data, the models overestimate warming, water vapor not considered, islands not sinking, etc.). The interesting element of this story is that it was not the work of a single person, as in the case of Ronald Bailey's memetic attack against the Club of Rome. Making a movie requires financial support and breaking into the server that kept the private messages of climatologists must have taken professional hacking work. Then, at least two movies designed to disparage climate activists were released in this period: "No Pressure" (2010) and "Combustible" (2011). Note also that the most popular anti-science climate site, "Watts Up with That" (WUWT) appeared on the Web in 2006, but it became popular only a few years later. All that suggest a concerted and financed effort to undermine climate science and science in general. Of course, this is an interpretation that cannot be proved, but it is clear that immense damage was done against climate science and science in general. The effects of this damage are still to be seen and scientists don't seem to realize that they find themselves in the same position as the French Nobles at the time of the French revolution. Heads may well start rolling in the near future, and not just in a metaphoric sense. Undermining science, one of the bases of our civilization, is destined to have profound consequences on everything.


This is an incomplete list: there is much more that could be said: Gipsies stealing children, chemtrails, abiotic oil, Russian hackers stealing the US elections, and the 9/11 attacks, a true legend factory. Not all these legends killed people, but several did, and some may kill huge numbers of people in the future -- such as the Climate Hoax one. In any case, the common element is always the search for a scapegoat, a culprit to blame for some problem that doesn't have easy solutions. It seems to be a well-ingrained mechanism working in human minds: once it kicks in, paranoia reigns and anyone, individuals, groups, entire societies, can become the target of a violent social revenge mechanism. The future will see plenty of problems, much bigger than those we are facing nowadays. How they will be interpreted and who will be taken as the target for revenge, is all to be seen.

42 comments:

  1. I don't usually wish ill will on others but I would like to see the current denier in chief go to the top of his Trump Tower building and challenge that biggest if all hoaxes, GRAVITY!

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  2. Also:

    1) Columbus proved that the Earth is not flat (that the Earth is round had been accepted since Greek times)

    2) De jus primae noctis included sexual privileges to the local landlord (it was a payment, in money, to the Church. Sorry Mel Gibson).

    3) People were afraid of the end of times around the year 1000 a.C. and, the fact that the world did not end caused the expansion of the XI century (they were not and the expansion happened for other reasons).

    4) Communists eat babies (they did not. At least, not that I know of).

    5) Sauce Alfredo is typical Italian (Italians do not know sauce Alfredo, or who this Alfredo guy was).

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    1. English muffin are not English! And what you call Italian salad in the US is called Russian salad in Italy. To say nothing about spaghetti with meatballs, unknown in Italy.

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    2. But at least "Russian Salad" is not a legend. In Russia they do have a kind of salad similar to the Italian "Russian Salad", although I don't know how they call it (Maybe "American salad"? That would close the circle.)

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    3. Another stubborn legend: the "hydrogen based economy"

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    4. Ok, to be fair, fettucini Alfredo and non-Russian Russian salad never killed anyone.

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  3. Obviously, local people from a small Tuscan town are unaware of what the future will bring.

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    1. They may be better placed than others to survive the shock.

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  4. " breaking into the server that kept the private messages of climatologists must have taken professional hacking work"

    The Climategate hack has only one suspect: the Russian Petrostate. There are no other suspects.

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    1. I suppose you realize that you added another legend to the list.

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    2. The emails reappeared on a server in Tomsk where the FSB has an office. Subsequent events followed a path that has now become standard for the products of Russian hacking.

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    3. Now, seriously, Andy, do you want us to believe in ANYTHING that the Daily Mail publishes? I mean, the people who told us of a Restaurant serving human flesh in Nigeria? (http://listverse.com/2015/06/23/10-egregiously-false-stories-in-the-daily-mail/) If the Daily Mail were to publish that Donald Trump is NOT an alien from Betelgeuse, I would tend to believe he is.

      Anyway, the story of the Russian hacking originates with this article in the daily mail:

      https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1233562/Emails-rocked-climate-change-campaign-leaked-Siberian-closed-city-university-built-KGB.html

      Classic misinformation: all rumors and no data. Please, spare us from these silly legends.

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    4. You are clearly one of those Russian trolls fanning the climate conspiracy so that the Wise UN illuminati of Sion can control the world.

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  5. totally agree... but watch out... sometime you are not dealing with legends but contested versions of controversial events. The classic example is 9/11 ...of course there are fancy and absurd stories and theories about that. But this doesn't mean that we have to stick always with the official "version" of events. If we do that we act in an anti-scientific way. We as scientist must be always open to critical thinking. I don't buy many things of the official version of 9/11 as many other cases in Italian political history e.g. Moro's case, Piazza Fontana etc. It doesn't mean that I believe in legends Ugo... be careful... truth... also scientific truth is often "socially constructed"

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    1. I never said we should stick to the official version. Think of the story of Mata Hari: that she was a spy was the official version and it was completely fake

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    2. yep you're right. Mine was just a reflection... the more political the more controversial the narrative of a given event becomes ; )

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    3. Absolutely agree!
      Since climate science have failed miserably on their predictions, but will not confess, something is really fishy, but that doesn’t mean that it is a complete conspiracy.
      You are on thin ice here Ugo.

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    4. And here is another legend raising its ugly head.

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    5. So that IPCC 1990 predicted that the mean-temp would increase about 1 degree till today is fake news?

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    6. And another comment that proves the point of my post! Really, thanks a lot.

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    7. markus if memory serves me right, in 1990 the IPCC was predicting a rise in temps of about 2 degrees c by 2100. as the current trajectory (ie the worst case scenario) is said to be about 5c warming by then (and we are already about 1.5c over the 1750 start of industrial revolution), the IPCC were clearly ridiculously conservative in 1990 (and what does that make you). it is my opinion that we are locked in for at least 3c warming (1.5c + 1.5c extra for a combo of lag, dimming and feedbacks), even if humans totally stopped burning fossil fuels.

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  6. I thought it was Catholics who ate babies.

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    1. Weren't they the Irish, according to Johnathan Swift?

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  7. They call it.. french salad. It should be invented by the french chef of a grand hotel in Russia. then the recipe was stolen and revisited by an italian sous chef that Made it known allover the world. So it is usually called french salad in the east Europe Russian salad in italy, italian salad in the test of the world. And the three names are all correct.

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  8. America makes the world safe for democracy.

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  9. I wonder if it's also a false legend that the Jews have been largely behind a global central banking system that has caused no end of war and destruction around the world since the 18th century. Can anyone direct me to any serious academic literature which can provide compelling arguments and/or evidence either for or against this legend?

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    1. You may be interested to know that we (myself and my coworkers Martelloni and Di Patti) have been performed a study on the frequency of wars during the past 4 centuries. It turns out to have been a statistical phenomenon following a power law (we are not the only ones who found that). That is, it seems that there is nobody in charge deciding when and where to start a war -- it is a random phenomenon. That's even worse than if there had been a cabal of some kind (or maybe aliens) managing wars

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    2. We'll publish these results soon

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    3. Well, every fire needs fuel, so great wars will invariably take place at times of energy abundance: that is what is -in part - being fought over.

      This would apply to pre-idustrial civilisations, too.

      It is also historically demonstrable that great industrialists (and their bankers) have sought to initiate and inflame conflict. This was particularly the case of Germany in 1914,and maybe the MIC of Europe and the US today.

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  10. With regard to point 6: The IPCC crowd harm their message by attacking research that should be considered for their models. The research of sunspots by Valentina Zharkova isn't an attack on AGW...it is a variable that should be evaluated for inclusion in the predictive models. You don't attack research because it may impact the results you want to see in your own research. It is petty and an insult to scientific principles while simultaneously showing scientists to be biased.

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    1. The point is that climate change won't be taken seriously if the IPCC themselves are guilty of the practice of silencing serious research which may impact their message. I am a researcher myself that has been attacked by advocates of PEM fuel cells in my own department when my experimental data contradicted their message and release of the data would impact funding. From my own personal experience I question how much of their message is based on science, politics or economics.

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    2. Your point is weak, to say the least. You have been attacked by fuel cell researchers? What does it have to do with climate science?

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    3. Ugo is clearly not at all interested in any investigation of the extreme and well documented corruption within IPCC and the ”climate-science”.

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    4. Oh, no... I am strongly interested. I am waiting for the detailed and unassailable evidence you can surely provide

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  11. I heard on the radio recently "They say we eat babies - we are not allowed to even eat pork! Have you any idea how hard it is to get a Kosher baby?"

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  12. You write: «In any case, the common element is always the search for a scapegoat, a culprit to blame for some problem that doesn't have easy solutions. It seems to be a well-ingrained mechanism working in human minds: once it kicks in, paranoia reigns and anyone, individuals, groups, entire societies, can become the target of a violent social revenge mechanism.» How did this mechanism play out during the decline of the Western Roman Empire? Perhaps you have written about this, bu i am pretty new hier.

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    1. It would be a long story, but it seems that, yes, the same mechanism was at play in the Western Roman Empire. One example that comes to my mind is how the Goths living inside the Empire were attacked and killed by Roman mobs after the battle of Teutoburg, in 9 A.D. I am citing from memory, I have to find the reference, but it was a classic case of social paranoia.

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  13. About Russia and the american presidential election in 2016, I wonder... There seems (reading the medias) that there was indeed some sort of "collusion" between Trump and his campaign. Trump moscow tower discussions well into 2016, Maria Butina and her fantasy russian NRA, Tump's famous call for Russia releasing H Clinton's hidden emails.
    I greatly appreciate your work so I wonder what are your reasons to say the Russian influence on american elections is a scam ?
    Anyway thank you for this blog and your "tremendous" work !

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    1. Personally, I have no opinion on whether the Russians decided to invest some money in trying to influence the US elections. I saw no proof they did, but that doesn't mean they didn't. If they did, it would be part of the world propaganda game -- all world governments engage in it.

      What I do think is that those who insist on saying that the Russians stole the elections for Trump must profoundly despise the American people. They think Americans are dumb enough that they would fall for such cheap tricks as showing Jesus and the Devil playing arm-wrestling (it is typically shown as an example of Russian propaganda). And, of course, if you think that the people are so easily swayed, then the whole exercise of democracy makes no sense. The Dems should remove the "democratic" term from the name of their party. Maybe they could retain the donkey as a symbol of what they would like to do to the American people if they could.

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    2. Note that I was used to think of myself as a "Dem" up to no long ago.

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    3. Ah... to be clearer, when I listed "the Russians hackers stealing the US elections" among the legends, I didn't mean that they couldn't have tried. What I meant is that it is perfectly possible that they could have tried to influence the US elections, but not that they could have fooled the American people so easily as they are being accused to have done.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)