What is fake news? A simple question that is not so easy to answer. The extreme forms featuring outright fabrications can be identified quickly, but some stories are far more difficult to categorize. Because true and false information can be blended together easily and harnessed to serve a variety of goals, fake news in one form or another has been around for quite a while.
A recent article featuring thoughts from a writer who reports on such matters suggests “the origins of ‘fake news’ go back to the 1950s when UFO newsletters from organizations like the Aerial Phenomenon Research Organization reported on alien abductions and government coverups.” Jumping from UFO groups to radio programs and beyond produces a simple straight line extrapolation leading to Breitbart News.
The UFO community has experienced quite directly the negative impacts of fake news. Charlatans and hoaxers have prospered on fertile grounds while poisoning progress toward meaningful comprehension of the phenomena. Misinformation and deliberate disinformation have agitated leaders and the rank-and-file alike. Unable to establish much of anything in the way of reliable, agreed-on fact, the community has devolved into small profit center fiefdoms.
Ufology has been plagued by fake news from without and within, but that device certainly did not originate in UFO interest group newsletters. To make such a claim is to ignore a great body of history that reveals forms of fake news have been with us for centuries. ‘Yellow’ journalism helped drive the United States into war with Spain over a century ago as publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer tried to out sensationalize each other’s news stories. Edward Bernays wrote the book on the dark aspects of propaganda – ‘engineering public consent’- nearly 25 years before Coral and Jim Lorenzen founded APRO. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776, pushed the American colonies on the path to independence.
Fake news may be purpose built, but it can also come about through journalistic carelessness. Experts consenting to interviews must take care to provide informed perspectives and interviewers/authors may wish to vet the assertions carefully. It seems possible that Long John Nebel might have influenced Art Bell, but what evidence is there that chain extends forward through persons like Rush Limbaugh and beyond? Maybe it is just as valid to postulate later day radio personalities were influenced by Harry Emerson Fosdick and the many evangelists of the airwaves who followed him. Lacking corroboration these statements seem more akin to a conspiracy theory than an evidenced explanation of the history of fake news.
The take home lesson is clear; fake news is pervasive, some of it may not be intentional. Manage it by honing your critical thinking skills.
Scientists are developing sensitive devices to reveal DNA or proteins from genetically engineered organisms in complex environmental samples (1). This technology may give investigators an unprecedented ability to track engineered genes and their protein products through ecosystems. Genetically modified (GM) Bt-corn plants express toxin genes originating from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that kill certain insect pests. Although widely adopted, assessing the environmental effects of Bt-corn agriculture has been challenging. An ability to trail toxin genes and proteins flowing through the environment might help ecologists detect any consequential impacts linked with Bt-corn farming. Because the new genetically engineered product detection devices will be adaptable to many situations, they might become a standard part of both risk assessment and compliance assurance processes.
The management of GM farming operations can be complicated undertakings demanding proactive actions to minimize the unintentional dispersal of modified plants or their products such as pollen (2). Despite the efforts, GM farms and ‘organic’ food growers sometimes coexist under tense conditions. Concerns over spreading GM materials have already induced neighboring organic food producers to launch lawsuits alleging economic losses due to contamination (2). The deployment of new, highly sensitive detection tools could turn out to be a double-edged sword that renews concerns over product purity. Let’s assume the new detection systems reach the scientist’s stated goal of revealing 3 copies of a specific target DNA molecule in a one milliliter liquid sample (1). Would finding that level of GM DNA in or on a certified organic food item mean it is impure? The problem may be that highly sensitive analysis methods might reveal GM materials are widely dispersed in our environment in places we never dreamed they would be and do not want them.
The emerging situation might be similar to what we face with radioactivity. Consumers would reasonably reject food products they knew to be radioactive. It might seem to be a simple matter to issue regulations forbidding the sale of all radioactive foods. The problem is that if the appropriate detection tools are sensitive enough they will reveal that all food items are slightly radioactive due to the universal, low-level presence of carbon-14. That forces regulators addressing such issues to craft rules with care and precision.
It will be scientifically important to use new, sensitive detection tools to confirm how far things like Bt toxins are now flowing quietly through our environment and establish valid thresholds to justify any future actions taken to protect ecosystems. However, it will be interesting to see what happens if someone tests their free range chicken and finds Bt toxin DNA all over it. Notwithstanding legal judgements regarding the safety of GM products, consumer concerns or outright refusal to purchase items they deem contaminated could create economic havoc for organic food producers.
GM foods have a contentious history and a sensitive new analytic technology is now advancing rapidly in a regulatory vacuum. This might turn out to be a lawyer’s dream come true.
The scientific journal Nature published a review of a book that examines the strange history and literature of the flying saucer phenomena (1). I have not read the book and am not asking you to buy it, just have a careful look at the appraisal posted on the Nature Books and Arts blog, A View From the Bridge.
Titled ‘The Rise and Fall of the UFO,’ it would not be surprising if readers came away with an impression the book explores a dead topic. Clearly, judged by mainstream press coverage, the UFO heyday passed many decades ago. However, UFOs are still with us and people who witness them persist in seeking explanations for them. A quick search of Amazon.com will reveal that new works on UFOs are published regularly.
In my limited personal experience, UFOs and paranormal events are rarely discussed by my colleagues. For many academics any professional interest in UFO phenomena probably died with the publication of the Condon Report. With such limited formal scientific study and discussion of the topic it is not surprising many scientists today would view UFOs as a long dead craze of the past prompted by swamp gas and stoked through mass hysteria.
Unfortunately, the inhabitants of the ivory tower may not realize their perspectives are restricted. You have a rare opportunity to help them avoid confirmation bias; anyone may post a comment to this blog. Read the review, see how it strikes you and issue an opinion if you deem it appropriate. A substantial public response to the review theme may demonstrate to the Nature readership the UFO topic is still alive today. And perhaps the editors will recognize that interest warrants more coverage.