Sharia Law: I read it on the internet…, part 3

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I have quite a number of friends who like or repost stories with shouting headlines and containing claims apparently designed to feed fears.  What amounts to fear-mongering propaganda is wrapped in the trappings of legitimate “conservative” news sources.  Unfortunately, most of it, while at some level based in a true story, is so badly blown out of proportion and hyperbolic that it is a dishonest representation.

Now, these purveyors of hysterics and half-truths may or may not be intentionally distorting the reality.  But I suspect there could be a bit of an ‘ends justify the means’ mentality and an idea that their twisted versions of a story represent a greater truth or reality.  I think every journalist does pick and choose what facts are relevant and how they present a story does reveal their personal bias.  However, to me,  there is a level of this that is unintentional or within reason and a level that is inexcusable.

Woman Has Opinion; Sparks Controversy

One of these specters repeatedly raised is that of Sharia law and the suggestion it will be imposed on Americans.  A particular story about a sign advertising bacon in a Vermont town caught my eye today after a friend commented.  Here is the screenshot of my news feed:

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As one could imagine, the response in comments was one of the outrage of thousands of freedom (and bacon) loving Americans who don’t want religion imposed on them.  I realize there is reason to be aware of religious extremism, but what is the reason for this particular furor and do the actual facts support such a dramatic response?  According to the conservativetribune.com story this is the issue:

“Should a restaurant that serves bacon be allowed to display signs and/or advertisements that mention bacon? The U.S. Constitution says that it should, but Muslims in Vermont apparently disagree.”

From that opening paragraph one could assume there is a direct threat to freedom of speech posed by a group of people.  The article goes on to discuss a solitary example of a business owner who took down a sign because “an outraged Muslim woman” complained about it.  There are no further examples given and no evidence that this woman speaks for a plurality of Muslims.

The complaint of one woman does not seem to match the “Muslims in Vermont” description above it and that is quite an over-statement.  What’s the problem?  Well, if one woman can speak for “Muslims in Vermont,” then I suppose Westboro Baptist speaks for Christians in Kansas, right?

Concern for Safety or Fear of Violence?

Anyhow, there’s an article on the Washington Post website that takes a more detailed look and provides the full text of the woman’s complaint.  She describes herself as “a vegan and a member of a Muslim household” then goes on to say the sign is both insensitive to those who don’t eat pork and this:

“Second, it clutters an already dangerous crosswalk. This signage for a business’ food distracts from the purpose of that area: for pedestrians to safely cross and for drivers to safely enter the circle. What is the additive safety factor of this sign being there? I fail to see what benefit it affords people in that intersection and why the city put it up. The only appropriate signage would be standardized official road signs pertaining to the crosswalk and circle.”

I would guess that is why the restaurant owner mentions safety in his response.  However that apparently isn’t as obvious to everyone as it seems to me and leads to this speculation in the conservativetribune.com article about the owners response:

“Notice how he mentioned “safety” concerns. This made it sound as if he feared the Muslims in Winooski would have taken violent action had he not removed the sign”

I cannot fathom how one could make that leap based in the known facts.  It doesn’t “make it sound” as if he feared violence from Muslims to me.  No, it makes it sound as if the restaurant owner read the woman’s letter and was responding to the excerpt of her letter I posted above.  The concern for safety she mentioned was having a business sign creating a distraction.

Right to Free Speech and Threats Thereof

So basically we have a woman with an opinion and a business owner willing to accommodate her preferences.  It hardly seems like a crisis of Constitutional freedom when a woman exercises that her right to express a controversial opinion.  But it does seem a case of journalistic malpractice to make one woman into a representative of Muslims or categorize her as an “acolyte of Shariah law” because she expressed a concern. 

The real threat to liberty is those who abuse it.  I am more concerned over reckless surmises and the feeding of irrational fears than I am of one woman exercising her freedom of speech.  Her opinion, while I disagreed with it, was reasonably explained and it is her right to express it.  The response was a distortion at best, slanderous at worse and one of many similar stories.

Unfortunately I cannot respond to every internet hoax or propaganda piece and even if I did the chances of my words reaching through the mess and changing minds already made up seems slim.  Still I do try to make a difference.

Amish Lies: I read it on the internet…, part 2

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I was not planning to do a blog about immunization and autism.  However, an article posted by a social media friend, along with comments from US Senator Rand Paul made recently, prompted my response.  The article makes two claims about Amish, immunization and autism (presented in questions) in the title; and both claims turn out to be false. 

Claim: Amish Do Not Vaccinate

It seemed plausible at first brush, especially given that this small Christian sect mandates an austere lifestyle and rejects many modern conveniences, that they would also not vaccinate.  However, I have an advantage in that I know some Amish people.  But, more significantly, I have a sister (Dr. Olivia K. Wenger, MD) who led a study on Amish and their attitudes towards vaccinations. 

The research of Dr. Wenger and her colleagues, although addressing primarily the opinions of Amish parents about vaccinations and not vaccination rates, is sufficient to disprove the idea that Amish do not vaccinate.  This is some of what they found:

“Among 359 respondents, most (68%) stated that all of their children had received at least one vaccine, and 14% of those surveyed said their children had received no vaccines.”

Amish, in fact most who responded in the study cited above, do vaccinate.  So the idea that Amish do not vaccinate is a myth and lie.  That false claim alone is enough reason to dismiss any other claim found in the article, but in case you are unconvinced, I will address the other claim in the title as well.

Claim: Amish Do Not ‘Get’ Autism

The anti-vaccination article claims there are only three known cases of autism amongst Amish people.  Again, I could’ve accepted this as valid, but mostly because there’s a strong possibility of autism being undiagnosed in this community that is as insular and closed as the Amish community.

However, this too was easily refutable despite no studies directly addressing the topic.  I found research, by Dr. D. Holmes Morton, MD and others, that triples the number of cases of Amish children with autism symptoms:

“In March 2006, Drs. Kevin
Strauss, Holmes Morton and others documented 9 autistic Amish children, which could raise the autism rate of Lancaster Amish community Olmstead supposedly investigated to almost 1/5,000 all by themselves.”

So, both claims are untrue based in readily available evidence.  Unfortunately stories like this are posted as true over and over again by those who are anti-vaccination or sympathetic.  It is soaked up as proof of a link between autism and vaccines, yet it is demonstrably false information.

If your primary cause is truth, then carefully vet your sources!

As a believer in individual freedom, religious liberty and one who is respectful of conscience, I am doubly offended by articles like this.  Quite frankly I am embarrassed to see these types of spurious claims circulated by those associated with my political leanings and religious faith.

Yes, opposition to vaccinations crosses political and religious lines, but is often a topic of conversation amongst my Libertarian and Christian peers.  That some of them regularly repeat this sort of thing as legitimate or present it without question is a source of serious frustration for me.  It does a disservice to even good questions about vaccinations.

Nothing is gained by linking falsehoods to what is true.  If anything, people who are not ignorant of science will ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and reject all that is associated with the falsehood.  In a world awash with information, why should they waste time on a source that lied to them once and/or doesn’t carefully vet their sources?

“Do not spread false reports.”  (Exodus 23:1a)

I realize not everyone is a scientific or critical thinker.  I myself struggle with the discipline required for serious research and that is part of the reason I would not make a career of it.  That said, we do need to take responsibility for the information we disseminate online and owe others our due diligence verifying claims with reliable sources before repeating it.

Sadly, anonymous articles with sensational headlines garner more attention than these unsung heroes who are actively creating solutions for sick Amish children.  There are sources far more reliable than an article that does not even include the name of the author.  Professionals like Dr. Morton and Dr. Wenger have dedicated their careers to studying Amish genetics and medical disorders. 

Footnote: I cite secondary sources for the research of Dr. Wenger and Dr Morton, but if you want to read the original studies, the links are below:

Underimmunization in Ohio’s Amish: Parental Fears Are a Greater Obstacle Than Access to Care

Recessive symptomatic focal epilepsy and mutant contactin-associated protein-like 2.

I read it on the internet, so it must be true…

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There was a story circulating a few years ago claiming that a mountain lion was hit by a truck in Pennsylvania and urging people to spread the news.  The claim was accompanied by a picture of a man with a big dead cat and also included mention of Game Commission denial.

This story was red meat for those of my friends who were already suspicious of the state officials (who maintained there was lack of credible evidence that mountain lions roamed the state forests) and was confirming proof to them.  The story included a photographic evidence, did it not?  How could it not be credible and proof of a cover-up, right?

As it turns out the same photo has been used in many stories to make different claims.  It is a real photo.  However, according to more credible sources, the photo was taken in Arizona and not in Pennsylvania or the many other places where internet stories claimed the animal was hit.  The story that the mountain lion was hit in Pennsylvania is apparently a lie.

So, why would a person be so suspicious and skeptical of one source (like the PA Game Commission) and yet be so gullible as to fall for an internet hoax from a random source?  Why trust a complete stranger who we have no way of knowing if the information they give is trustworthy or true while disbelieving sources that are at least somewhat accountable and knowable?

It comes back to confirmation bias or the idea that people will be more accepting of evidence that confirms their existing beliefs or biases.  Those who accepted the story as true already believed the truth was being hidden by the government and thus didn’t feel need to check the credibility of the claim.  They pick up and run with whatever tickled their existing partisan fancy.

I understand confirmation bias.  But it is difficult for me to understand why people are so easily duped by internet hoaxes and conspiracy theories from spurious sources.  It is especially difficult for me to understand how people can be so cynical of mainstream sources and then simultaneously accepting of a story posted by some random person on the internet.  It should be opposite, we should be more skeptical of a little known source and less mistrusting of those more known.

Time and time again I see stories posted by friends on social media, I do my due diligence to research the claim and oftentimes find it is a myth or hoax.  In an age of Photoshop pictures can be easily doctored.  Credentials can be fabricated to make an appeal to authority and I am instantly skeptical when someone uses that type of appeal rather than concrete evidence and sound logic.

Good cases aren’t bolstered by bad arguments.  True stories do not need fake photos or deceptive use of facts.  By using (or linking) unreliable information as proof of an idea a person is actually hurting their chances of convincing intelligent people who disagree and are potentially making a mockery of themselves.

Lies and fraudulent claims used to promote a moral argument are especially inexcusable.  I can understand why corrupt politicians and calculated propagandists distort evidence trying to gain power from the ignorance of their constituency.  I can also understand why immoral people fabricate stories and try to deceive for entertainment or whatever reason.  But what I cannot accept is false information used by those who are claiming the moral high ground.  It is hypothetical at worse and dangerous ignorance as best.

“These are the things you are to teach and insist on. If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.”  (1 Timothy 6:2b-5)

A moral person should take responsibility for the stories they spread.  An untrue claim can do real harm.  Gossip, slander and evil surmises may help line the pockets of those trying to exploit the ignorance of others for their own gain.  But these things do do not help the cause of truth.  As people of faith and love we have no excuse to be casual with our sources.  Agreement in principle is not a reason to trust a source or be negligent of due diligence.

“Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.”  (1 Timothy 4:7-10)

Contrary to what some may think, being a person of faith does not automatically lead to better discernment.  We must actual train ourselves to be godly and discerning.  What this means practically is not just accepting internet stories as fact even if we like what they are saying.  We have a moral responsibility to be critical thinkers who can see past our own potential prejudices, misconceptions or biases.  It requires first being humble enough to admit what we want to think is true isn’t always true.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”  (Philippians 4:8)

If you do not know if a story is true or not, rather than risk promulgation of half-truth or lies, do not share it.  There is plenty that is good or honorable that we can share without risking the credibility of ourselves or hurting that which we claim to love in the process.