The wonderful web has totally transformed both the way I do my job and the way I conduct my social life. But like any web it can be a trap for the unwary. As Abraham Lincoln said: “Any quotation you see on the internet has probably been made up.”
Same goes for statistics. The truth is out there – but so is an awful lot of absolute balderdash, and it can sometimes be a tricky business sorting out which is which.
Particularly risky – because particularly tempting – are those phoney figures (and phoney quotes) that seem to support your particular point of view. And that risk is multiplied by another massive danger hidden in plain view wherever you look on social media. I think of it as the intensifier effect. You get back what you put in – intensified.
Out in what used to be the real world, there was an element of randomness in who you met. Among your neighbours, in the pub, at work you’d come across people who were interested in different things, had different opinions from you. In the world of Facebook and Twitter, everything is there.
You might meet and become friends with people from Hawaii, Waikato, Warsaw and Wythenshawe (just to take a sample of my own online acquaintances). But you choose each other. Your interests and opinions are likely to be similar. If you share jokes, articles – and yes, made-up quotes and false figures – they are likely to confirm the views you already hold.
So if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, a redneck Southern Baptist, a New Age hippy or a true believer in the reincarnation of Egyptian gods, you probably find the world is full of people like you. People who share and uphold your values. Who confirm your fundamental rightness.
My world is full of people who think like me, more or less. Which can make it very tempting to pass on their jokes, their insights, their “facts”, without due thought or investigation. Tempting, and occasionally dangerous.
For example, I was caught out for a few minutes the other day by one of those “Abraham Lincoln”-type quotations. Or, in this case, a “Mark Twain” quote.
Now, I love the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain. There has never been a better newspaper columnist. He is also one of the most quoted people on the net. And one of the most misquoted.
So there’s this: “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.”
Brilliant quote, and well in line with the way Twain might have thought of politicians. But would he have expressed it in quite those words? My immediate thought was that he wouldn’t. It just felt too modern for a man who died in 1910. So I looked it up.
And lo and behold, there it is, all over the net, attributed to Twain. The more serious, apparently reliable, websites dedicated to Twain don’t have it, however – as they surely would if it was a genuine quotation. Neither do any of my printed, pre-internet books of quotations.
So I’m forced to believe the rather dry site that dates that particular witticism’s first appearance to a 1992 car bumper-sticker.
OK, maybe passing that off as Twain might not have put me in great peril, beyond any possible slight damage to my reputation for accuracy. But had I believed – and not checked – one supposed “fact” circulating on Facebook I could have been in trouble. Possibly legal trouble.
It might, on the face of it, have made my piece here last week about BBC news bias stronger. But only if it were true – and I could prove it was.
Using false evidence to support a good case only weakens it. As does sinking to personal abuse of your opponents.
This is a point Charles Moore makes in the latest instalment of his biography of Margaret Thatcher. That those who found the woman as ghastly as he found her glorious couldn’t get past their loathing to oppose her effectively.
It is also what undermines Richard Dawkins’s increasingly splenetic attacks on religion.
There’s nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view I hold dear. As Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain probably didn’t say. But Daniel C Dennett probably did.