Why Nobody Trusts Anything They Read Anymore…

Newsweek recently ran an article arguing that wind power really costs more than people think. The story’s italicized tagline identified the author thusly: “Randy Simmons is professor of political economy at Utah State University.”

A respectable (and presumably reliable) credential. As the Daily Kos reported, however,

The Erik Wemple Blog yesterday asked Simmons whether his Newsweek blast at wind power should have contained more information about his ties to some key players in the U.S. energy sector. For instance, between 2008 and 2013, Simmons served as the Charles G. Koch Professor of Political Economy from 2008 to 2013, in what he terms a “fixed-term professorship.” And Simmons currently supervises a program known at Utah State University as the “Koch Scholars” program, which runs on an annual grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. It’s a “reading group” that meets on Tuesday evenings. “The Koch Foundation grant buys the books, and food and provides a scholarship for each of the 15 students chosen that semester,” writes Simmons in an e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog.

Surely the Koch’s major fossil fuel holdings and generous underwriting had no effect upon Simmons’ research conclusions. (If you believe that, I have some swampland in Florida to sell you.)

When special interests can “buy” (or at least influence) presumably objective research results, is it any wonder that all research is viewed with skepticism?

In an environment where everything is suspect, it becomes so easy to engage in “confirmation bias”–to believe those sources that confirm our preferred worldview, and to dismiss contrary evidence.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Distrust, American Style, arguing that constant revelations about corrupt practices in so many major institutions of American life–not just government, but also major league sports, the Catholic Church’s molestation scandals, big business (Enron, Worldcon, et al)–had eaten away the fabric of trust needed in order for society to function. That was before the ubiquity of cell phone cameras had given us evidence of pervasive police misconduct, before stories emerged about phony FBI forensic testimony, before the “banksters” and the Great Recession they triggered…the list goes on.

Democratic governments require a robust civil society in order to function properly. Civil society requires social capital. Social capital–our connection to one another–requires trust and reciprocity.

That trust is hard to come by these days.


  1. After reading the comments of yesterday’s blog, I’ll just say this: Don’t feed the trolls. They get energy from it.

  2. We not only cannot trust what we read anymore, we cannot trust the word of people we deal with on any issue. The level of incompetence when attempting to conduct business, legal and even health situations, is beyond comprehension. And we usually begin these contacts by reading their offers, qualifications and promises just as we rely on the written and spoken words of elected officials. The months of problems I encountered last year to recover all identification and restore my excellent credit rating after being mugged and robbed was a nightmare. Prior to that, in April 2011, I had reported discrimination by 3 surgeons who refused to perform bladder surgery because of my deafness to the federal Office of Civil Rights after the Indiana Medical Licensing Division of the Indiana Attorney Generals Office denied my petition to have letters of reprimand placed in their personel files. Last week I received the OCR reponse regarding the 3rd doctor; they apologized for the treament I received, will send her the “technical qualifications needed” and IF they receive another complaint about this particular doctor, they will “consider” investigating.

    This is not the same as the Koch Foundation providing educational benefits to some who write financial reports for public consumption but…it is a major problem within private, public, medical and government organizations we must deal with because they are the “only game in town”. They are well aware we are limited in access to recourse but must depend on what they spew forth; especially when it comes to dealing with or depending on government. We should not have to delve into the lower depths to find the primary provider of information; it should be added as a footnote – or disclaimer.

  3. Every day we wake up in a world that contains sufficient nuclear armament to destroy the entire planet. Yet we have collectively found enough wisdom to avoid using it.

    Every day in the last several decades we wake up in a world that contains sufficient brainwashing capability to destroy the functional culture that glues us together as a nation and world. The stuff of empathy that leads us to live in ways that don’t impose what’s easiest for us on other people including those not yet born.

    The best that those not yet under the spell of that power can do is to accept that the power to destroy culture exists as a capability and use the gifts bestowed by our ancestors to say hell no. And mean it.

    No different than what the Greatest Generation was called to do 75 years ago.

    The destructive power after all has to be invited into our minds. That’s one step easier to resist than the public programming capabilities envisioned in “1984”. I think it is anyway.

    Our forefathers also envisioned this eventuality and described in our Constitution a liberal democratic government that empowered us with control, separated from the cultural influence of other institutions of culture creation like organized religion, made provisions for us to get educated enough to be independent thinkers, and maintain a government of those similarly equipped.

    We just have to do it. Enough of us. Relentlessly.

    We can get through risky times collectively. We can resist the use and influence of destructive powers even if we can’t prevent their creation. But we have to want freedom passionately.

  4. Instead of asking Simmons whether his Newsweek blast should have contained more information about his ties to the energy sector, the concerned public should be asking the editors of Newsweek this question. In fact we should be asking a lot more from the editors of all publications and media news outlets.

  5. The electronic medium is great – except there is no peer review. Anybody can be an expert and totally unaccountable for anything they publish. The other problem is that people have become willing to accept almost anything at face value as Sheila has stated above often without a shadow of doubt.

  6. Great responses Pete and Teresa! My father, a high school dropout due to having to help his family during the “great depression”, a WWII veteran who fought in the Philippine Islands, gave me two wonderful pieces of advice to live by. 1. “To thine own self, be true” and 2. “Don’t believe everything you read”. This advice has proved invaluable!

  7. Periods of civil unrest are GREAT for demagogues, and of course that is why they are undermining the basis of our civilization. Lenin made himself Czar of Russia that way, and Ran Paul knows it.

  8. This is why refereed journals now routinely require disclosures of professional affiliations & financial interests. People who lie about these things are banned from that journal permanently. Newsweek was using the usual tactic employed by desperate media outlets to encourage traffic, i.e. publishing a manufactroversy by someone who provides incomplete ‘qualifications.’

    Almost as bad as advertorials such as this one is the gross journalistic incompetence you see everywhere – I can’t even read the NY Times anymore without finding errors of fact & interpretation in the only two fields I really know anything about, medical research and astronomy. It follows that the same types of errors exist in the rest of the paper as well.

    Basically, nothing published online or on paper should be believed until investigated by the reader or corroborated by someone the reader trusts (like Sheila!).

  9. Many don’t believe anything the hear because lying is common place–even expected. What’s worse, there is little or no chance that even the biggest liars and cheats will suffer any consequences . . . so long as they are wealthy. There are also those who will refuse to hear the truth if they already have a lie they like better.

    I was stunned that the teacher’s in the Georgia school test scandal are to be prosecuted under RICO, yet the Wall Street bankers who orchestrated the last (and soon the next) financial disaster with bundled and worthless investments were not. Instead they were bailed out financially, were able to keep–and in some cases increase their “performance bonuses.” That remains the most blatant organized crime in my lifetime and it went unpunished.

    News media lie blatantly and shamelessly but their licenses aren’t threatened with non-renewal and the merest mention of the fairness doctrine results in anyone who dare speak for it.

    In pulpits all across the nation churches meddle in politics without fear of losing their tax exempt status. They can get away with it because no one of either party has the courage to act to enforce the law. (Full disclosure: I am a pastor of a small rural congregation and do not preach politics or publish “voting guides” and such like tripe and need and want the tax exemption to keep our church financially solvent.)

    Teachers don’t teach any longer–not because they don’t wish to or are lazy and incompetent, as some would have us believe, but because ciricula has become so politicized and geared toward testing rather than teaching they are too busy trying to survive the constant attacks by legislators on their integrity and ability.

    Many don’t trust the police because they can’t, and the police don’t trust anyone but themselves because they are afraid–the good ones of retribution from other police–and the bad ones for fear of prosecution.

    Sadly, my list could go on and on, but listing problems doesn’t change them. We MUST somehow force the courts to punish the “big guys” with the same relish that they do the poor. We MUST take money out of politics–and reversing Citizen’s United is just a beginning. Money is not and will never equal free speech–it just permits some to yell louder than others. Not only should it be one person one vote, but one person one (un-amplified) voice! I have often expressed the equation that money is to politics what force is to reason. And that is the truth.

    I cheer those like Pete and others who say we must not give up, but not giving up is different that winning back our rights. We must not only keep fighting–but more importantly–we must have a coherent plan. I pray we will find the courage and the leaders who will help us do that.

  10. Sheila, I also apologize to all posters for my incivility on yesterday’s comments. It was not my intention to get caught up in the war that was ensuing but I did nevertheless. I might be suffering from a hopefully mild case of PTPD – Post Traumatic Post Disorder.

  11. We just need to be more conscientious readers. Whenever I read anything that seems at all dicey I look up the credentials and other writing of the author. We can take anything at face value unless we know the background of the author.

  12. This is from the Daily Kos from a few months ago. It is a good example of the deliberately and often ridiculous disinformation that is out there floating around and its potential impact on any of us.

    “You didn’t know this, did you?

    On a flight home I sat in between two individuals, a Marine and boxing promoter. The boxing guy was an older gentleman, and told interesting stories, such as meeting Don King. Both men were very pleasant and that helped make time pass on the flight. We were all combat veterans and all Southerners, so we had a lot in common. Then the discussion, inevitably, turned to politics.

    The older guy turned to the Marine and said “You know Obama is getting rid of the Marine Corps, right?”

    The Marine was puzzled. He hadn’t heard this news. Neither had I. “Yeah, Eric Holder just had a meeting with the Joint Chiefs. Obama is going to disband them by Executive Order.”

    Hooooo boy. We are going to do this now, are we? Putting aside for the moment why the head of the DOJ would be involved with restructuring a military department in the DoD, I said: “I don’t think any president can just disband a branch of service. Also, this would be pretty big news. Don’t you think it would be all over the news instead of a message board?” I assumed it was a message board because I follow GOP conspiracy theories on rightwing sites, and never heard of this one. Even the Marine, who was no Obama fan, agreed this sounded very stupid and we moved on to other topics.

    We all parted ways and thanked each other for the talk. I told the Marine I’d see him on my flight back since there soon wouldn’t be a base for him to go to.”

    When I read this myself, thanks to a friend’s (also a very proud Marine) post on Facebook that preceded this Daily Kos article, I had to check it out myself even though I knew that the Marine Corps is protected by the National Security Act of 1947 (PL253-80th Congress) from dissolution as part of the Navy Department without Congressional approval. Even though it sounded ridiculous to me as well, since I follow defense-related issues closely, I initially wondered what exactly was going on and found that absolutely none of what was in my friend’s Facebook re-post was even remotely accurate. In essence it was total bilge. Since he was hopping mad I got back with him right away to pass on the straight scoop and allay his fears that his beloved “Corps” was going away and so that he could go back to being mad at the President for his normal reasons.

    Regardless, to see that headline initially shocked me which is what the person that originally spread this myth was intent upon. While this attempt at disinformation fell flat for myself and my friend there are many others out there that are very subtle and clever and not so easily dismissed without checking the facts out oneself.

  13. Healthy social animals. . and unhealthy, learn by living examples of whom to trust with what and how far, and proportionately whom to distrust and mistrust. The men’s magazines used to be — maybe still are — the extemporaneous debate topics for high school students. In 1961 the big topics were capital punishment, public insurance for nuclear power plants (privates would not), psychological studies of mothers (chimpanzees were better for pre-schoolers). . .and terrors of nuclear annihilation in some spots, maiming in others, being drafted to go into space. . .

  14. I love this blog and read it daily. I am happy that Sheila jumped in yesterday, and I agree with Aging Little Girl that you should not take the bait and let (him?) work everyone into a frenzy. Please just ignore him. Nothing you can say is going to change his mind, nor can anything he says change your mind. He’s just toying with you and getting a big laugh out of it when you react. Leave him in his own vacuum. Thanks.

  15. Tom; I remember that Daily KOS article and I also researched the bogus information. It infuriatead me because I got messages from people who believed it. It is infuriating that people take the time to post articles such as this because the majority of people will just believe it…the best example is that our president is a Muslim, born in Kenya, racist against white people, he is going to confiscate everyone’s guns and no one will be allowed to buy ammunition in any form and is the cause of every wrong over the past 15 – 20 years. I did have to laugh when I read the post before he was inaugurated that he is unAmerican – he had ordered Dejon mustard on his hotdog in a New York City restaurant. I prefer Dejon myself, or Gulden’s spicy brown:)

  16. Cancer is typically discovered only after symptoms of bodily malfunction appear. Dead black man and smoking police guns are a symptom. Street riots another. The best in journalism would be revealing the cancer not blaming the symptoms. It would be making us think not merely emote. I haven’t seen any such reporting from Baltimore yet but hope to.

  17. I’m a Gulden’s man myself JoAnn. I have a black helicopter, normally a Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk, deliver a few bottles of it to me once a month.

  18. “Democratic governments require a robust civil society in order to function properly. Civil society requires social capital. Social capital–our connection to one another–requires trust and reciprocity.”

    If that’s not a battle-cry or wake-up call for the future of this country and all of us I don’t know what is. All of this manipulation of the media, whichever form it takes, and our legitimate political discourse, is seriously damaging that social capital by pitting us against one another while those that do this to us inch ever closer to their aims and not ours as a people right under our noses. We fight and argue with one another while those that definitely do not have our backs are cleaning our clocks. They are manipulating the natural trajectory of this country right now to make it in whatever image they feel is appropriate for us.

    Even now the poster boys of these efforts, the Koch brothers, run ads having their employees tout very nicely how they are involved in our daily lives via all the products that they make that some of us buy every day. That’s not all that they’re doing obviously and for them to feel that they have to explain themselves in such hokey, folksy down home commercials against their real image as the great and shadowy manipulators is very telling. They must feel the need to shore up their image a little so that what they are doing, hijacking our country, will be perhaps easier for the body politic to swallow. In a pig’s eye it is.

    No single individual, or in their case two, should have that much power in this country. It’s too bad that they both don’t look like Lionel Barrymore since ‘Mr. Potter’ of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is who I think of when I here anything about them. Where’s ‘George Bailey’ when we really need him? I hope that he’s not on their payroll too.

  19. To make matters worse, given enough facts, they will eventually completely prove totally opposite arguments.

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