Today is Columbus Day here in the United States, though you wouldn’t know it by talking to many Americans, for whom Christopher Columbus is little more than a name on the calendar. This morning, I stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few things, and I remarked to the young cashier that the store seemed especially quiet for the holiday.
“It’s a holiday?” she asked.
“Columbus Day,” I said.
“Oh. Right. I think I heard this girl say something about it. She said it was, like, the day Columbus died. He was the guy that founded Ohio or something, right?”
Close. Columbus is the capital of Ohio.
If ever you wondered how it is that so many can believe in Atlantis, ancient astronauts, or alternative history, you have your answer. The depths of American historical ignorance continue to astound me. (I’m sure other countries have similar problems, though I don’t live there to know firsthand.)
Of course, Columbus himself was no better. In many ways, he behaved like today’s “alternative” writers, nowhere more prominently than in his adamant refusal to accept—against all evidence—that he had discovered a new continent, not a new path to the Orient. He died still holding the official position that he had found Asia, not a new world. He also, like his alternative counterparts today, produced a book of alternative speculation called The Book of Prophecies (1501-1505) in which he argued that his voyages were marked out in the Bible as harbingers of the End Time, over which Spain’s Catholic Monarchs would preside as the Last World Emperor of medieval myth. In his mind, he felt he had contributed to bringing about the return of Christ. Compare this to Erich von Däniken, who believes he is bringing about the return of the aliens. At least Columbus had some genuine discoveries to his credit.
But today there is something worse that just ignorance. I was talking with a professor of communications who teaches introductory journalism and mass communication courses for a major university here in New York State, and what he had to say shocked and surprised me. His students, both traditional college-aged students and non-traditional adult learners, simply cannot tell a fact from an opinion, or distinguish between news stories and opinion columns, or between professional journalism and random internet screeds and blog postings. This is quite horrifying when we stop to think how many must take Ancient Aliens for truth because it appears on TV.
One of the first assignments in this professor’s introductory media literacy course is to bring to class a well-reported, professional news story to critique, and over the two years this professor has been teaching the course, he said anywhere from half to two-thirds of the class brings in pieces of internet writing that just aren’t news writing, including opinion blogs, website comments, and—increasingly—content farm websites that are laid out like news sites but use user-submitted, unedited content like Examiner.com and Huliq.com.
Is it a coincidence that ancient astronauts and Atlantis are to be found haunting the pages of both sites? This immediately made me think of how Huliq.com fooled skeptic Benjamin Radford and the editors of Discovery News because the site looks like news even if much of it reads like ungrammatical, childish scribbling. Never mind the number of people who take The Onion for truth.
I suppose we could blame the internet, but after two decades of online life, there really isn’t any excuse for not being able to tell truth from fantasy, or facts from opinions. It is, however, an important reminder that no matter what is posted online—or broadcast on TV or the radio—someone will believe it.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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