Mulhall column: The last refuge of leftist ideas
In 1994, David Mikkelson and his former wife Barbara started Snopes to debunk urban legends, which, according to Google, are “humorous or horrific stor[ies] or piece[s] of information circulated as though true, especially one[s] purporting to involve someone vaguely related or known to the teller.”
Over time, Snopes has become, according to itself, the “oldest and largest” internet fact-checking site, which may be a self-congratulatory way of saying they did something first, staffed up and sustained decent internet ad revenue. With its reputation for “fact checking,” Snopes has become the darling of many who elevate knowledge based on science and deductive reason above — far above — tradition and commonly accepted doctrine, at least inasmuch as the conceit of superior societal enlightenment arising from science, technology and tolerance makes those who came before us rubes.
You might say Snopes is the internet version of “MythBusters,” the popular Discovery TV series that started in 2003 — almost a decade after Snopes — and ended in 2016. While the TV series used loosely controlled scientific methodology to blow holes in, often literally, or substantiate a question, Snopes performs research to declare a proposition true or false.
Snopes is the Underwriter’s Laboratory of rumor, the Consumer Reports of political perspective, the “Entertainment Tonight” of stuff you don’t care about even after reading it on Snopes.
As a site that purports to check fact, you might think Snopes would set high standards — you know, questions of philosophy, epistemology, metaphysics, that sort thing. However, a trip down Snopes’ Hot 50 even as I write this reveals such burning questions as “Was Freddy Krueger From ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ Based on a Real Serial Killer?”; “Did a Tattooed Jimi Hendrix Ride a Dune Buggy?”; and “Trump Got a Spray Tan in the Oval Office?” The last headline isn’t a question, but if you’re going to butcher inanity with a dull blade, you may as well throw the question mark under the bus while you’re at it.
Snopes pitches rarely lead to a deep ontological analysis, but they do give Drudge Report headlines a run for the money.
As a fact-checking concern, Snopes can sidestep what truth “is” almost as well as former President Bill Clinton. While Snopes usually provides true or false pronouncements on subjects it takes on, the world is not black and white, and neither is Snopes.
In one article, Snopes tackles a meme titled “9 Facts About Slavery They Don’t Want You To Know,” giving its 2 cents on the meme’s nine historical narratives. Snopes’ decrees vary from “True” to “Sort of True,” “Somewhat True,” “Possibly True” and “Approximately True.” These bet hedgers accord all the precision of the term “kind’a.” If you enter Snopes seeking facts on American slavery, that’s exactly how you leave.
If you can overlook Snopes’ subject matter and flimsy declarations, and many do, you owe it to yourself to examine its sources. On the question of whether sugar poured in a gas tank can ruin a combustion engine, for example, Snopes cites four: Reuters — on the possibility of using sugar as fuel (many seek petroleum replacements but never find one that actually works), Discover, the New York Times, and Tom and Ray Magliozzi, aka Click and Clack of the popular but now extinct PBS radio show, “Car Talk.” Not exactly a deep dive into the subject, nor a diverse one, yet one nonetheless based on convenient and recognizable sources. Snopes’ verdict on this subject dodges the hard work of gleaning citations from internal combustion engine experts or petroleum/chemical engineers almost as religiously as it avoids citing Fox News, Ann Coulter and Ted Nugent on any subject.
Some think of Snopes as a practitioner of the “scientific method.” In his 1975 seminal work, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Robert M. Pirsig described the scientific method thus: “(1) statement of the problem, (2) hypotheses as to the cause of the problem, (3) experiments designed to test each hypothesis, (4) predicted results of the experiments, (5) observed results of the experiments and (6) conclusions from the results of the experiments.” It’s an accurate summary. Snopes does not employ this method of inquiry. Not even close.
Pirsig also wrote, “The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know.”
The real purpose of Snopes seems to be to make sure you haven’t been misled into thinking you know something that’s not actually politically left.
Despite its Dorodango approach to truth getting, Snopes enjoys broad appeal among many who engage in political discourse.
“Well Snopes says it’s true,” one argues, and what follows is the usually unspoken but always implicit elementary school retort, “nanner nanner nanner,” as though you’ve just been chastened by some myopic crossing guard or booger rolling hall monitor. Any thoughtful exchange stops because it can do nothing else. To continue would be futile, for understanding does not arise from dialog with someone who has arrested truth from a Snopes ruling.
Snopes proves you can put together an argument, sometimes a pretty good one, supporting almost any position. However, when you encounter a revenue stream built on dispensing veracity, some perspective is warranted.
But please don’t take my word for it.
Mitch Mulhall is a longtime valley resident. His column appears on the second Friday of each month.