Maybe you’re shocked that the Jussie Smollett hate crime tale appears to have turned into a hoax, but I’m not. I wish I could say it’s because I’m some 21st century Sherlock Holmes. I’m not. But here’s what I am when it comes to everything I see and hear, especially in the news.
Skepticism has been around since the old Greeks. Skeptics believe that absolute truth is tough to ascertain, so it’s best to apply a healthy sense of doubt to most stories and propositions. Having been around journalism for the past 25 years, I can say that skepticism has become increasingly helpful over time, because it has helped me avoid embarrassing public mistakes and heartbreak.
When I first heard that Smollett, an actor and singer who is black and gay, claimed to have been beaten by two white men who shouted racist and homophobic slurs, tied a noose around his neck, then doused him with bleach while screaming about “MAGA country,” my reaction was … skeptical. I didn’t shout, “Wow, that’s a hoax.”
Rather, I thought, “Hmm, if that story is true, it’s awful. And if it’s not true, it’s equally awful. I’m going to wait for all the facts before I make up my mind.”
In retrospect, that turned out to be wise, at least in contrast to Democratic presidential contenders Kamala Harris and Cory Booker – who both immediately labeled Smollett’s case a “modern-day lynching” – and director Rob Reiner, who laid the “attack” at the feet of President Trump.
“Homophobia existed before Trump, but there is no question that since he has injected his hatred into the American bloodstream, we are less decent, less human, & less loving,” Reiner tweeted.
My thought: When a Hollywood celebrity claims to be walking to Subway alone at 2 a.m. in downtown Chicago on the coldest night of the year, take a deep breath before hitting send on that tweet.
Point being, skeptics don’t assume everything is fake. Cynics do. Cynics believe everyone is inherently awful, everyone is out to screw everyone, and everyone is a self-interested liar.
I only believe that about most politicians, lawyers and car salesmen.
For the rest of mankind, I believe that the truth is slippery and complex, so I seek a high degree of proof before buying in to anyone’s claims.
One of the great rewards of skepticism, besides avoiding looking silly?
You’ll have lots of chances to say “I told you so,” which you can then pass up too much self-acclaim.
Last Tuesday, a researcher friend emailed me a front-page story from a Phoenix newspaper claiming that “thousands of people may have been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation” emanating from three big buckets of uranium ore stored for almost 20 years in a museum at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim.
His point: “This ‘scoop’ doesn’t quote a single scientist about the relative safety of uranium. It’s mostly premised on some email from a serial whistleblower who sounds like a nutjob.”
Thursday morning, I emailed my friend the paper’s “skin back” – journalism slang for a follow-up story that basically says “whoops” about the original story.
The funniest line? “It’s just a bucket of rocks,” said a health physicist who disputed the whistleblower’s allegations. “I wouldn’t line my baby’s crib with it but …”
My buddy emailed back a “laughing so hard I’m crying” emoji and one line: “Score another victory for skepticism.”
A much smarter fellow than most of us, the astronomer and author Carl Sagan, used to say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” That was true in Sagan’s time, but not so much nowadays. Today, sadly, saying, tweeting and emailing is believing.
David Leibowitz has called the Valley home since 1995. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.