I received the most inspiring story in my email inbox the other day.
It was about eagles, those bold, powerful birds that are the symbol of American might and grace. This story, as told in the email, outlined how eagles can live to be 70 years old, but only if in the middle of their lifespan they make a “hard decision.”
I’ll let the slides tell the story, as presented in the email.
The email ended with a nice closing statement, along with another incredible “fact” about the eagle.
“When it rains, most birds head for shelter; the eagle is the only bird that, in order to avoid the rain, soars above the rain clouds.
An amazing tidbit about the eagle’s eyesight: The Eagle can probably identify a rabbit moving almost a mile away. That means that an eagle flying at an altitude of 1,000 feet over open country could spot prey over an area of almost 3 square miles from a fixed position. No wonder God wants us to spread our wings and soar with eagles.”
Overall, this is a pretty inspiring story about change and adaptation, and how if one is willing to shed the accumulated weight and decay of the past, there’s an entirely new life waiting for us on the other side. The eagle, after all, can remake itself in the middle of its lifespan and be reborn, in sorts, to live another life full of potential.
Except it’s not at all true.
As I read this, I quickly realized some of this information was suspect. I had no idea about an eagle’s lifespan, but 70 years seemed too long. According to the Smithsonian, eagle’s can live up to 50 years. The average is 30. But moreover, I suspected that an eagle doesn’t need to fly to the top of a mountain and isolate itself. I’ve seen eagles in Kansas, and I know some of them migrate up and down areas of the central flyway, where there are no mountains on which they can take refuge. And the business of beating off it’s beak, well, that just seemed absurd.
It didn’t take much searching for me to determine that just about everything in this email was completely and utterly false.
But here’s the thing – this is fairly innocent. A simple story about an eagle finding a way to live a new life. A way to get rid of the old and replace it with something new. We all like that story, and in some ways it seems sort of cruel to send back a reply saying that this email you just sent me is complete rubbish.
Yet, I can’t help to think that allowing a simple email like this – which on the surface doesn’t seem to harm anything – contributes to the growing habit in this country of believing things that are not true – or worse perhaps, not questioning them all. Certainly this little email story doesn’t undermine democracy. It doesn’t promote an ideology based in falsehood. But it does replace scientific fact with a story that is out-and-out untrue.
And that, however benign that might seem, is dangerous in my opinion. Because ultimately this email has likely created a false truth for a number of people who read it and accept it as fact. They’ve forwarded it on to others, and there’s now a story out there about how eagle’s live – and the truth of how eagles live, the facts, are now in a position of defense. The true, and perhaps less romantic, story of the eagle is forced to bear the burden of proof against a story that lacks facts but appeals to our sense of renewal and strength.
Not such a big deal, maybe, when we’re talking about a story of eagles. But I suspect it helps create an environment in which other, maybe bigger mistruths, can thrive and take root. The truth becomes buried beneath a false narrative – and it must claw its way back into everyone’s presence when it never should’ve been buried beneath in the first place.
The dual edges of modern communication is that anyone anywhere can spread their truth. And when that allows previously untold stories to be told, that’s a very good thing. It allows populations of people to cast their voices in ways that couldn’t be done before. But the same tools that allow for that also allow anyone to create a thousand varieties of the truth – alternative facts, if you will – and throw them into the world. And when enough people believe them, they, in their own way, become a sort of truth – just not a truth that is based in fact or reality.