Is there a Santa? Try Googling it

Looking for truth in a world where people believe almost anything

Posted: Wednesday, December 23, 2009

This is the most wonderful time of the year for those of us who toil in the vineyards of the editorial pages. Somebody always trots out Francis Pharcellus Church's 1897 "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" editorial in the New York Sun, and for a brief shining moment, people think hey, maybe editorialists aren't creeps after all.

In my experience, these sentiments do not last very long.

Church wrote anonymously, in the witness protection program tradition of most editorial pages. He didn't get credit for the Santa Claus piece until after his death in 1906, perhaps because his sense of timing wasn't that great. The "Yes Virginia" editorial was published on Sept. 21, suggesting that Sept. 20, 1897, was a very slow news day.

I got to wondering what would happen today if some 8-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon asked her papa if there were a Santa Claus. He would have said, "I dunno. Google it."

Little Virginia would type "Santa Claus" and "exist" into the search engine. Among the first things that pop up is an old Spy Magazine article that explains that the laws of physics would cause reindeer to vaporize if they attempted to fly fast enough to visit all the children in the world. Santa would be crushed by the G-forces. Virginia would be crushed at the news.

Or maybe little Virginia would have posed the question not in a letter to the editor, but on a newspaper blog. Within minutes, anonymous comments would appear ripping Barack Obama for thinking he was Santa Claus, or ripping Virginia for being a greedy welfare princess, or inviting her to meet the "real" Santa Claus, who is in fact a 38-year-old prevert living in his mother's basement.

This is yet another reason why newspaper editorials are so much more reliable than the Internet. But I digress.

Virginia might find herself visiting santaisreal.com, a project of the KRS Media Group of Orlando, Fla., which promises to send 10 percent of its net proceeds to help orphans and children around the world. Virginia might think, "Ten percent? Santa's a cheapskate."

If little Virginia was like most people, eventually she would gravitate to Web sites that confirm her own suspicions. Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, in a new book called "Rumors," suggests that's why so many people today believe patently absurd things: Because they seek out other people who believe the same things.

"Rumors spread through two different but overlapping processes: social cascades and group polarization," Sunstein contends. "Cascades occur because each of us tends to rely on what other people think and do. If most of the people we know believe a rumor, we tend to believe it, too. Lacking information of our own, we accept the views of others. When the rumor involves a topic on which we know nothing, we are especially likely to believe it."

This may always have been true, Sunstein writes, but the Internet has helped spread the ignorance virus throughout the body politic. People who believe, for example, that President Obama is a Kenyan can find lots of validation for those beliefs by visiting sites that trade in rumors. You can discover that the Holocaust was a hoax and that AIDS was a government plot to destroy the black population.

Sunstein says research shows that the more you tell people that the facts do not back up their beliefs, the more strongly they cling to them. This is dangerous for the body politic, in that decisions are not made on facts: "To the extent that the Internet enables people to live in information cocoons, or echo chambers of their own design, different rumors will become entrenched in different communities."

Naturally, those who trade in rumors are worried about this, mainly because President Obama named Sunstein as head of the White Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. They envision a world of "truth squads" in which Glenn Beck, for example, would be held accountable for some of the stupid thing he says. His stupid opinions would be protected, but outright falsehoods would not.

Sunstein also has expressed the idea that animals may have legal rights that can enforced by the courts, which made him a target of pro-hunting and farm organizations. He's also written that environmental regulations should be subject to cost-benefit calculations, which made him suspect to a lot of environmental groups. The same cost-benefit calculations might be applied to end-of-life care, he's argued, which make some people worry that he supports euthanasia.

Indeed, there's almost as much about Cass Sunstein on the Internet as there is about Santa Claus, most of it inconclusive and subject to personal bias.

So if you're out there, Virginia O'Hanlon, I would recommend that you e-mail the letters editor. She would tell you that people believe in things a lot weirder than Santa Claus.

• Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Readers may write to him at: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 900 North Tucker Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63101, or e-mail him at khorriganpost-dispatch.com.



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