[MUSIC]

>> Steven Miller:

My name is Steven Miller, and I'm the Communications Manager at Waubonsee Community College.

We launched this podcast so that people can learn more about the experiences and expertise of the employees, students, and partners of Waubonsee. We want you to hear firsthand from these people and learn from their experience and expertise. John Nichols is an instructor of English.

I sat down and talked about what it means for something to be based on a true story. This tied to a discussion about conspiracy theories which led us to talk about things like the impact of social media on the spreading and sharing of information and the debunking of false information.

I hope you enjoyed this conversation.

[MUSIC]

>> Steven Miller:

And today we're talking to John Nichols, Instructor of English here at Waubonsee Community College. And so we're going to have an interesting conversation I think about a variety of topics. John, just start off with a couple of questions. Introduce yourself. Tell us how long you've been at Waubonsee, and maybe what you did before coming here?

>> John Nichols:

Sure.

I am in my second full year at Waubonsee
in teaching as English faculty. Before that I adjunct it here for one year and then before that several years at St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Indiana. Where I taught English and in the humanities there, that college closed actually in May of 2017. And thankfully I found myself here.

>> Steven Miller:

There you go.

So you are you from this area. Would you have connections here before you came before you?

>> John Nichols:

I'd been living here.

Yeah, for a while it was actually a setup where I would commute down there during the week and work and come back and be at my wife and family on the weekends.

>> Steven Miller:

All right, good, so I think today we're gonna talk about a couple of things that I find interesting, the idea of this statement based on a true story.

>> John Nichols:

Yes.

>> Steven Miller:

Kinda what that means, and then conspiracy theories and what they are and how they gain traction.

So tell us, where did your interest in these topics begin, and what is your experience in looking at them?

>> John Nichols:

Sure.

The nonfiction end of things actually started for me in my first time around in grad school at DePaul University where I was introduced to the idea of literary nonfiction, meaning I'd never really heard of it before. And it was this idea of taking the tools that a fiction writer uses and applying then to the telling of real stories. And one of the quick sort of best way I have of explaining just what that means is take a big event like say 911 And I could tell you when the first planes hit in New York, when the plane hit in Washington DC, how many people were injured, how many were killed, the actual timeline of events, but that doesn't really give you an idea of what it was like to be in New York City that day. It doesn't make you appreciate what it's like to breathe in pulverized glass or something like that.

To do that to really put somebody there with a story such as that. You need the techniques of fiction writer, you need to have the ability to do description in a vivid way with the details you need to be able to portray people.

That's the whole real characters that we actually are and have it unfold in a way that makes narrative sense to the reader or the viewer or the listener or what have you. And it just really grabbed my attention.

I had never had much experience with that form of narrative before and Once I completed that degree in composition and rhetoric I went on to get an MFA in nonfiction writing because it really took hold me. I didn't think it would but it certainly did.

The conspiracy end of things is a little more involved and I tell you what we're gonna have to go all the way back to when I was about a five year old boy.

[LAUGH]

And like many people my age, a transformative experience of seeing Star Wars the very first one with my dad. And I was ravenous after that for absolutely anything that was even remotely like Star Wars. And eventually, a couple years later in first grade we would take trips to our local public library in small town, Indiana.

And as I'm going through the shelves, I pull off this book and it has what look like spaceships on it. And I started flipping through and I see these are actual photographs and these are diagrams of aliens and saucer shapes, and I read the front said UFOs. And I took it to my first grade teacher and I said, is this real? And she immediately got dismissive and said, no, it's garbage. Do not waste your time with this at all, put it back on the shelf.

Well, and actually, what I do, I found every book I could.

[LAUGH]

>> Steven Miller:

Of course.

>> John Nichols:

At that point, I read it, and it was UFOs, and the cover-ups, supposedly, about it. Engrossed me for a quite a while. But then, you get older, and you get an education in science. And the reasoning, you find that there are reasonable explanations for almost all of these things.

And after that though my questioning changed where I was thinking more in terms of narrative in my academic background thinking how did these stories get started? Why do people, despite all evidence to the contrary, hold on to these crazy. Well, maybe and I don't mean to call them crazy there. It's just maybe I can't see the evidence for them would be a better way to say that but just sort of out their stories that despite any evidence to the contrary, they still hold on to them.

And so I really started looking at what that means and I got involved with one particularly far out there claim involving a tiny town called Dulce, New Mexico, with a Mesa there Archuleta Mesa. And I'd read about it first in 1994 where there was this claim and that inside that mesa is an actual military facility jointly run by the United States and aliens and people who are kidnapped, they end up there. They're experimented upon, and at one point, the deal went sour, and our special ops teams went in to take the mesa back. And it read like pulp science fiction, and that's what really engrossed me.

Yet, despite it being pulpy, despite it sounding like something I would have seen while here in Chicago area, this.

[LAUGH]

Seeing something like that butthere were people claiming it was the God's honest truth. And so, I really started, I went out there actually visited the town, it's on the hickory Apache Reservation and. It's one of these things and maybe we'll get into it later on that. These wild outlandish conspiracy theories do start small elements of truth. It's just it's cases often where people add to 2 and 2 and they come up with 6 and.

>> Steven Miller:

Sure.

Okay, well, this the interesting, interesting how this all came about for you.

>> John Nichols:

Sure.

>> Steven Miller:

So, as you were talking about a minute ago about imaginary literary fiction. Reminded me of something I'd read a few years, several years ago now about this idea of taking an event with a fact that is very fact-based and sequential, and applying narrative to it. I read this story, it was about, I forget what the jurisdiction was. But someplace where a court had an appointed narrator. Narrative writer, who, if you have a murder case, they lay out all the facts of the matter.

Such and such happened, the forensic evidence is this.

They have someone assigned to write the story of that person.

They would do the research of the person accused.

And not to provide matters of defense or mitigation, but simply to provide, you mentioned it, we're all people. We are all characters with depth, and this person Josh was we were talking about, the 9/11, what is a light to breathe Polarized glass.

>> John Nichols:

Sure.

>> Steven Miller:

What is it like to have grown up in a certain environment that may have lead to fascinating stuff?

>> John Nichols:

Right.

>> Steven Miller:

So based on a true story, what does that mean to you?

>> John Nichols:

Well, it means a few things.

When I see that I immediately think there's a few things that are going to be going on.

If it's a book, then I'm going to go in with this sort of implicit contract with the writer, knowing that he or she has enhanced things in order to make it come alive for me as the reader.

I'll give you an example.

If I'm in a work I'm doing right now, an actual professor that I once knew, a former colleague, to make him come alive as a person and really portray him on the page, I know he's a runner. He's a jogger. And so I have this descriptive paragraph of him jogging. And it is on a spring day, it's going past Lake Banet in Rensselaer Indiana. The ducks are moving in this sort of V formation and the wind brings back his hair. He can smell the pine. And when my wife read that, she said, wow, he told you all that? And I said no, honestly, no. I know that's his jogging route. But that particular moment that it happened exactly that way, maybe not.

But I have to take what I know and present it to the reader so they can be there with me on the page. To get invested in the story and know a little bit about that person. This particular colleague that I'm writing about.

One of his vocations jogging and kind of portraying him enjoying the landscape and on the property of the college. That helps make that come alive and understand a little bit more for the reader.

Other things that may go on in a nonfiction story would be the compression of time.

For example, back to something I'm working on, I take a look at the whole month of March. I have to shrink that down a little bit for a number of reasons. One, the interest of the reader. I don't think that the reader would especially appreciate a day-by-day, blow-by-blow, although it would be accurate if I could do that, but it would be tedious.

So we want to take a look and filter out what's gonna be especially pertinent for the story.

What are the things the reader must know?

What are the particularly interesting or dramatic things?

And so a month, conceivably, could come out to be two pages depending upon the work, depending upon the subject.

An example of that, that was popular was a book called Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. And that is about a book club that met in Iran and they met over two years.

Well, naturally, [LAUGH] the book can't cover all two years. So this author is going to look at who the people were and moments in those book clubs that really told the reader interesting insights into their thought process, the conflicts, maybe.

And so it's not gonna be blow-by-blow, but you're going to see that there are things that are compressed. And other times, when there's somebody involved in a big situation.

We mention 9/11, for example, or something that's particularly dramatic. There are multiple points of view. So you're getting things from this writer's point of view. And even if he or she is going out to interview other people, even if they are doing their best, good faith effort as possible. The fact that they are writing it in a way alters the point of view.

>> Steven Miller:

Yeah.

>> John Nichols:

Another example would be in what's very popular is the memoir genre.

And in almost any event, ask anybody who's in law enforcement, you ask five people who are involved in a traffic accident or something like that. You're probably gonna get five different stories.

>> Steven Miller:

Yeah.

>> John Nichols:

[LAUGH]

One popular example I can give you from the memoir genre is the book, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. It's about growing up in a family that was at or below the poverty line often times, an alcoholic father. And yet, she portrays them as admirable people in several ways. But her brothers and sisters, when they read the book would sometimes say, I don't remember that happening. Or I remember that happening completely differently.

>> Steven Miller:

Yeah.

>> John Nichols:

So that's just human nature.

If you read a book that says based on a true story and somebody else comes out later on and says I don't remember that happening and I was there. Don't be surprised. That's just human nature.

>> Steven Miller:

I'm reminded of a story I heard in college about picture you're 18, 19, 20 years old. And you go on a date with a person you've wanted to go on a date with for a long time.

Later on that day your mother asked you how it went. The day after that your best friend tells you how it went. That weekend you're seeing your grandmother and they ask you how it went. The story is probably different than your pastor asked you about it, or minister, your neighbor.

The facts are the same.

>> John Nichols:

Sure.

>> Steven Miller:

But the retelling of the story is different.

>> John Nichols:

Absolutely.

>> Steven Miller:

Based on the audience.

>> John Nichols:

Exactly.

>> Steven Miller:

And other circumstances.

>> John Nichols:

Well, audience does influence writing so very, very much. And part of that, let's just be honest, if you're going through a publisher. Even if you're not, even if you're independently published you want to get a little back for [LAUGH] so you wanna sell books.

>> Steven Miller:

You gotta sell books.

>> John Nichols:

Right.

>> Steven Miller:

You were talking about the compressed timeline and something else came to mind. It seems like we probably see a lot of this not just in print works, but movies as well.

It came to mind the movie Saving Private Ryan. There's a whole lot that went into that, and had to get it in three hours. That was a month's long adventure, and those examples are all over the place.

>> John Nichols:

Sure, all over the place.

>> Steven Miller:

In the media and print things.

So you mentioned the project you're working on where you're writing something about a colleague, and you know that person is a runner.

But some of the other details, but you know the running route. And so you fill in about details about whether and ducks and whatever else.

This idea of kinda using research or maybe research or just license to kinda fill gaps, is that a thing, is that a common thing?

>> John Nichols:

Very much, very much, especially if you're on the journalist side of literary journalism. The writer will often spend a very, very long time just getting immersed in their subject and getting things down, as many details as possible. Because one of the techniques you'll find in the written form is what's called a digression.

Example, well, there's a couple.

We were, just before the podcast here, we were talking about The Devil in the White City. Big, big runaway hit. And what Erik Larson would do is when a subject would come up, something about, say, cultural norms at the time in Chicago, the 19th century. He would actually flag the reader.

I remember saying this may get long, but you're gonna have to know it. And that gives him the ability to pivot and go into the research that he has. And then guide the reader back into the sort of the main line of the narrative. But that digression gives you more information and it makes the experience fuller. It makes you have a greater understanding.

Another example that I go back to a lot, I'm a big fan of this book, is Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm.

>> Steven Miller:

Yeah.

>> John Nichols:

And it's this, of course Massive hurricane that hit and he was inspired to write it by looking at basically a paragraph story in the New York Times about fishermen who were lost at sea. But he's looking at this event from all these multiple angles and one of them coast guard. Yep, and rescuing people at sea and he will digress and the rescue seem to describe what standard operation is for the Coast Guard. He'll talk about the neoprene jumpsuits, he'll get into these details that shows he's actually spent a good deal of time with the Coast Guard in the long, long making of this book.

So there are these digressions and that's where the writer gets to show off his or her research. And I think that also is one of the areas you can look at for when you see based on a true story. They're giving a sense of authenticity to the reader said I did my homework, let me show you what I know.

>> Steven Miller:

Yeah, you we're talking recently about another book that I read just recently, Into the Wild.

>> John Nichols:

Mm-hm.

>> Steven Miller:

And I mean it's John wrote that, he did not go into Alaska with a young man. And so he's piecing together what happened based on you know what, we do know and he's kind of connecting the dots and talking to people after the fact and this is a, it's an interesting.

>> John Nichols:

That happens a lot in literary nonfiction with as I just mentioned the perfect storm.

We have no real record of what happened on that boat. Other than a few radio transmissions. So what Younger ended up doing was talking to the family members, getting a sense of who these guys were, talking to fisherman, saying, what would you do in these situations?

>> Steven Miller:

Circumstances.

>> John Nichols:

Exactly, and trying to piece together as best as possible what they probably went through.

And another would be one of the more famous examples of the genre, that kind of in its own way kicked it off was In Cold Blood, Truman Capote. Where he describes the last hours of the Clutter family in Kansas. Nobody knows because the victims are dead in that book. So he has to just based on interviews with people in the town who knew these people, what would they probably been doing that night and describing it as best as possible.

>> Steven Miller:

Okay, so we've been talking about this idea of something being based on a true story and that seems to give some permission, some license for something to be based on truth but not entirely precisely true and all that. And that's part of our culture. So, given that is there any wonder why,
moving out of conspiracy theories.

>> John Nichols:

Sure.

>> Steven Miller:

Is there any wonder why conspiracies are a thing why people believe things that may or may not be true anyway?

Talk to us about that a little bit.

>> John Nichols:

I can do that and in a little while being an academic I will say sources.

[LAUGH] [CROSSTALK] People that scholars and people [CROSSTALK] okay thank you, thank you.

There are a few reasons.

One is that life doesn't make any sense. Let's just face that, that you can be the victim of random things. And it's tough to get your head around it. We like to have reasons, we like we like narrative, we like the story to, we want like to have a structure, we want like to have a story. And so when things just happen or they feel beyond your control, the idea of believing in a conspiracy in its odd sort of sense comforts us. That there was nothing we could have done that they the nebula shadow we they are actually in control. And they have it out for the little guy and so there wasn't anything you could have done.

To keep your job let's say, if you experienced a massive layoff. Or if somebody sadly gets cancer and dies so well we're all at the mercy of that there's there's really a cure for it but the medical industry just makes so much money. Offer treating the symptoms, so that's one way.

It gives a sense of control when there really isn't any control. It alleviates a sense of, in a way, blame for yourself and taking accountability that these Like I said, there's these forces that are out to get you.

So and also we, as we talked about in the nonfiction section that when big events are messy 911, the JFK assassination, there are still aspects of those that naturally there aren't very good explanations for but that's just the nature of. Such things that they're not neat, they're not tidy and anytime there is that sort of vacuum of information, it that vacuum gets filled with all kinds of speculation and. All conspiracy theory, a real life situation I went through that I'm writing about now that I pointed to earlier was, the college that I worked at for so many years and went to for undergrad, and my father spent 50 years of his life teaching at, it closed in May of 2017.

So That was a big, traumatic event for many people involved. And there was a vacuum of information in a lot of ways. And naturally the combination of the traumatic event and the lack of information gave rise to many, many conspiracy theories and so-called rabbit holes you could go down as to why this is happening.

And later on, with the Cooler head is I did my research for the book I'm writing it I found many of those conspiracies certainly weren't true, but they made sense at the time. And a lot of ways when you're trying to make sense out of a sudden traumatic event that doesn't make any sense.

There's a couple of other reasons why Conspiracy theories take on is because there are secrets. We were talking your former Army and things get kept secret for a reason for national defense and that. Automatically leads to speculation when things can't be talked about. And we have other occasions, and instances, and accidents in history where maybe our government wasn't always acting on the up and up.

There was Watergate, there were all kinds of other little shadowy operations that either had to happen, or happened As sort of put out much oversight maybe that weren't the best decisions at the time, so once there are secrets, a logical question becomes, okay, what else aren't you telling me?

I have a student who keeps coming up with a different reason why he can't be in class. Eventually, I'm gonna start saying what's going on here? What Aren't you telling me let's get to the heart of the problem.

Another reason for it is frankly, the conspiracies are kind of fun. They combined the the best aspects of X Files and James Bond and all the other nerds and we love a story. We love a good story and what could be more exciting than a, a secret society that has all kinds of The trappings of those sorts of fictions or in the case of UFOs, I mean being visited from space. What could be more exciting than that?

>> Steven Miller:

Or that was a few years ago, several years ago there was that Nicolas Cage movies the national treasure of that I mean, that's, that's fun.

>> John Nichols:

It's it's exactly.

>> Steven Miller:

That's a good time. It's, and we love a mystery.

Sure you mentioned, we've talked a couple times here about the kind of the big things I but it seemed like the conspiracies can extend or the idea of a conspiracy can extend beyond the actual event I remember you know, 911 is has been mentioned.

>> John Nichols:

Sure.

>> Steven Miller:

But think about every plane crash has happened since then. The default thought is when report of a plane crash Terrorists were involved. Well, more often than not,
it's mechanical failure.

>> John Nichols:

It's a mechanical failure.

>> Steven Miller:

But everybody immediately calls in there, all the pundits call in their defense experts and everything else, how could this have happened again?

>> John Nichols:

Right.

>> Steven Miller:

It feels to me and I'm certainly not an expert in this. There's something different about having something terrible happen that you can blame someone for, rather than just an engine blowing up, that just happens.

>> John Nichols:

Exactly.

>> Steven Miller:

And so there's a psychological component to this that just doesn't really change the outcome, doesn't change what happened. It just feels like it's just easier to blame someone than something that just happened,

>> John Nichols:

Very much, very much.

Like I said, we want the world to be ordered. And I think that goes back to how much narrative is central to our life.

You and I are engaging in narrative right now, you go into a job interview, you're essentially you're telling them your narrative-

>> Steven Miller:

I'm telling a story.

>> John Nichols:

Your story, exactly, and we want, with as much narrative as we consume, and produce in our lives, we want real life to be that way.

I heard a quote from Tom Clancy, many years ago-

>> Steven Miller:

One of the greats.

>> John Nichols:

Yeah, it's a great quote, he said that the difference between fiction and nonfiction is that fiction has to make sense. You have to have it ordered. So when we can, [LAUGH] after all the fiction we consume we expect our lives to have order. Well, coincidence happens all the time. We tend to think the coincidence can't happen to us in our regular lives or in the world writ large. So, we try to look for patterns and it's just, as I said, that's human tendency. We wanna see something and make sense out of it.

>> Steven Miller:

And what you're describing here certainly isn't new, it's not-

>> John Nichols:

No.

>> Steven Miller:

It's easy to blame social media or whatever else for spreading these things. But, I mean, several years ago I read Ovid's Metamorphoses.

>> John Nichols:

Sure.

>> Steven Miller:

It was the explaining of things that couldn't be explained. How does this thing, the Sun, move around. So, yeah, it has to be some guy in a chariot who let his kid go flying around the Sun.

>> John Nichols:

Absolutely.

>> Steven Miller:

So these are things that we've always as humans just tried to grab hold of something to explain.

>> John Nichols:

You work with what you know.

>> Steven Miller:

Yeah.

>> John Nichols:

And Ovid was.

>> Steven Miller:

That's right, I mean, first century, it's what it's what you had.

>> John Nichols:

Right.

>> Steven Miller:

So what are some other, not examples of conspiracies. But yeah, I mean, there's got to be some, you mentioned military components in government and things. There's some things that are legit we don't need to know about for good reason.

>> John Nichols:

Sure.

>> Steven Miller:

So how does that play into, you mentioned the business of what else aren't you telling me?

>> John Nichols:

Well, I guess one of the more recent ones would be, I wanna say probably November 2017 when a story broke that the Navy, US Navy, had been encountering UFOs. And there was gun camera footage from an F18. And you can hear the pilots. They're screaming at each other,
saying what is this thing? Look at it move, and it's moving faster, and maneuvering more sharply than anything. It became known as the Tic Tac UFO because in the gunsight that's what it looks like, it's a little black Tic Tac.

>> Steven Miller:

I remember hearing about this.

>> John Nichols:

Yes, and what made it significant was the Navy not too long ago actually confirmed it, said yes, this happened. We don't know what it is, we don't believe it to be a threat to national security. And they used the phrase unidentified aerial phenomenon.

So what that may be is more than likely before jumping to aliens or anything else, a new form of drone. Our government is relying more and more on drone technology and more than a few UFO sightings were later on found to be prototypes for drones.

>> Steven Miller:

Interesting.

>> John Nichols:

And so this could be a new form of drone that we, or another reason they may not want to talk about, a foreign power.

>> Steven Miller:

Sure.

>> John Nichols:

And it could also be if there is any kind of conspiracy in regard to, as they call it now unidentified aerial phenomenon, it would be the only likely one I could see is that they just plain don't know. And you don't want to admit, of course, if you're charged with national security that we don't know what this is.

>> Steven Miller:

You don't have the answer, right.

>> John Nichols:

Maybe more more detrimental to getting out then an actual secret in many cases, so that would be a more recent example.

Another bit more frightening example would be the pizzagate conspiracy that somehow got started in the more shadowy corners of the Internet, that democratic leaders were involved in a child slavery ring and it was being run out of a couple different pizza places. One in particular, how this place I don't know right off hand it's called Comet Ping Pong referred to in the area of Washington DC just as Comet, regular pizza place.

And on December 4th of 2016, a man named Edgar Welch from North Carolina showed up carrying an AR-15 saying that he was there to free the kids.

>> Steven Miller:

Yeah.

>> John Nichols:

That were being kept there in slavery. Of course there weren't any and-

>> Steven Miller:

There were no kids, there was no slavery.

>> John Nichols:

Right, the man was arrested and in his deposition to police he said I really want to help the kids and I thought I could be a hero, 28-year-old man thinking this. And I thought after I saw that, well, this here's somebody who, whose heart is absolutely in the right place. He wants to help people and stop what would be an atrocity. However, his critical reasoning is not in the right place. How could this happen to begin with?

But if all you're consuming is something from these message boards or social media websites. I'm not talking about the mainstream things like Facebook and Twitter, that sort of thing. But to believe that is true and to bring yourself to take up arms and go into a place. Somebody could have seriously gotten hurt and thank goodness no one was.

>> Steven Miller:

Sure.

>> John Nichols:

Now the pizza place to this day still has issues. They were subject to an arson attack back in January of this year.

>> Steven Miller:

Yeah.

>> John Nichols:

So that's where I see conspiracy being a legitimate issue where it could lead to somebody getting hurt.

Also when it leads to the rejection of our fact-based institutions that we rely on, such as good journalism, academics, and our military intelligence officers. When those are being disregarded, then our whole society has an issue.

>> Steven Miller:

Sure, so I was gonna ask you about it.

So we were just talking about few minutes ago some of these things are fun, the National Treasure, the fun, and the adventure.

>> John Nichols:

The Da Vinci Code.

>> Steven Miller:

The Da Vinci Code, exactly, all these things.

But there seems to be some real danger in some of this. So you mentioned a couple of them, but those are kind of big scale kind of things would hear about in the news, someone walking into a pizza place with an AR-15.

But it seems like, and I could be wrong, but there could danger just at the more local level. I mean, what is the impact, is there an impact of blind, maybe irrational something just within smaller social circles that may not even appear in the news.

>> John Nichols:

With information and while yes, it's good to be skeptical of what you see in the news, it's good to be skeptical of what you get in a press release or something else that you see, you can take it too far. And too far means when you are discounting expertise. When there are people who really are quality investigative journalists, who are scientists who devoted their whole lives to studying things. And again, if we are to be supportive of our military certainly the officer corps.

And they're among the best educated [LAUGH] in our country in a lot of ways, and the intelligence gathering apparatus of the various services and the CIA. They're people we entrust to keep us safe. So it's when we begin to discount that and reject that we might be willing to listen to other voices that aren't Either as well reasoned or they don't have good motives. They want to lead you astray because they know that they can.

>> Steven Miller:

Sure.

>> John Nichols:

And I that, that affects our public discourse. That affects how people vote. That affects how things are conducted in our schools. And I think if we're looking at things at a local level, that's really the danger. One example I mentioned to you, and while this isn't a danger per se, is something that really interests me, is of these alien conspiracies.

I had somebody tell me that our current president is the first president in many decades who is not actually a reptile alien in disguise.

>> Steven Miller:

Nice.

>> John Nichols:

[LAUGH] And he is actually an actual human who is out to save us from the alien agenda. Because alien agenda is working with the deep state. Now, when I've just described this to you, your brain cannot help but form a picture.

>> Steven Miller:

Sure.

>> John Nichols:

Paint a picture of the person I talked about. And I tell this to my students, what do you see when I describe that. One person said, it's a goth girl with a lot of rings in her ear, one through her nose, another guy said, I see a total burned out dude. He's got flannel, he's been smoking marijuana all day long and I said no, no. This is a 30 something woman who is a mortgage broker, she drives a Mercedes. If you walk past her on the street, you wouldn't bat an eye. She looks as normal and suburban as anybody could be, but believes this whole heartedly.

>> Steven Miller:

Interesting.

>> John Nichols:

So I had to ask, as I keep doing with these conspiracy owners. What brings somebody who is otherwise quite reasonable to find this as fact. When I conducted my research for the book, I will eventually go back to on the dulcie incident that I mentioned when I traveled to New Mexico. It was always unsettling to me when I would interview somebody we would start off with sort of like just we're doing we, who are you tell me about your background. I went to school here, got a job at this business, came to the area, 20 years. Okay, now tell me about the incident you had. Well, first time I saw dead alien was and they would segue into it as if we were talking about the weather. And it is one of those situations where I don't doubt that they believe in what they're saying. But, what prompted him to have that thought or that belief? I just don't see the evidence for it, so I turned to wondering how did this person come to that point?

So again, just bring it back to your question. I think the local level danger is critical reasoning. And if we look at all news as fake news and doubtless, I agree there are fake stories out there.

There are, [LAUGH] Obviously sites that pass themselves off as being news sites that really aren't or the quality of their journalism isn't all that good. But when we discount everything-

>> Steven Miller:

Sure.

>> John Nichols:

And we are critical to the point of, none of it's true, then we have an issue. Or you're always sorta doing this sort of mental gymnastics of one thing. Conspiracy theorists will fall back on is, well, that's what just what they want you to think.

>> Steven Miller:

Sure, yeah.

>> John Nichols:

If you do that for everything you could do that.

[LAUGH] Explanations, I will, that's just what they want you to think but where does that stop and where does truth lie?

>> Steven Miller:

Yeah, as you were talking. He would talk about the military a lot and journalism and all these kinda respected institutions. And we don't hear about it so much anymore, but there was a period of time a couple of years ago where the police were getting maligned.

>> John Nichols:

Yes.

>> Steven Miller:

Local police departments getting

maligned, in part, and you mentioned
it earlier on in the beginning,

there's usually a seed of truth.

Get much of this.

There's no doubt.

There are bad police officers and even

maybe widespread bad police departments or
broad police departments with a problem.

But when the society cannot trust the police.

>> John Nichols:

That's a great example.

>> Steven Miller:

That's that's a problem.

>> John Nichols:

Yes.

>> Steven Miller:

There's a problem because that is something you mentioned voting that effects Local voting and then local voting affects other things and so it's this idea that the police are out to be wrong, whatever it is, however it is presented. Though that does exist, and that's the source of the problem, it does exist, but how do you make it to where it's not seen as widespread and universal?

>> John Nichols:

Yes.

>> Steven Miller:

I certainly don't have any solution to offering anything but just just for your take.

>> John Nichols:

I think that it, yeah, that's an excellent example and having worked with a few police officers just as a volunteer basis. That is something they would talk about, say they're trying to conduct an investigation. They're trying to apprehend someone and no one's talking. That's always been a problem, but now it's even more so your police. I'm not gonna have anything to do with you. And you're absolutely right.

This does stem from some terrible incidents that happened where unarmed people were murdered or incidents that just probably could've been obviously [LAUGH] handled,

>> Steven Miller:

Sure.

>> John Nichols:

A little bit better. And, again, though that's true for any discipline of work that you look at. But that affects our critical reasoning skills that we're just gonna discount entire people that we rely upon.

>> Steven Miller:

So okay, so John, so we've talked a lot about a lot of different things here.

The fact that everybody most everybody has some sort of cell phone a way to document something either either by audio or video or something. And so then they can post it and they can edit. If they're self edit, everybody edits whatever they want, so they can show the bad or the good of whatever it is. How does the fact that the idea of the fact that anybody can tell most any story they want to bring it to a very large audience. Thanks to Twitter and Facebook and the virility of post. So how does that play in all this?

>> John Nichols:

It means we have to help. Excuse me, we have to have a whole new kind of literacy. My background is in rhetoric which initially started the good old fashioned way of looking at a text and taking it apart, figuring out-

>> Steven Miller:

And by text you mean a piece of paper.

>> John Nichols:

Exactly.

>> Steven Miller:

Not an SMS.

>> John Nichols:

You're right, exactly.

[LAUGH] I am taking it apart, I'm trying to figure out who this writer is, what audience he or she intended, what is the main point. And just all sorts of things I can what kind of arguments is this person making cuz everybody's making an argument. We do the same thing with visuals. And that's what I'm trying to do with my students. We need to learn how to read there's a saying, well, the picture speaks itself, no, it really doesn't.

>> Steven Miller:

Actually, no.

>> John Nichols:

You have to know how to read pictures now. And we've seen that so many times. Just last January, I believe it was, or it was over the break possibly, the Nicholas Sandmann case where it appeared that there was this young high school boy mocking a Native American. And when you unpack the situation, it is a situation where nobody really looks good.

But the one picture that went everywhere, where it looked like this boy was in a man's face was just one sliber of the reality. When you look at all the other ones, there is a mob of media surrounding these two.

[LAUGH] They were not squaring off one on one, and it's learning to look at a photo and say what else is going on. I think that's where we start with the other question, what else is going on leading up to this, more than what I'm seeing? What is the deep story?

Sort of hearkening it to what a nonfiction writer would do. We were talking about earlier that someone can look at like Sebastian younger that there were few fishermen last to see what's the deep story here. We're all the different angles and so they go off and they do this research.

Well, it'd be great we could all, [LAUGH] Have the time to do that and didn't have dentists appointments to make jobs to get to dinner to make that sort of thing.

But, it's just it's a very, Least having the sort of literacy and looking at how is this shot framed, where is it from, and what else is going on cuz there's always something else going on in the shot? As far as social media, well the obvious no-brainer there is it makes it easier and faster to share things. And the sort of crazy, or I'll just call it out there stories, as I talked about with supposed alien base, which I learned about the story of it, anyway, in 1994.

That was just from a buddy who is into crazy stuff and those were in the very early self-published books. It looks like somebody did it on a copier. Now you can post anything, any blog. And so it's a much quicker proliferation and a reduction in the stop and think time. And we are at a point where people see a headline and they'll share the article, I think that's part of it, without stopping to really reason through how likely this is.

And I think there's a lot of questions to ask yourself. One that comes from an academic name Joseph Kosinski, who wrote a whole book on conspiracies available on Amazon. He's a political science professor and he has a great analogy for these long-term conspiracies such as keeping cures for cancer secret, or we faked the moon landing, or something like that. He said, consider the amount of people involved, and he said, think about this, think about your favorite rock band, got them in mind?

Good, okay, are they still around, at least in their original lineup?

And unless you're talking about About a rarity like a band like U2 that's been around for 30 more years, it's still the same four guys, likely, it isn't because people after a time don't work together very well. There are disagreements, they're falling out, they are just seeing things differently and so people part ways.

The same thing would logically happen with conspiracies and somebody would eventually talk. Somebody would not get along anymore, and we'd have somebody who would turn a witness and ask for protection.

Another academic named David Grimes, he's a physicist at Oxford University. And he developed an actual equation to calculate how long it would take before given the sheer amount of people involved in keeping something secret, how many years would it take before something got it? So as I mentioned, the moon landing hoax idea. He calculated the truth would have been known in 3.7 years.

>> Steven Miller:

[LAUGH] Nice!

>> John Nichols:

The secret cure for cancer, he calculated 3.2 years, we would have known, just-

>> Steven Miller:

Just due to the number of people-

>> John Nichols:

Due to, exactly.

>> Steven Miller:

On Earth, and-

The people's limited ability to keep things-

>> John Nichols:

Keep things quiet. I mean, in preparation for this podcast, you had mentioned as a communications manager for organizations that how, okay, a story gets out [LAUGH].

>> Steven Miller:

Yep, now what do we do?

>> John Nichols:

Information has this tendency to wanna be free. And people, a lot of times are terrible secret keepers.

>> Steven Miller:

Sure, sure.

>> John Nichols:

So those are things to keep in mind when confronting something in social media.

How likely is this, how many people would it take to pull this off and how realistic is it they could all keep quiet?

>> Steven Miller:

So it seems like the ability, the big microphone, the big megaphone we all have with social media, the ability to share things widely is powerful, and that causes things to spread.

But it seems like it also reduces the amount of time for it to be debunked.

Cuz there are enough people now looking at it, whatever it is, and say no, fake or-

>> John Nichols:

And just as we said earlier, we love stories and good ones, exciting ones. And what could be more exciting than a few of these that we mentioned? And so, especially someone who may feel for a lot of good reasons rather powerless in their life. And it gives them something and it gives them a reason to, okay, that's why I'm in the situation and if it's especially entertaining.

I've seen it become something of an obsession for people, that it's like going into the movies or reading fun fiction.

>> Steven Miller:

Yeah, we had started talking about the idea of what based on a true story is, and conspiracies and I don't know if there is any direct link.

But to maybe put a point on this, what should people know and think about in connecting these two or separating these two ideas?

>> John Nichols:

Well, I think that one thing to keep in mind, we mentioned that when a writer writes, it's from his or her point of view, that is inevitable. And even when they're trying to combine multiple points of view, we hear the part of conspiracyis this idea of fake news. And yes, there are websites out there that are not legitimate, [LAUGH] they're not telling true things.

But when we're looking at major news, it's not so much that it's fake, that it's false, it's from a point of view.

And this is something I do with my students.

They have to write a report on, and the genre of the report must be completely fact-based, don't put any of your opinion in. And I assigned them recently the impeachment process and I said report only facts and you-

>> Steven Miller:

Good luck with that.

>> John Nichols:

Well, that's just it, you have to pick a focus cuz a report, gosh, whole people, whole books are gonna be written about this when it's all said and done.

But for a three page report, you've got to narrow your focus. So one of the choices for your focus could be okay, what are the allegations? What are certain political forces saying? How another focus could be how's the president defending himself? What is that response? So depending upon the focus that you take, depends on the information you present.

That's exactly what we're seeing in news.

That point of view in determining what focus to filter all this through, it isn't fake so much. The information more often than not, sure there are always times that journalism gets it wrong and they have to cop to that, hopefully.

But the lens through which we're getting it, that's what's going to alter what we get, and it depends upon your news source.

So keeping that in mind, is always good keep in mind the business aspect of news that they have got to sell ad time and just also, I think it's good to engage with multiple news sources. If you're getting it all from CNN or getting all from FOX, you're not getting all the stories.

So try to engage with different ones and keep critical thinking in mind, but not to the point where we're absolutely rejecting everything.

And I think your example of police departments was spot on that you're, I understand why there are populations and
may think fear burst upon seeing a police officer but if we all start thinking that way and we can't trust people that we fund to protect ourselves and there's an issue in society.

Yeah, yeah, then it's-

Then it's a problem.

>> Steven Miller:

Probably true, we all need to work together to get through those issues.

So what is your take this take about this topic? What would you tell if you get to tell all students everywhere? So, you're just talking about critical thinking or whatever.

So summarize in a sentence or two, kind of the take away from this whole discussion, we started off talking cuz we didn't intentionally want this to be, intentionally then. I want this to be about Waubonsee You're a faculty member at Waubonsee, I work at Waubonsee, this happened at Waubonsee thing.

But maybe we started off, you've been at Waubonsee for two years and whatever. Now okay, you're a faculty member, what would be your lesson your parting shot to students?

>> John Nichols:

I'm glad you asked that because it would be my parting message to not just students but anybody in our community listening and that would be, don't believe, don't disbelieve, think.

>> Steven Miller:

There you go.

>> John Nichols:

Take each claim, consider it, and consider what kind of evidence is available to support whatever claim that someone is making.

>> Steven Miller:

We've spent the last little bit with John Nichols, instructor of English at Waubonsee Community College, and it's been a delight.

I have learned much-

>> John Nichols:

Well, thank you.

>> Steven Miller:

And I'm glad we have folks like you who help us think through these things. Look forward to doing this again.

>> John Nichols:

I thank you for having me and I would love to be back again.

[MUSIC]