No evidence, baseless, crazy or false?


Basic sad present-day logic: We'll be the first to admit it!

Until this very morning, we had no idea that there was such a thing as The National Butterfly Center.

We didn't know that it's found in South Texas. We didn't know that it's run by a non-profit organization called the North American Butterfly Association—and we certainly didn't know that a swarm of the usual apparent crackpots have charged it with terrible crimes.

That said, there is such a place, along the border, way down in Mission, Texas. In this morning's Washington Post, Marisa Iati calls the roll of the usual alleged heinous crimes. 

Headline included, Iati's report starts like this:

National Butterfly Center closes after repeated threats stemming from false sex-trafficking claims

The National Butterfly Center in South Texas will be closed “for the immediate future” because of baseless attacks stemming from a clash over immigration enforcement at the nearby U.S.-Mexico border, the organization said Wednesday.

The nonprofit center in Mission has endured a firestorm in recent years amid an ongoing lawsuit against the former Trump administration, which sought to build part of a border wall on its property, and the fundraising organization We Build the Wall. Right-wing groups have falsely claimed the butterfly center illegally smuggles people into the United States and facilitates sex trafficking.

Leadership of the 100-acre butterfly preserve said they chose to shut their doors out of concern for the safety of visitors and their staff, whom they will continue to pay.

According to Iati's report, the usual suspects have been making the usual claims about the usual subject—the wholly predictable trafficking of children. 

At one point not too long ago, such trafficking was said to be running through a Washington, D.C. pizza joint. Now, the usual crackpots say such trafficking is being run through, and apparently by, The National Butterfly Center!

These claims have a certain familiar crackpot feel. In fairness, contemporary claims of this type run all the way back through the crackpot preschool child abuse claims of the 1980s, the non-political forerunners to the crackpot Pizzagate claims.

These claims about the Butterfly Center have a certain familiar feel. That said, we were struck by the wandering logic in Iati's otherwise highly instructive report—in the wandering way she characterized these eye-catching allegations.

To wit—and hold onto your hats:

In the headline, and in Iati's second paragraph, Post readers are explicitly told that the sex trafficking claims are "false."

That said, it's famously hard to "prove a negative." Later, Iati cites the local chief of police, and the best he can do is this:

IATI: Mission Police Chief Robert Dominguez said there was no evidence that the butterfly center was involved in any form of trafficking. The U.S. Border Patrol did not immediately respond to a message.

Chief Dominguez says there is "no evidence" that the claims are true. That, of course, doesn't necessarily mean that the claims are false. 

Later, Iati seems to record the state of play in a third manner—one which echoes a term she used right in her opening paragraph:

IATI: Baseless theories have sometimes led to violence in recent years. In 2016, a North Carolina man charged into a pizza restaurant in Northwest D.C. with a military-style rifle to investigate a false Internet rumor that it was the site of a pedophile ring. A gunman later killed more than 20 people outside a Walmart store in El Paso, Tex., after allegedly penning a manifesto citing a false theory that a secret group of elites was trying to destroy the White race.

The National Butterfly Center expressed astonishment last week that it was the target of similar false theories. The preserve said it educates more than 35,000 visitors each year about conservation efforts and offers an annual Texas Butterfly Festival...

In that passage, Iati says the Pizzagate violence stemmed from a "baseless" theory. In her next paragraph, she seems to say that the Butterfly Center has been the target of similar theories—but now, she says those similar theories are "false."

What's a scrupulous and exacting journalist to do in a situation like this? Iati is wrestling here with a familiar type of dilemma:

It's extremely easy for someone to make a claim. But it's famously hard for the subject of many claims to "prove a negative"—to disprove somebody's claim.

Sometimes it can be done—a person can prove he was in Detroit when a crime occurred in Dallas. But for the most part, it's hard to prove that Person A didn't do something. Keeping that basic fact in mind, how should news orgs describe a charge, or a set of charges, like the ones at issue here?

Let's recall the state of play:

Right in its headline, the Post has said that these charges are "false." Later, though, the paper seems to say that the charges are "baseless" (whatever that is taken to mean)—and when it cites the local police chief, he merely says there is "no evidence" showing the charges are true.

To our ear, these charges sound like the usual crackpot claims made by the usual crackpots. Our present-day culture is swimming in crackpots, and in their various eye-catching claims. That said, important journalistic questions lurk at the heart of a basic logical problem:

What's the right way to describe such claims? Should the Post be saying that these charges are "false," or should it be saying something different?

We have a strong opinion on this matter—and yes, we think it makes an actual difference. Among other things, we're thinking here of the way our journalists and our cable entertainers should describe the endless claims made by Donald J. Trump.

We have a strong opinion on this matter—and we think it makes a large difference. For today, we leave a hint:

We're going to guess that the charges against the Butterfly Center are false. But we're willing to bet the house that these apparently ludicrous claims are completely unfounded, and we see no sign that Iati's editors told her to deal with that point.

Has anyone ever offered anything resembling evidence in support of these very serious claims? Iati doesn't speak to that basic point—and yes, it makes a large difference.

We'll relate this back to Trump's endless array of unfounded claims at some point. In the meantime, our stars will keep enjoying the fun of attacking his "lies," and our national schism will widen.

Iati was facing a difficult task. But should she have called those claims "false?"


  1. "Has anyone ever offered anything resembling evidence in support of these very serious claims?"

    If someone has, one thing we can be certain of, dear Bob: we won't hear about it from Jeff Bezos' blog, aka WaPo.

    Moreover, dear Bob: if WaPo claims that something is "false", we can be fairly certain that it isn't.

    And that's all there is to it, dear Bob. It's the only way to analyze your dembot media.

  2. What are we to do about the definitions slander (“the action or crime of making a false spoken statement damaging to a person's reputation.”) or libel (“a published false statement that is damaging to a person's reputation”)?

    If I were to say “Bob Somerby is a raging pedophile who uses his Baltimore residence for the sex trafficking of minors”, I’m pretty sure the police would find no evidence of such a thing.

    But that doesn’t make it “false” according to Somerby.

    So one will always wonder…

  3. "Chief Dominguez says there is "no evidence" that the claims are true. That, of course, doesn't necessarily mean that the claims are false. "

    This is why one cannot prove a negative. A lack of evidence is called a null finding (in science) and it is ambiguous because it could mean either that no evidence exists or that the investigators were simply unable to find the evidence. Studies showing a null finding are not published because their results are ambiguous and thus not helpful to other researchers.

    In research, scientists are trying to find answers to questions without already knowing those answers in advance. In this situation, with the Butterfly sanctuary, it can be presumed that the operators of that sanctuary know whether they are engaged in sex trafficking or not, and thus when Iatri says categorically that there is no trafficking and that the claims are baseless, she knows the truth and is making a definitive claim about it. Because one cannot prove a negative, but burden of proof is on the Build the Wall Organization members, NOT on the butterfly sanctuary staff.

    I am explaining this because, from what he says, it isn't clear that Somerby understands it himself. Journalists are well within their rights to proclaim this a false theory unless and until the Build the Wall people have provided evidence to support their trafficking claims. Without that proof, the butterfly people are innocent. Iati shouldn't have to "deal with that point" at all.

    Somerby claims that Trump's various claims can be dealt with in a similar manner. I disagree. For one thing, when the president says anything, right or wrong, it is news and must be reported. Second, the president's statement carry authority and weight because he is the president and thereby is assumed to have greater access to knowledge and a greater responsibility to speak accurately. Third, there is a cost (or danger, if you will) to the public when they contradict the President -- people are likely to be doubted, considered crackpot, and perhaps be given political or nefarious motives. So people are unwilling to take on those costs. For this reason, the president should be making serious efforts to speak accurately and always tell as much of the truth as possible. Trump has failed in that duty, by a huge margin. THAT is the problem, not anything to do with Iati who is in a very different position.

    I believe the Build the Wall people should be held accountable for their threats to the endeavor of the butterly santuary. They have recklessly endangered those people (and any visitors) and should apologize and pay for the inconvenience they have caused.

  4. “We'll relate this back to Trump's endless array of unfounded claims at some point. In the meantime, our stars will keep enjoying the fun of attacking his "lies," “

    Somerby has been self-contradictory about this. On the one hand, he has pushed the theory that Trump is a “sociopath”, and one of the defining characteristics of a sociopath is the ability to know right from wrong, true from false, and yet choosing the wrong, the false. This was Bandy Lee’s contention.

    On the other hand, he has also peddled the theory that Trump is delusional, insane, and cannot tell the difference between right and wrong, true and false.

    So which is it?

    And whether you call them “lies”, “delusions”, “jokes”, or whatever, they needed to be called out.

  5. You have to be a complete moron to believe there isn’t a connection between the Butterfly Center’s lawsuit against the Trump administration and the harassment and false accusations they have been receiving from Trump supporters.

    And yes, I said false.

  6. Well….Bob is finally making his defense of Trump, but he seems to have abandoned the “well, how do we know he doesn’t actually believe it?” route, and will now pursue the “unfounded claims” approach.
    Consider every time Bob has lambasted some outlet for “playing” it’s readers/viewers.

  7. Not one mention by BS in this post that QANON is behind this BS. Because the mention of QANON would instantly discredit the statement that BS is willing to bet the house that these claims are completely unfounded. What kind of an idiot would bet the house on a QANON sex trafficking theory?
    What kind a right wing tool is Bobby?