When you read something how can you tell whether it is true, or at least potentially true? How can you tell if you’re being fed misinformation? It is really much easier than you might imagine.

On November 1, 2005, a patent was granted for what is essentially a warp drive. The abstract of the patent describes the ideas as, “A space vehicle propelled by the pressure of inflationary vacuum state is provided comprising a hollow superconductive shield, an inner shield, a power source, a support structure, upper and lower means for generating an electromagnetic field, and a flux modulation controller. A cooled hollow superconductive shield is energized by an electromagnetic field resulting in the quantized vortices of lattice ions projecting a gravitomagnetic field that forms a spacetime curvature anomaly outside the space vehicle. The spacetime curvature imbalance, the spacetime curvature being the same as gravity, provides for the space vehicle’s propulsion. The space vehicle, surrounded by the spacetime anomaly, may move at a speed approaching the light-speed characteristic for the modified locale.”

Sounds impressive. All sorts of big technical words. And it’s an official US Patent! So why should we be skeptical about this warp drive, but not as skeptical about another bit of Star Trek technology made real, the phaser? Jane’s Defense Weekly describes the PHaSR (Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response system), developed for the U.S. Air Force, as “about the same size and weight of a fully loaded M60 machine gun—around 9 kg—but shoots a low-power beam of laser light instead of bullets. The light it generates is capable of temporarily impairing an individual’s vision, much like the disorienting glare one sees when looking into the sun, said the officials.” They indicate it is still a few years before the PHaSR enters military service.

The difference between these two things can be illustrated by comparing SpaceShipOne built by Burt Rutan with most of the other efforts made to win the X-Prize contest in 2004. Rutan was quiet about what he was doing until he rolled out the finished hardware and started flying. His competitors were noisy and had pretty PowerPoint presentations—but never built or flew anything.

The difference? Track record and hardware.

The patent for the warp drive is a patent of an idea with no hardware built and few prospects of it ever being built. It is merely a pretty picture proposed by a person who otherwise has no funding, and who has built nothing, who hopes to get someone to try out his idea some day.

The dirty little secret about patents is that you can get a patent for just about anything, no matter how unrealistic it might be. All you need is to write your patent in the proper format and pay the patent office their fee. With no funding, no hardware, nothing but some drawings and words on a piece of paper, the warp drive is not something we’re likely to see coming online as a consequence of this patent. On the other hand, the Air Force has built prototypes of PHaSRs and they are undergoing testing. The PHaSR actually exists. The warp drive not so much.

In determining the truthfulness of something, or at least its potential truthfulness, there are some basic tools that one can use. The first is to always be skeptical, especially if it’s something you either wish to be true, or if it’s something you are afraid might be true. The email from your trusted friend who warns you about the dangers of microwaves (especially for drying off poodles), or the missive relating the latest dastardly deeds supposedly undertaken by the group of politicians or other criminals you already distrust, should automatically elicit strong skepticism.

The second thing is to always do a bit of research and see if you can find the same story being reported by a number of different sources across a wide range of political or religious points of view, especially from points of view that you don’t agree with. Make it a point to check at the urban legend debunking sites on the web, like If you are as skeptical about news that supports your preconceived notions as you are about stuff that challenges it, you’ll be most of the way towards avoiding swallowing falsehoods.

And finally, do not accept the truth of something just because it is reported by someone, famous or otherwise, that you respect. Famous people are no less capable of making mistakes than you are; and they frequently repeat falsehoods as facts.

The rule of thumb is simple: if you want it to be true, if it matches your belief system, then be all the more skeptical. Check it out.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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2 Responses to Truth

  1. I love your advice. A bit of research to see if you can find the same story in other venues is so important. I am so disturbed by outlets like Fox News who claim they are the only ones to trust, the only ones who are fair and balanced. To me that is cult-like thinking: you can’t trust even your family and friends, or any other source because they are all part of the “liberal media.” I really think it’s very dangerous.

  2. Jolene McCreery says:

    Sage advice, Robin. Checking things out before forwarding, posting, agreeing, or “sharing” is the ideal scenario. The problem for me is that I don’t always have time to check the veracity of hundreds of emails and FB posts. So I either scroll on by or risk it and press “Send”. I hope that doesn’t make me a terrible person. Wish I had Ruth’s seemingly endless energy! BTW, how are those Rutan sneakers holding up?

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