What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an “open mind”, but an active mind — a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically.~Ayn Rand
Urban legends are a huge anti-favorite of mine. Sometimes, I feel like half of my time on Facebook is correcting blatantly erroneous memes.
Here is a sampling of the recent ones:
- Bruce Lee supposedly filmed in the 60s winning a table tennis match against 1st one, then two, opponents using nunchaku.
- Abraham Lincoln supposedly writing a long list of things you cannot do by doing something else, such as:
You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
- St. Augustine supposedly writing,
The Church is a whore, but she's still my mother.
- Posting a copyright notice supposedly prevents Facebook from stealing your on-line information.
- Telling your friends to change their Facebook settings supposedly protects your privacy.
- A photo showing a fetus supposedly reaching his or her tiny hand out to grasp at a doctor's finger during a surgery.
- A photo supposedly showing a bear immediately before it ate a backpacking photographer in his tent.
- A photo supposedly showing a panda sitting in the business class section of an airplane.
With the existence, for many years now, of TV shows like “MythBusters” and websites like Snopes.com, I do not understand why our culture seems to be getting worse at spreading such viral nonsense instead of better.
I do not mean to come across as “holier-than-thou” about this. For one, I myself have been duped more than enough times — including several of the above initially, before I researched them. No one likes to learn that he or she has been deceived. Part of my anger at the phenomenon of urban legends is seeing so many of my friends and family victimized by lies and deceit.
“But these things are all harmless,” you may say. “What does it matter whether people believe these things or not? What does it matter if some of them contain ‘little white lies’?” I think this issue is more important than that. Beyond the simple matter of no one liking to be deceived, I feel that there are a few other issues worth raising:
- In the case of many urban legends, the fact that so many believe them without skepticism is a sad revelation of the state of science education. If you have any understanding at all of how the scientific method works, you should know that setting up an experiment to see how many spiders the average person swallows in a year is next to impossible.
- Similarly, many urban legends encourage public fear and ignorance. I've met people who were afraid to wear antiperspirants, because they believed the urban legend that they cause cancer. I, for one, do not want to live a life of fear.
- Many photos and videos are already interesting enough on their own, yet the write-ups attached to them are wrong. (For example, the fake Bruce Lee video is really cool; so what that it is actually part of an ad campaign? It's a great ad.) Why has truth not been good enough for something to be interesting? In some cases, such as the case of the fetus surgery, it's agenda. The photo is real, but the doctor was putting the hand back into the uterus; the baby was not “reaching out”. In my opinion, pro-life advocates have hurt their case by lying to make the story more in their favor.
- Likewise, I like both of the mis-attributed quotes above. I do not need to lie about the true authors — William John Henry Boetcker and Dorothy Day, respectively — to make a point. But people in our society are more likely to listen to something, not because it has value, but because of who said it. This is very worrisome to me.
- Many urban legends perpetuate (often offensive) stereotypes. The “dumb” character in many of the stories is often a woman or a native of a certain country. This is rather offensive, is it not? These false stereotypes are then used as ammo for arguments, such as, for example, women having a higher pain tolerance than men. First of all, whichever sex has the higher pain tolerance shouldn't have any say as to which gender is “better”. Is this kindergarten? Secondly, women do not.
- Urban legends result in people or groups being blamed for things for which they are not responsible. This often turns the blame from where it should be pointed. Take poor Barbie. (Yes, the doll.) How many times have you heard her blamed for girls' poor sense of self-worth in regards to their bodies? There are many commonly held ideas of her being too top-heavy to stand up were she real, yet actual studies seem to indicate no cause-effect relationship to self-worth. (I frankly think a bigger problem would be the size of her enormous head, which is always disproportionate.) While hearing untested hypotheses about correlations between Barbie and poor body image, meanwhile I hear less about the insane computer editing of models performed by so many magazines. (If you only click one of my links, it should be this one, #7.)
- In the case of “Christian” urban legends, they are a sad embarrassment to the faith. It is like crying wolf to the ones a Christian should want to influence. If they cannot (and rightly not) believe your (ludicrous) story about the atheist professor who dropped a beaker that rolled down all of his clothes and didn't break, why will they ever believe in the Resurrection? If you have to lie about NASA “discovering a missing day” to prove the trustworthiness of your Bible, is it really all that trustworthy?
- From the other side of the “faith” we have revisions of history that have become urban legends. A good example is how often we hear about how Christianity has caused more death than atheism. While it is appalling how much death Christians have caused, the opposite is in fact true; atheistic regimes have caused orders of magnitude more death.
- Because our culture already too often accepts “information by the majority” as truth, how will we trust any information? God help us if truth becomes democratic!
I should point out that not all legends end up being false. (I highly recommend a visit to the nearest Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum as a demonstration of this.) Truth is often, after all, stranger than fiction. Do not reject anything outright that seems unbelievable, but at least take the time to analyze it.
I also should point out that if I spread a false urban legend, I myself may not be lying, but I am still spreading a lie. The intent is (much) better, but the result is (sadly) the same, despite my good intentions. It is one thing to be deceived; it is quite another thing to then spread that deceit around for others to be deceived, so I should be more careful.
I will summarize this entry with the following statement: If our BS-detectors are so off that we cannot detect an obviously Photoshopped grisly bear in a tent, how are we going to detect the political spew coming out of the mouths of Democrats and Republicans or the over- and under-hyped “news” from a media who care far more about ratings and money than about truth? Please, dear readers, let us all have “active minds”. not “open” ones. Let us show a little skepticism where warranted. Let us not help the spread of falsehood.
Let us care about truth again.
(Click here for a full list of my entries on urban legends.)
AppendixSeriously, everyone should have this webpage bookmarked for reference:
Tags: anti-favorites, culture, epistemology, fear, history, ignorance, internet, logical flaws, poular opinion, science, stereotypes, summaries, truth, urban legends
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