Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Sceptics Anonymous

Sometimes I think I ought to found a branch of Sceptics Anonymous.

Me: “Hi, I’m Jonathan and” (deep breath) “I’m a sceptic.”
Everyone: “Hi Jonathan!”

I remember that my father many years ago had this notice in his study:
We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.

(Petronius Arbiter. Roman centurion, 1st century A.D.)
It seemed like a good quote, it told a nice “things never change” story. In the relatively early days of the Internet, I repeated it on an online forum I had recently joined. I ought to have known better. Within an hour, several people had pointed out that the quote was fabricated, and probably dated from the 1970s. It was my first introduction to urban myth, and it taught me a lesson I never forgot. The mere fact that something sounds like it ought to be true isn’t evidence that it actually is true. In fact, if it sounds too much like it ought to be true, look extra carefully at the author’s motivations in writing it.

Until I fairly forcefully told them not to, I used to keep getting bombarded by friends with stories which they genuinely thought were true but which 10 minutes research would have shown were complete fiction. For instance, an American friend passed the following story to me a couple of years ago, citing it as justification for America’s (lack of) laws on gun control.
Two illegal aliens, Ralphel Resindez 23 and Enrico Garza 26, probably believed they would easily overpower a home alone 11 year old Patricia Harrington after her father had left their two story home.
As you can see if you follow the link to the full story, it is also a fabrication. However, with my urban myth detectors having been refined by many years of practice, I immediately suspected this one of being false even before it was confirmed as such. It just combined too many conservative pro-gun talking points into a single item. Nice white girl (Anglo-Saxon name), trained in using guns, shoots two murderers who are illegal immigrants (with nasty-sounding Hispanic names, nice touch of racism there), who had killed another person by the name of David Burien and were armed with his handgun they had stolen from his house. So I did a few web searches and found that:
  • The story wasn’t on the web pages of the local newspaper.
  • The story was only on the web pages of various right-wing blogs, in most cases repeated word for word from the original source (misspellings and all).
  • There was no mention of “David Burien” having been murdered in any news story on the web except in the context of this article.
  • The name “Ralphel Resindez” sounded awfully like it had been deliberately chosen to be similar to “Raphael Resendez-Ramirez”, an alias of somebody who really was quite a famous murderer.
I reported these findings back to my friend, suggesting that the story was almost certainly invented. His response was anger that I should doubt him and the story. He was clearly convinced of it despite the evidence I had compiled. After a few days the Snopes website (great for checking out urban myths of all kinds) listed the story as false, and my friend grudgingly admitted that there might be some cause for doubt, though he still thought it possible the story was true. For all I know, he may still think that to this day.

It’s a tough life being a sceptic.

1 comment:

  1. Never doubt the capacity for self-delusion of an American gun-nut.