Hoaxing goes into orbit, shoots for Mars

My undergraduate alma mater, the University of Utah, had an interesting fellow in the English department who collected stories that people swore were true, but were not. He invented a term for them: “Urban legends.” Jan Brunvand paid due academic attention to the folklore aspects of the stories, especially in his books, such as The Choking Doberman and The Vanishing Hitchhiker. (Alas, no, I never took a class with him.) I hope he copyrighted and trademarked the phrase, though I doubt he did. Brunvand was the first in what is now a minor industry in debunking bad information — see Snopes.com, for example.

Were I a young graduate student in folklore, I’d be collecting internet hoaxes the same way, and seeking a term to describe them that would be the label for the next round. Or, perhaps, Dr. Brunvand is still collecting them on his ski or fly-fishing trips.

In a post I just found from August 6, Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomer debunked, for the third time, an internet hoax about Mars. No kidding. “Mars will look as big as the Moon!” the e-mail exclaims.

No, it won’t.

Plait notes:

Whoever sent the email around this time didn’t change any of the numbers. This is ironic because Mars is on the other side of the Sun from us right now. It’s practically invisible, lost in the glare of the Sun. People looking for it are in for a disappointment.

Even more irony: since Mars is on the other side of the Sun from us, it’s as far away as it can possibly be, not as close as it gets! On the date mentioned in the email, August 27, 2006, Mars will be 385 million kilometers away (about 240 million miles). The email says it will only be 35 million miles away. Oops! What’s a factor of 7 between spammers?

That these things continue to go around is a tribute to science illiteracy, and an extreme lack of common sense, coupled with gullibility on a grand scale.

When Mars looks as big as the Moon, we’ll watch from our balcony at the Bathtub Museum, the staff and I, and 200 of our closest friends and major contributors, as we soak in the warmth of the Millard Fillmore Bathtub, recovered from the White House dumpster and refurbished to its 1853 glory. Fillmore was a big man.

Coda: Brunvand’s books are fun to read, and educational. On one of my driving trips from graduate study at the University of Arizona in Tucson, to my parents’ home in Utah, I heard hourly reports from radio stations about a kid who had washed his pet kitten, then put the creature into the microwave oven to dry it off. Clearly the story had moved on one of the then-two major radio news wires in the U.S., UPI or AP (UPI is no longer the organization it once was), and local news guys were picking the story up.

But that’s one of the stories Brunvand collected as an urban legend. It’s a hoax. In my career in journalism I saw many cases where urban legends made it into a newsroom as real news, even in the best newsrooms of the biggest organizations — and I was grateful for people who bothered to check the stories before sending them on again. Urban legends, and how to detect hoaxes, should be part of the curriculum at journalism schools, history schools, and science schools, among others. In an era of instant communication and self-publishing, the ability to smell a hoax is golden.

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