False Authority

Common sense dictates that you should never fully rely upon someone else to do fact checking for you. But who has time for common sense?

If you’re reading this page, chances are you’re here because something about one or all of the entries in The Repository Of Lost Legends (TROLL) section of this site struck you as a tadge suspect, if not downright wrong.

If any or all of the stories in this section caused your internal clue phone to ring, we hope you didn’t let the answering machine take the call. That niggling little voice of common sense whispering to you in the background was right — there was something wrong with what you read.

You’ve just had an encounter with False Authority Syndrome.

Everything in this section is a spoof. Mister Ed was no more a zebra than the origin of the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence had anything to do with pirates on a recruiting drive. As for Mississippi’s doing away with teaching fractions and decimals in its school systems because kids find them too hard to master, that’s no more true than Kentucky’s imposing a licensing fee on uses of its name, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ naming his celebrated apeman after the city he lived in (other way around, actually), George Bernard Shaw’s penning a poorly-attended play called Closed For Remodeling, passengers on the Titanic viewing a 1912 silent version of The Poseidon Adventure while their doomed ship was sinking out from under them, the design of California’s flag being the result of “pear” being taken for “bear,” or mobile homes having gained their name from the city in which they were first manufactured.

What is the point of the Lost Legends section, you say? Is it merely an exercise in creative writing, perhaps a way to blow off steam when the pressure of having to be mind-numbingly factual about everything gets to us? Does it provide us with a gratuitous opportunity to guffaw at how easily folks are duped into believing outrageous things? Or are we suicidally intent upon giving our valued readers good reason to doubt the credibility of everything else on the site?

Granted, a small part of the motivation to create such a section stems from our need to let a sense of whimsy get the better of us once in a while, and yes, some days the grind of having to be utterly factual about everything does weigh on us a bit. But the Lost Legends actually serve a higher purpose than merely existing as an out-of-the-way pasture a couple of writers can occasionally have a good frolic in.

This section graphically demonstrates the pitfalls of falling into the lazy habit of taking as gospel any one information outlet’s unsupported word. We could have put up a page saying “Don’t believe everything you read, no matter how trustworthy the source,” but that wouldn’t have conveyed the message half as well as showing through direct example just how easy it is to fall into the “I got it from so-and-so, therefore it must be true” mindset. That’s the same mindset that powers urban legends, the same basic mistake that impels countless well-meaning folks to confidently assert “True story; my aunt (husband, best friend, co-worker, boss, teacher, minister) told me so.”

No single truth purveyor, no matter how reliable, should be considered an infallible font of accurate information. Folks make mistakes. Or they get duped. Or they have a bad day at the fact-checking bureau. Or some days they’re just being silly. To not allow for any of this is to risk stepping into a pothole the size of Lake Superior.

It’s just as much a mistake to look to a usually-reliable source to do all of the thinking, judging, and weighing as it was to unquestioningly believe every unsigned e-mail that came along. Far too many have transferred the same breathlessly unbounded faith they used to accord various bits of e-tripe to those who make it their life’s work to get to the bottom of crazy stories. It’s sad to say, but the behavior of abdicating responsibility remains the same even though who is being believed has changed. It’s still an abdication.

“You just keep on thinking, Butch; that’s what you’re good at,” works as a life philosophy only if you’re the Sundance Kid. And most of us ain’t.

What does this mean, then — don’t believe anything, no matter who researches and presents it? Hardly. When facts are needed, it’s still right to turn to news and information outlets that have a proven track record for providing good information. The trick is to recognize the dividing line between “reliable” and “infallible” and thus learn how to avoid throwing oneself bodily across it. Or, in other words, don’t throw the common sense out with the bathwater.

Common sense dictates that a black-and-white quadruped is still going to look like a zebra on a black-and-white TV, and all the authoritative-looking cites to the contrary shouldn’t persuade one otherwise. Next time you’re tempted to believe something that runs contrary to common sense just because someone knowledgeable touts it, remember Mister Ed. More folks than it bears thinking about turned their backs on their own common sense rather than disbelieve an outlet they’d lazily come to have unshakeable faith in.

The world is filled with information and misinformation, and picking a path through this minefield will never amount to finding the One True Authority to utterly rely upon. Figuring out which way is up will always require the use of common sense because, as we’re about to see, even the authorities one would otherwise count on to always be dealing off the top of the deck will sometimes get it horribly wrong.

Professors sometimes pass along unverifiable rumor as if it were the truth (e.g. wild-ass speculation about a well-known actress’ genetic makeup is routinely offered to biology classes as a factual example of a particular medical condition), and sometimes they impart off-the-wall claims to their students as the plain unvarnished truth. Textbooks themselves frequently include numerous factual errors.

Although seeking an education from those provably more knowledgeable is a good thing, allowing that education to amount to “my teacher told me this, so it must be true” is a mistake of breathtaking magnitude. Teachers are people too, and they sometimes fail to do all the checking they should before presenting an informative tidbit to a class. Or they (like anyone else) rely on the certainty of a friend who imparted that particular tidbit. Either way, there’s room in this formula for bad information to come from a good source even when the source has nothing but the purest of intentions.

Likewise, members of the clergy, police officers, and anyone else you might instinctively view as inherently trustworthy authority figures have time and again proved they were just as capable as anyone of passing along misinformation as if it were fact. Examine the statements made by Father Michael Kennedy about a possible AIDS Mary in his parish for examples of the clergy taking a hand in furthering legends. Try to imagine from how many pulpits the Madalyn Murray O’HairProcter and Gamble, and “gay Jesus film” scares were delivered from.

As for the police, a quick look at the history of the Lights Out! hoax reveals how often this canard was passed along as 100% fact by the very group one would hope not only is always protecting us but also knows more about these matters than anyone. Some policemen have also over the years chosen to present impossible urban legends as incidents that happened to them (e.g., the RV Siphoner tale).

Okay, you say, so you can’t trust individuals placed in positions of authority to always filter out every bit of misinformation that comes their way before passing it along to their students, parishioners, patients, and citizens. People are fallible, and it’s reasonable to assume that at some future unspecified date any one of these presumed paragons will pass along as rock-solid fact some specious bit of knowledge they failed to first properly vet on your behalf. But what about monolithic entities such as wire services, highly respected newspapers, and television news shows? They have fact checkers on staff, and these news outlets are in the business of providing information you can trust, after all. Aren’t they perfectly reliable?

The answer is no. Even the best of the best of them will at times drop the ball.

  • In 1988, UPI and Reuters were taken in by an exploding toilet story published by the Jerusalem Post and thus passed it along to every newspaper they fed.
  • In 1999, the locked-out pilot legend was vectored in the pages of the Chicago Tribune as a recent occurrence involving Air Zimbabwe.
  • In 1995 CNN devoted a segment to Mr. Bonuso and his Solomon Project, a legal supercomputer which supposedly would render the need for juries obsolete. Only after the segment aired did CNN discover that Bonuso was really Joey Skaggs, prankster extraordinaire, and the Solomon Project was his latest leg-pull.
  • In 1997 NBC Nightly News ran a piece on how to tell truth from hoax regarding Internet rumors. In a bizarre twist of getting the story backwards thanks to not reading the underlying material, the show’s anchor assured viewers that some brands of cat litter are radioactive.
  • The hydrogen beer legend has been presented as fact by The New York Times (1996), the Boston Globe (1997), and the Washington Post (1999).
  • In a 2003 U.S. News and World Report article about tort reform, an apocryphal list of
    ridiculous lawsuits was presented as real.

Okay, so even the big boys have fallen off the beam at times, thus proving it’s a mistake to worship at even their feet. What’s an aspiring skeptic to do when common sense whispers one thing and a trusted source shouts another?

The answer is startlingly simple: Look for more information. That internal taffy-pull should be interpreted as a sign that more legwork is needed before a position — pro or con — can be adopted. Rather than arbitrarily throwing belief in either direction (“My teacher wouldn’t lie” versus “My teacher must be wrong about this”), make the effort to find out which is right, this time by consulting a variety of sources.

Among other things (including providing a good read and some wonderful belly laughs), we hope this site helps our visitors learn to judge the quality of information presented to them. We’d like to think those who stop by here learn a little something about what steps to mentally take when pondering the eternal “hoax or true?” question. As wonderfully gratifying as it is to be regarded as infallible, we’d much rather see our visitors discover the key to their own abilities.

Are we being a bit too strident in our warning against succumbing to the allure of relying on others to do all of the vetting of suspect tales? Perhaps, but based on the number of puzzled messages we’ve received from incredulous readers who were surprised to discover that, in spite of what they read here, Mr. Ed wasn’t really a zebra, we don’t think so.