In the new world of blogs and tweets and breaking-news bulletins flashing across billions of big, medium, and small screens, we are learning that one of the down sides of instant connection is that false news can in a flash go from being an off-hand comment to a globally recognized “fact.”(Consider the person falsely-accused of being the Boston Marathon bomber.) The hope, often vain, is that corrections will just as quickly catch up with the mistakes. There are also slower, longer-lasting false stories that keep reverberating around at least part of the web, like those about President Obama’s heritage. And then there are “urban legends” that are passed around not by conspiracy theorists, gullible web surfers, or gossip-column fans, but by leading journalists, policymakers, and even (gasp!) academics. Folktales of the policy elites.
Sociologist Gary Alan Fine and political scientist Barry O’Neill published a paper a few years ago in, appropriately, the Journal of American Folklore on what they call “policy legends”: stories describing social conditions that call for social and governmental action, stories that are endorsed by respected, influential people, stories that are false. Despite occasional debunking, these legends have remarkable staying power. The examples Fine and O’Neill analyze date back before the Internet and, morphing in various ways, live on and on.
(I learned about this study from O’Neill at, of all things, a conference on Darwinian theory, which sort of shows how news can travel in odd channels.)
War and Peace
The first legend Fine and O’Neill discuss is the assertion that, out of precisely x years of human history, there have been precisely only y years without war. To take just one variant: in 1998, the Secretary of Defense, probably drawing on a 1995 book by a Yale professor, who in turn probably drew on a 1968 book by philosophers Will and Ariel Durant, stated that “as of 1968, during the past 3,421 years, only 268 have been free of war.” (Alert: This is untrue.) Aside from the fact that such a calculation is impossible to make (who knows if, say, tribes in New Guinea or Scandinavia were warring three millennia ago?), the numbers and the alleged source of the numbers have shifted greatly over many decades. Two Dutch scholars located the origin of this legend in an 1864 book by a French historian who reported 227 (not 268) years of peace based on his supposed complete inventory of all 8,397 peace treaties signed in the world between 1496 B.C.E. and 1861 C.E. (Having precise numbers helps policy legends persuade, even if the actual numbers keep changing in the re-telling.)
As the tale passed, with numbers fluctuating, from learned person to learned person, it took at least one odd turn. The respected journalist and peace activist Norma Cousins adapted the numbers in 1953 for what he explicitly labeled as a fanciful account by an imaginary scholar. The label, however, got lost in transmission and Cousin’s version spread as fact, eventually to be endorsed by people such as Norm Chomsky, John Kerry, and Leonid Brezhnev.
A similar list of notables, including John McCain, Harvard president Derek Bok, George Will, and Arianna Huffington, have repeated a policy legend about how bad American schools have become. The tale goes something like this: Back in the day, the 1940s or so, a survey of school teachers found that their major concerns about student behavior were problems like skipping class, whispering, chewing gum, and not putting paper in the wastebasket. In a “recent” survey (the year of the new survey differs in the many versions), teachers reported that the major behavioral problems are drug addiction, rape, assault, and so on. (Alert: this story is untrue.)
Without going through the complex archaeology of the school survey legend that Fine and O’Neill provide, it is clear that the hundreds of repetitions – with dates, sources, lengths of lists and specific items on them repeatedly changing – are all based on bald fiction. Then, over the years, the fiction became baroque as repeaters felt free to edit, subtract, and invent problems in order to make their rhetorical points.
Is Debunking Possible?
Fine and O’Neill describe a third legend. It is about how wordy Federal – or is it EU? – regulations of cabbages – or is it soybeans? or foghorns? – supposedly are. You can read it for yourself.
The authors then address the important question: If these legends are so blatantly false and contradictory, full of mistakes and misinformation, how do they last? Experts, indeed, regularly debunk them. O’Neill himself debunked the school list story. The debunking, however, lasts only for a while and the legends tend to resurface. Often, political actors have an interest in reviving them. More innocently, once the stories are published somewhere – even in a sociology textbook of the 1930s (gasp!) – new readers repeatedly rediscover them.
I would add an additional explanation: Psychologists and other students of rumors have shown (if I recall the story correctly) that people often pass on false accounts as truths because they sort of remember the key point of a story but lose its context, forgetting what the source was and even that they were explicitly told that the story was false. Which raises this worry: Have I now spread two false legends by repeating them, even with explanations of their falsity and the Alerts inserted above? Maybe.
(Re-posted on The Berkeley Blog on February 12, 2014.)