Monday, October 26, 2009

Urban Legends: A Case Study in Critical Thinking

Halloween is this Saturday, and it seems that this time of year is especially rife with urban legends - stories that most people have heard and many people "know" are true, but aren't. Here are some Halloween urban legends (and one or two that are actually true.)

Urban legends are passed as anecdotes among friends and e-mail chain letters. Sometimes they show up on websites and TV. Once they're widely accepted, they can appear in reputable books, the evening news, and classrooms (like the "we only use 10% of our brains" myth.)

We believe them for 3 main reasons:
1. we read/hear them so often
2. they're passed on by people we trust - a cousin, an author, a TV anchor, somebody who says they work for Microsoft
3. they fit in with our pre-existing hopes and insecurities about the world

Snopes (http://www.snopes.com) is a fantastic site to check out any sensational "news" you read or hear of a computer virus, get rich quick scheme, conspiracy theory, or "scare." Here's what they say about themselves:
We don't expect anyone to accept us as the ultimate authority on any topic. Unlike the plethora of anonymous individuals who create and send the unsigned, unsourced e-mail messages that are forwarded all over the Internet, we show our work. The research materials we've used in the preparation of any particular page are listed in the bibliography displayed at the bottom of that page so that readers who wish to verify the validity of our information may check those sources for themselves.
You can trust them - provisionally - because they show the sources of their information so you can go back and decide for yourself.

The TV show MythBusters has a fan site full of articles and interactive features here: http://dsc.discovery.com/fansites/mythbusters/mythbusters.html.
MythBusters is entertaining but it's also educational - it demonstrates how to apply basic scientific method to determine whether or not to believe something that's commonly "known." In other words, form a hypothesis and design an experiment to prove or disprove it. In real life, this is often as easy as looking it up in a reliable reference book to see what others have already discovered.


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