The Folklorist-Detectives

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Earlier this week The New York Times profiled David and Barbara Mikkelson, the couple behind the excellent factchecking site snopes.com. From the article:

Dan is a fan and he lives for our music.

Mr. Mikkelson was a dogged researcher of folklore. When he needed to mail letters requesting information, he would use the letterhead of the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society, an official-sounding organization he dreamed up. They would investigate the origins of classic tall tales, like the legend of the killer with a prosthetic hook who stalked Lovers' Lane, for a small but devoted online audience.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, users overwhelmed the Mikkelsons with forwarded e-mail claims and editorials about the culprits and the failures of the government to halt the plot, and the couple reluctantly accepted a larger role. They still maintain a thorough list of what they call "Rumors of War."

Less than a year later, Snopes became the family's full-time job. Advertisements sold by a third-party network cover the $3,000-a-month bandwidth bills, with enough left over for the Mikkelsons to make a living — "despite rumors that we're paid by, depending on your choice, the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee," Mr. Mikkelson said.

The flipside of partisan gullibility is the selective sort of skepticism in which you engage a report that challenges your worldview merely by searching for excuses not to believe it. That's part of the phenomenon that one of the Mikkelsons alludes to here:

It is not just the naïveté of Web users that worries the "Snopesters," a name for the Web site's fans and volunteers. It is also what Mr. Mikkelson calls "a trend toward the opposite approach, hyper-skepticism."

"People get an e-mail or a photograph and they spot one little thing that doesn't look right, and they declare the whole thing fake," he said. "That's just as bad as being gullible in a lot of senses."

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  1. People think I used to be an effeminate, big-assed white man before the operation, but I’ve always been this way.

    1. Good Afternoon reason!

      1. Good Morning reason!

        1. Good morning John/Suki/Napoleon/and all other semi-independent parts of John’s multiple personalities!

          1. Doesn’t my giant man-ass deserve a hello?

            I am depressed.

  2. I’ve trained my mother-in-law to check Snopes before sending me the latest email about how the FCC plans to ban religious programming about dobermans biting off the fingers of robbers who are collecting bottle caps for children with cancer caused by the death of a munchkin on the set of the Wizard of Oz, and that alone is a great accomplishment of which the Mikkelsons can be justifiably proud.

    1. Now that’s obviously an urban legend. Polar bears are more trainable than mothers-in-law (and less destructive at holiday dinners too).

    2. I sure wish my mom/aunt/mother-in-law/anyone I am related to over 50 was trainable in that way, but I’ve just about given up on that one.

    3. I applaud you, I have had very little luck with suck training.

      1. I have had very little luck with suck training.

        I have nothing to add.

    4. In my experience, people just get upset when you point out that their latest viral email spam is a hoax. So I’ve mostly stopped bothering.

      1. You mean that Navy SEAL didn’t smack that atheist college professor?

    5. Same here! Now I get the emails in the subject line declaring, ‘I CHECKED SNOPES READ THIS!!!’. Now if I can only get her to find the caps-lock key…

  3. The flipside of partisan gullibility is the selective sort of skepticism in which you engage a report that challenges your worldview merely by searching for excuses not to believe it.

    Yes, but that’s what snopes itself does with, e.g., children’s books and the CPSIA. Here they claim that it’s “FALSE” that sellers of used children’s books will be forced to test all old children’s books for lead and not be able to sell them. In fact, they won’t be required to test them– but it will still be illegal to sell any that have lead based ink, just the testing isn’t required.

    1. The analysis on Snopes even admits this and spells it out. I don’t have enormous problems with their analysis, just with their desire to put a big “FALSE” on a rumor that’s closer to true than false– if many old children’s books have lead-based paint, and it will be illegal to sell them, then it’s rather technical to say that testing isn’t allowed.

    2. The whine in this comment is immense…

      your analysis is arguable, as is theirs.

      And then you declare “that is what snopes does.”

      Logic up, nancy….

    3. The whine in this comment is immense…

      your analysis is arguable, as is theirs.

      And then you declare “that is what snopes does.”

      Logic up, nancy….

      1. Logic up, yourself. I said that “this is what snopes does” in this one case, not in general. Thanks for taking things out of context.

        I don’t disagree with their overall analysis. I just disagree with them doing in this one case exactly what they talk about in the excerpt: “spot one little thing that doesn’t look right, and they declare the whole thing fake.”

        To argue that “it’s FALSE that testing is required to sell these old books, but we acknowledge that it’s illegal to sell old items that likely have lead and there’s no way to know if they do or don’t without testing” is strange.

        1. t pretty much is exactly what snopes does in general, on just about any and every subject more political or controversial than the hook-man story. The site is illogical garbage.

          1. shouldn’t the name be “hyper-skeptic”

  4. I love Snopes. They do good work. I also like the quarterly journal called “Skeptic”.

    1. Another good source is the James Randi foundation (JREF): http://www.randi.org/site/

  5. Sadly, about 10% of the population is just retarded, and will refuse to believe you, no matter how many Snopes and Popular Mechanics articles you link to.

    (Goddamn, the 9/11 Truthers need to be shot for the good of humanity)

    1. Well, we are a Christian Nation?.

    2. But have you ever heard of fire melting steel!?!? I’m just asking questions!

      1. Metal can only be melted by chanting. It says so on Wikipedia.

  6. It is not just the na?vet? of Web users that worries the “Snopesters,” a name for the Web site’s fans and volunteers. It is also what Mr. Mikkelson calls “a trend toward the opposite approach, hyper-skepticism.”

    This has me thinking again of Michael Shermer’s old book, Why People Believe Weird Things. It’s a topic that goes on forever, and it always leads to one question. How do we avoid being one of those people if we aren’t hyper-skeptical about… everything? I say it’s impossible. In fact, if there aren’t at least a few odd and erroneous beliefs rattling around in your brain, there’s likely something very wrong with you.

    1. “In fact, if there aren’t at least a few odd and erroneous beliefs rattling around in your brain, there’s likely something very wrong with you.”

      I’d say this is less important than your ability to change ‘beliefs’ when evidence tells you to.

      1. This is settled science.

    2. Skepticism is healthy. People should be skeptical about everything and especially anything with which human motives may be a factor. People are often insincere when offering their reasons for their actions or ideologies or beliefs. Even when they are sincere they are often simply unaware of the real motives involved simply because of their beliefs, their ideology, and because those they follow are manipulating them.

      It’s not difficult, and certainly not “impossible” you appear to be making it overly complex.

      To not be one of those people don’t follow or believe in anyone. Never believe in anything as if it’s certain fact, always leave room for error, mistakes are common, “facts” are only fact until disproven. Be skeptical, always, even of yourself.

      Keep in mind there is difference between skepticism and cynicism. A person may as well remain a believer if they are merely going to swing to the other extreme and become a cynic.

      Scientific/Baconian method is a good example of healthy skepticism.

      Alleged AGW is a great example of what happens when individuals who swing between unquestioning believer and rabid cynic decide to play pretend “scientist.” What results is religion, with this example The Green Religion.

      It also serves as an example of how people can be sincere and see their own motives as other than what they actually are. We’re all familiar with those who sabotage their own efforts and can’t understand why they can’t succeed. The human animal can easily make itself it’s biggest fool.

      It took years before Einstein’s theories on relativity were verified. Then even a greater number of years before various points began to be disproven. Even Darwin lived to see at least one of his “certin” theories disproven involving geological formations around Loch Ness. He couldn’t understand how he could’ve been so mistaken. The difference between Einstein and Darwin is Einstein knew his theories could, and eventually would be, disproven.

      If you have some time on your hands and feel like doing so, a review of Karl Popper’s later work may be a another perspective complimentary to Shermer’s worth looking at if you haven’t done so already.

      1. Good stuff, ?. I’ll take a closer look at the Carl Popper work. My point may hold up, though. For me, extreme or hyper skepticism can lead us to reject anything that sounds even remotely exotic or unusual. It comes dangerously close to suspending our critical faculties altogether. All we have to do is follow the presumed consensus of the reasonable-minded folk. Easy.

        If you never want to look like a goofball, just set your mental evidence criterion conservatively to prevent every and all false alarms. But this will also cause you to miss out on some good possibilities. Now consider an alternative trade-off, where you occasionally look silly but accept more valid arguments. Which trade-off is better? For most people, I say go out on a limb occasionally. You can’t use consensus as a crutch and are forced to exercise logic and reason more carefully.

  7. Snopes (David) and Barbara were frequent commenters on the USENET group alt.folklore.urban. It was thru AFU that I developed my healthy skepticism.

    OBUL: David Mikkleson is the son of the on-time Governor of South Dakota.

    … Hobbit

    1. Good to know. Had I learned that he was the son of the habitually late Governor of South Dakota, I would have some serious questions about the accuracy of Snopes.

    2. By the way, does ObUL stand for “observed urban legend”? That’s my best guess based on a google search but I can’t find an actual definition.

      1. Never mind. A little more digging turned up “obligatory urban legend.”

        1. The “old hats” of the early days used to consider it obligatory to include an urban legend if they were going to post to the group. The majority didn’t do so when I was hanging around there in the early 90’s.

          However, it *was* obligitory to mention Vickie Robinson in one’s .sig.

          … Hobbit

    3. A wise Hobbit, indeed.

  8. I blogged this article as well on my business journalism blog. If you read between the lines, their stuff does tend to skew left but it’s standard of accuracy is so much better than anything else on the net they count as heroes.

    Another point to make is that they make a living and pay employees doing this, another job that is basically journalism thanks to the ‘net.

    My post is here: http://tinyurl.com/y5bgvnw

  9. Sean Dougherty paraphrases the NYT article: ‘He points out that to be successful, they had to *follow their audience* and do more investigations of political claims when they were really more interested in “where’s my kidney” type urban legend e-mails at the outset.’ [emphasis added]

    Traditional journalists tell us that *their* audience is more interested in entertainment and other alleged fluff than in hard-hitting political investigations.

    So I guess that the Internet audience is more sophisticated, eh?

    1. So I guess that the Internet audience is more sophisticated, eh?

      Not really.

    2. No, it’s just that entertainment and celebrity fluff is much, much cheaper to produce than hard-hitting political investigations. We just rationalize the the choice by blaming the readers.

  10. NYT just piggybacking onto NPR?

    As Ross Grady pointed out in his twitter feed:

    @rossgrady Is it better to think that snopes.com has a great new publicist, or the NYT (http://is.gd/bfEtF ) just listens to NPR (http://is.gd/bfEwr )?

    1. Or the BBC, or Pravda.

    2. NYT just likstened to NPR, and vice versa.
      I’ve seen stories jump from one to the other on severeal occasions.

  11. Wow that makes sense when you think about it.

    RT
    http://www.whos-watching.es.tc

    1. What if you don’t think about it, though? Does it still make sense?

  12. Snopes is garbage. It is a Liberal website that whitewashes Muslims and their terror — just like “Reason” magazine.

    “There’s no need to fear. Underzog is here.”

    1. And Snopes whitewashes the bicycle riders, too.

      1. If this were 70 years ago, you R?hmites would be making the joke about Nazis and bicycle riders instead of murderous Arabs and bicycle riders.

        “There’s no need to fear. Underzog is here!”

        1. “There’s no need to fear. Underzog is here!”

          We get it. We get it.

      2. Awesome. That’s one I have to put in the memory bank.

    2. underzog|4.10.10 @ 6:08PM|#
      “Snopes is garbage. It is a Liberal website that whitewashes Muslims and their terror — just like “Reason” magazine.”

      Unlike truly authoritarian sites:
      http://www.engrish.com/

    3. “whitewash” gets over 2.2 million hits on Google, while “blackwash” gets only 227,000. Coincidence or racist phenomenon? You decide!

  13. What are rural and suburban legends, then?

    1. For one, they are more pastoral and bucolic.

  14. It is also what Mr. Mikkelson calls “a trend toward the opposite approach, hyper-skepticism.”

    Notice Mikkelson doesn’t offer anything but anecdotal evidence of this so-called “hyper-skepticism” of his.

    1. This “hyper-skepticism” is essentially the mentality that fuels nearly all conspiracy theorists. These people have a notion, or political leaning, that they develop and then go on to ignore and discount any evidence contrary to their world view. It’s the idea that “the absence of evidence is evidence”, meaning that when one finds no evidence of UFOs at Area 51 this is only because the evidence has been hidden or destroyed. This type of reasoning extends to everything from 9/11 to the faking of the moon landing. Many skeptic journals discuss this flawed type of thinking in detail, urging readers to remember that the absence of evidence is NOT evidence.

      1. See: Informal Fallacy, Appeal to Ignorace.

        1. I got your heaping, hopping dose of freshly baked irony, FoE.

          1. It’s a fine line between overly subtle and insulting your audience’s intelligence. Some day I hope to discover that line.

      2. There are times when an absence of evidence is itself suspicious. Like when you’re looking at a used car, and when you check the oil, it’s perfectly clean and light brown.

    2. It is also what Mr. Mikkelson calls “a trend toward the opposite approach, hyper-skepticism.”

      i think i got an email about this

  15. Another trait of the hyper-skeptic is “naive cynicism.” When poorly informed on some subject that doesn’t immediately agree with him or that feels threatening in some way, the naive cynic reduces said subject down in a way that completely misrepresents what it is; then quickly dismisses the subject – when in the company of like-minded naive cynics it’s a very successful rhetorical tactic.

  16. See Informal Fallacy: Regression.

    1. Looks like a stretch; not sure that differentially rewarding badminton champions explains much.

      1. Reply here.

  17. Another characteristic of hyper-skeptics is insisting that the health care bill is going to bankrupt the country after the bipartisanly objective CBO certifies that it will in fact reduce the deficit.

    1. +1 for hyper-skeptics then.

    2. Another characteristic of the naive is to insist that the “bipartisanly objective CBO” projections for their arbitrary 10 year window will be true forever and ever.

    3. What’s that smell?

      1. I’ve got poo poo on my shoe…

  18. Not really a stretch; the simplistic belief that reward the players with goodies will somehow decrease their future performance.

    Apply this to conspiracy theorists: simplistic belief that because so many urban myths and cockamamie theories are posited must mean, by statistical odds, that some must be true since governments routinely lie to their citizenry (and others). And these theorists are sure that some authority is covering up the evidence.

    When the amount of actual true claims are tested against the odds, the conspiracy beliefs regress back the statistical mean of myth v. truth value, i.e. 9/11, UFO’s, Men in Black, Chupacabra, Steve Smith (well there is a Steve Smith),Moon landings, and a host of others.

    The irrational will cling the belief in absence of tangible proof with the rationale of “the truth is out there, guarded by ‘top men’.”

  19. “People get an e-mail or a photograph and they spot one little thing that doesn’t look right, and they declare the whole thing fake,” he said. “That’s just as bad as being gullible in a lot of senses.”

    Right, like two airliners flying into the world trade centers and deciding it was carefully laid explosives by the CIA.

    1. Some people are cognitively incapable of believing that anyone other than the CIA might be evil.

  20. Dixie Carter is dead.

    Those two parts led to her role on “Designing Women,” a comedy about the lives of four women at an interior design firm in Atlanta.

    Carter and Delta Burke played the sparring sisters who ran the firm. The series also starred Annie Potts and Jean Smart.

    The show, whose reruns have rarely left the airwaves, was not a typical sitcom. It tackled such topics as sexism, ageism, body image and AIDS.

    “It was something so unique, because there had never been anything quite like it,” Potts told The Associated Press at a 2006 cast reunion. “We had Lucy and Ethel, but we never had that exponentially expanded, smart, attractive women who read newspapers and had passions about things and loved each other and stood by each other.”

    As a cable-deprived child growing up in the early 90s, I must say with bitter tears welling up inside, that the Murphy Brown – Designing Women block on CBS was one of the biggest travesties of prime time television in all of history.

    1. Interestingly I found this:

      Dixie Carter was a Libertarian

      1. After host Bill Maher said he was a libertarian and thought that prostitution should be legalized, Carter responded, “I’m a libertarian, too.”

        Glenn Beck: And I’m a libertarian!

        Jon Stewart: Me too!

        Sarah Palin: All of us!

    2. not a typical sitcom. It tackled such topics as sexism, ageism, body image and AIDS

      I laughed. I cried. I changed the channel.

    3. Never saw the series, but she had a pretty good set of pipes. She sang at small clubs, and it was worth the ticket and minimums.

  21. If one wants a site that is not so filled with Liberal bias then one might try Truth or Fiction.

    I don’t see why I should get info — other than a Bambi hunt — from a website run by a Liberal web disigner and his housewife spouse.

    “There’s no need to fear. Underzog is here!”

    1. you come for the liberal web disigners, but you stay for the rohmite sodomy!

    2. Somehow, I’m afraid anyway.

  22. Wait, $3000/month bandwidth costs? They may want to seek out a new host.

    1. Yeah. $3000 a month for bandwidth? Sounds like a new urban legend.

    2. Sounds about right for an extremely high-traffic site.

      The fact that the ad revenue is enough to pay that 3K/month and keep the Snopsers living comfortably should be a good indication.

  23. Speaking of conspiracy theories, I seem to recall several commenters on a certain libertarian blog saying that Toyota’s recent troubles were the result of a government conspiracy against an innocent competitor of GM. As ridiculous as that was to begin with, it’s even more ridiculous now:

    Toyota has routinely engaged in questionable, evasive and deceptive legal tactics when sued, frequently claiming it does not have information it is required to turn over and sometimes even ignoring court orders to produce key documents, an Associated Press investigation shows.

    In a review of lawsuits filed around the country involving a wide range of complaints ? not just the sudden acceleration problems that have led to millions of Toyotas being recalled ? the automaker has hidden the existence of tests that would be harmful to its legal position and claimed key material was difficult to get at its headquarters in Japan. It has withheld potentially damaging documents and refused to release data stored electronically in its vehicles.

    1. With that stunning logic, I’ll bet they have the Ark of the Covenant in it’s Nippon HQ as well.

      1. If Congressional inquiry had led to the revelation of photos of the Ark sitting in the bed of a brand new Tundra, that analogy would be relevant.

        1. Please check your sarcasmometer Tulpa. Methinks it’s on the fritz 🙂

    2. Not sure of the point.
      The article looks like a claim that Toyota has illegally withheld various documents; Toyota denies it. I can’t tell.
      But I don’t see any conspiracy.

    3. Claiming that Toyota is “withholding potentially damaging documents” is not the same as, you know, having actually seen a “damaging document”.

    4. They could be guilty and the government could still be out to get them for things they’d give GM a pass for, you know.

      That’s why we have rules against conflict of interest that don’t require proving bias.

  24. I don’t care if they are liberals, how can we trust a site that’s not run by the Government?
    Besides, I was in the Special Forces with Mr. Rogers, I was there when Ollie North testify about OBL to Al Gore, and I am drying my wet dog in the microwave right now.

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