Urban Legends

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."