The Power of Myth

On Monday, Randall Munroe presented one of his better efforts recently, seen here. I've caught "MythBusters" a few times, as it's in pretty heavy rotation on the Discovery Channel, which is the default setting for the TVs in the student lounges here at my school. It's a massively, massively entertaining show. Recently, Roger Ebert also reposted his "Questions That Won't Die" Movie Answer Man column. Each of these is making a similar statement about the odd and persistent power of urban myth.

It's one of my biggest pet peeves: the utter, unthinking credulity with which so many of us accept just about anything we hear. Add on that people's general unwillingness to change their beliefs, and you've got a heady brew of idiotic ideas contaminating the pool of General Knowledge.

Once, many years ago, my two former roommates and I were watching the Governor of California's classic action flick True Lies. During the Jamie Lee Curtis striptease scene, one of them made the usual "She's actually got a dick" comment. "Oh, that's not true," I scoffed. Both roommates held firmly to their belief that Jamie Lee Curtis is a she-male of some sort. Why? Well, because one roommate's brother's biology professor had said it was so. "She's never made any sort of comment one way or the other about it," I said. And that is indeed the case - maybe it's true, maybe it's not, but it's not at all a Known Fact. Try as I might to explain this, they stuck to their guns. I appealed to higher authority, checking out what Snopes had to say about it. The fine folks at Snopes, of course, reiterated essentially what I had been saying. They continued to stick resolutely to their guns, with the rationale, "Well, I believe what a college professor says over some internet site!" Admittedly, 9 times out of 10, that's a sound strategy, but when the professor was just repeating a long-standing, unsubstantiated rumor as fact, well, I guess that's the 10th time, isn't it? Seeing that there was no way of convincing them - and mind you, I wasn't even trying to convince them that they were wrong, just that they were not necessarily correct - I gave up and dropped the subject. These two are both quite intelligent people, college educated and generally quite rational. Even so, they were unwilling to accept a belief that they held as fact.

It's astounding, really, how little we question what we believe. Someone we find generally trustworthy tells us that you can see one of the Munchkins hanging himself in the background of a scene in The Wizard of Oz? Why, then, you can see one of the Munchkins hanging himself in the background of a scene in The Wizard of Oz, end of story. Never mind that even in a three-inch YouTube frame on a computer monitor, you can pretty easily tell that the "Hanging Munchkin" is just a bird - the urban myth is much more fun to believe, right?