The subject of rumors, hoaxes, and urban
legends is an entertaining one. The value of studying them, however, is far more
than entertainment. The lessons learned are important to life.
THE STUDY OF RUMORS HELPS US BE MORE ALERT TO FALSE INFORMATION IN OUR
EVERY DAY LIVES The more we learn about Internet rumors, the more we should consider how
many false tales we might be guilty of believing and passing along to others on
a daily basis.
The Internet has been both the worst and the best thing that has happened to
rumors. Worst because there has never been a more efficient and expansive
way to communicate than through the Internet and through email so we hear more false
stories than ever and pass them along to more people than ever. It's also
been the best, however, because we are more likely to learn that something is a
false. We've all had the experience of forwarding what we thought was a
timely, interesting, funny, or alarming email, then feeling the sting of five or six replies
telling us the story is hogwash.
It should cause us to pause and consider other areas of truth or fiction.
It should cause us wonder how often the same thing happens at home, with
friends, or at work. It should encourage us to reassess what we hear and
whether we pass it along to others..
For example, it's a good policy that we never forward an email that isn't as
close to first-hand information as we can get. Even first-hand stories can
still be a risk because some people lie, but at least the story we are telling
is attributed to a particular source. The same should be true on a more
personal level. If someone looks you in the eye and says, "I am
cheating on my wife and have filed for divorce," that's first-hand
information. If somebody says to you, "Joe told me he's cheating on
his wife and has filed for divorce," that's second-hand information, but
still coming from someone who claims to have actually talked with Joe about it
and whose credibility you can assess. However, when someone says,
"Joe is cheating on his wife and has filed for divorce," and that
person either cannot tell you the exact source or says it came from somebody who
told somebody else who is the best friend of somebody else, it shouldn't be
regarded as reliable enough to believe or repeat. If somebody tells you that a
particular food causes cancer or that an insurance company is run by crooks,
either invest the time in researching the truth of the matter, or just file the
information somewhere in the back of your mind as interesting, but
unconfirmed. The farther away a story gets from a first-hand source,
the greater the risk that something about it is inaccurate.
I once had lunch with a man who had been a widely loved principal at a religious
high school, but
who had resigned his position because of an indiscretion with a female member of
his staff. He had not committed adultery, but had become infatuated with
this woman to the extent that his marriage and his performance on the job were
affected by it. His wife caught them together during a romantic moment and
everything hit the fan. He had admitted to the wrongdoing and voluntarily
stepped down from his post.
During our lunch, I asked him how things were going and his answer was,
"Rich, I don't think I am ever again going to believe much of anything
people tell me about other people." He spent the rest of the lunch
telling me how astonished he was that some of his closest and most valued
friends and colleagues had heard and repeated stories about him that were
shatteringly untrue. There were lurid accounts of how he and the woman had
sneaked away on trips together and toured some of the sex capitols of
the world. There were rumors that he had divorced his wife and married the
other woman. There was a story on an Internet chat site that said
he had not only divorced and remarried, but he had started a new cult-like
seminar for the sexually inhibited. "The sad part," he
concluded, "is that to this day, not a single one of the people who has
spread those rumors has called me directly to find out if they are true."
The fable is told about the wise man whose reputation had been severely affected
by a false story that had circulated about him. One of the people
responsible for the story later regretted it and came to the wise man to ask his
forgiveness and said he would do anything to try to make it right. The
wise man told him to take a pillow to a steep cliff overlooking the country, rip
open the pillow, scatter the feathers in the wind, and return. The
repentant man came back and the wise man said, "Now, go collect every
feather." It was impossible to do and was the wise man's way of
illustrating the irretrievable consequences of spreading a falsehood.
THE STUDY OF RUMORS GIVES STRENGTH TO THAT WHICH IS TRUE IN OUR LIVES
It's easy to fear that the more we
learn about how much fiction there is around us, the less we might trust what we
are told. The reality, however, is that despite the existence of
misinformation, there are things that are true and the knowing the dynamics and
characteristics of false stories can sometimes help us feel more confidence in the
The study of rumors can even be strengthening to your faith. My own faith,
for example, is Christianity. Some people think that faith is a "leap
in the dark," that you simply wake up one day and say, "this sounds
like a nifty idea" and you go about the business of believing it.
Christianity teaches, however, that God gives evidence of himself
that is reliable enough to decide whether he's there. He gives invitations
for us to believe the evidence and all of life depends on whether we do.
Sometimes, we have to wade through a lot of rumors, hoaxes, and urban legends
about faith to get to what's real, but it's worth the pursuit. It's very
important to me, for instance, that Jesus is not an urban legend. Whereas rumors
sources, the number of first-hand stories about Jesus
from people who knew him is enormous and the kicker is how many of them were
willing to die for it. Critics can speculate whether his followers were
misled, but nobody can accuse them of participating in a hoax.
My interest in rumors, hoaxes, and urban
legends is not just because they are interesting. It's because they are a
part of the important goal of getting as near to the truth as we can.