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May 2012
We recently got to see an example of how a bogus fact takes root and spreads — that fact being that 10 percent of wall street workers are clinical psychopaths.


It started with a study titled "Corporate Psychopathy: Talking the Walk" published in the April 2010 issue of the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law. Its lead author was Robert Hare, a specialist in the study of psychopathy. Hare had the opportunity to study 203 corporate professionals participating in a management development program. As part of this study, he conducted psychopathy assessments on the individuals, thus producing some of the first scientific data on psychopathy in the business world.

In the intro to the article, Hare noted that before his study almost no research had been conducted on psychopathic behavior in the business world, despite the widespread belief that, "Not all psychopaths are in prison. Some are in the Boardroom." This was because it was very difficult to obtain the cooperation of businesses. No company wanted to expose itself to outside scrutiny that might produce embarrassing revelations. Hare's study was only possible because he had cultivated a relationship with the company for many years. But even so, the company insisted on full anonymity. And Hare admitted that the group of 203 professionals was not a true representative sample of the business community. Still, it was better than nothing.


Hare's Results
Hare found that levels of possible psychopathy were somewhat elevated among the corporate professionals he studied — higher than one would expect to find in a sample of the general population:

"several investigators have used a PCL:SV score of at least 13 as an indication of 'potential' or 'possible' psychopathy... In our corporate sample 5.9% of the participants had a score this high, compared with 1.2% in the MacArthur community sample."

Furthermore, there were some interesting characteristics of those individuals who scored high for possible psychopathy:

"some with very high psychopathy scores were high potential candidates and held senior management positions: vice-presidents, supervisors, directors. This provides support for the argument that some psychopathic individuals manage to achieve high corporate status...

"high psychopathy total scores were associated with perceptions of good communication skills, strategic thinking, and creative/innovative ability and, at the same time, with poor management style, failure to act as a team player, and poor performance appraisals (as rated by their immediate bosses)...

"our finding that some companies viewed psychopathic executives as having leadership potential, despite having negative performance reviews and low ratings on leadership and management by subordinates, is evidence of the ability of these individuals to manipulate decision makers. Their excellent communication and convincing lying skills, which together would have made them attractive hiring candidates in the first place, apparently continued to serve them well in furthering their careers."

Hare's data transforms into a bogus fact
An article titled "The Financial Psychopath Next Door" by Sherree DeCovny ran in the March/April 2012 issue of CFA Institute magazine. In this article, DeCovny declared:
"Studies conducted by Canadian forensic psychologist Robert Hare indicate that about 1 percent of the general population can be categorized as psychopathic, but the prevalence rate in the financial services industry is 10 percent."

It's not clear where DeCovny came up with the 10 percent figure. She seems to have invented it. Hare later told John Grohol, the editor of World of Psychology, that, "I don’t know who threw out the 10 percent, but it certainly did not come from me or my colleagues."

However, the 10 percent figure quickly caught on. After all, it's the kind of figure that sounds like it should be true. People want to believe it.

It was first repeated by an article in theweek.com, "Why is Wall Street full of psychopaths?" Then the news aggregators Business Insider and Huffington Post picked it up, spreading the bogus figure far and wide.

Finally, it landed in the opening paragraph of a May 12 op-ed by William Deresiewicz in the New York Times, Capitalists and Other Psychopaths.

THERE is an ongoing debate in this country about the rich: who they are, what their social role may be, whether they are good or bad. Well, consider the following. A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are "clinical psychopaths," exhibiting a lack of interest in and empathy for others and an "unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation." (The proportion at large is 1 percent.) Another study concluded that the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and break the law.

It was at this point that fact-checkers began to cry foul. A week later, the Times published a correction and altered the opening paragraph of Deresiewicz's piece to eliminate the bogus piece of information.

In its correction, the Times noted, "[Hare's] study found that 4 percent of a sample of 203 corporate professionals met a clinical threshold for being described as psychopaths, not that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are clinical psychopaths." This is interesting because I'm not sure where they're getting that 4 percent figure from. What I see in Hare's study (which I quoted above) is that he found 5.9 percent of his sample to meet the criteria of being possibly psychopathic.

Anyway, it's clear that it's incorrect to state as a fact that 10 percent of wall street workers have been found to be clinical psychopaths. Hare's study, from which the bogus fact derives, didn't examine wall street professionals. It didn't produce a 10 percent figure. And it wasn't a representative sample.

It's actually possible that 10 percent of wall street workers might be psychopaths. Or the figure might be even higher: 20 percent or 50 percent. We simply don't know, because a group of wall street workers has never been examined for this trait. And as Hare suggests, it's unlikely they ever will be, because no investment bank is going to throw open its doors to psychologists for a study of the psychopathic tendencies of its employees.

Links: A game of telephone fools the Times, cjr.org; How Crazy Is Wall Street, New York Times?, the Daily Beast.
Categories: Business/Finance
Posted by Alex on Wed May 30, 2012
Comments (3)
According to this theory John Travolta died in 1991 and was replaced by a look-alike, German singer Roy Black.


John Travolta (left) -- Roy Black (right)




The corollary to this theory would be that Roy Black didn't die of heart failure in 1991, but actually survived and, for some inexplicable reason, took over Travolta's career. The theory doesn't explain how Travolta died.

This is a very minor conspiracy theory. I'm guessing it was inspired by someone noticing that Roy Black and John Travolta look somewhat similar. But it made me curious about how many celebrities have supposedly been replaced by doubles. Paul McCartney is the most famous one — replaced by the Edinburgh orphan William Campbell. And in the old hoax forum there's the thread about Lisa Marie Presley having been replaced by a Swedish woman, Lisa Johansen (so Johansen claims).

I couldn't think of any other cases of replaced celebrities. Then I found the site 60if, devoted to the Paul-is-Dead theory. It has a forum thread entirely devoted to celebrity replacement theories. (Maybe the possible source of the Travolta/Black theory.) According to these guys, just about every celebrity you can think of has been replaced by a double. And even many historical figures (George Washington, Einstein, etc.). We're living in a world of doubles!
Categories: Celebrities, Conspiracy Theories, Death
Posted by Alex on Wed May 23, 2012
Comments (8)
London's Hayward Gallery will soon be hosting an exhibition of invisible art. It's the kind of art where you basically have to take the artist's word for it that there's something there.

Included will be works such as Warhol's Invisible Sculpture, "which consists of an empty plinth, on which he had once briefly stepped." Also, 1000 Hours of Staring, which is "a blank piece of paper at which artist Tom Friedman has stared repeatedly over the space of five years."

I wonder how copyright pertains to invisible art. Can you sue someone for copying your blank canvas? Link: telegraph.co.uk.

Below are some examples of invisible art.


1000 Hours of Staring by Tom Friedman (purest of treats)


7 Days of Death/At the Grave/People Looking Down, by Bruno Jakob (kunsthausbaselland)


Invisible Sculpture by Warhol (artnet)
Categories: Art
Posted by Alex on Wed May 23, 2012
Comments (4)
Pig ears are a popular snack in China. So unscrupulous food sellers have figured out a way to make fake pig ears out of gelatin. Given that the real pig ears aren't expensive to begin with, what's being put into the fake ones is dirt cheap and potentially harmful, consumers are being warned. See below for advice about how to know if you've been served a fake pig ear.

Fake stewed pig ears pose health risks
chinadaily.com

Some stewed pig ears have been made from chemicals that could cause blood and heart problems in East China, sounding a fresh alarm on food safety. The popular Chinese snacks sold at a market in Ganzhou, the second-largest city in Jiangxi province, were made from gelatin and sodium oleate, the food safety office under the Jiangxi provincial health department said on Tuesday...
According to Yang Fan, a researcher at the Green Beagle, an environmental protection non-governmental organization based in Beijing, there are ways to distinguish fake ears from real ones. Hair and capillaries usually can be seen on real pig ears, while fake ones do not have hair or capillaries, Yang said.
Categories: Food
Posted by Alex on Wed May 23, 2012
Comments (2)
Another restaurant scam to watch out for: That expensive steak you ordered may really be pieces of scrap meat glued together. I'd never heard of this 'meat glue' before. Apparently there's very little way to tell if it's being served to you... if the meat is glued together by someone who knows what they're doing. But if an amateur did the gluing, the meat will fall apart as you slice it.

Steak Or Fake? How To Spot 'Glued' Meat
denverchannel.com

It's white, powdery and can turn chucks of beef into a single piece of steak. Most diners probably are not aware that some chefs can use a substance called transglutaminase to bind pieces of meat together. This "meat glue" has been a part of the food industry for decades, where it goes by the name TG or Activa.
Categories: Food
Posted by Alex on Wed May 23, 2012
Comments (1)
I periodically receive emails from people who insist I need to add global warming to the site because it's the "biggest hoax in human history." I don't agree with that. Actually, I think global warming is something that definitely merits being worried about. However, I did just add a global warming hoax to the hoax archive, which might make the global-warming-is-a-hoax crowd happy. Except that this hoax occurred in 1874.

It's a story that appeared in U.S. newspapers in February 1874. The premise was that scientists had discovered the earth was getting hotter and hotter. Europe was predicted to be tropical in 12 years, and soon after that the planet would become too hot to support life. The cause of this warming wasn't carbon emissions, but rather the recent laying of transatlantic telegraph cables, which were supposedly acting like giant electromagnets, pulling the earth into the sun.

This was a very minor nineteenth-century hoax. It didn't generate much interest at the time because it was pretty far-fetched. But it's more interesting to us today because of its depiction of man-made global warming. In fact, I suspect it may be the earliest fictional portrayal of global warming caused by man's technology. At least, I can't find any earlier examples.

The full article about the hoax is in the hoax archive. I've redirected comments there to avoid having duplicate threads.

Categories: Death, Journalism, Science
Posted by Alex on Mon May 21, 2012
Comments (0)
Over at livescience.com, Ben Radford analyzes a video that supposedly shows an angel falling to the floor of an Indonesian shopping mall. The video is said to have been taken on Sep 11, 2011.



Radford concludes that whoever created the video (and he's sure it's a fake) got the lighting all wrong when they inserted the animated angel.

Light sources near the top of the frame are clearly reflected in the polished, semi-glossy floor (which appears to be painted and sealed concrete), though when the brightly luminous figure falls to the floor, its light does not appear in the foreground on the right of the scene, where its reflected light should be.

He also quotes Derek Serra, a Hollywood visual effects artist, who notes: "look at the light hitting the building behind it: given its movement, we would see high contrast shadows from the window frame and tree move across the inside of the building as the light moves around, but those shadows are conspicuously absent."

Of course, true believers might respond that angelic light doesn't behave the same way that normal light does.

Regardless, the only real mystery remaining here is who created the video, and why.
Categories: Paranormal, Videos
Posted by Alex on Fri May 18, 2012
Comments (2)
In his column on latimes.com, Brian Cronin examines the legend that Hall of Fame football coach George Allen got sick and died after being doused in gatorade by his team following a winning season.

Did a Gatorade shower kill George Allen?
latimes.com

After three straight losing seasons, Allen led the Long Beach 49ers to a season-ending victory over the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on November 17, 1990 that secured them a winning season.
Allen's team gave him a Gatorade shower (Allen noted that due to the budget issues, the team could not afford actual Gatorade, so it was just ice water). Six weeks later, Allen died. The story is most often told as "George Allen died from pneumonia that he caught from being doused with cold water and continuing to give interviews for a long time after the game."
There are a few problems with that story. First of all, as your middle school science teacher could tell you, being doused with cold water during a cold day does not cause pneumonia. Pneumonia is caused by a virus. It is an urban legend in and of itself that getting wet during a cold day causes pneumonia (or the common cold, for that matter). It does not. So Allen could not have caught pneumonia from the Gatorade shower. That's the first notable problem with that story. The second problem? George Allen did not die from pneumonia. Allen died from ventricular fibrillation, a variation of a cardiac arrest. Allen had a heart arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat) and in late December 1990, Allen's heart began to quiver rather than contract properly. This led to his death. This was not caused by a Gatorade shower received more than a month earlier.
Allen himself fed the story a bit by giving an interview soon before his death where he noted that he had had not felt well since the Gatorade shower. Allen's son, former Virginia Senator and Governor George Allen Jr. told Sam Borden of the New York Times, "He got a cold from it, but that was not the cause of his death. He had a heart arrhythmia. It had nothing to do with the Gatorade shower."

It's always seemed to me to be splitting hairs a bit to insist that being cold doesn't cause you to get a cold. It's certainly true that colds are caused by a virus. But being cold can stress your immune system, making you more susceptible to the cold virus. So in that sense it's true that being cold can give you a cold.
Categories: Death, Sports, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Fri May 18, 2012
Comments (0)
The consumer affairs office of the state of Massachusetts has created a series of phony websites designed to teach people how to avoid online scams. The sites advertise products such as work-at-home deals, weight-loss products, and free trips. If anyone tries to order something from these sites, they're directed to a page identifying it as a scam and telling them how they could have spotted the scam. My favorite one is the "Envelope Elf" site.


The SEC did something similar back in 2002. It created a hoax site for McWhortle Enterprises, Inc. The idea was to teach investors that just because a company has a website, that doesn't mean it's a legitimate business.

The SEC actually registered the domain name mcwhortle.com. The Massachusetts consumer affairs office, however, parked all its hoax sites at the same domain: http://topmassachusettsdeals.com. I think they should have paid the $20 and registered envelope-elf.com.
Categories: Scams, Websites
Posted by Alex on Fri May 18, 2012
Comments (1)
As I noted in my previous post, Mike McGrady, creator of the 1969 "Naked Came the Stranger" literary hoax, died recently. A little-known footnote to this hoax is that it inspired an x-rated movie in 1975. Here's the trailer for that movie. (It's pretty much safe for work.)

Categories: Literature/Language, Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Thu May 17, 2012
Comments (0)
Mike McGrady was the mastermind behind the Naked Came the Stranger hoax of 1969. His aim was to show that any book with enough sex scenes, even if lacking in any other merit, could sell well. And the book he created to prove this point did sell well. Although its sales had a lot to do with the fact that McGrady's sister-in-law, the attractive Penelope Ashe, posed as its author. Which shows that the good looks of an author can definitely sell books. And, of course, the book sold even better once it was exposed as a hoax, demonstrating that there's no such thing as bad publicity.


Mike McGrady

Mike McGrady, Known for a Literary Hoax, Dies at 78
nytimes.com

Mike McGrady, a prizewinning reporter for Newsday who to his chagrin was best known as the mastermind of one of the juiciest literary hoaxes in America — the best-selling collaborative novel “Naked Came the Stranger,” whose publication in 1969 made “Peyton Place” look like a church picnic — died on Sunday in Shelton, Wash. He was 78 and lived in Lilliwaup, Wash. The cause was pneumonia, said Harvey Aronson, who with Mr. McGrady was a co-editor of the novel, written by 25 Newsday journalists in an era when newsrooms were arguably more relaxed and inarguably more bibulous.
Categories: Death, Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Thu May 17, 2012
Comments (0)
Prof. T. Mills Kelly teaches a class on hoaxes at George Mason University titled, "Lying About the Past." It's a study of hoaxes throughout history (the Museum of Hoaxes is on his syllabus!), but also uses hoaxes to teach critical thinking and historical analysis. As part of the class, the students have to create a historical hoax of their own and launch it on the web. I could have sworn that I'd posted previously about Kelly's class, but couldn't find where I did so.

Back in 2008, his students crafted a successful hoax about Edward Owens, a supposed Chesapeake pirate. This year they tried to create a tale about a possible 19th-century New York serial killer. But when they tried to ensnare redditors by posting a link on reddit asking "Opinions please, Reddit. Do you think my 'Uncle' Joe was just weird or possibly a serial killer?" -- their hoax was exposed in just 26 minutes. Redditors noticed that the supporting wikipedia articles had all been recently created by the same people.

This leads Yoni Appelbaum, in an article on atlantic.com, to ponder why the students' hoax succeeded in 2008 but failed so quickly this year when it encountered the reddit sleuths. He concludes (rightly, I think) that it all comes down to a question of trust. If the source of the information doesn't seem trustworthy (which it didn't, to the redditors), then the hoax isn't going to succeed. In other words, it's the old lesson that "Information is only as good as its source" -- which I identified as the golden rule of hoax-busting in Hippo Eats Dwarf. So if you want to perpetrate a successful hoax, you've got to make it difficult for people to trace the original source of the info back to you.

How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit
atlantic.com

T. Mills Kelly encourages his students to deceive thousands of people on the Web. This has angered many, but the experiment helps reveal the shifting nature of the truth on the Internet.
Categories: Education, History
Posted by Alex on Thu May 17, 2012
Comments (0)
Tom Woottwell had an interesting career. He was a "mock strong man," performing to crowds during the late nineteenth century. From The Strand magazine, July 1897:


The show indicated in the photo here reproduced was screamingly comic. First, as to the costume of the mock "strong man." he is dressed in dilapidated old tights, which are supposed to be strained almost to bursting point at the arms and calves, owing solely to the abnormal muscular development of those parts. The calves are particularly funny — far less sinew than sawdust, however.

And observe the showman's leer as he strikes an attitude for the great feat of breaking a thick iron chain on the "muscles" of his arm. "Keep your eye on me, and you'll be astonished," he is saying. You would be, by the way, if you saw the next stage of the show. The man's mighty arm bends slowly but surely; his breath comes quick and short, and at the supreme moment the chain snaps asunder with an extraordinary uproar and flies right up into the wings — hauled up there, of course, by invisible wires.
Categories: Entertainment, Sports
Posted by Alex on Wed May 16, 2012
Comments (0)
I'm assuming the scammers must stuff the potatoes inside a laptop box. Otherwise I'm not sure how they convince their victims to walk away with a bag of potatoes instead of a laptop.

Manchester police appeal over potato laptop fraud
bbc.co.uk

Police say at least four people have been approached by two men offering to sell them a laptop or iPhone. One man paid up to £1,400 and walked away with a rucksack full of potatoes. Other victims received bottles of soft drinks. Police said the conmen spoke with an Eastern European accent.
Categories: Law/Police/Crime, Scams
Posted by Alex on Wed May 16, 2012
Comments (0)
Rick Padden of Loveland, Colorado has written a play about a famous hoax from his own town: The Great Loveland Potato Hoax. It'll be on stage at Loveland's Rialto Theater.

The Loveland Potato Hoax took place in 1895. It involved a potato farmer who created a fake photo of himself holding a giant potato. The photo started circulating around the country, passing from one person to another, until it eventually came to the attention of Scientific American, which published it, mistakenly presenting it to readers as a real photo. The farmer was subsequently flooded with inquiries from people who wanted pieces of the potato so they could grow their own giant spud.


The hoax is significant because the photo is quite possibly the first viral fake photo ever — predating by over 100 years such famous viral fake photos as Snowball the Monster Cat and Touristguy.

I can't think of any other photo that would possibly qualify as a viral fake photo before this one. There were definitely famous fake photos before 1895, such as the fake heroic photos of Abraham Lincoln. But they didn't circulate in a viral fashion. At least, not to my knowledge.

Anyway, I thought the hoax was worth adding to the hoax archive, so that's what I've done. The comment link is redirected there.
Categories: Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Tue May 15, 2012
Comments (0)
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