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Urban Legends
Social networking sites in Nigeria have been ablaze with the rumor that a woman turned into a snake at the Hotel Excel in Warri. The proprietor of the hotel, Chief Moses Odeh, has been doing everything he can to put out the rumor, but once these stories get started, they acquire a life of their own. (

African rumors still have true strangeness to them. Here in America, the majority of twitter and facebook rumors are fake reports of celebrity deaths... which get boring after a while. It'd be kind of refreshing to see a rumor claim that Madonna or Lady Gaga didn't die, but instead turned into a snake.
Categories: Animals, Paranormal, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Tue Feb 21, 2012
Comments (7)
Charlotte McDonald of the BBC News debunks a persistent rumor that there are more doctors from Malawi in Manchester than there are in Malawi itself. Apparently the rumor has been repeated by a variety of sources including "the authors of an international study of health workers, and the head of Malawi's main nursing union."

However, the rumor isn't true. She estimates there are approximately 265 doctors in Malawi (which isn't a whole lot for a country of 15 million), but there are only 7 Malawian doctors in Manchester, which has a population of half-a-million.

Even if you look at the ratio of doctors to people, Malawi wins out. There's one doctor for every 56604 people in Malawi. And there's one Malawian doctor for every 71428 Mancunians.

McDonald interviewed Malawian doctor and social historian John Lwanda who theorized that the rumor dated back to 1981, when the Malawi ministry of health held a meeting in Manchester. Someone might have commented that there were more doctors from Malawi in Manchester during the meeting than there were in Malawi itself. And so the rumor was born.

I wonder if the persistence of the rumor also has something to do with the alliteration of Malawi and Manchester. It makes the phrase sound catchier, which might encourage people to repeat it.
Categories: Health/Medicine, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Mon Jan 16, 2012
Comments (1)
The legend of Out-Of-Control Government Expenditures is alive and well. Back in the 1980s, reports of the US government paying $400 for a hammer and $600 for a toilet sparked outrage. And now, late last month, came the news that the Justice Department had paid $16 a piece for muffins at a 2009 conference. But just as the hammer and toilet weren't really as expensive as they seemed, it turns out that the price of the muffins was an artifact of accounting. The $16 included the entire continental breakfast, service, and taxes. Of course, while the government may not be paying premium price for muffins, those bailouts to the bankers did seem a little steep.
Categories: Business/Finance, Politics, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Thu Oct 06, 2011
Comments (2)
Time magazine offers a list of the Top 5 Disney World Urban Legends:
  1. Walt Disney built a special suite for himself in Cinderella's castle at the Magic Kingdom. (Apparently this wasn't true while Disney was alive, though there is a suite there now in which special visitors can stay.)
  2. Cinderella's castle can be disassembled or made to sink into the ground to protect it from natural disasters such as hurricanes.
  3. In the case of a death at a Disney park, no one can be declared dead until their body leaves the park itself.
  4. There's a whole other park beneath the Magic Kingdom. (No, but there are utility corridors beneath it.)
  5. Disney's body was cryogenically frozen and is kept beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney Land.
The list focuses specifically on legends pertaining to the amusement parks, which I guess is why it doesn't include the most persistent Disney urban legend, about the satanic messages hidden in their movies.

But about the last legend — Disney's body being kept frozen beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. While this isn't true, apparently some people have been suspected of dumping cremated human remains at the ride, as posted by Tah in the hoax forum back in 2007.
Categories: Places, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Tue Oct 04, 2011
Comments (10)
The collecting-junk-for-charity hoax must be at least a century old by now. It resurfaced most recently in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where members of a church had been collecting plastic bottle caps, thinking the caps would somehow help pay for chemotherapy treatment for a sick child.

One of the church members, when she learned the truth, had this to say about the hoax: "It's a form of terrorism because it disrupts your day-to-day life and prevents you from doing the things you want to accomplish."

That may be stretching the definition of terrorism just a little bit. Though I can understand why she's upset.

The article also noted some other examples of this hoax that have occurred within the past three years:
In 2008, several women in North East England were approached by a woman in a shopping center who told them she was collecting caps to help provide wheelchairs for disabled children. They collected thousands of caps over a period of months but were unable to reach the woman and had no idea where to send the bottle caps.
In 2008-09, the hoax hit West Virginia, where people collected thousands of caps for chemo treatments, only to find that the plastic was worthless.
Another story, designed to touch the hearts of America's military, was that bottle caps could be recycled for prosthetic limbs.
In 2010, American soldiers at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan had collected thousands and thousands of the caps when an investigation by Lt. Col. Thomas Rodrigues, the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing's judge advocate general, revealed the story was a hoax. He contacted the largest prosthetic limb manufacturer in the United States and learned that bottle caps could not be used in their products. He also found that no one on the base knew who the beneficiary was or what to do with the collected caps.
Categories: Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Mon Sep 05, 2011
Comments (3)
An article on discusses the history of crop circles and why people believe in them. Part of the reason is the paradox of ostension. Fake evidence, even if proven fake, nevertheless tends to reinforce belief:

False evidence intended to corroborate an existing legend is known to folklorists as “ostension.” This process also inevitably extends the legend. For, even if the evidence is eventually exposed as false, it will have affected people’s perceptions of the phenomenon it was intended to represent. Faked photographs of UFOs, Loch Ness monsters and ghosts generally fall under the heading of ostension. Another example is the series of photographs of fairies taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths at Cottingley, Yorkshire, between 1917 and 1920. These show that the motive for producing such evidence may come from belief, rather than from any wish to mislead or play pranks. One of the girls insisted till her dying day that she really had seen fairies—the manufactured pictures were a memento of her real experience. And the photos were taken as genuine by such luminaries as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—the great exponent, in his Sherlock Holmes stories, of logic.

According to Jan Harold Brunvand in The Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, there are a number of varieties of ostension. Ostension itself involves people inspired to act out legends. Examples of this would be "people forming satanic groups and practicing rituals based on stories they have heard, as well as carrying out mutilations, sacrifices, murders, or other crimes." Then there's pseudo-ostension, in which people pretend to act out legends. Example: "teenagers dressing as the grim reaper to scare other teens visiting a legend-trip site." Finally, there's quasi-ostension in which people use legends to explain mysterious events. Example: "observers interpret some puzzling information (such as cattle mutilations) not as a likely result of natural causes (like the work of predators) but as resulting from cult activity or visits from extraterrestrials, as described in rumors and legends."
Categories: Crop Circles, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Wed Dec 23, 2009
Comments (21)
The Craig Shergold rumor strikes again. Jacob is a real kid, and he really has leukemia, but he isn't dying. But somehow word got out on the internet that he was dying, and that his last wish was to get christmas cards from everyone. So now the cards are pouring in by the thousands. Link: Associated Press.

Below is one of the youtube videos spreading the rumor.

Categories: Health/Medicine, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Thu Dec 17, 2009
Comments (3)
CNET UK has come up with a list of "the eight most brainless tech rumours ever." They are:
  • Hoverboards are real
  • The large hadron collider will kill us all
  • X-ray is a hoax
  • Home taping to kill music
  • Apple will buy Nintendo
  • Google to buy CNET
  • Y2K Bug will kill us all
  • Bill Gates is the antichrist
An odd list. They've omitted classics such as killer cell phone calls, cell phones explode gas stations, sunlamps cook internal organs, the Nokia speed trap detector, and (of course) penis-melting zionist robot combs.
Categories: Technology, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Tue Nov 17, 2009
Comments (3)
It's a widely repeated factoid that dust consists primarily of human skin. For instance, one can find this piece of information in the first paragraph on the wikipedia page about dust. But Paloma Beamer, a dust expert at the University of Arizona, disputes this claim. From

Beamer says there are really only two places dust can come from: outdoors and indoors. We are an important part of the process of getting the outdoor stuff indoors. We bring it with us when we enter a house — through "soil particles that come in on your shoes," says Beamer, or tiny particles suspended in the air when we open the door and walk in.
Then there's the indoor component of dust. "Like pieces of your carpet fiber or your furniture, your bedding, or anything like that that starts decaying," she says. Then there are organic contributors. "Skin flakes and the dander off your pets, and other insects or bugs that might be in the home."
Now, as anyone who's looked under a sofa knows, there's dense dust and there's fluffy dust.
"A lot of the fluffy things, I think, tend to do more when you get a lot of fibers. In my house, it comes from cat hair," Beamer says.
Beamer's interest in dust stems comes from her effort to measure people's exposure to toxic substances. In a recent paper in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, she calculates the proportion of dust that's from indoor sources, compared with the amount from outdoor sources. She figures that one-third comes from indoor inorganic sources like carpet fibers. "Two-thirds comes from both soil tracked in, and the outdoor air particles," Beamer says.

I'm inclined to think Beamer is right. I find it hard to imagine that the volume of dust in my house comes primarily from the dead skin cells of my wife and I.
Categories: Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Wed Nov 11, 2009
Comments (19)
Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker discusses whether the internet promotes the spread of bizarre rumors by encouraging "group polarization":

People’s tendency to become more extreme after speaking with like-minded others has become known as “group polarization”...

“Views that would ordinarily dissolve, simply because of an absence of social support, can be found in large numbers on the Internet, even if they are understood to be exotic, indefensible, or bizarre in most communities,” Sunstein observes. Racists used to have to leave home to meet up with other racists (or Democrats with other Democrats, or Republicans with Republicans); now they need not even get dressed in order to “chat” with their ideological soul mates.
“It seems plain that the Internet is serving, for many, as a breeding group for extremism, precisely because like-minded people are deliberating with greater ease and frequency with one another,” Sunstein writes. He refers to this process as “cyberpolarization.”
Put the Web’s filtering tools together with cyberpolarization and what you get, by Sunstein’s account, are the perfect conditions for spreading misinformation. Who, on liberal blogs, is going to object to (or even recognize) a few misstatements about Sarah Palin? And who, on conservative blogs, is going to challenge mistaken assertions (or, if you prefer, lies) about President Obama?

The article implies that the internet has led to an increase in group polarization, extremism, and crazy rumors. But is this actually true? I'm not sure. The article describes all the crazy rumors that have circulated online about Obama, but crazy rumors have flourished in every era of history.
(Thanks, Gary!)
Categories: Technology, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Mon Nov 09, 2009
Comments (8)
There's a full moon tonight (had a great view of it here in San Diego). This has inspired WSAW in Wisconsin to phone up a local Professor and quiz him about the "lunar effect":

A common superstition says accidents, natural disasters, and bizarre crimes increase during a full moon.
One Psychology professor says there is no scientific evidence to support a connection between the moon and our moods.
The UW-Marathon County Professor has worked in the Psychology field for more than 20 years.
He says for centuries, our culture has relied on the urban legend known as "The Lunar Effect" to explain the unexplainable.
The Professor says the lack of scientific proof doesn't mean the urban legend isn't true.
"It's probably not the type of things studied by scientists because they may not take it seriously," says Asst. Prof. Marlowe Embree.

Actually, I think there have been quite a few scientific studies of the lunar effect. At least, Google Scholar pulls up a bunch.
Categories: Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Tue Nov 03, 2009
Comments (9)
Even though the famous atheist’s body [Madalyn Murray O’Hair] was discovered in 1998 and positively identified in Texas -- and even though she apparently has been dead since she disappeared in 1995 -- patently false rumors about her alleged anti-Christian campaigns continue to spread. Credulous Christians who once forwarded these kinds of rumors in mimeographed chain letters or spread them on talk radio now can broadcast them around the world with the mere click of a mouse.

(Thanks, Big Gary!)
Categories: Religion, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Wed Oct 21, 2009
Comments (7)
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