When I was teaching, and the class was beginning to get bored, I would often play games or tell stories. One of my objectives was to get the kids to understand that research and objective thinking is very important, and that their judgements should be made on sober reflection rather than upon popular perception.
Perhaps the best way to do this was to ask them what the world's most poisonous spider was. Every single classroom I asked this nominated the Daddy Longlegs spider. This spider, they believed, had a concentrated venom so powerful that it was the most poisonous in the world. But, the kids would argue, the spider is harmless because its fangs were not strong enough to penetrate human skin.
Of course, you've probably heard this story too. The problem is that it is an urban myth. The Snopes article on the subject makes it clear that this Daddy Longlegs story has no basis in fact. Even if the spider had fangs that could penetrate your skin, it would still be harmless.
This mistake in understanding does no harm to anyone, however. Despite the fact that the Daddy Longlegs myth is propagated from child to child, the result is merely mistaken information.
Digby, a liberal blog I visit daily, has a rather disturbing article about an American public relations company that was hired by the US government to help sell the FIRST Gulf War to the American people. Part of their strategy was to create effective lies in order to make the Iraqi enemy appear to be more evil than it actually was.
Perhaps the best example of this strategy was the "babies in incubators" story. The story went that, after Kuwait had fallen to its Iraqi invaders, the Iraqi troops looted much of the city. No problem with facts on that one. However, the story focuses upon a neo-natal unit in a Kuwaiti hospital, where Iraqi troops came in and took the incubators, placing the infants on the floor to die.
This did not happen. It was a story completely made up by the PR company.
According to the article that Digby has linked, the story spread amongst the world population like wildfire. It ended up being mentioned at the United Nations general assembly, and also in the speeches of many US politicians as they argued for American military intervention in Iraq.
Don't get me wrong - I think the 1991 Gulf War was justified. Nevertheless, stories like this should make us aware of the power of language. In these days, stories like people firing guns on rescue helicopters in a flooded New Orleans spread fast and are often taken as fact. Fortunately, the internet has allowed such stories to be eventually disproven.
The lesson from this, however, is clear: it always pays to research facts carefully, and govenments (and corporations) can not always be trusted when they make pronoucements.
As if I have to warn you about this...
From the Department of Thinking Clearly
© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.