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Retroactive Soapbox Entry- E-mails and Misinformation

Note: This is a post of an essay that first appeared on my website Janary 31st, 2004. The original essay can be found here. This is part of an ongoing effort to put all of my soapbox entries onto this blog, to give a space for user feedback. A "new" retroactive post will be made every Monday.

31 January 2004

I've received quite a few e-mail forwards over the years, running the gamut from jokes to links, to factoids and stories, and even including a few constructive ones. I don't mind the jokes so much- just don't make sure they're funny and don't fill up my inbox with them. Same thing with the links. But when it comes to the factoids and stories- please make sure that they're true, and not just urban legends. It's amazing how many e-mails I receive with false information. At least I'm skeptical, and I know to dismiss most of them. But it seems that 90% of the people on the internet believe everything they read, so they continue to forward these e-mails with false information. And false information can be harmful- not just in the general sense of dumbing down society, it can have actual, concrete consequences as well.

I recently received an e-mail telling me to boycott Tommy Hilfiger's clothes, because he's supposedly a racist, and even came out and admitted it on Oprah Winfrey's show. Well, not only did he never make any racist remarks, he has never even been on Winfrey's show. In 1994, he even won the National Humanitarian Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews. (See details) But people continue to believe this e-mail, and keep forwarding it on to everyone they know, at the same time thinking they they will boycott Hilfiger's clothes, because they think he is a racist. So, Hilfiger receives a bad rap as being a racist, as well as losing money because people aren't buying his clothes. Not only does this hurt him, it hurts his employees as well, since their paychecks come from the clothes that the company sells.

Another false e-mail I've received is the one about how if you use your cell phone at the gas station, it might somehow make the fuel vapors explode. Well, the Petroleum Equipment Institute, which keeps track of such incidents, has not documented any cases of cellular phones causing fires at gas stations. This rumor may seem inocuous enough. Fifteen years ago we all did just fine without cell phones- how much could it hurt to not use one for the fifteen minutes it takes to fuel up your car? In December of 2003, I was at the Olney airport in Texas with the company I work for, as part of the ground crew to support flight testing. Another man at the airport had just finished some maintenance on his plane, and was taking it on the first flight. He noticed fuel leaking out of the wing tanks and getting all over the wings. He decided to bring it back in to land. He had read that e-mail about the cell phones and gas stations, so he made sure to get his cell phone and shut it off before it made his plane explode. What he forgot to do was put the landing gear back down. Luckily for him, one of my coworkers had just finished up what he was doing in the hangar, and decided to go out and watch this plane land. He noticed that the gear was up, and called out to the guy by the radio to let the pilot know. With just a few feet to spare, the pilot managed to do a go around, so he could come back in for another landing with the gear down. Landing an airplane is demanding enough without any distractions to worry about. The distraction of an emergency is pretty bad. Add on top of that the distraction of fumbling around to try and find a cell phone and shut it off, and you've got a recipe for disaster- which this nearly was. It's impossible to say that this pilot would have remembered to put his landing gear down if he hadn't have read that e-mail, but I think it was definitely a contributing factor. It distracted him from focusing on his job at hand, which was flying the plane.

And I'm not even going to get into the slew of right-wing e-mails that I receive, that do little more than create intolerance of other cultures with little or no actual facts to back them up.

So how do you figure out if the e-mail you've just read is true, or if it's just another urban legend. Well, there are lots of web sites out there to help you. My favorite is www.snopes.com. The writers of this site have already done a lot of the research for you. They gather up all of these e-mail rumors, and try to determine their truthfullness. But just remember, they're only human, and they can still make mistakes, just like the rest of us. It wouldn't hurt you to do a little follow up research on your own after reading those sites. And if you still think the story is true, then you can forward it on to your friends.

But what about factoids- those e-mails with dozens of little interesting facts that you'd never heard of before. I have yet to find a single good source for refuting or confirming these facts. So unless you're willing to spend a lot of time researching each individual bit of trivia, you're probably best just to ignore these e-mails. Out of the ones I've gotten, at least 3/4 of the facts are either flat out untrue, or very misleading. In fact, your best bet for those types of e-mails may be to just hit the delete button, and not even bother reading them.

So in short, if you're one of those people whose idea of keeping in touch is to forward every little joke or anecdote that you receive- stop it. Nobody wants their inboxes filled up with forwards from the guy they used to know ten years ago in high school. It's still okay to send a few forwards. Just keep it down to one or two a day, max. And if you're going to send stories or trivia, make sure that they're true first. If you send false information, you have no idea who it's going to harm.

Further Reading:
E-mails and Misinformation, Part II
Factoids Debunked & Verified


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