A few days ago I read a bulletin containing a well-traveled account about what life was really like in the 1500s. Many of you have probably seen this before. It’s a list of unhygienic situations designed to shock us 21st century germophobes, and also claims to identify the origin of some common English phrases.
Allow me to regale you with an example:
“Baths equaled a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.'”
Or this one:
“The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying ‘dirt poor.'”
Most of the claims in this email seemed patently absurd to me, so I went out to Snopes.com and found alternative explanations for just about everything. And their explanations are referenced, something the bulletin conveniently left out.
It’s not just emails and MySpace bulletins. Misinformation is everywhere. I lost count of how many times I overheard spectators at the PGA Championship sharing little factoids that were outright false. Or when I was a teenager, my parents really believed the mountain ranges of acne on my face would disappear if I stopped eating chocoloate and greasy food.
“Christmas” trees predate Christianity. In fact, many Christian holidays occur near or upon pagan holidays. Ever wish anyone “Yuletide greetings?” Yule is a winter festival celebrated centuries before the advent of Christianity. There are countless examples of modern-day cultural activities that can be traced to surprising origins.
Walk into a Best Buy and half the employees don’t know shit about the products they sell. It would be okay if Johnny Sales Guy just stood there with his thumb up his ass, but no, he goes out of his way to VOLUNTEER information that is factually incorrect. And he is so adamant about his bullshit. He’s not even making commission. Why lie?
Do people voluntarily choose to believe things that are false? Does it happen accidentally through poor word-of-mouth communication? A combination of the two?
Like horoscopes. Okay, women, I get this one. It’s fun to read those silly predictions even though you know it’s all hogwash. It’s fun to read gossip in US Weekly and Star Magazine and whatever, because even though half of the stories aren’t true, it’s entertainment. Fine. That’s cool.
But what about big decisions that are made with misinformation? Jehovah’s Witness followers believe the use of blood products will result in the loss of eternal life, so parents have been known to refuse medical treatment for their children to protect their spiritual well-being. Orthodox Christians often teach their children to ignore evolution and other scientific theories that conflict with the Bible.
It’s one thing for an adult to swallow this hogwash, but to brainwash a child with it is tantamount to abuse. You really think Jesus or any other prophet would condone that sort of behavior? I don’t.
Try browsing through the top blogs on MySpace. Political blogs, religious blogs, relationship blogs, whatever. It doesn’t matter. The author, their commenters–so many are rife with misinformation. Logical fallacies, poor debating techniques, downright incorrect “facts.”
Sometimes it drives me crazy to imagine all the millions and billions of people around the world exchanging bullshit all day, every day. Or to imagine the cultural differences that separate socities, differences that arise largely from religious beliefs that were handed down for generations by WORD OF MOUTH, which is the absolute WORST way to share information. How do we know which lessons are accurate and which are big fish stories? We can’t possibly know.
The only way to learn from our successes and failures is accurately remember the past.
But history, unfortunately, is far from a “No-Spin Zone.”