Hoaxing goes into orbit, shoots for Mars

September 10, 2006

My undergraduate alma mater, the University of Utah, had an interesting fellow in the English department who collected stories that people swore were true, but were not. He invented a term for them: “Urban legends.” Jan Brunvand paid due academic attention to the folklore aspects of the stories, especially in his books, such as The Choking Doberman and The Vanishing Hitchhiker. (Alas, no, I never took a class with him.) I hope he copyrighted and trademarked the phrase, though I doubt he did. Brunvand was the first in what is now a minor industry in debunking bad information — see Snopes.com, for example.

Were I a young graduate student in folklore, I’d be collecting internet hoaxes the same way, and seeking a term to describe them that would be the label for the next round. Or, perhaps, Dr. Brunvand is still collecting them on his ski or fly-fishing trips.

In a post I just found from August 6, Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomer debunked, for the third time, an internet hoax about Mars. No kidding. “Mars will look as big as the Moon!” the e-mail exclaims.

No, it won’t.

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