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Debunking urban legends

One of the subjects that comes up all the time in an enterprise like ours, where we take the work of people who spend their lives studying and writing about particular subjects, is authority. A current fashionable premise is that groups are wise (something I’m not sure historians would be able to verify as a general rule)–that if you pool the knowledge of enough people you’ll get information that can be trusted.

It’s hard for me to understand this argument. Don’t the late night TV shows have fun with the polls showing just how ignorant we are of basic geographical facts? What would the ‘wisdom of crowds’ tell us about Burkina Faso? Is it a food, a new kind of yoga, or perhaps a country in Africa (formerly Upper Volta, in fact).

And a lot of people, me included, want to get information on anything remotely controversial from someone I trust. I was interested to read this FAQ on, the Urban Legends website, when I was checking the truthfulness of a quotation that’s been circulating online (some of the preposterous stories that circulate about Bush and Cheney are true, while others, I’ve learned, are not).

Snopes is researched and written by two people, Barbara and David P. Mikkelson, which reassures me. I like my sources to give their names, and to know something about them. Here’s what they write:

Q: May I reproduce your material on my web site if I operate a non-commercial site, and I give you credit?

A: No. Using our material without our permission is copyright infringement, even if your site is non-commercial, and even if you give us credit. A minimum $300 reprint fee will be assessed for all unauthorized reproductions of material from this site.

Q: Why are you so hung up about copyrights?

A: Because we work hard to keep our information accurate and up-to-date. When you put our material on your site we no longer have any control over it, and our reputation and credibility are jeopardized because we cannot update your site as new information becomes available.

Fair enough, and I hope they’re around and researching when the next presidential election campaign starts up, and the feathers start flying. (Wouldn’t you love to see one of those pillow fight video clips with Howard Dean and Condoleezza Rice and Mark Warner? I’m sure Tony Blair and Jack Snow would happily join in.)

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