Don’t Believe Everything You Read

By Matthew Arnold Stern

This is speech four from the advanced Toastmasters manual, “Speaking to Inform,” where I give a fact-finding report on a subject of interest to the audience. It is to include enough factual information so that the audience can give an informed decision.

I have an urgent warning for all business travelers, especially male business travelers. There is a dangerous gang of organ harvesters who prey on businessmen traveling alone!

Listen to what happened to a salesman attending a convention in Las Vegas: He was sitting alone in a hotel bar when a beautiful woman asked if she can join him. He naturally agreed. After some cocktails and conversation, she slipped a knock-out drug into his drink.

The man woke up several hours later to find himself back in his hotel room — in the bathtub packed in ice. A strange rubber tube stuck out of his back. Next to the bathtub was a cell phone and the following note:

Warning! If you value your life, you will follow these instructions exactly. Both of your kidneys were surgically removed by doctors who desperately needed the organs for transplant. You will live, but only if you follow these instructions. Do not get out of the bathtub! Use the phone and call 911, and the emergency room doctors will tell you what to do.

There’s one other thing you need to know about this story: It’s not true. According to Dr. Wendy Brown, chairman of the National Kidney Foundation, “It’s an urban myth run amok. There is no evidence that such activity has ever occurred in the United States.”

So what is an urban myth, or as they are also called, urban legend? It’s a story that has been distributed around so long that it is assumed to be true when it really isn’t. Urban legends have been around for a while. We’ve all heard stories of Elvis sightings or alligators living in the New York sewers. Because of e-mail, urban legends can be spread around more quickly and are more readily believed. It is easy for someone to read an e-mail, assume it is true, and pass it along to someone else as fact.

So, how do we know if an e-mail or news article is true or just an urban legend? Tonight, I will give you some examples of urban legends, show you how you can identify if a story is true or not, and give you a resource where you can get further information. What I hope you’ll come away from my speech is this: Don’t believe everything you read.

Otherwise, you might wind up like an employee in my company’s information services department. For those of you who don’t know, information services is the department that is responsible for maintaining and protecting the company’s computer systems. They are especially concerned about viruses that can infect their computer systems

This employee sent an urgent e-mail to every computer user in our company to warn us of a virus he had just heard about called “Good Times.” He said, “If you receive an e-mail message with ‘Good Times’ in the subject line, don’t open it! It contains a destructive virus that will erase your entire hard drive the instant you open the e-mail.”

A few minutes later, another e-mail was distributed throughout the company. This one was from the employee’s supervisor. She said that we should disregard the employee’s message. The “Good Times” virus is just a hoax.

This employee was the victim of an urban legend. However, had the employee thought for a moment and did a little research, he could have saved himself a lot of embarrassment.

He should have known that you can’t start a virus just by opening an e-mail message. E-mail files are just text, and there is no way you can embed or start a virus program from a text file. You can get a virus from files attached to an e-mail, such as program files, compressed .ZIP files, and documents created with Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and other programs that use macros. Therefore, you should always run a virus check on any files people send you by e-mail. However, you can’t start those viruses just by opening an e-mail message.

Also, “Good Times” is one of the oldest virus hoaxes in the books. It is well documented in web sites about viruses and urban legends. So, this is another case why you shouldn’t believe everything you read.

Furthermore, you shouldn’t believe everything you see. We have all heard the cliches about photographs:

  • “A picture’s worth a thousand words.”
  • “Seeing is believing.”

With computer technology, this isn’t true anymore either. Photo composition software makes it easy for you to manipulate photographs. You can move objects around, stick people’s heads on other people’s bodies, and fabricate whole photos by copying and pasting items from elsewhere.

This is the likely case of an urban legend that has been circulating the Internet lately about a zookeeper that met a rather disgusting end. Because this is Toastmasters, I’ll try to describe the story as delicately as I can.

Friedrich Riesfeldt was a zookeeper in Paderborn, Germany. He was concerned about the, well, digestive health of one of his elephants. When the medicine that the zoo’s doctor prescribed wasn’t working, Riesfeldt gave the elephant 22 doses of animal laxative and force-fed him berries, figs, prunes, and other foods that were supposed to move along the process. Still, there was no improvement. One evening after the zoo closed, Riesfeldt decided to try addressing the problem from the other end. Well, that finally worked — too well. The hapless zookeeper was deluged with 200 pounds of, well, stuff that knocked him to the ground and suffocated him to death.

A picture of the incident accompanied this story that supposedly shows the mishap as it happened. I’ll spare you from having to see it. If you were to look at this picture, you know this story wasn’t true.

Even if you set aside the facts that:

  • There is no zoo in Paderborn, Germany.
  • There is no record of any zookeeper named Friedrich Riesfeldt.
  • This story was originally published in that pinnacle of quality journalism, the World Weekly News.

The photo still shows that the story is a complete fabrication.

  • The incident supposedly took place in the evening, but the photo appears to have been taken at midday.
  • The background shows an open African plain, not a German zoo with lots of buildings.
  • Although the picture tries to do a convincing job of showing poor Herr Riesfeldt trapped under the pachyderm poop, it doesn’t show the equipment he supposedly used to help the elephant with his problem.

So, how can you tell if a story is an urban legend?

  • First, use your common sense. Look at the story with a critical eye. Weigh it against what you know are the facts. Look for inconsistencies in the story. Another good rule of thumb: If a story seems too fanciful or too gruesome to be true, it usually is an urban legend.
  • Second, determine whether the story follows the basic rules of journalism. Does it answer the questions who, what, where, when, why, and how? But just because it does, you still shouldn’t assume the story is true. Urban legend tellers will inject such information to give the story the aura of authenticity. Do some research. Check local papers and web sites. The sites for organizations like the American Cancer Society and National Kidney Foundation have articles about urban hoaxes.
  • Finally, look for a reliable source of information. There’s a site that I frequently use as a source of urban legend information: It is the Urban Legends Reference Pages, presented by the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society. The site includes a categorized collection of urban legends and a discussion group where people who interest and expertise in urban legends discuss the latest tall tales.

It is very important that we take a look at information with a critical eye. We should not assume that because information has been committed to words it is automatically true. Use your common sense. Do some research. Look for reliable sources of information. And don’t believe everything you read.



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