Date: Tue, 2 Jun 1998 09:27:05 -0400
From: Larry Horn
Subject: Re: bogus anecdotes

At 8:38 AM -0400 6/2/98, Gregory {Greg} Downing wrote:
>At 08:16 AM 6/2/98 -0400, you wrote:
>>Someone questioned the veracity of the RH elevator narrative. (Sorry, I
>>deleted before I noted who wrote it.) Certainly, some of the
>>Metropolitan Diary entries are bogus. Recently, I read there the old urban
>>legend about the nun who bought the package of cookies, encountered a man
>>who helped himself, etc. -- she, of course, later finds her package of
>>cookies in her bag and realizes that she was the one who helped herself
>>to somebody else's cookies. My point: I do not recall reading any
>>published research about the hallmarks of bogus narratives, about what it
>>is I know that lets me know that a narrative is bogus. Is there
>>something? Is someone working on this?
>There's been a lot of collecting of "urban folklore" or "modern folklore,"
>as well as a good deal of research analysing it and debunking it and, in
>some cases, tracing how a particular idea or story arose.
>Here are a couple of things that sometimes give folklore away -- (1) As a
>prior poster mentioned, various elements in the story seem unlikely or
>impossible when you start to examine them. (2) The story seems to have a
>cultural agenda of some kind, which gives it the momentum it needs to get
>over the hurdles that might be raised by its lack of realism. In fact, it is
>probably this agenda which is responsible for why the story was designed the
>way it was, and why it resonated and got retold.

As in the "yeah, yeah" / "yeah, right" story, in which typically it's a
"pompous professor of linguistics" (or variant thereof) who gets skewered.
But I've heard the Morgenbesser version from philosophers often enough to
think there's a 50-50 chance it could have been an actual anecdote rather
than urban legend. Of course, that's no doubt what others say about the
Neiman-Marcus cookies, the stolen corpse-containing suitcase, the
alligators in the sewers, etc. etc.
There's also the intermediate case, which conceivably could apply here:
an actual exchange or series of exchanges, edited and "improved" to advance
that cultural agenda more convincingly or memorably.

>A very common "authentifying" feature of such folklore is either "I was
>there" or "I heard it from someone who was there." I imagine that, as
>journalists, NYTimes writers are more likely to say that they themselves
>have obtained the information at first hand.
True, but note for this particular case that a Metropolitan Diary entry is
neither submitted by nor corroborated by a reporter, just selected by one.
(They're just sent in by readers, representing no more inherently accurate
pieces of journalism than, say, submissions to Penthouse Forum.)