I learned yesterday about a vicious rumor that John McCain accidentally started the catastrophic 1967 fire aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, from which he barely escaped alive, by trying to play a prank on another pilot. The rumor is clearly false: The Navy, which is merciless when it comes to post-accident safety reviews, concluded that the fire started when an electrical malfunction, in an outdated Zuni missile on another aircraft, caused the missile to launch itself into McCain's bird. (See page 2 of this NASA safety briefing about the accident; see also this Navy training film about the fire, "Learn or Burn," which I think I saw at least twice when I was on active duty.)
Then of course there's the persistent rumor that Barack Obama is supposedly a Muslim. Only he knows with 100% certainty, of course, but there's no credible evidence to suggest he is.
Tomorrow's NY Times Magazine has a piece about the social psychology of rumors. Excerpt:
The Obama-is-a-Muslim rumor does not seem to have hurt the candidate’s fortunes, at least not yet. But the myth’s persistence illustrates a growing cultural vulnerability to rumor.
Journalists typically presume that facts matter: show the public what is true, and they will make decisions correctly.
Psychologists who study how we separate truth from fiction, however, have demonstrated that the process is not so simple.
And because digital technology fosters social networks that are both closely knit and far-flung, rumors are now free to travel widely within certain groups before they meet any opposition from the truth.
Farhad Manjoo, Rumor's Reasons, NY Times Magazine, March 16, 2008 (extra paragraphing added).
As Easter approaches, this brute fact of human existence should give us reason to be cautious about uncritically accepting extraordinary factual claims — such as some of the claims made in the New Testament.