Governing According to Urban Legends

Jon Kyl

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We all have friends who regularly forward chain-style emails. Some people like receiving those; others do not. I do not enjoy receiving them. I learned long ago that most of them are bogus.

I had an interesting experience after a friend who sent me one. I checked it’s claims and found it to be a hoax. I dutifully responded to my friend giving her a link to the page that gave the facts behind this urban legend. Later, I was surprised to receive another hoax email from this same person. When I mentioned this to her in person, she just rolled her eyes and said something along the lines of, “oh you’re no fun.”

I was reminded of her reaction by the recent response from Arizona senator Jon Kyl‘s office about his wildly inaccurate claim about how many abortions that Planned Parenthood performs. He famously said on the Senate floor, “If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that’s well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.” The truth is that only 3 percent of what Planned Parenthood does is abortions. When his office was asked about this by CNN, it responded, “His remark was not intended to be a factual statement.”

People like me just don’t get it. We don’t understand that there are lots of people out there who aren’t concerned about whether some particular legend is based on fact. They like the legend; it resonates with them at some level. I suspect it confirms for them that their view of the world is right. For them the legend portrays a truth regardless of whether or not it is actually factual or not. If it isn’t true; it ought to be.

This is why legends such as the one about the birthplace of our president will not go away no matter how often it is debunked by rational investigation. We live in a time of change and upheaval, and sometimes people want the solace of being able to believe whatever they want to believe. Urban legends are the comfort food of such people.

It is all well and good for people to live in some self-selected fantasy world, but I wonder what the consequences will be to America when our leaders begin to govern according to urban legends and fantasy.

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  • Jim Wheeler  On April 18, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    I believe that confirmation bias is a common human trait, more common than scientific thinking, which requires a willful discipline. Yielding to confirmation bias is easy. Rational thought is hard work. The implications of this are profound. Please see this link:

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