BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. True or False? A man escaped the collapse of World Trade Center Tower No. 2 by surfing 80 stories down the falling building on a piece of debris? Answer: False. It never happened. But millions think it did happen and repeat the story as gospel! Such is the power of urban legend, and events like the World Trade Center attacks are fertile ground for the escalation of rumor into widely-held belief. Barbara Mickelson and her husband David run a web site devoted to urban myths and their debunking. She joins us now. Barbara, welcome to On the Media.
BARBARA MICKELSON: Hi! Glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, a number of rumors achieved currency. Can you give me some examples.
BARBARA MICKELSON: Well-- one of the big ones was a, a fake photograph which seemed to show a tourist on the observation deck of one of the World Trade Centers, and you could see just behind him one of the airplanes about to strike the tower, and this was a particularly chilling photo simply because it appeared to show the last half second of this man's life, and even the last half second of normalcy for all of us!
BOB GARFIELD: But?
BARBARA MICKELSON: It was fake! It-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: How did you find that out?
BARBARA MICKELSON:It was pretty easy to do just from looking at the photograph itself. The fellow who's standing on the observation deck was wearing a heavy winter coat and a wool cap -- something nobody would have been wearing on that morning! We also were able to find out that the tower that he would have been standing on would have been the first struck, and yet it was the other tower that had the observation deck.
BOB GARFIELD:Why do you suppose that these myths do proliferate? Why do we wish to believe that there are alligators in the sewer systems, that Nostradamus had predicted the World Trade Center attacks? Why are we so gullible?
BARBARA MICKELSON: Well, in ordinary times part of it is we just love a good rumor and the sense that we're -we're part of something larger - but in times like these, times of crisis, we're desperately trying to make sense of a world that no longer makes any sense at all!
BOB GARFIELD: In the 6 years that you've spent unraveling these legends, is there anything else that you've learned, learned about us?
BARBARA MICKELSON:Learned a great deal! Hu-- Usually the body of legends that we're, we're telling and passing around tend to form into a rather accurate reflection of what we as a society are currently thinking and feeling! And it's funny how that happens, because there's no one person sitting there cranking out the urban legends one after another. They generally happen as honest mis-hearings, mis-understandings or mis-rememberings of, of stories and tales.
But we tend to only pass along the stories that somehow or other resonate with us, and we tend not to repeat the stories that don't strike that chord with us!
And therefore the stories that stay in circulation end up being the ones that are very accurate reflections of the current heart of mankind!
BOB GARFIELD:So if the accumulation of urban legend is a kind of Rosetta Stone for the zeitgeist, looking at the legends that have been spawned by the World Trade Center attacks, what do you divine about the state of man society in the fall of 2001?
BARBARA MICKELSON: That we are, we are quite frightened. There is a general sense of apprehension. There is horror and shock at events that have already unfolded, but there is a growing sense of, of apprehension and almost of inevitability towards events that may well unfold further down the road.
BOB GARFIELD: And if, if John Ashcroft doesn't make you feel that way, Nostradamus does.
BARBARA MICKELSON:Exactly! I mean isn't it much easier to, to believe Nostradamus when he talks about two silver birds and twin towers than it is when John Ashcraft warns in a nebulous way that there may be further attacks?
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you very much!
BARBARA MICKELSON: You're very welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Barbara Mickelson and her husband David run the web site called Snopes.com.