Urban legend is a form of modern folklore consisting of apocryphal stories believed by their tellers to be true. As with all folklore and mythology, the designation suggests nothing about the story’s factuality or falsehood, but merely that it is in non-institutional circulation, exhibits variation over time, and carries some significance that motivates the community in preserving and propagating it. Urban legends have been around forever, as fear of the unknown gets spun into macabre tales that proliferate with each person who hears them. With the advent of e-mail, these urban legends spread across the nations within hours. People love a good tale, especially ones that have a moral, as all urban legends do. Here are a few of those urban legends that we always seem to hear about, in one variation or another.
1. Money for Forwarding E-mails
You receive an e-mail from Bill Gates where he states that he has developed software to trace forwarded e-mails and will reward all those who forward this specific e-mail with $1000, as long as the e-mail ultimately gets forwarded to 1,000 people. First of all, rationally speaking, why would Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world, be contacting you directly? Secondly, how in the world is he supposed to send you this $1,000 without an address? Thirdly, there is absolutely no e-mail tracing software that currently exists so it is absolutely impossible for this to be true.
2. The Great Wall of China is only Man-made Object Visible from Moon
The claim that it is visible from the moon was probably an attempt to find a concise way of conveying the grand scale of the wall to people who had never seen it and of asserting the triumph of man’s mastery of the vastness of nature.
The claim that China’s Great Wall is the only man-made object that can be seen from the moon with the naked eye is one of our more tenaciously incorrect “facts,” a bit of erroneous speculation which was spawned decades before we had the means to demonstrate it true, and which continues to have currency despite having long since been proved false. Some less specific versions of the Great Wall claim maintain it is the only man-made object that can be seen from “space,” but although the term “space” is rather non-specific, it is not difficult to show the Great Wall claim to be false for any reasonable definition of the term.
If we take “space” to mean a low Earth orbit such as the one traveled by the Space Shuttle roughly 160 to 350 miles above Earth, the Great Wall claim fails twice. First of all, it’s not the only object visible from that distance: NASA’s Earth from Space photographic archive (particularly the Human Interactions section) shows that pictures taken from low orbit reveal human-built structures such as highways, airports, bridges, dams, and components of the Kennedy Space Center. Secondly, even though other objects are visible at this distance, according to Shuttle astronaut Jay Apt, the Great Wall is barely discernable, if not invisible.
“We look for the Great Wall of China. Although we can see things as small as airport runways, the Great Wall seems to be made largely of materials that have the same color as the surrounding soil. Despite persistent stories that it can be seen from the moon, the Great Wall is almost invisible from only 180 miles up!”
3. NASA Experiments with Sex in Space
Fictitious document attributed to NASA and circulated on the Internet in 1995 detailed purported experiments in which astronauts performed sex acts in outer space. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration disputed a French science writer’s claim that American astronauts conducted sex experiments while orbiting the earth in the space shuttle in 1995. Kohler’s book focused primarily on alleged experiments conducted by cosmonauts in the USSR space program, but asserts that the United States pursued similar research. The experiments were videotaped, the author says, and the tapes subjected to rigorous analysis.”One of the principal findings was that the classic so-called missionary position, which is so easy on earth when gravity pushes one downwards, is simply not possible,” he said in an interview.
“It’s one of those urban myth things,” NASA spokesman John Ira Petty told MSNBC News. Another NASA spokesman labeled the Internet text “fraudulent.” Yet another stated, “We are not, have not and do not plan to conduct any sex experiments.” Unfortunately for Kohler, who has built his entire case around evidence contained in the mysterious NASA document, there’s no evidence that it exists apart from references in another Internet text purportedly summarizing the document, “NASA Publication No. 14-307-1792.” The zero-G sex experiments weren’t conducted, Kohler claims, until 1996. Oops!
4. We use Only 10% of our Brain
The myth is not simply a static, misunderstood factoid. It has several forms, and this adaptability gives it a shelf life longer than lacquered Spam. In the basic form, the myth claims that years ago a scientist discovered that we indeed did use only ten percent of our brains. Another variant is that only ten percent of the brain had been mapped, and this in turn became misunderstood as ten percent used. A third variant was described earlier by Craig Karges. This view is that the brain is somehow divided neatly into two parts: the conscious mind which is used ten to twenty percent of the time (presumably at capacity); and the subconscious mind, where the remaining eighty to ninety percent of the brain is unused. One reason this myth has endured is that it has been adopted by psychics and other paranormal pushers to explain psychic powers. On more than one occasion I’ve heard psychics tell their audiences, “We only use ten percent of our minds. If scientists don’t know what we do with the other ninety percent, it must be us used for psychic powers.
The argument that psychic powers come from the unused majority of the brain is based on the logical fallacy of the argument from ignorance. In this fallacy, lack of proof for a position (or simply lack of information) is used to try to support a particular claim. Even if it were true that the vast majority of the human mind is unused (which it clearly is not), that fact in no way implies that any extra capacity could somehow give people paranormal powers. Brain imaging research techniques such as PET scans (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) clearly show that the vast majority of the brain does not lie fallow. Indeed, although certain minor functions may use only a small part of the brain at one time, any sufficiently complex set of activities or thought patterns will indeed use many parts of the brain. Just as people don’t use all of their muscle groups at one time, they also don’t use all of their brain at once. For any given activity, such as eating, watching television, making love, or reading, you may use a few specific parts of your brain. Over the course of a whole day, however, just about all of the brain is used at one time or another.
5. Santa Claus was invented by Coca-cola
In the 1930?s, Coca-cola was looking for ways to spread their burgeoning empire during the winter months – traditionally slow for soft drink sales. They hire Haddon Sundblom, a highly regarded commercial illustrator who proceeded to create a series of images of Santa Claus that associated him with coke. His drawings became a regular annual sight for the coca-cola corporation which helped to spur on the idea that they had conceived the image.
In fact, the red-suited jolly man was already a well established depiction of Santa Claus by the 1920s. The New York Times reported this in 1927: A standardized Santa Claus appears to New York children. Height, weight, stature are almost exactly standardized, as are the red garments, the hood and the white whiskers. The pack full of toys, ruddy cheeks and nose, bushy eyebrows and a jolly, paunchy effect are also inevitable parts of the requisite make-up.