[Scroll down for the most recent update -- 10/25/08.]
The Urban Legends Reference Page found at Snopes.com is a frequent reference source for most internet users, so it was interesting to hear Barbara Mikkelson as a guest in a brief telephone segment on C-SPAN's Washington Journal the other morning.
Snopes.com is run by the husband and wife team of Barbara and David Mikkelson. David is a coder and web designer, and Barbara works primarily doing research for the website.
She described how she does the work, for example she explained the process of debunking the belief that colonies of alligators were living in the sewers of New York. According to the myth, baby alligators were brought from Florida but subsequently flushed to end up in the sewers where they thrived. To research this, Ms. Mikkelson searched through microfilm of the New York Times from 1903 to 1993 for alligator stories on the assumption that if the legend were true then there should have been many articles about sightings. There were a handful of sightings during that 90 year period but not enough to confirm the myth. So, Ms. Mikkelson concluded that the myth was "false".
Another debunked myth she talked about was the 2001 fictitious report from the nonexistent Lovenstein Institute on the presidential IQs of 12 presidents. The report was widely circulated around the internet, and it basically said that Democrats had high IQs, but Republicans had low IQs. According to that report, George W. Bush's IQ is 91, exactly one half of Bill Clinton's IQ which was said to be 182.
Ms. Mikkelson pointed out in the interview that, with the exception of Richard Nixon, the IQs of the presidents are simply not known, and the fake report even got Nixon's IQ wrong. At the snopes website, she points out that The Guardian of London reported it as actual news and didn't retract it until after the Associated Press pointed out The Guardian's error. As one might have expected, Garry Trudeau featured it in a Doonsbury cartoon, and at least one anti-Bush website is still presenting that bogus report as fact.
We've all received emails containing stories that are so wonderful and amusing that we just so dearly want them to be true. The Snopes.com website is a great place to check them out. It's best to see if Barbara Mikkelson has opined on them before forwarding them on to the next email recipient, because eventually someone down the line will.
Instant update: Here's an Online Journalism Review interview with David and Barbara Mikkelson in which they discuss the debunking of the hoax about hunters paying to shoot naked women with paint balls that was in the news recently.
Updated 10/25/08: There's an email floating around which claims that Snopes.com is "owned by a flaming liberal and this man is in the tank for Obama." See Snopes.com, revisited on these pages. The version of the email that I received says that "TruthorFiction.com is the better source for verification, in my opinion."
What we need now is someone who can fact check the fact checkers.