Urban legends are contagious

A couple of days ago I saw a tweet claiming that people in California are throwing “measles parties” to deliberately expose their children to measles. It linked to a story on the LA Times website. All the responses that I saw to the tweet were about how dumb those people are.

There’s only one problem: The article actually says there have been no reports of measles parties. The article presents a warning by state epidemiologist Dr. Gil Chavez, but states:

Chavez issued the statement after KQED reported that a Marin County mother had been invited to expose her two young children to a child who had contracted measles. The mother, [redacted], whose 6- and 8-year-olds are not vaccinated, told KQED that she declined the offer.

The Times was not able to reach [redacted] on Monday and has not been able to confirm that any measles parties have taken place.

The added emphasis is mine, and I’ve redacted the mother’s name since I don’t want to add to the wave of harassment she’s undoubtedly going to get from morons.

How can anyone read that article and think that people are actually holding measles parties? Credulous people read not the words in the article, but what they want to believe. A lot of people want to think (not entirely without reason) that the anti-vaccination crowd is stupid, so they’ll look at an article and see only the warning against “measles parties,” possibly not even reading past that sentence, and invent the rest in their heads.

(People did once deliberately expose their children to measles, chicken pox, and the like, figuring they’d get those diseases anyway, and it might as well be at a planned time. That was a different time, though, when vaccines weren’t widely available or didn’t exist at all. It also doesn’t help that in some cases, the site throws a pop-up in front of the story saying it doesn’t like your browser.)

People can even be credulous about unsupported claims of the existence of unsupported claims. Recently on Google+ I saw a post whose headline said that somebody was asserting that there are 300 million 5-year-old prostitutes in the US. It linked to an article that didn’t cite anything close to that claim being made by anyone. The author might have intended the headline as obvious hyperbole, but commenters accepted that someone was making that claim, and the Google+ poster didn’t bother to correct them.

When a story is in line with people’s prior assumptions, they’ll very often swallow it without any critical thought. It fits their narrative, so it must be true. I have to watch out that I’m not doing the same thing. At first I though that Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson was a typical case of unjustified police violence, but the evidence I’ve read about since then clearly discredits the story of an unresisting Brown saying “Don’t shoot!” The story was plausible, because of irregularities in the police investigation and the Ferguson police’s horrible record, but it wasn’t true. It took me a while to realize that, and many people are still convinced it’s true in spite of the forensic evidence.

Perhaps we need to be especially careful when our first reaction to a report is “Just as I expected!” What we expect isn’t always true.

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