I’m a fairly questioning sort of person. If someone gives me a fact, I like to know that it’s true. When I get those emails that warn of imminent danger from a household device or telling me to email Bill Gates for a rebate of $20 I tend to check them out. The place I use tends to be Snopes which normally comes high up in the Google searches for the text in these emails.
A while ago, I was reading a forum and someone posted the ‘fact’ that humans swallow an average of eight spiders every year. This immediately struck me as a load of tosh and just the type of thing that epitomises the Internet myth. As I normally do in this kind of situation, I toddled off to Snopes and searched the keywords ‘eight spiders’. Up came this entry and I dutifully copied the URL in my reply to the post.
All fairly standard stuff for a smart arse, you might think. I then did something slightly odd and that was to check the sources in the Snopes article. One checked out just fine; the original book by Lucy Clausen exists and has the relevant myth in it. Here’s a link to the book on Amazon
The second stage of the search was to find the Article by Lisa Holst from PC Professional magazine. This proved a little trickier.
I first did a Google search for PC Professional Magazine. No such magazine. The only times it crops up on the Internet is in reference to this article.
Google turns up a fair number of hits for Lisa Holst; none of them is a columnist for computer magazines. She does show up in a lot of places that quote the Snopes piece pretty much verbatim.
There is a British magazine called PC Pro. I called them. They’ve never changed their name and they’ve also never heard of Lisa Holst or PC Professional Magazine.
I thought I’d try the last place that I know has read the article, because they cite it in their references: Snopes. A quick email to the contact form on Snopes asking them where they found the magazine and whether they have a copy of it I can have a look at receives an automated response suggesting I use their search function. Not very forthcoming of them.
There is a mention of this myth at straightdope.com dated September 8th 2000 that says he can find no mention of it at Snopes. He doesn’t mention any of the references cited by Snopes despite it being just 3 years after the latest article mentioned by them. This article, “Average Folks Need to Keep Mouths Shut.” By Ellen Domke appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on August 26th 1997. The standard Google search shows Ellen Domke as a writer and photographer for the paper between 1993 and 2004.
The possible text of this article may be reprinted on Adilson de Souza Diaz’s blog after being used by other newspapers.
I’m still left with my desire to read Lisa Holst’s article though and so far, it looks like it doesn’t exist. A call to the Library of Congress confirms that they do not have, in their records, any magazines with the title “PC Professional” They don’t even have anything close. The very helpful lady I spoke to did find a defunct title in Peru called 'Professional Computing' which stopped publishing in the 1980s and that’s as close as I got.
What conclusions am I to draw from this? Did someone at Snopes make up the whole thing because, although they ‘knew’ the myth to be a myth, they just couldn’t be bothered finding the source material? Did they read the article by Ellen Domke and just assume the research had already been done?
I don’t know but I do know that I now check the things I read on Snopes. It’s a great resource and invaluable ammunition against the assault of internet myth but, I now realise, it may not be entirely trustworthy.
If anyone from Snopes reads this, I’d really like to see the Lisa Holst article, if you could photocopy your copy and send it to me, I’d be very grateful.
Holst, Lisa Birgit. "Reading is Believing" PC Professional 7th January 1993 (p71.)
I do still have the utmost faith in Mythbusters though, I'm not a complete cynic.