Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Why Eight Spiders?

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.


fatboysblogg said...

Hey Ropey,hows it hanging dude?

Nick said...

Just fine Marcus, finding my feet. Thanks for stopping by.

Mat said...

I just want to add that I've been looking into this off and on for a few years now to no avail -

I have found 2 "PC Professional" esque titles.

One is PC Professionale

The other is a Swedish Magazine that ran from 1992-1993 and is listed on Worldcat

And the article mentioned doesn't exist in either of them, from what I've found.

Nick said...
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Nick said...

Thanks for the comment Mat. It does rather seem as though someone, somewhere has invented the whole article.

To what purpose will, obviously, remain unclear. My money is on a harassed and lazy researcher somewhere who just knew that the story was an urban myth but couldn't be bothered to check for sources.

It seems that it has come full circle now in that an attempt to debunk something as an urban myth has itself become an urban myth in need of debunking.

I don't think Snopes are likely to do that one though.

Heath said...

Fascinating. I will not sleep well tonight knowing that there is a rip in the reputation of Snopes! Interested to hear if anymore comes to light.

Thanks for stopping by my blog to fill me in.

preoccupiedgirl said...

Wow, thanks for this research! I'd just started on my quest to find the original article, so this blog post has kept me from going on quite a wild goose chase. This won't stop me, though, from trying to befriend every Lisa Holst that I can find online.

preoccupiedgirl said...

Searching more, I found a bulletin board where you were also conversing about this. Oh, I see that that conversation inspired you to start this blog. The internet is a catalog of your every move.

I also found the article from 1997 from the Chicago Sun-Times. It isn't by Ellen Domke but is instead by ZAY N. SMITH, according to that paper's archives. http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-4397022.html

The plot thickens. Have you read that article? I wasn't willing to sign up for the "free" trial to read it.

techish said...

Any update on this? I'm surprised that no one from Snopes has contacted you.

Lady A said...

There are tiny bits of animal and insect parts in all our food. You didn't exactly SWALLOW 8 spiders, you ate the equivalent in your food.

Interfect said...

The article is called "Reading is Believing". To me, that indicates it's a fake.

lielieliela said...

There is a German Computermagazine called "PC Professionell". I read it at the German wikipedia. I can't read everything about it though (hey, my German isn't thát good)

But here is a little article about it: http://edenspiekermann.com/en/work/projects/pc-professionell

VislorTurlough said...
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ashton said...

im so shocked at this. I'm a graphic design student and recently made 5 books that set out to debunk urban myths, one of them being about this 8 spider myth. i also used and trusted snopes and to be honest, didnt even think of checking out their sources. anyway, im really shocked to find out that there is no proof this article even exists! snopes, you disappoint me. i came across this blog looking for a quote from Lisa Holst or even some text from the article itself to add to my book, maybe i should make an extra book instead to debunk this myth within a myth!

ashton said...

im so shocked at this. I'm a graphic design student and recently made 5 books that set out to debunk urban myths, one of them being about this 8 spider myth. i also used and trusted snopes and to be honest, didnt even think of checking out their sources. anyway, im really shocked to find out that there is no proof this article even exists! snopes, you disappoint me. i came across this blog looking for a quote from Lisa Holst or even some text from the article itself to add to my book, maybe i should make an extra book instead to debunk this myth within a myth!

Anonymous said...

My story about this myth starts much like yours. I just saw this comic


and started to look for some more information on the subject and that led me to the snopes article and then to here when I couldn't find the PC professional article. After that I checked http://www.worldcat.org/ and they have three listings for publications called PC Professional. Two are Swedish and one is Danish. So, I went ahead a put in an inter-library loan request in for the article using your citation. From here it's all up to the librarians at my college to figure out if it exists.

Nick said...

Thanks Anonymous, please come back if it shows up. I put an interlibrary request in from my local library but they never got back to me.

EsotErich said...

I'm glad to see people have been looking into this, as I have been for quite some time. Snopes does have at least one article that they purposely posted to prove that people should do their own research, since, taking Snopes' word for it is just as bad as taking it from a random email. It's the "Sixpence" article here: http://www.snopes.com/humor/mediagoofs/sixpence.asp

I haven't ever seen any mention of Snopes putting in less obvious bits that weren't true as well, but this may well be it. Let's keep hunting.

William V said...

um not to be mean or anything, but I had a subscription to PC Professional magazine back in 1993, and yeah I believe they shortened it to PC Pro

Article writers come and go, and it was in 1993. I find it will be hard to take a magazine in that day and age and find a digital version, let alone a reference to the author anywhere else since the web hadn't exploded. Maybe if we search historical archives of a large library, but who wants to find a library that had a subscription to that magazine?

Nick said...

Thanks for the comment William.

I don't see your comment as mean at all but it does raise some more issues.

You'll see above that I called the editor of PC Pro magazine and he told me categorically that they have never been called PC Professional and the Wikipedia article you linked to states that the magazine was launched in November 1994.

Of course, the editor may be mistaken and the Wikipedia article is just something (peer reviewed) that I read on the internet. Tim Danton (PC Pro Editorial Director) reiterates the launch of the magazine as being in 1994 in this forum thread http://www.pcpro.co.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?t=347095&start=15

The British Library and The Library of Congress are the two largest legal deposit libraries in the world and they don't have a copy. I would not really expect to find it anywhere if these two do not hold a copy.

Do you have any copies left of the magazine you subscribed to, it may hold some interesting information such as the publisher or country of origin, for instance.

maDKid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
maDKid said...

this book has sites for lisa holst: http://books.google.com/books?id=jLUUxXEak1oC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Don't+Swallow+Your+Gum!:+Myths,+Half-Truths,+and+Outright+Lies&hl=en&sa=X&ei=sY4fT473OsXs2QXy6_n4Dg&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

CatPasswd said...


Ziff Davis was the publisher. Find a German speaker to investigate, as this looks like an automated translation tool was used on this page.

Stephen said...

I think William makes a good point. If the name did change from PC Professional Magazine to PC Pro, it makes sense that the editors see the 'launch' of the magazine as 1994. It was called PC Professional in 1993, then something happened (merger, takeover who knows) and was launched as the brand new PC Pro, who knows if anyone working there now knows anything about that? Or what was lost in the change over?

insx said...

The German mag seems to be regularly referred to as "PC Professional" and according to this site, it was around in 1993:


A.J Hill said...

Wow this plot just keeps on thickening and just won't go away.

Snopes most likely hired somebody to write that article, as it is quite different style wise from most of the others, and the author is most likely long gone, along with their sources.

The fact that the author of that snopes page would casually put a reference to an author and magazine that were in another language seems dubious at best. That seems to be the only explanation, and one that can only be verified with a translator apparently.

Either that or the whole thing is made up, and is actually a, *GASP* myth within a myth.

fizzygoo said...

I am of the option that this is an Easter egg of sorts. A cautionary "even the most trusted cannot be fully trusted" warning of sorts all in an innocuous article about spiders, web weavers, and swallowing them.

Either that or the spiders have infiltrated Snopes as a part of their plan for world domination.

Kai Kuchenbecker said...

It is so nice to see that there are people who actually try to check cited sources.
The search for that article of Lisa Holst lead me here. If someone can dig up digital copies of the PC Professionell magazine from 1993 I could leaf through them to look for that article. (German is my native tongue.)

zagrobelny said...

I placed an interlibrary loan request for the article with the Snopes information from the German magazine PC Professionell. I work in an American library, so only two German libraries were available as lenders through OCLC. (Why? I have no idea.) Those two libraries both reported that the Holst article was "not found as cited", meaning it's not in that issue of PC Professionell. Does it mean that it does not exist or does it mean Snopes has some part of their citation wrong? I don't know, but now I'm more inclined to think this is mistake or copyright trap by Snopes or whoever wrote that particular entry.

leeshink said...

spot on with this write-up, i like the way you discuss the things. i'm impressed, i must say. i'll probably be back again to read more. thanks for sharing this with us.

Lee Shin

Kpete said...

I checked the respective german magazine and issue yesterday. There is no article of Lisa Holst in the respective issue and neither in the issues around. She was not even a editor in the magazine.

So this was a dead end.


Kpete said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kendrapadilla said...

nice post! very interesting.


California MusicFan said...

I just ran across this meta mystery today (starting at YouTube) and did a little research on one of the other references in the Snopes article: the original 1954 book by Lucy Claussen. Yes, it's a real book, but there is nothing in it about spiders, except right at the beginning where she points out (as you might expect) that spiders are not insects. They don't show up in the rest of the book, and page 24 has nothing to do with swallowing spiders, insects, or anything else in one's sleep. You can check it out for yourself--an Indian agricultural library has it online:


I'm convinced this was intended by Snopes all along to test whether readers (including a lot of "news" sites) check out their sources.

Fernando Manzanares said...

Snopes updated that post in April this year with legit information from Scientific American. but the part about Lisa Holst has been retained, and remains unchanged.

It seems that if you question about Lisa Holst in the Snopes boards, the question gets deleted; in fact if you try with Google, you'll find that there is no reference Lisa Holst or PC Professional to be found in the boards.

So, I'm convinced it's deliberate. I actually wonder if there are other similar articles with invented references in their website...

Leslie Lim said...

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