Urban legends

13 01 2007

bloke on a horse, originally uploaded by gridrunner.

Dear God, I’m so sick of these. People who email these around to their friends, post them on messageboards and newsgroups, and otherwise contribute to the spread of misinformation should be treated like the credulous, thick-witted sheep they are. When in doubt, check with Snopes.

Claim: The number of upraised hooves on an equestrian statue reveals how the rider died.

Status: False.

Origins: Snopes calls this an attempt to create an interesting piece of information (in this case, something akin to a “secret code”) by finding patterns in randomness through the expedient of simply ignoring or explaining away all the cases that don’t fit the pattern. This type of statuary lore is neither new nor unique to equestrian statuary, as a similar “tradition” (i.e., fallacy) was attributed well over a century ago, in the same fashion, to sculptors who had created effigies of knights several hundred years earlier. Read more.

Catherine the Great

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Claim: Catherine the Great died while trying to have sexual intercourse with a horse; it was one of her favourite pastimes.

Status: False.

Origins: Mere political slander; she actually died alone, of natural causes, and she didn’t love horses that way.

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Claim: The United States standard railroad gauge derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot.

Status: Mostly false.

Origins: According to Snopes, This is one of those items that — although wrong in many of its details — isn’t exactly false in an overall sense and is perhaps more fairly labelled as “True, but for trivial and unremarkable reasons” […]

So, rather than going into excruciating detail about the history of transportation, we’ll simply note that roads are built (or worn) to accommodate whatever uses them, and that for many centuries prior to the advent of railroads, what travelled on roads were mostly wheeled conveyances, pulled by beasts of burden (primarily horses), carrying passengers and goods. Physical conditions dictated some of the dimensions of those conveyances (such as the width of their axles) and largely ensured that they would fall within a fairly narrow range of variation: Horse-drawn vehicles, whether they were chariots or carts or carriages, all served similar functions, so practical considerations (e.g., the speed at which horses could travel, the amount of weight horses could pull, the number and arrangement of horses that could be controlled by a single driver) required that they be relatively similar in size as well.

I think that what galls me about the people who spread these ULs is not so much that they’re spreading what are, essentially, lies (although that’s certainly part of it), but their smug certainty and refusal to back down when confronted by a little bit of research. I am a huge believer in research, and knowing all the facts. 😉

What eye-rolling stories have you been privy to?

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