This article was first published in the Summer issue of volume 17 of the 'Skeptical Intelligencer', 2014, pp.1-2.
There are a lot of believed-in myths or popular unfounded beliefs out there that provide skeptics with plenty of work. Sometimes, sadly, with little to show for it - cf. Randi's metaphor of 'the unsinkable rubber duck' - though this should not restrain us. Below I pass on some recent discussion on BBC's Radio 4 about two believed-in myths, plus details of a recent report on mythical foxes in Tasmania. Note that I don't call them urban myths; I believe that an urban myth is something different. (Another example of such a myth of the type presented here, which I have previously analysed - see note 1 - is that the Nazis, and for that matter the Russians under Stalin, put fluoride compounds in the water supply to subdue the population.) We cannot be certain that some of these beliefs are indeed myths, but we can point to a complete lack of evidence for them.
May 5th this year was the 60th anniversary of Roger Bannister's achievement in becoming the first person to record a time under 4 minutes to run one mile. His official time was 3mts 59.4secs. Since then, for various reasons, the record time has been gradually lowered but not in the last 16 years, the current holder being Hicham El Guerrouj with a time of 3mts 43.13secs in 1999.
BBC Radio 4's programme More or Less marked the anniversary with a bit of myth-busting. The presenter, Tim Harford, announced the following quote from motivational speaker Anthony Robbins' book Awake the Giant Within:
Bannister destroyed forever a forbidding belief barrier. Almost as soon as he destroyed that barrier others pulled to after him. Within one year of his triumph, 37 other runners also broke the 4-minute mark.
This is the kind of 'gee whizz' anecdote that those who earn their living by promoting 'the power of positive thinking' like to tell us.
What is the truth? Mr Robbins was asked by More or Less to confirm his figure and he reduced this to 24 in the first year and 37 within 2 years of the event. However it seems that the records indicate that only 5 other people broke the barrier in the 12 months following its being breached, one being John Landy, around 6 weeks after his great rival. Five runners broke the barrier the following year. It was not until 1960 that 24 people had achieved this, and it was 8 years before the total had reached 37.
Ah well! Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, as they say. Another case in point concerns Mrs Phyllis Pearsall (1906-1996), who is credited with creating the A-Z map of London in the 1930s. According to her obituary in the Independent (note 2):
(I)n the mid-1930s the A/Z (as it was originally called) was conceived, and during the gestation period Pearsall walked some 23,000 streets of London, collecting street names, house numbers along main roads, bus and tram routes, stations, buildings, museums, palaces etc., in addition compiling the street index in alphabetical order. Finally after years of intensive labour, rising at 5am and walking for 18 hours a day, the London A-Z was born in 1936. It was researched, printed and distributed by Phyllis Pearsall alone….
Other obituaries replicate this heroic account of Mrs Pearsall's work, likewise the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia (note 3). It is reported that the impetus for her taking on this mammoth task was that in 1934, while living alone in Horseferry Road, she became lost on her way to a party in Belgravia and was soaked in a storm. A biography entitled Mrs. P's Journey: The Remarkable Story of the Woman who Created the A-Z Map by Susan Hartley (2002) repeats the sensational story (note 4). And recently there has been a musical about her achievements - The A-Z of Mrs P (note 5).
Well, apparently this account of how Mrs Pearsall came to compile the maps of London streets is largely mythical. In brief, she was assisted by several people and relied on existing maps and not 'walking some 23,000 streets of London'. Mr Peter Berthoud, a London historian, is writing a fair and balanced account of her role in creating the A-Z of London (notes 6; see also note 7). He appeared on Radio 4's Today programme on 20.5.14, along with Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, to talk about Phyllis Pearsall and the perpetuation of believed-in myths in general.
It does seem that the debunking of the more florid accounts of Mrs Pearsall's contribution may have established another myth, namely that she herself was responsible for the creation of these myths (see note 8 for an example). However, Mr Berthoud has studied her autobiographical accounts and considers that these largely exonerate her from being the author of her own mythology. He is currently unable to locate a convincing source of this.
It was recently reported that for the last 11 years, £27 million has been spent by Tasmania attempting to eradicate foxes that were never there in the first place. According to a report ('An independent scientific review of the Tasmanian fox eradication program'-see note 9):
In 2001 the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service reported that 11-19 foxes had been deliberately released into the Tasmanian environment. Although a Tasmanian Police investigation later found no evidence to support this claim, a fox eradication program (FEP) based upon widespread buried baiting with 1080 poison (sodium fluoroacetate-Ed.) was underway by 2003. Key to the claims concerning the presence, distribution and eradication of foxes in Tasmania has been evidence based on opportunistically acquired post mortem specimens, anecdotal fox sightings (there were over 3,000 of these-Ed.) and scat DNA data.
The report's summary includes the following advice:
The claim that the FEP was based upon timely precaution due to a perceived threat is difficult to justify when the nature of this threat was initially contingent upon anecdotal and flawed information...Reliance upon subjective, anecdotal or opportunistically acquired inform-ation carries a risk of having no clear justification for the start or finish of precautionary action and no empirical measure of its success. The FEP approach is a salient warning of how evidence based risk management is essential in invasive species management.
In the UK, for many years there have been frequently reported anecdotal sightings of large cats (lynxes, panthers, pumas, and even lions) for which hard evidence (capture, live or otherwise) has been remarkably unforthcoming see the two papers on this website. The above scientific report provides salutary reading for anyone seriously committed to the idea that large cats are roaming over great swathes of our countryside.