Wanting to believe…

Anyone seen that e-mail about the space pen? It goes like this:

During the space race back in the 1960’s, NASA was faced with a major problem. The astronauts needed a pen that would write in the vacuum of space. NASA went to work. At a cost of $1.5 million they developed the “Astronaut Pen”. Some of you may remember. It enjoyed minor success on the commercial market.

The Russians were faced with the same dilemma. They used a pencil.

My husband and I were chatting about that the other day. We both swallowed the “space pen story” hook, line and sinker. However, it’s false (see the Snopes and Wikipedia entries on the topic for example).

Why did we fall for it? Well, it’s a nice story. It sounds like exactly the kind of mistake that over-confident, arrogant Americans might make, and we wanted to believe it.

I’ve had to learn to be more critical over the years. After all, I fell for that old trick twice in my teenage years:

Teasing friend: Did you know that the word “gullible” has been taken out of the dictionary?

LE: No-o-o!!! Really?

The worst thing was that it was the same friend who managed to trick me on both occasions. Legal practice probably made me a lot more cynical and nasty… I wonder if she’d still be able to trick me now? But I’m wise to her evil teasing streak now.

I occasionally get e-mails from friends about terrible stuff. You know the ones: the Brazilian government is about to pass legislation which will allow 50% of the rainforest to be cut down, parking lot car jackers in [insert relevant local area here] will rob you and rape you, there are a proliferation of terrible lawsuits showing how much tort law needs reform… Nowadays, I always check such stories at Snopes.com. [NB: all the links in this paragraph are courtesy of Snopes].

Even journalists can be taken in by such stories. On 30 July 2006, Terry Lane, a columnist in The Sunday Age, demanded to know why the US government had not investigated claims by a US Army Ranger called Jessie Macbeth, where Macbeth purportedly details massacres perpetrated by the US Army in Iraq on video. The Jessie Macbeth video is a hoax. As reported in Media Watch, Lane later told Crikey on 1 August 2006, “I was completely taken in … I fell for it because I wanted to believe it. That is inexcusable.” At least he was honest.

What is my point? I guess I’m trying to say in a gentle way that all people have biases (including myself) and all people have a tendency to want to believe certain information. They might have assumptions about which they are not aware. The space pen story just provides an interesting example of this. It’s just some food for thought.



Filed under crazy stuff, e-mail, society, space pen

4 responses to “Wanting to believe…

  1. Anonymous

    I have been told that story about the Americans and the space pen by several friends over the years. Once I knew for sure that it was false, I tried telling people so when they raised it again. The response was that I was a party pooper. So I have since moderated my response to: “yes that is true, but the technology that developed the pen also saved my mother from many years of pain and possible paraplegia, when it was used in her neck operation back in the 1970s. This isn’t strictly true, though it was a fact that metallurgical breakthrough caused by the space programme did lead to better surgical apparatus used in spinal operations such aas my mother’s.

    The point is that it is fun to turn negative comments into positive ones, therby disarming the slur without seeming a killjoy.

  2. Anonymous

    Given the proliferation of email hoaxes and scams, I think I’ve become even more jaded than you – I just delete the lot without looking it up. I don’t want to believe, don’t have time to believe, have even less time to look it up. I assume that if it’s come to me from a source I don’t know, it’s lies, damned lies, and statistics. If it’s come from a source I do know, chances are it’s still lies, damned lies and statistics. Thank those clever inventors for their wonderful email filters, and damn those annoying friends and their propensity for automatically hitting the “Fwd” button in respect of any trash that crosses their screens…

  3. Pingback: Would I lie to you, honey? « The Legal Soapbox

  4. They didn’t tell you the entire story. The astronauts needed a pen that would write in the vacuum of space and zero gravity, and would not burn in the pure oxygen atmosphere of their space capsule!
    Which means the Russians were playing with fire.

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