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.