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Putting my foot in it (maybe)

I'll never learn.

Dr. Bob (of the excellent blog "The Doctor Is In") reported on an incident told to him by one of his patients, a federal air marshal. Apparently, the story was picked up by Michelle Malkin, through whose website it ended up being cited by conservative bloggers David Limbaugh and RightPundit, among others. Because, in celebration of some recent good career news, I took the whole three day weekend off (rather than coming in to do lab work and writing). I was just hanging around with more time on my hands than I'm used to and because I'm a skeptical guy at heart with a special interest in urban legends, I decided to post in the comment section my speculations that this story might be an urban legend.

Certainly, the story sent my urban legend antennae twitching. It had several of the elements of an urban legend, like a danger averted at the last minute not through the expected means, an air of mystery, and a message that people both fear (that we are still in grave danger from terrorists) and want to hear (that we are being protected). It also made me wonder why terrorists would have had accomplices plant boxcutters, rather than more signficant weapons. Boxcutters are so intimately associated with the tragedy of 9/11, which would make the story more immediate and compelling, perhaps? As HowStuffWorks puts it: As a general rule, if an urban legend touches on something many people are afraid of, it'll spread like wildfire. Also, such an incident would be very hard to keep quiet, given the number of people involved, and thus there should be a news story on it somewhere if it were true, particularly since it involved the maintenance crew apparently leaving weapons for the terrorists to find. I could find none on Google or other search engines. I could find nothing on that web purveyor of urban legend information, I also noticed on the Michelle Malkin site that she stated that air marshals had told her that the story sounded true, but as far as I could tell none of them had told her that it was true or given any details. One point arguing for the veracity of the story was that the air marshal relayed the story to Dr. Bob in the first person. However, in my experience, even a claimed first-person account doesn't guarantee that the story is not an urban legend. People tend to embellish their role in such stories. It may be that this story is true, but it had just enough of the elements of an urban legend to make me doubt it. My guess is that this story might have been based on a real incident, but that the story has evolved considerably in the retelling.

Given that one of the major themes of this blog is skepticism, and that you should never accept claims at face value automatically, I should have remembered that no one will thank you for questioning. (As I like to say, acceptance is easy; skepticism is hard and risks alienating people.) Even though I primarily apply my skepticism to science and medicine, where it is very appropriate, it is not inappropriate to apply it to other types of claims, particularly claims found on the Internet. It was certainly not inappropriate in this case. (In fact, skepticism is never inappropriate when it comes to Internet stories.)

However, I should have remembered that, when you want to suggest to people that a story they told might be an urban legend, if you are not very careful in how you express your skepticism, they tend to take it personally. They sometimes react as if to a personal accusation of lying or an accusation that the person who told them the story (usually a trusted friend or relative) was lying. My instinct for circumspection should have been roused by my observation that every other comment accepted the story at face value (save one, which only asked where the flight originated and arrived). Finally, I should have remembered that it's often not worth the hassle to argue about minor things like this. Fortunately, Dr. Bob, with the exception of one snarky comment, was relatively gracious about my comments.

Unless taken too far, to the point of cynicism and demands unreasonable requirements for evidence for everything, skepticism is good. Skepticism is healthy. Skepticism will help you avoid being taken in by the claims of alties and pseudoscientists. (It will even help you avoid being taken in by used car dealers, con men, and those peddling dubious financial schemes, if applied properly.) However, you must be careful when expressing your skepticism to relatives or friends (or even acquaintances) not to impugn (or even to sound as if you're impugning) their integrity or intelligence and to have clear, rational reasons behind your doubt. Otherwise, you risk starting a fight or alienating someone you don't want to for a reason that is not worth it. Also, there are times when it is probably better to keep your doubts to yourself. But don't take that to mean that you shouldn't still have them.


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