Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Andrew Jackson was half African, and other urban legends

Did you know that daddy-long-legs have an incredibly poisonous venom, so poisonous that they'd be the most deadly spider in the world, except their mandibles are so weak that they can't pierce human skin and inject it into you?

Did you know that you shouldn't throw rice at weddings, because birds will eat it, and then it will swell up in their stomachs and their stomachs will rupture and it will kill them?

Well, if you answered "No," good, because as it turns out, neither of these is true.  The first one still makes the rounds despite its being entirely false -- not only did Mythbusters debunk it, but technically, daddy-long-legs aren't even true spiders (they belong to an arachnid group called "harvestmen").  As far as the birds, if that were true, it would make it hard to explain why there are a number of bird species who are major pests in rice fields -- they are presumably not taking the rice they steal home and cooking it in tiny rice pots before serving.

These old-wives'-tales, or urban legends, or whatever you want to call them, are still out there, and I still periodically get asked about them by students.  But we have one advantage, these days, as compared to when I was young -- we now have the internet as a giant fact-checking device.

I've done a good bit of railing against the internet as being a conduit for bullshit, but used properly, it does have one truly wonderful function; if you have access to a computer, you can get nearly instantaneous access to information for the purpose of verifying claims.  For example, take a look at the following website, "The Seven Black Presidents Before Obama," which (despite being written in 2008) is still circulating today.  (In fact, I just saw it for the first time two days ago as a Facebook post.)

In case you don't feel like reading it, the gist is that there were seven earlier US Presidents -- Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, and a pre-George-Washington guy who was supposedly the first actual president, a gentleman named John Hanson -- who had significant amounts of African ancestry.  And we're not just talking about one African ancestor way back; the site claims that Andrew Jackson, for example, was the son of an Irish woman by an African American father.

Well, the whole thing set my skepti-senses ringing immediately.  For one thing, among the "evidence" given (if I can dignify it by that name) is that Coolidge's mother's maiden name was "Moor," and we all know that "Moor" is an old name for North Africans.  (If that's the way it worked, I suppose President Bush was descended from a hedgerow.)  Now, if this had been handed around thirty years ago, and you doubted it, your only recourse would have been a painstaking search through the encyclopedia, or, failing that, a trip to the library.  As for me, it took me a grand total of fifteen seconds to find this page -- wherein each of the claims is analyzed, to be summed up as follows:  "Historians' and biographers' studies of these presidents have not supported such claims, nor have the claims above been peer-reviewed.  They are generally ignored by scholars."  (They also note that Coolidge's mother's maiden name, Moor, can not only mean "dark or swarthy," but also refers to a geographical feature common in the British Isles, and that there are tens of thousands of people named Moor(e) who aren't of African descent.)

The whole John Hanson thing, by the way, seems to be an outright fabrication that conflates John Hanson of Maryland (a Caucasian who was the president of the Continental Congress during the American Revolution) with a John Hanson who was an African American who went to Liberia in the 1800s and served as a senator there.  The two were (obviously) different men.  [Source]

So, the bottom lines is that we have even less excuse these days for (1) not checking what we're told, and (2) believing bullshit.  Now, that's not to say that there isn't lots of bullshit out there on the internet.  For example, 95% of the nonsense I rail about daily on this blog comes from the 'web.  But there's an easy solution; the simplest way to find the good stuff is to append the word "skeptic" or "debunk" after what you're searching for on Google.  That's what I did with the "Black Presidents" thing -- I just Googled "Seven Black Presidents Before Obama Debunk" and it brought up the page I linked above (and also a page that had basically the same information).

Anyhow, that's my musings on critical thinking for today.  It looks like, in fact, Barack Obama really is the first African-American president, unless you count the fact that in reality we're all from Africa if you go back far enough.  It did get me thinking, though, that what'll be even more interesting is if the College of Cardinals selects an African pope, which is looking like a possibility.  Wouldn't it be cool to have the Catholic Church not run by an old, homophobic, bigoted white guy?  An old, homophobic, bigoted black guy would be at least a step in the right direction.

1 comment:

  1. The Bush family being descended from plants (apparently on the male side) would actually explain a lot.

    The sad thing about this whole controversy is that anyone even cares about the race of the president. In point of fact, since our species apparently originated in Africa, every one of our presidents is of African descent.