Research Day: Urban Legend Purge

Once upon a time I was known as the go-to guy for urban legend debunking. I’d read all of Jan Harold Brunvands’s books and could spot a foaf-tale at 100 yards. My friends and family were forever calling me up and saying, “my friend Sally said that her aunt bought the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe for $250 — that ain’t true, is it?”

These days, of course, there’s, so my bullshit detection services are no longer in high demand. But I still consider myself something of a minor authority in the subject. But let’s face it — even someone who makes an effort to keep abreast of urban legends can occasionally get suckered. So this month, I’ve rummaged around in my mental file cabinet full of “beliefs” and flagged a few that, despite my having quoted them as fact for years, strike me as suspicious.

Bottlers in Washington State are prohibited by law from printing alcohol content on beer labels: This is the belief that prompted this urban legend purge. Some drinking buddies and I were recently in a local tavern, and I noticed that the alcohol content for the microbrews were listed in the menu along with the descriptions. So I asked my friend J., a bartender by trade, how they could do that when they can’t print alcohol content on bottles and cans.

“Why wouldn’t they be able to print it on bottles and cans?” J. replied.

“Oh, it’s some old Washington law,” I informed him. “Apparently when they were worried that brewers would get into an alcoholic arms-race if they were allowed to put the alcoholic content on the cans and bottles — you know, each would try to outdo the others by jacking up the potency and proudly advertising this fact. So they made it illegal, and the law has never been overturned.”

“I don’t think that was ever a law,” said J. “And I’m sure it’s not now.” He pointed to the label of my own bottle of beer, where, in tiny letters, it read “5.1% alcohol by weight.”


The next day I wrote an email to the Washington State Liquor Control Board, and they confirmed that there had never been any such law.

I have no idea how that “fact” came to be lodged in my head, but it had been there since college.

Honey never spoils: I learned this in one of those “10,001 Amazing And Poorly Researched Facts!” books I read as a kid. But given that these are the kind of books that perpetuated the great lemmings myth, re-evaluating those “facts” is probably a good idea. And this one strikes me as particularly bogus.

But it appears to be true all the same. According to Wikipedia: “Honey does not spoil. Because of its high sugar concentration, it kills bacteria by osmotically lysing them. Natural airborne yeasts can not become active in it because the moisture content is too low. Natural, raw, honey varies from 14% to 18% moisture content. As long as the moisture content remains under 18%, virtually no organism can successfully multiply to significant amounts in honey.”

That is amazing! But it’s too bad it’s honey, which I don’t particularly like. Everlasting corned beef, though — that would pretty much rule.

Cher had a pair of ribs removed: Having not thought about Cher for a decade or so, this isn’t one I’ve mentioned recently. But I do recall, at some point, telling someone that this was a for-real fact. Alas, no. Snopes has the goods on this one: “In 1988 the chic magazine Paris Match announced Cher had .. two ribs [removed] … Cher sued the magazine, but the rumor gained even wider acceptance after being picked up from the Paris Match piece and run in other papers. That these stories were later corrected didn’t do much to mitigate the impact of the rumor’s first finding its way into those pages as revealed fact.”

Dude, I came this closed to getting sued by Cher!!!!!

If you’d like to play along, pick one of your own beliefs that you are having second thoughts about, research it on Google, and post your findings in the comments.

67 thoughts on “Research Day: Urban Legend Purge

  1. My college had no sorority houses, and they had the “brothel laws” claim. Supposedly, it was illegal for more than six women to live together in a house, because it would then be considered a brothel. Not true, though. What’s funny is that we were told this from university administration. Apparently it’s a pretty common one.

  2. my grad student friends recently had a professor tell them that he lured a tapeworm out of his body by holding a brick of cheese close to his open mouth. he evidently SWORE that anyone telling you that it couldn’t happen was a liar.

    i called bullshit immediately, because A) it doesn’t seem that tapeworms would have any means of mobility, B) it doesn’t seem that tapeworms would have any olfactory senses, C) why would a tapeworm detach from it’s home inside your plentiful intestines for one measly meal?, D) there are highly effect medications in the world that would do the job for you that simply dissolve the beast, and E) why wouldn’t you lure the tapeworm out… uh… the other end, if you had the choice?!?

    anyway, so i can’t get them to believe that it would be impossible, as doesn’t explicitly say that it isn’t true. it mentions the idea in another debunking here, but it doesn’t say anything regarding it’s validity.

    i KNOW that it cannot be true, but i can’t find any proof with which to convince these fools!

  3. gretchen: My college had no sorority houses, and they had the “brothel laws” claim.

    It was that way at my college too. Nice to know it isn’t true after all!

  4. i had NO idea about the rice at weddings. or the lemmings. or the alka seltzer. man, i feel so violated and gullible. i’m never believing anyone about anything ever again.

  5. Let me just say this about Snopes: its an urban legend that they are the end all and be all of myth dedubunking. I have gotten into some arguments with them over some of their research and I believe them to be wrong on a few things. Which is fine, we all make mistakes in proud moments.

  6. Yes, I have argued with Snopes, as well. They tried to say that the Mexican water rat story isn’t true but it happened to my cousin’s friend so I know it’s true!!

    I had no idea there were any other rib-removal stories out there except Cher’s.

    I just learned that swallowed chewing gum will probably digest. If it is the sugar-free variety, it will probably pass, undigested, into your stool in due course and in much less than 7 years.

  7. It will if it is EXTRA..which lasts an extra extra EXTRA long time!

    My co-worker by the way has introduced me to Listerine Pocket Packs. Who needs Crack with this stuff around?

  8. Blake Richards: See Brooklyn Tech.

    Does me posting this count as “using the Internets”? In case it doesn’t, the whole honey thing reminded me of a story about a movie director smearing a kid with honey to get a shot with a bear,…

    TAFKAC and Snopes both say “no”,… but they talk about dumb parents rather than committed artistes,…

  9. in university i took a Current Issues in Nutrition course – where i learned that botulism spores can live in honey because they like an anaerobic (no 02) environment. for this reason, we are not to dip our babies’ pacifiers in honey. (?people used to do this?)
    have since learned in my practice (i’m a registered dietitian) that many people mistakenly believe that honey is rich in B vitamins – which i think nust have originated from old joke about honey being full of BEE vitamins.

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