Hear the rumor? Nostradamus and other tall tales
From Beth Nissen
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Did you hear? Nostradamus predicted, in 1654, that "two metal birds" would hit "two brothers" ... "and the world will end soon after." But it's not true -- no such writings are attributed to the French astrologer.
Did you see? The photo of a tourist on a World Trade Center observation deck, moments before one of the hijacked planes hit. The photo is a fake.
Did you know? As one of the Twin Towers collapsed, a man on the 82nd floor rode the rubble down, and survived with only a broken leg. The story is apocryphal -- one of hundreds of false rumors and instant urban legends that have circled the globe in urgent e-mails since September 11.
"It's part of how we deal with calamity and try to make sense of the senseless," said Barbara Mikkelson, who with David Mikkelson runs Snopes.com, a Web site that lists and verifies rumors, conspiracy theories and urban legends.
"We are doing that by exchanging information and misinformation at a fantastic rate, in hopes that some of it will be real, and some of it will somehow manage to help us once again make sense."
Since September 11, they've been overwhelmed.
"It is really difficult to track some of those down when all you have is a purported e-mail from somebody named Janet, and no other identifying information," David Mikkelson said.
Snopes.com and other rumor monitors have managed to verify or debunk many of the most persistent rumors:
-- The one about the United Airlines pilot who, on a flight four days after the attack, instructed his passengers on how to foil a hijacking? True.
-- The one about rescue workers finding a pair of severed hands, bound together with plastic handcuffs, on the roof of one of the buildings near ground zero? Police say the grisly story is true.
Sorting fact from fiction
Many of the stories have turned out to be true. Others, people wished were true -- like the false story about the man who "rode the rubble" to safety.
"The thought that there was one survivor, and that there was somehow something miraculous about his managing to make it through, gives all of us hope," Barbara Mikkelson said.
So did the rumor that searchers found, in the smoking rubble of the Pentagon, an unscathed Bible. "We eventually found out that it was not a Bible, but a dictionary, because we happen to know somebody who works in the Pentagon who actually went and saw it himself," David Mikkelson said.
The most widely distributed rumors were mystical, metaphysical, and supernatural. An authentic Associated Press photograph, for example, was circulated worldwide with the claim that the face of Satan could be seen in the smoke.
E-mails listed numerous coincidences involving the number 11 in the September 11 attack, or detailed various sources -- including Nostradamus and Tarot card readings -- that foretold the attack.
Psychologists say that in times of disaster, people can find an odd comfort in seeing calamity as fate, as preordained.
"As frightening as that might be to accept, it is far less frightening than the other way of looking at it -- like it is all random chance, that there is no sense to it, and that anything can happen to anyone at any time," Barbara Mikkelson said.
In the last few days, a new strain of rumors has appeared, about impending germ war or biological attacks. Thousands of people have received e-mails warning that sponges soaked with a deadly Ebola-like virus have been put in blue envelopes and mailed to randomly chosen Americans.
That rumor not only is false but harmful, even dangerous.
"The problem with rumors is that they continue to feed an atmosphere of fear and mistrust," she said. "What do these stories say about us? They say that we are afraid and frightened, both by the events that have already unfolded, and by the events that we very deeply believe are to come."
Urban Legends Reference Pages
Nostradamus Society of America
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