Sunday, April 04, 2004

crimes of forwarding, continued

Being the youngest child in a family of much older siblings--Dahlia excepted--I have to not only worry about whether I've adopted various genes evinced in the oddities of my parents, but also those from my siblings. Most distressingly, lately, I'm worried that suddenly one day the hypergullibility gene that apparently afflicts at least one of my siblings will kick in. This gene causes her to e-mail the most ridiculous stories to me as though the phrase "urban legend" has not found its way through the kudzu to her outpost in Georgia. Alternatively, I wonder sometimes if my radical, almost impenetrable, skepticism--my suspicions about the credibility of almost everything--is basically the result of reacting against the various ridiculous things that were accepted as true by people around me while I was growing up.

Anyway, the most recent exhibit of boundless credulity was the following inspiring story of a brave seeing-eye dog on 9/11:
James Crane worked on the 101st floor of Tower 1 of the World Trade Center. He is blind so he has a golden retriever named Daisy. After the plane hit 20 stories below, James knew that he was doomed, so he let Daisy go, out of an act of love. She darted away into the darkened hallway. Choking on the fumes of the jet fuel and the smoke James was just waiting to die. About 30 minutes later, Daisy comes back along with James' boss, who Daisy just happened to pick up on floor 112.

On her first run of the building, she leads James, James' boss, and about 300 more people out of the doomed building. But she wasn't through yet, she knew there were others who were trapped. So, highly against James' wishes she ran back in the building.

On her second run, she saved 392 lives. Again she went back in. During this run, the building collapses. James hears about this and falls on his knees into tears. Against all known odds, Daisy makes it out alive, but this time she is carried by a firefighter. "She led us right to the people, before she got injured" the fireman explained.

Her final run saved another 273 lives. She suffered acute smoke inhalation, severe burns on all four paws, and a broken leg, but she saved 967 lives.
Set aside for the moment the difficult of squaring this account with the actual timeline of the collapse of Tower 1. Set aside also the issue of how the dog was navigating a collapsed building with a burned paws and a broken leg. Set aside even the issue of the dog being able to have that deep of an understanding of the demands of a completely novel emergency situation (believe it or not, terrorist attacks are not standard fare in the training of seeing eye dogs.)

How the hell is a dog going to lead hundreds of people to safety? And, given that the total number of non-plane casualties in the trade center bombings is currently listed as 2602, meaning that Daisy singlepawedly prevented a 37% increase in the number of casualties. Given the difficulties in even getting an accurate casualty count for 9/11, how on Earth could their be such a precise count of the number saved by a dog. It's like there is no sense of what kind of numbers are plausible numbers, and what kind of numbers are clearly just being pulled out of some fabricator's ass somewhere. Like I wonder if my sister would have been more likely to figure out if something was up if all these numbers had been multiplied by 2, or by 5, or if she would have believed them nonetheless.

It would be an interesting experiment to try to "seed" different urban legends with different levels of implausible numbers and see what the results would be for their spread. I've thought about leaving the aboveboard world of social science for an underground world where I just do data analysis on a weblog and then also do things involving fake websites and fake urban legend e-mails that would be somewhere between social science and performance art.

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