Monday 15 November 2010

A Mencken hypothesis

Hypothesis: every new bit of information you learn about H.L. Mencken leads to upward revision of his awesomeness.

I'd not heard of the bathtub hoax.  I'll copy the most fun bits below from his 1926 piece repudiating his 1917 bathtub story.
On Dec. 28, 1917, I printed in the New York Evening Mail, a paper now extinct, an article purporting to give the history of the bathtub. This article, I may say at once, was a tissue of absurdities, all of them deliberte and most of them obvious…
This article, as I say, was planned as a piece of spoofing to relieve the strain of war days, and I confess that I regarded it, when it came out, with considerable satisfaction. It was reprinted by various great organs of the enlightenment, and after a while the usual letters began to reach me from readers. Then, suddenly, my satisfaction turned to consternation. For these readers, it appeared, all took my idle jocosities with complete seriousness. Some of them, of antiquarian tastes, asked for further light on this or that phase of the subject. Others actually offered me corroboration!
But the worst was to come. Pretty soon I began to encounter my preposterous “facts” in the writings of other men. They began to be used by chiropractors and other such quacks as evidence of the stupidity of medical men. They began to be cited by medical men as proof of the progress of public hygiene. They got into learned journals. They were alluded to on the floor of congress. They crossed the ocean, and were discussed solemnly in England and on the continent. Finally, I began to find them in standard works of reference. Today, I believe, they are accepted as gospel everywhere on earth. To question them becomes as hazardous as to question the Norman invasion.
The story lived on for decades and even now continues to make the occasional appearance as purported fact.

Not much has changed.  The internet makes it a lot easier to check if a story is a hoax, but it also makes it a lot easier for the credulous to forward around emails that are no more accurate than Mencken's bathtub story - no, [name redacted], Kevin Rudd didn't give a speech demanding immigrants assimilate (and neither did Sir Wilfred Laurier), margarine isn't close enough in chemical composition to plastic to be counted as plastic, and margarine wasn't invented as cheap turkey feed that wound up killing the turkeys.  But at least these things tend not to make it into the papers.

Social cost figures, by contrast.....

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