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Abraham Lincoln famously said: "If you've read it on the Internet, it must be true."
A quote that most YouTube list channels seem to have taken to heart.
But it is often difficult to know if the things that you read and view online are true or not.
Which makes it especially difficult for me as it's part of my job description.
The last thing I want is to be the source of misinformation.
So in today's video, I'd like to demonstrate how truly difficult it can be and how a single
inaccurate citation can lead to an ocean of misinformation.
Okay, so a few weeks ago I stumbled upon a supposed "fact".
It goes like this:
The average person annually swallows eight spiders in their sleep.
I've seen variations of this claim many times before and it's quite easily dismissable.
For example, most household spiders are not exactly fond of wet and windy regions which
is a perfect description of the human mouth.
Furthermore, spiders are very sensitive to vibrations and while asleep we tend to move
around, breath, snore, etc. which causes the spider equivalent of an earthquake.
A humanquake?
Nevertheless, experts in both human and spider biology
can attest to why spider munching in our sleep is highly improbable.
But it did make me wonder: If the claim is so easily dismissable, how did it begin?
And holy Community Guidelines did I discovered a rabbit hole deeper than your favorite inspirational quote.
A quick search lead me to an article on a website known as
Snopes is a website specializing in debunking urban legends and most people seem to agree
that it is a quite reputable source.
In the article they claim that the myth gained popularity in 1993 when a columnist by the name of
"Lisa Birgit Holst" wrote an article titled "Reading Is Believing" in a magazine known as "PC Professional".
She supposedly wrote the article, which included the eight-spiders-myth, to demonstrate how
people will believe anything they read online.
They further claim that she took this myth from a book released in 1954 titled "Insect Fact and Folklore".
So if Snopes is to be believed, the myth began with a book released in 1954.
And to solidify this claim even further you can find
hundreds of articles and books telling the exact same story.
Simple enough.
Quite an interesting piece of trivia.
Case closed.
If it wasn't for the fact that I bought the book.
And it does not include any mention of swallowing spiders in your sleep.
In fact, it would be a bit strange if it did as spiders are not insects, they are arthropods.
Which is, a bit ironically, the only thing you will learn about spiders while reading this book.
So I went back to Snopes article and went through the rest of their citations.
Two are unrelated to the origins of the myth.
Then they cite an article in a 1997 issue of the newspaper Chicago Sun-Times.
I was able to read the article, thanks to some incredibly kind people over at the
Chicago subreddit who provided me with a copy.
Unfortunately it does not shed any light on the origins of the myth as the article only
consists of a reader asking if this urban legend is true or not
followed by an entomologist claiming that it is unlikely.
That leaves us with citation number three.
And this, my friends, is where we go off the deep end.
A quick search reveals that I'm not the first to investigate this source as most of the
top results are that of other people looking for the exact same thing.
As it turns out, no one has been able to find a columnist by the name of Lisa Birgit Holst
nor has anyone been able to locate a computer magazine by the title of PC Professional.
At least not in the United States.
So perhaps the magazine was published in another country.
The name Lisa Birgit Holst does sound quite European and sure enough
the given-, middle-, and surname is of European origins.
Using various online archives, catalogs, and indexes I was able to locate five different
magazines with either a similar title or with the exact same title published in a language other than English.
There's a magazine from the UK with the title PC Pro.
But the first issue was published in November of 1994.
I also found a magazine with the exact title of PC Professional but it was unfortunately
written in an unsophisticated and [un]intelligible language known as Danish.
The first issue was also published in 1997.
A Swedish magazine, also with the exact title of PC Professional, published a grand total
of what appears to be two issues.
One in 1992 and one in 1993.
The thing is, if we are searching for an article responsible for a widespread global misconception,
I fail to see how an obscure and short-lived magazine from Sweden with a readership of
a few thousand at most could possibly have served as the catalyst.
Not to speak of the tremendous improbability of this local magazine then ending up in the
hands of an American couple who happens to run a website specializing in debunking urban
legends who then also translated the magazine from Swedish to English, yet failed to mention
any of this in the very article they wrote about the topic.
So lets put it in the maybe pile for now.
The last two publications, one from Italy and one from Germany, seem to be the most likely candidates.
Both magazines are titled PC Professional in their respective language, had a readership
in the hundreds of thousands, and has released monthly issues since 1991.
At this point there was no doubt in my mind that the German magazine
must contain the article for two main reasons.
First; The surname Holst is Danish and German in origin
and thus a really common surname in Germany to this very day.
As a comparison, I was only able to track down a single person in all of Italy with the surname Holst.
Second; The magazine is the official German version of PC Magazine
which is one of the most popular PC-oriented magazines in the United States.
In fact, PC Mag has mention its German sister publication on numerous occasions.
This had to be it!
And if I wanted to know the truth, there was only one thing left for me to do.
I packed my bags, jumped on a plane, and traveled to Germany.
On second though, maybe I should see if I can find it online first.
I eventually found a German library that, for a small fee, could send me a scanned copy
of page 71 from the 1993, January issue of PC Professional.
And here it is.
Unfortunately, the library who provided me with this scanned copy had some serious copyright
restrictions so I hired a translator to replace the German text with English
and then recreated the page in Photoshop.
But it doesn't matter because it does not contain anything even remotely relevant to this mystery.
No Lisa Holst, no spidery misconceptions, no nothing.
And if this is not it, I highly doubt this article exists.
I mean I even clicked page two on Google search so you know I've been thorough.
After pacing back and forth and questioning my own sanity for the better part of the week
I began to wonder if Snopes had, for whatever reason, intentionally provided incorrect information.
I then quickly found a Reddit post demonstrating how the name "Lisa Birgit Holst" is an anagram
for "This Is A Big Troll".
Unless we are to believe that this perfect anagram is just a random coincidence,
it would mean that Snopes has written a meta article about a made-up columnist
who once wrote a made-up article about people's willingness to accept false claims as the truth
in order to expose people's willingness to accept false claims as the truth.
A bit convoluted? Sure. But oh did they succeed.
Almost every mention of this urban legend since has been accompanied by this supposed
origin story which is of course presented as the truth.
When in actuality it may be as mythical as the myth it is attempting to dispel.
All of these hundreds or even thousands of authors has fallen for the exact same trap
as none of them could be bothered to validate a simple citation and gladly lifted information
they assumed to be accurate.
And it's easy to see why they would make that assumption because if you search for this
urban legend today, this is what you will find.
Page after page of articles proudly and unknowingly
presenting a fake story in order to disprove a fake story.
I should also mention that I contacted Snopes on multiple occasions in the hopes that they
could shed some light on the whole situation but like everyone else before me, I received
nothing but an automated reply.
But even if this god forsaken article exist and the anagram is just a random coincidence,
the endless retelling of this story has been told under the pretense that the Lisa Holst
article exists and not due to any prior knowledge of its existence.
Because the fact still stands, no one has been able to find it.
Yet everyone writes as if they have.
It's the most perfect example of circular reporting I've ever come across.