Examining the credibility of a popular hoax slayer

Snopes logoToday I received a comment from someone who informed me that "most intelligent people have come to realize" that the Urban Legends Reference Pages – collectively known as Snopes.com – is "not a very reliable source." Rational skeptic [a manifesto] that I am, I decided to look into it.

While I disagree with her statement about Snopes.com, I believe her comment does broadly relate to the crucial standard of maintaining a reasonable level of objectivity during research. If she had said the following, I would have completely agreed:

Most intelligent people have come to realize that it’s foolish to use only a single resource to determine the accuracy of a given story.

urban legend - Pop Rocks and sodaIn truth, it really is pure folly for a writer or blogger to proclaim a given story as truth before adequate due diligence has been performed on it.

Initially, I questioned whether I should invest the time necessary to compile this information. Would it even be worth it? Am I doing this merely in an attempt to deflect a veiled insult, perceived or otherwise? Then I recalled a similar post at Search for Truth regarding the use of Wikipedia as a resource. After considering the time I have spent writing and blogging during the last three years (as well as the time I expect to devote to writing and blogging in the future), I figured looking into this would be a worthwhile effort.

What is Snopes?

urban legends

Welcome to snopes.com, the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation. (Source: Snopes)

Snopes.com is an award-winning site; in 2007, Snopes won two Webby awards.

If you’re not familiar with Snopes.com, it’s a very informative website worth checking out. It has a singular purpose: to validate or debunk incredible claims, warnings, and tall tales that circulate around the Internet. The site examines claims such as the infamous urban legend that told us that “for every person you forward this email, Bill Gates will donate $1 towards life-saving brain surgery for a five-year old girl named Tabitha.” Yeah, right. Snopes.com often provides detailed back stories about how a particular myth originated in the first place, along with documented evidence debunking it. (Source: View from the Bleachers)

urban legendsIn order to determine whether what she said was true – that "most intelligent people" know that Snopes.com is unreliable – I decided to spend some time researching this question by reading the findings of others who have wondered about the accuracy of Snopes.com stories and looked into the same issue. (As usual, all of the resources I used are linked either within this post or in the Resources section at the end of the post.)

We don’t expect anyone to accept us as the ultimate authority on any topic, which is why our site’s name indicates that it contains reference pages. Unlike the plethora of anonymous individuals who create and send the unsigned, unsourced e-mail messages that are forwarded all over the Internet, we show our work. The research materials we’ve used in the preparation of any particular page are listed in the bibliography displayed at the bottom of that page so that readers who wish to verify the validity of our information may check those sources for themselves. (As Snope creators Barbara and David P. Mikkelson reveal on their own site)

As it turns out, there is quite a bit of general interest in the level of reliability of Snopes. Finding detailed articles on this subject was certainly not a problem. There are also quite a few forum conversations about the credibility of Snopes.com. In fact, Snopes has been critiqued and sniffed around like a stray dog in heat. The Snopes site includes a page dedicated to articles written about them.

Our safeguard is the millions of readers (including major news organizations, government agencies, universities, and authors) who value our site’s long-established reputation for fairness, accuracy, and reliability. We would not maintain such a reputation if we did not consistently apply objective standards in our reporting. (Source: David P. Mikkelson quoted in article, Is Snopes.com infallible?)

Searching for truth, in general

The search for truth is a theme that deeply resonates with this writer. Looking for the facts behind potential tall tales is one thing, but truth seeking has far more weight when the issues at hand relate to heartfelt beliefs: subjects such as religion, spirituality, and politics, for example.

The Good Wife - surgery photo fromThe Fetal Hand of Hope account borders on these serious topics, which is precisely why the story went viral and remains the focus of such ardent debate. On the surface, it’s merely the hand of a very young human being; however, adding dimension to Fetal Hand of Hope narrative are issues like abortion, women’s rights, playing God, claims of a miracle, etc. The chronicle thus becomes political and religious – and sides are taken.

When one has serious questions about religion, philosophy, or politics, where should one seek the answer?

If the seeker is being intellectually honest and wants to get as close to the truth as possible, then the answer must follow the careful, objective, and open-minded consultation and review of multiple resources representing all sides of the issue at hand.

If the above is true (I think most of us can agree that it is), then folks who seek their answers from a single resource – or from multiple resources within a single belief system, or holding a common worldview – are simply not seeing the whole picture. Sadly, there are hordes of people in this category: people whose minds are closed to virtually all information that does not fit neatly within the narrow confines of their belief system. (What happened to reason? Why did the Age of Enlightenment have to end?)

No intelligent objective person would rely on a single, biased source for real answers to important questions – and this is why I am urging readers to gather suggestions and conduct research from a variety of contrasting sources and viewpoints anytime the best answer to a complicated or difficult question is honestly sought. (Source: Search for Truth)

When seeking answers, carefully consider the source: Bias, belief, and objectivitySearch for Truth: Religious fundamentalism vs. truth, reality, science, and genuine spirituality

Conclusion about the reliability of Snopes

Snopes logoAs it turns out, Snopes is one of the more reliable web sites that endeavors to find and reveal the facts behind popular stories, hoaxes, urban legends, and such. Snopes.com is one of several hoax-busting sites that exist for the purpose of revealing the facts behind tall tales and email forwards.

Is Snopes factually correct 100% of the time? Of course not; such a large collection of research and related material could not be completely free of error.

Among the many groups that have closely investigated Snopes.com is FactCheck:

FactCheck reviewed a sample of Snopes’ responses to political rumors regarding George W. Bush, Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, and found them to be free from bias in all cases. FactCheck noted that Barbara Mikkelson was a Canadian citizen (and thus unable to vote in American elections) and David Mikkelson was an independent who was once registered as a Republican. "You’d be hard-pressed to find two more apolitical people," David Mikkelson told them.

Related: Accuracy of Wikipedia

This reminds me of comments I have heard in the past that question the accuracy of Wikipedia. Being a daily consumer of Wikipedia content, I looked into that issue and learned, according to folks who have conducted related studies, that Wikipedia is amazingly accurate. The veracity of Wikipedia is comparable to that of Encyclopedia Britannica.

Wikipedia is about as good a source of accurate information as Britannica, the venerable standard-bearer of facts about the world around us, according to a study published this week in the journal Nature. (Source – Study: Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica)

Quotes about the reliability of Snopes

photoshopped picEverything in this section apart from this sentence is quoted directly from online forum discussions regarding the reliability of Snopes.com.

The same people who doubt the reliability of Snopes will doubt the reliability of Wikipedia… What gives me trust in Snopes on an analytical basis is that they cite the sources which led them to their conclusions, and explain the analyses they used. On an intuitive basis, their willingness to call something "unverified" or "partially true" enhances my trust. (Source: Someone was questioning the reliability of Snopes)

Quora.com (a Q&A website)
Q: Is Snopes unreliable?
A1: No. Snopes.com has a well-deserved reputation for accuracy.
A2: No. Snopes.com’s David and Barbara Mikkelson engage in serious, diligent fact-checking. Importantly, they cite their sources so readers can make their own decisions, case by case, whether they have reached the right conclusions.

The Straight Dope forum

  • I find both TorF [Truth or Fiction] and Snopes very reliable.
  • I find Snopes to be generally reliable. It’s a good place to look for email hoaxes and scams that people often send me…
  • Snopes seems to be pretty reliable, and is usually one of the places I look.
  • I find that Snopes is generally quite reliable. I also use Hoax-Slayer, which is a little more willing to call a spade a spade.
  • Snopes is fairly good, I admit. For a while their pop-up type ads had Malware, which is scary. And, sometimes their personal opinion goes into their “rating” but they pretty much get the facts straight.

(Source: Straight Dope)

One of the best resources I have found for verifying information on the web is Snopes.com. Snopes is a well organized and maintained site aimed at dispelling or validating information being promulgated on the internet. It has both a search feature and categories to choose from making it very user friendly. (Source: How to check reliability of information on the Internet)

By claiming that Snopes is unreliable in one realm, you’re also refuting the thousands of other articles that Snopes is actually accurate about. By proclaiming a source to be tainted in one aspect, you may inadvertently be trying to establish that all other things produced by that source may be spun in favor of that particular taint — without even bothering to check to see whether they actually are. (Source: Debunking Forwards: Is Snopes Unreliable?

Resources

Resources: Snopes.com, hoax busters

Resources: Reliability of Snopes.com

The majority of articles about Snopes.com credibility concluded that Snopes is a reasonably reliable website.

  1. Someone was questioning the reliability of Snopes – Taste of Home
  2. Snopes – How Reliable is It? – Comic Book Resources (CBR) forums
  3. Snopes and Reliability (200612) – Rambles

  4. Is the reliability of information on Snopes.com largely an urban legend? – Quora
  5. Debunking Forwards: Is Snopes Unreliable?
  6. Checking facts with Snopes, Factcheck & Politifact – Teachable Moment
  7. How to check reliability of information on the Internet – a Helium article
  8. E-mail Discredited, Snopes.com Validated – Reflections
  9. More On Snopes’ Reliability – Dean’s World: Defending the liberal tradition in history, science, and philosophy
  10. Snopes.com controversy – TrustLink
  11. Better Business Bureau (BBB) – Rating of Snopes.com (Rating: B+)

Resources indicating Snopes.com is NOT reliable

(NOTE: Unless listed in this section, the conclusions reached by the articles about the reliability of Snopes.com referenced in this post were generally positive; that is, they supported the reliability and credibility of Snopes.)

  1. SNOPES Internet Site Lacks Credibility
  2. The Scoop on Snopes.com – Georgia Outdoor News (GON)
  3. Is Snopes.com infallible? If website calls Obama eligible, then he must be, right? – WorldNetDaily – an article from the far-right, largely discredited birther movement

Other hoax-slaying websites

There are quite a few websites in the vein of Snopes; I mention several of them here, generally those that happened to turn up during my research.

  • Truth or Fiction
  • Fact or Fiction blog – Dispelling popular myths, misperceptions, and urban legends with logic (and humor); identifying misleading arguments and statistics and searching for pragmatic solutions; the place for critical thinkers, skeptics, and political centrists
  • The Straight Dope – the site of Cecil Adams, who has apparently been fighting ignorance since 1973! Excerpt: He deals strictly with factual questions. Questions you’ve always wanted to know the answers to. Questions like: What are the real lyrics to “Louie Louie”? When they execute a guy by lethal injection, do they swab off his arm first? How do the astronauts go to the bathroom in space? We wanted to make that last one the title of one of the Straight Dope books, but Ballantine wouldn’t go for it. They also wouldn’t go for: “THE STRAIGHT DOPE – Third Book of Revelations.” Said it was too long to fit on the computers. Sure. We say they were scared of the religious right.
  • Hoax-Slayer – Excerpt: Hoax-Slayer is dedicated to debunking email hoaxes, thwarting Internet scammers, combating spam, and educating web users about email and Internet security issues. Hoax-Slayer allows Internet users to check the veracity of common email hoaxes and aims to counteract criminal activity by publishing information about common types of Internet scams. Hoax-Slayer also includes anti-spam tips, computer and email security information, articles about true email forwards, and much more. New articles are added to the Hoax-Slayer website every week.
  • Urban Myths – If this site had an ‘About’ page, they’d get more traffic…
  • American Folklore – This site has a lot of emphasis on ghost stories, which I think is great as a fan of supernatural horror; the site contains retellings of folktales, myths, legends, fairy tales, superstitions, weatherlore, and ghost stories of the Americas; learn answers to folklore questions…
  • The Darwin Awards: Urban Legends – The urban legends section of the Darwin Awards website; these apocryphal stories are included as examples of Herculean Darwinian efforts; be glad these people don’t exist.

Political hoax-slaying websites

  • PolitiFact Truthometer – Excerpt: PolitiFact is a project of the St. Petersburg Times to help you find the truth in politics. Every day, reporters and researchers from the Times examine statements by members of Congress, the president, cabinet secretaries, lobbyists, people who testify before Congress and anyone else who speaks up in Washington. We research their statements and then rate the accuracy on our Truth-O-MeterTrue, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, and False. The most ridiculous falsehoods get our lowest rating, Pants on Fire. We also rate the consistency of public officials on our Flip-O-Meter using three ratings: No Flip, Half Flip, and Full Flop.
  • FactCheck – Excerpt: We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer advocate’ for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding… FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The APPC was established by publisher and philanthropist Walter Annenberg to create a community of scholars within the University of Pennsylvania that would address public policy issues at the local, state and federal levels.

Still looking for more? Other sources for myth-busting websites

Tossed in for good measure

NOTE: Linking to a website does not denote agreement with all of the statements, opinions, and other content on the given website.

Original draft written on Wednesday, October 05, 2011

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Another story about the fetal hand of hope urban legend: looks like someone is cashing in!

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