Print the myth

In the book Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet and Pooh spot some tracks in the snow.

They decide these must belong to a Woozle.

No-one’s ever seen a Woozle, so they begin following the tracks.

They follow them all the way round the small wood and the tracks are joined by two more sets of tracks.

This is a surprise – there must be several Woozles.

They follow the tracks around the small wood until they’re joined by more tracks.

Now Piglet and Pooh are excited.

They follow the tracks round the small wood, and they’re joined by even more tracks.

Christopher Robin appears, and they breathlessly tell him the amazing news.

Christopher Robin explains to them that they have been going around in a circle – the tracks they’ve been following are their own.

Each time they circle the wood, their new tracks are added to the previous tracks – the Woozle doesn’t actually exist.

This phenomenon is known in publishing as "the Woozle effect" or "publication bias".

A journalist has to write up a story, they go online to look for previously published material.

They reprint what they find, assuming it’s a fact.

The next journalist sees it reported by two sources and assumes of course it’s fact.

The next journalist sees it reported by three sources, so it’s unquestionably fact, and so on.

I’ve experienced it myself.

Many years ago, as a junior, I had my first interview with an advertising trade journalist.

I quoted lots of people I admired: everyone from Bill Bernbach to Buddha.

The journalist assumed that I was a Buddhist and printed it.

Soon after, another journalist read the piece and wrote that I was a Buddhist, even though we’d never even spoken.

Then other journalists repeated it and it became a fact that I was a Buddhist.

No-one bothered asking me, it must be the truth because it was printed several times.

It’s not a new phenomenon.

In ancient China it was known as "Three makes a tiger."

In the Warring States period (475-221 BC), Pan Cong wanted to warn the emperor not to listen to gossip against him.

He asked him to look over the balcony at the busy street below.

He said: "If one man said there was tiger below, would you believe him?"

The emperor said: "Look at how calm the people are, of course not."

Pan Cong said: "What if two men said there was a tiger down there?"

The emperor said: "Hmmm – that might give me pause for thought."

Pan Cong said: "What if three men said there was a tiger below?"

The emperor said: "Three men, then yes, I would definitely have to believe it."

Pan Cong said: "So even against the evidence of your eyes, you would believe there was a tiger if three men said so?"

And the emperor understood the point.

And that’s how most of us think.

We don’t look for facts, we look for agreement.

We don’t go back to the beginning and work things out for ourselves.

We simply start with whatever the majority thinks right now, and build on that.

We don’t think we follow the herd.

Which is a lemming-like way to lead our lives.

Incidentally, the myth about lemmings isn’t true: Walt Disney made it up for a film.

But it’s been repeated so often everyone believes it.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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