20 March 2010

Shafer's Takedown of an Urban Myth

There's an urban legend in circulation about "pharm parties." You can read about it in David Emery's Urban Legends Blog for example.

The gist of it is that teenagers get together and mix up pills they've stolen from their parents' medicine cabinets into a big bowl, then they each grab pills from the bowl -- randomly of course -- and toss the fistful down their throats, with whatever high, or other consequences, might follow.

Now that I've just mentioned this legend, I'll say this: Please don't anyone cite me as a source for that! I have absolutely no reason to believe any such thing has ever happened anywhere!

What is fascinating, though, and sad, is the way such legends some times make it into the "mainstream press." At its most innocent, an easy example of this is the some-large-number-of-words-that-Eskimo-have-for-snow meme, which makes it into print because some lazy writer figures that "everyone knows" this. And when he puts it into print, that serves as a legitimate source for somebody else to do so.

But leave snow out of this, except perhaps for snow jobs. Jack Shafer of SLATE has been commendably industrious in dogging the legend of the pharm parties, devoting seven columns to the subject since June 2006. (That link will take you to the first of them.) Kids certainly steal their parents' pills now and then. That has been happening for at least as long as medicine cabinets have been a fixture in bathrooms. And even this business of mixing them in a bowl at a party -- for all we know it may have happened somewhere. The point though is that all the 'evidence' seems to be of the 'a friend of a friend went to one' variety, and that has become the basis for scary stories about a 'troubling trend.'

Here is Shafer's latest takedown of sloppy reporting of this variety.

This time it is the San Francisco Chronicle that's been caught using sloppy non-source sources because it makes a scary tale. I have done enough, in an Ed Sullivan kind of way, and I now ,move to the side of the stage so you can click on that link and enjoy Shafer's column for yourself.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.