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urban legends

Just-So Stories

Here come the just-so stories. I ran into one some weeks ago that reminded me of the category. Most people think of Just-So stories as fables about animals, as Kipling wrote, especially fables about animal origins; e.g., how the leopard got his spots.

But that’s mostly because of Kipling. Wiktionary’s definition of a just-so story is “a story that cannot be proven or disproven, used as an explanation of a current state of affairs.” In most cases that’s true. In broader and more modern terms, a just-so story is an urban legend with a moral admonishing people to obey some stated principle or face the (scary) consequences. You’ve all probably seen your share, though you probably didn’t think of them as “just-so stories.” Still, that’s what they are.

Here’s the story I heard: A woman described having some unstated number of people over for Thanksgiving dinner. It was held outside, in Arizona. Some (unstated number) wore masks. The 13 others did not. The people who wore masks did not catch SARS-CoV-2. All the rest did.

I assume she thought she was doing a public service by frightening people into wearing masks all the time, everywhere. I don’t think she was ready for the response she got: People called her a fake, a yarn-spinner…a liar. The reason is fairly simple: The story is too pat. All the people who refused to wear masks got sick. None of the people who did wear masks got sick. And this was during a dinner held outdoors.

Is this possible? Of course. Is it likely? No, if you know anything at all about COVID-19. Was the dinner indoors? No. Were the dinner guests all older people? No. (The older people wore masks.) Young people may test positive for the virus, but they rarely show symptoms and almost never become seriously ill. And with even the slightest breeze, exhaled viruses are dispersed in seconds.

Yet, it was…just so. Medical privacy laws make such stories conveniently unverifiable.

I don’t want to pile on her too hard here, and thus won’t post a link. (I also don’t want to give her any more exposure than she’s already gotten.) The point I’m making is that urban legends are still very much with us, and unverifiable stories should be treated as such: useless at best and misleading at worst. The best way to fight urban legends is not to spread them. The second-best way is to (politely) state in the comments (if there is a comments section) that the story is an urban legend and not be trusted. The story may well have been “just so” in the teller’s imagination. In the real world, well…probably not.