Recently, Tyler Cowen, on his blog, reported a story of a German court case where Demitrius Soupolos sued Frank Maus for "breach of contract". Demitrius paid Maus to do a certain service, which Maus then was unable to deliever. Maus argued that he was only paid to make a good effort on said service but was prevented from doing so (due to an "act of god", as one American legal scholar supposedly claimed). This got me curious: who would win that court case? So I began doing a Google search for more information about this case...only to see that this case has been repeated over and over. Tyler Cowen's blog post links to an article on this case written in March 30th 2009...and that all these other news stories just copy this article, word-for-word. There is no mention of a verdict anywhere in my searches (which I think would be fairly important concerning that this is a court case after all), nor were any of these news articles about Soupolos were written in Germany (where the court case was supposed to be held), leading me to conclude that this is nothing more than a hoax. Now, this may not be a hoax, but I'm fairly confident that it is a hoax.
Tyler made his blog post in March 23rd 2011...so why would this hoax story continue to spread long after 2009? The answer is simple: the context of the story. Frank Maus' service was impregnation of Demitrius' wife, a "beauty queen"*. The "act of god" that prevented Frank Maus for carrying out this service...was the fact that Frank Maus was infertile and didn't know of this infertility because his wife deceived him.
The story seems so weird, strange, and soap operaic when you added in the 'context' that it becomes understandable that somebody may instinctively wish to grapple with the implications of this story as opposed to digging in deeper and questioning the story's inauthenticity (and I must admit, when I was doing my research, I was not intending to question the story but merely wanted to know who won the court case in question). Let's assume that the Maus story is a fake. I have two questions based on that assumption:
1) If someone wants to create a hoax story that is generally accepted by the population (either for purely sadistic entertainment or for more sinister purposes), would he desire to create a story that is weird or unbelievable just to capitalize on the 'weird' factor and get people to accept it? If so, at what level of weirdness or unbelievability?
2) Assuming that a "rational" individual would prefer to have accurate and true information, how does one guard against some prankster using this sort of tactic?
*The excuse given in the story was that Demitrius Soupolos was infertile...but considering that a beauty queen should be someone of means, then Soupolos could have used technological advances such as IVF to deal with the infertility problem. This, alongside the bizzare nature of mentioning the detail of a beauty queen (who, when I did the search, once again bring up repeated copies of the same court case article), as if that is the only important thing about this woman in question, suggests that this is yet another evidence of this being a hoax.
EDIT: According to Douglas Knight, this story had originally started as a article in Jet Magazine, written in 1978. While it doesn't prove that it's not a "hoax", this new piece of evidence does help to explain why I was unable to find anything on Google search relating to the court case (other than repeated copies of the same story).
David Friedman said that you should be immediately suspicious of any anecdote good enough to survive on its literary merits. It's a very good heuristic, since real-life events are rarely structured in a way that makes for a fun plot. Even if the core of the story is true, people retelling it usually have an irresistible urge to improve its literary qualities at the expense of accuracy.
That said, I'm surprised that Tyler Cowen would fall for this one. It really raises all the red flags.
The gospel of Mark has tremendous literary merit.
"Tremendous" is rather generous. It does indeed have literary merit, but that's hardly why it's successful.
Do you have a reason to think that's hardly why it's successful?
Most Christians today are very unlike its intended audience; most of them never read it in large chunks, let alone straight through; most of them read it through several extra layers of interpretation that were almost certainly not present in the original (and which, in my opinion, detract from one of the chief literary merits of Mark, the sense of mystery it cultivates and maintains).
As indicated by Bob Knaus in the comments at MR, the story appeared in Jet Magazine in 1978. While this is not the most reliable source, the date explains an awful lot of your observations.
Note that the stories that copy the one Tyler links to are all in quick succession. The story did not spread continuously for two years, let alone thirty. It went into hibernation when someone clipped it out of the magazine thirty years ago and it went into hibernation shortly after that person uploaded it two years ago.
The heuristic that typesetting is authority is very easily gamed, but it works here.
It does explain a lot! Thanks! I knew it was good to be tentative in my judgement on the issue if this is a hoax or not. At least now there is a plausible reason why no other sources of this exist.
This is a question which there's probably an answer to: PR companies frequently make up completely fake news stories to push a given class of product into public awareness, or even just to show off their skills at getting stories into the media. So the answer would be a list of the techniques they typically employ.
edit: as Douglas Knight notes, that last link doesn't cite what I thought it was citing. Looking for an actual example.
There's a pretty clear client in that example. Maybe, as suggested at the end of the story, the goal was for the hoax story to get out, but they were still pushing a product other than themselves.
Whoops, yes, you are quite correct. Now seeking out a cite for the claim. (I remember seeing the story, but finding it ...)
It's like the sad story of Dave Manning.
Because it has high memetic fitness. What is shared is not always what is true.
Why is this modded up? Persistent spreading means high memetic fitness. It is a description, not an explanation. If you wanted to explain this phenomenon, you would need to point to the general characteristics of the meme-spreaders and what about this makes them want to repurpose their resources toward its spreading.
While your point is valid, (and I've voted your comment up) I voted up tim's remark because he is implicitly pointing out that memetic fitness is not strongly correlated with truth.
Ah, good point. I hastily neglected that part of his post.
When bored at work, I used to read a lot of snopes.com; now I read LW instead :-)
But if you read enough of it you'll be able to spot the usual patterns. Also in some of the analyses snopes will put forth theories on why the stories stick around so well (usually by how well they play to our biases).
Their research method seems to be similar to what you did - try to find the root story: a direct, local, at-the-time account of the supposed event. They often seem to run into the same circle as you - everyone has second-hand accounts but noone has the original story.
Law professors sometimes invent colourful problems to test their students...that's the vibe I'm getting.
The story is very fishy. First of all, the name sounds Greek, while the story takes place in Stuttgart, Germany. That's not a warning per se - especially in the 1970s, there were a lot of Greeks living and working in some places in Germany, and Stuttgart surely was one of them.
But the name is written wrong, then. It would be Demitrios (or even Dimitrios depending wether you choose a classic-scholar or a modern-Greek transliteration). Still could be jet magazines fault to latinize it.
But the family name, Soupolos, sounds Greek, but doesn't exist and has no meaning. (search some Greek telephone book, like xo.gr - there is no match at all, and no close similar suggestion. Search some German telephone book ... wait, maybe they died, and without children... )
So I'm pretty sure Jet Magazine pulled it out of some editor's ... earwax.
Nowadays you find the same story transported to Tanzania.
July 27, 1978 issue of Jet magazine, page 26. Google Books has Ebony and Jet archived online. Link is below