I've had a bit of an unnatural interest in gory urban legends ever since my investigation of a hard-to-believe anecdote that was featured at the beginning of the most recent book by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen titled Zero degrees of empathy, but which goes by the title The science of evil in the US. That story about severed and surgically reversed hands is I believe an urban legend, but it appears that the professor has presented it to his readers as a true story in this book. I can hardly believe it, but it appears that this wasn't the only urban legend presented as true in Baron-Cohen's new book. On page six Baron-Cohen begins a section titled “Empathy erosion around the world” in chapter one with an atrocity anecdote that he states he was told by a local lady while he was a tourist in Nairobi in Kenya. This lady, Esther, claimed that she heard another woman who had been in a supermarket queue scream, because a man who had been behind her had cut off her finger in order to steal her wedding ring. Apparently Esther hadn’t explained why the ring thief hadn’t just taken the easier, less messy and less criminally liable option and simply tugged the unnamed African lady’s ring off her intact finger, perhaps using some butter from the dairy aisle for lubrication, and she also apparently hadn’t explained to Baron-Cohen how the thief had managed to sever a stranger’s finger bone in a crowded public place so quickly that he hadn’t been stopped from doing it. No sources are cited for this story. Baron-Cohen discussed this “shocking example of what one person can do to another” on page seven, discussing the theft with the implication that a knife had been used in this crime. Baron-Cohen discussed this story in a completely serious manner, citing it as an example of “...turning another person into (no more than) an object.” Baron-Cohen was not joking around in his discussion, and there is nothing to suggest that he did not believe this story, which is basically the same as a very old and well-known urban legend, or did not intend the reader to read this story as a true story. To place this account into context, in the section “Empathy erosion around the world” Baron-Cohen also recounts and discusses a number of atrocity/crime stories, including the true story of Josef Fritzl’s appalling sex crimes in Austria, a war atrocity against civilians from Uganda that cites a BBC news broadcast as a source, the genocide of at least a million Armenians by the Turks in the early twentieth century (known as “the Great Crime”), a not well-known but sadly true fact of history, and finally, an account of sickening war atrocities against civilians in the Congo that cited a traceable article from the Guardian newspaper as the source. Clearly this section is presented as a discussion of true stories, with the severed finger anecdote among other stories that certainly appear to be true.
Having already identified one prominently-placed story in Professor Baron-Cohen’s new book as an urban legend that is almost certainly not true, but which is presented as true by the professor, and already having similar suspicions about the African severed finger story in this book, I felt rather confronted by the truth the other night when I was enjoying a bit of late-night trash cinema, as the image of a hand with a severed ring finger flopped limply onto the screen (I think it might have been some time after that unwise young dude’s body was found with smoke wafting from its crotch). Confirmation that the severed finger story is a wide-spread and established urban legend is the recounting of it in a book of urban legends written by the academic and folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand "A possible offshoot of these legends is another, heard less frequently, concerning a woman who encounters a robber in the dressing room of a department store. In order to steal her diamond ring or gold wedding band, the robber cuts off her finger." (Brunvand 1984 p.92). In this interesting book I noticed that some anti-Semitic urban legends are also documented, which highlights what I find to be the strangest aspect of Prof. Baron-Cohen's apparently naive recounting of urban legends. Baron-Cohen has made reference to his own Jewish background and the Holocaust as a explanation for his interest in the subject of a lack of empathy, an ethnic background which I believe he shares with his famous cousin the comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen. In S. Baron-Cohen's movie Borat, the main character's uneducated belief in anti-Semitic urban legends and folklore is satirized. Prof. Baron-Cohen has a cousin who has ridiculed belief in horrible urban legends in a hugely popular movie and the professor still doesn't have a clue on the subject?
Baron-Cohen hasn’t just done it once, he’s done it twice. He has offered an unsourced probable urban legend to his readers in a book as a true story to be taken very seriously. This is bizarre. This is most certainly not the type of thing that I’d expect to see in a book by any professor from any university, let alone one who is regarded as a world expert and is the director of a research centre, from the most prestigious University of Cambridge. In his ambitious new book Baron-Cohen sets out to explain the nature of human evil. If there is any academic or intellectual in the world who is fit to take on this intellectual challenge, it certainly isn’t some bloke who doesn’t have the common sense to be suspicious of probable urban legends, and who doesn’t have the good judgement and academic discipline to only use verifiable anecdotes as the centrepieces of serious discussion in a book, and who hasn’t anticipated that his credibility could be undermined by his use of stories that appear to be urban legends in serious written arguments. I expect a professor to be able to tell the difference between fiction and reality. Maybe I’m being a bit naive about professors, but I think something is seriously wrong here.
Wikipedia contributors (accessed 2011) Urban Legends: Bloody Mary. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
A very horrible story that just can’t be ignored.
April 27th 2011
Brunvand, Jan Harold (1984) The choking doberman and other "new" urban legends. Penguin Books, 1984.