How to Respond to Dubious Emails?

My extended family, of which I am the only avowed atheist, is spatially dispersed in India and abroad. So a few years back, one of my cousins took the initiative to create a Yahoo Egroup in which all descendents and spouses of descendents of my maternal grandparents are eligible to be members.

We have about 15 active members - the rest are too old to use a computer, too young, or participate very occasionally. The 15 active members consist of both males and females. The oldest active member is about 60 years old and the youngest about 30 years old. All 15 active members have at least completed a Bachelor's degree and have at least a working command of English. A majority have gone beyond a Bachelor's degree. Our common maternal granddad was a first generation college learner and completed an MA - so none of the 15 active members is a first generation college learner.

EGroup Emails

Most of the emails in the EGroup have to do with birthday and anniversary greetings.

The second set of emails are forwarded emails, usually of dubious value. Summary examples of such emails are given below.

1. Sanskrit is great for computer programming
2. Macaulay's 1935 minute sought to destroy Indian culture.
3. Please forward this email to 6 others and something good will happen to you.
4. Dates have awesome nutritional value.
5. English language is going to drop the alphabet Z on June 1st

My Response and Effect

I have responded bluntly to many of these emails. Yet it seems to have had no effect on members' proclivity to forward unverified emails. On most occasions, my response exposing these emails, is greeted by silence. If anything, I have likely become unpopular. :-) The loss of popularity does not bother me. What bothers me is that even members with degrees fail to change behavior.

Have other members faced similar issues?
How you have tackled them?
Any good suggestions?


Extracts from some of my responses (not necessarily to the emails refered to above) follow:

(a) That email about Mars is a hoax which seems to have gained wide circulation presumably because recipients seem to be forwarding it to people on their email lists, without making an attempt to verify the email's assertions via independent sources.

Yes, Mars came close to the earth, but that was in August 2003 (two years ago). To the email's defence, it cleverly omits reference to a specific year. However, the reference to "as large as the moon to the naked eye" is a massive overstatement.

By all means, go ahead and watch the sky on August 27th. It should look beautiful, though not because Mars is going to be particularly close or look big.


(b) I smell hoax :-)

Some (not a lot of) red wine may (or may not) help.


(c ) I wager that it is a hoax. Why would UNESCO waste its time and resources on frivolous and highly subjective things like best national anthem?

Indians who verify before forwarding may feel proud that they engaged in the act of verification. What do Indians, and this includes me, whose contribution to the creation of the national anthem is zilch, have to feel proud about the anthem?
I think that one important thing to realize is that an educational degree doesn't grant immunity from superstition and irrationality. We take it that an uneducated person doesn't know the world around them and so we assume that they would be easily fooled and exploited. The degree is simply an exercise in violent regurgitation of hastily swallowed facts and figures from a pastiche of textbooks, journals and Internet information (*cough* Wikipedia *cough*). Only a person who really analyzes an argument carefully and without bias to where that information would guide his decision should be considered truly educated.

On that note, write back to these individuals and pose them a question: If you are to posit that an incurable disease that has plagued mankind for decades can be cured permanently by drinking sugar water just once, would a) they be willing to believe it and b) willing to forward it?

Tell them politely that the act of forwarding is as simple and lazy as clicking a mouse, but that action has dire consequences for the person gullible enough to believe it or worse yet, implement that action on a person who has no say in the matter (like a young child or elder). If they are doing it out of some sheer misplaced sense of not wanting to hurt the feelings of the person who forwarded it to them, disabuse them of such false guilt.

Finally, tell them to don the glasses of the skeptic; encourage them to visit Snopes to prevent falling for old tricks. If some legitimate institution appears in these forwarded emails, email somebody at the institution and tell them about it. They will also take necessary steps( the example of the Cancer Institute at Chennai publicly rebuking a forward email about a cancer medication that was a supposed panacea comes to mind).

Good luck to you, fellow rationalist! Punk
"It's alright, I rarely meet anyone who's able to read it properly. Although personally, I never thought that it to be an odd of a name. Once I give people the pronunciation, they tend to remember my name by easily associating me with it. A unique face, a unique moniker."
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