Easy to believe

Here are two little facts about the “Ring around the Rosie” nursery rhyme.

Fact #1: As you’ve perhaps heard before, the song is actually about the Black Death. The “ring around the rosie” refers to the red blotches on victims’ skin. The “pocket full of posies” was believed to ward off the disease in medieval times. “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down” needs little explanation.

Fact #2: The previous fact is complete nonsense.

I’ve heard this thing about the Black Death a number of times, and I used to believe it myself. But it doesn’t take much digging to find out that it’s all made up.

First of all, the version of the song that’s most famous today is just one of many variations, many of which seem unrelated to the disease. Second, the song has been around since the nineteenth century, yet the earliest known mention of it being about the Black Death isn’t until the 1940s or ’50s. (If a song’s secret meaning goes undiscovered by anybody for over half a century, it’s very secret indeed.) But most importantly, there just isn’t any evidence that it’s true, aside from a vague textual link — and you can “find” any meaning in any text if you look hard enough. The theory is false.

So why do so many people believe it? Why did I believe it?

Well, it doesn’t help that this little theory gets repeated a lot, often by sources who should know better, including professors, historians, and news outlets such as the Washington Post and New York Times. It also doesn’t help that a lot of people just aren’t terribly skeptical. Someone tells them something, so they add it to the mental database. It’s easy to do. I’ve done it myself many times.

But I have another hypothesis — call it speculation. Here it is:

People are more likely to believe things that sound subversive.

In this case, the Black Death explanation subverts the surface appearance of a harmless children’s song. “You think it’s harmless, but really …” I think that appeals to human nature. It’s satisfying. It feels like you’re seeing deeper, going beyond what the average person knows. And it makes more intuitive sense than “You think it’s harmless, but really it’s about this, except not really, it’s just a kid’s song after all.”

Ever heard that thing about how Mr. Rogers was a sniper in Vietnam? That’s nonsense too. But there’s that same element of subversion.

People like to find secret, often sexual messages in Disney movies too. Some of these are likely intentional, and some of them likely are not — in many cases it’s difficult to say. But many viewers prefer to skip the skeptical phase entirely and get straight to the business of believing.

On a grander and more ludicrous scale, there’s the conspiracy theory that we never really went to the moon. This seems to be less widely believed than the other examples, perhaps because it stretches credulity more, and perhaps because the counterarguments debunking it have become about as well-known as the conspiracy theory itself. But again, it has that feeling of subversion to it. “You know the official story, but here’s what really happened.”

Anyway, that’s my speculation. What do you think? Do counternarratives have more staying power than other rumors and urban legends?

4 responses to “Easy to believe

  1. You know, I heard that if you stare into a mirror and say, “Bloody Mary” three time s fast; one will will appear in your hand. Just thought you should know.

  2. This reminds me of the X-Files: “The truth is out there.” A very appealing idea, really.

    There’s a wonderful quote from the Thomas Pynchon novel V (spoken by a dentist, about a conspiracy-minded friend): “Cavities in the teeth occur for good reason. But even if there are several per tooth, there’s no conscious organization there against the life of the pulp, no conspiracy. Yet we have men like Stencil, who must go about grouping the world’s random caries into cabals.”

    I had done the “Ring around the Rosie” research myself, a while ago, because I liked a Sapphire and Steel audio drama that was based on it. So, the “history” is false, but the story was still good. I liked the movie Lucy, too, though the “people only use 10% of their brains” thing isn’t true either.

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