Memorial to RAF West Malling at King’s Hill in Kent
Last weekend I took a ride to what was once West Malling Airfield. This former Battle of Britain air station is now a smart housing development, at the centre of which, next to a Waitrose shopping centre, stands the old control tower, used as a coffee shop. After a cup of tea and slice of granola, I went to have a look at a memorial behind the control tower, a segmented circle arranged around an RAF roundel. Each segment either defined a wartime slang word, or carried a brief story from the airfield’s history. There was one story in particular that caught my eye. 85 Squadron based at West Malling became expert in night fighting, so much so that the government spread a rumour that this success was due to a diet of carrots boosting the pilots’ night vision. This fabrication served to disguise the existence of airbourne radar used by the squadron, while also encouraging people to grow vegetables.
I wondered if this carrot story had anything to teach us about why some falsehoods become accepted as fact. So, I consulted Psychology Today, found a list of reasons why powerful rumours occur and applied them to carrots.
Rumour feeds on anxiety, tending to flare up around particularly stressful events, like 9/11. Rumour and crisis go together because in times of stress, evolution has designed us to seek out and share information to help deal with the emergency. Unfortunately when information is lacking we tend to make things up, since exchanging information, even if it is false, tends to alleviate our anxieties. So, even though there was nothing people could do to see better in the black out, exchanging information about carrots helping night vision made people feel better.
No matter how ludicrous it might be, a rumour tends to start off in something that could actually be true. George W. Bush did not say “the problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur”. But with a history of linguistic faux pas, it’s the sort of thing he might have said. Thinking of carrots, they are a source of vitamin A which is involved in eye health, even though eating carrots is never going to turn your eyes into night vision scopes.
Easily swayed nonexperts are more important than influential people in giving power to rumour. Psychology Today uses the example of Bubble Yum, a chewing gum product from the 1970s which aimed for immediate bubble blowing squishiness without the bother of preparatory chewing. Some imaginative child in a New York school wondered if Bubble Yum’s squishiness was due to the fact that it was made from spider eggs. Research commissioned by Life Savers, the company manufacturing Bubble Yum, estimated that within ten days of the company learning about the spider egg rumour, well over half of New York’s children had heard the story. This powerful rumour did not spread because of celebrity endorsement, or through major media channels, but by passing between children in playgrounds. Going back to the carrot story we see that the people who propagated it were housewives who prepared food and their children who ate it. John Stolarczyk of the World Carrot Museum – who knew there was such a thing? – suggests that the carrot rumour probably started among people like this. The Ministry of Information then reinforced the message for its own ends.
The more you hear a rumour the more you will believe it. The idea of Carrot vision could be reinforced at most meal times, and on most dark nights.
A wartime poster celebrating the power of carrot night vision – courtesy of the World Carrot Museum
Rumours reflect the zeitgeist, that is, a potent rumour will concern itself with what people are thinking about anyway. They might be thinking about a political candidate in an election, which provides fertile soil for rumours about them. In the case of carrots, people were thinking about fighting a war, finding enough food to keep them healthy, and finding their way safely around towns and cities blacked out at night. The carrot rumour naturally combines all these things.
Rumours are simple and concrete. Rumours have a single, uncomplicated, vivid message. We only use ten percent of our brains. People swallow eight spiders a year in their sleep. Carrots let you see in the dark. We remember concrete, sensory things better than abstract things. We remember “carrot” better than “truth”.
Rumours are generally connected to people we dislike or envy. Rumours often attach themselves to celebrities, people who are admired and envied in bewilderingly equal proportions. Cher and Janet Jackson have both been the victims of stories about ribs removed in pursuit of a better figure. The most powerful rumours go even further and imagine the death of a celebrity. Catherine the Great died trying to make love to a horse. Paul McCartney is dead. Avril Lavigne is dead. In the case of carrots, any sense of dislike is transferred to a German pilot over Kent getting shot down by John “Cat’s Eyes” Cunningham based at West Malling Airfield.
So the carrot story, by any measure, makes for a powerful rumour and has a lesson for us about today’s “fake news”. We live in uncertain times, with worrying problems in major governments, creating the basic state of anxiety in which rumour proliferates. We have massively enhanced powers of communication passing information quickly to millions of people who are not expert in what they are reading or watching. The internet tends to reproduce an idea in endless loops, typically packaged in short, uncomplicated, often visual presentations, which we now describe as a meme.
This all goes to show that no matter what American presidents may say, the mainstream media is not the creator of fake news, just as New York’s newspapers did not create the story about spider eggs conferring squishiness to Bubble Yum. Powerful organisations like the British Ministry of Information can support rumour, but the fuel which fans the flames comes from fear, envy and lack of specialised knowledge amongst the population itself. Indeed the current role of reputable news organisations these days is not creating stories. Instead they are often trying to debunk them,