On Sunday, September 7th, news broke that caused a stir world-wide; Jack the Ripper, the notorious serial killer who terrorized London over a hundred years ago, had finally been identified as Aaron Kosminski, a hairdresser with schizophrenia who died in a mental asylum several years after the Ripper murders had ceased.
After years of fruitless police investigation and still more years of amateur, enthusiast detectives (affectionately referred to as “Ripperologists”) painstakingly researching the case, the Ripper finally stood unmasked, thanks to the brilliant detective work of Mr. Russell Edwards. Edwards, who purchased a shawl at auction that belonged to the fourth “canonical” victim, Catherine Eddowes, had the garment examined for DNA, and found seminal DNA linking Aaron Kosminski to the shawl. Case closed!
Not even two days after the announcement, Ripperologists around the world weren’t so much poking holes in Edwards’ theory as they were driving semi-trucks through it.
The shawl has been known about for years but never conclusively linked to Eddowes except by a “family tradition” that makes less logical sense than Edwards’ argument itself. The DNA evidence is inconclusive at best; it’s mitochondrial DNA, which only proves that it came from a member of a large group of people to which Kosminski belonged, and that’s leaving out issues of contamination, the experimental method used to extract the sample, and the fact that previous DNA testing on the shawl failed to yield any results.
And then there’s Edwards himself, who owns and operates a Jack the Ripper souvenir shop in London, guides Jack the Ripper-themed tours, and made the announcement of his discovery just days before the release of his book Naming Jack the Ripper, detailing his theory about Kosminski. Put all that together, and it paints a pretty clear picture of a man parlaying a specious theory into a book to make money off of a dubious piece of “Ripperana” he bought at auction the better part of a decade ago.
And yet, despite the clear problems with the theory and how quickly after the announcement the counter-arguments have come out, there is still a large contingent of people who believe Edwards’ claims. The Jack the Ripper Wikipedia page, at the time of the announcement, was locked from editing for several days in an attempt to protect the information from an editing war that began almost as soon as the announcement was made. Even Casebook.org, the Ripperologist website that has led the effort to debunk Edwards’ claims, has a growing contingent of forum members who believe that Edwards has conclusively proved Kosminski to be the Ripper.
This is far from the first time a wild theory about the identity of Jack the Ripper has captured people’s imaginations, and it most likely won’t be the last, but it is a valuable, unfolding example of the power that the printed word has over the human mind.
When a “fact” is put into print from a source with some degree of authority, be it a book publisher, a newspaper or website or even an e-mail from a trusted friend, people are inclined to believe it, oftentimes without looking further into the matter or even reading beyond the headline. This means that many people never attempt to follow a story further and determine if it’s been retracted or corrected, not that it seems to matter either way, since misinformation continues to affect the brain long after correct information has been learned. So, regardless of how flawed his theory is, Edwards’ assertion that Kosminski is the Ripper will continue to be viewed as “fact” by a large percentage of the population.
And admittedly, in the grand scheme of things, Edwards’ claims won’t do that much damage. After all, he’s accusing a dead man (who was already considered a Ripper suspect) of committing murders that happened over a century ago. Even Kosminski’s family likely doesn’t remember much about him, given that he had no children and died alone in a Victorian mental institution.
But this undying quality of false information can be greatly damaging to society in other contexts. Thanks to a disproven study claiming that autism is caused by vaccinations, we’re seeing a resurgence of diseases like Rubella and Whooping Cough that were all but extinct as frightened parents cling to the old (mis)information and refuse to vaccinate their babies. Another (falsified) study led to millions of women undergoing post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy to protect themselves from cancer…a process that cost US citizens billions of dollars and may have actually increased cancer risks…and a process that is still widely advocated and available despite proof that it does more harm than good.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How about big business-funded studies to disprove climate change and justify industrial pollution? Or a misleading documentary that shut down a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting people from losing their homes to predatory mortgage lending? Or an infamous experiment that used doctored data to prove that we’re one issued order away from being the next Josef Mengele, thus re-shaping the entire field of psychology for the better part of a century? I could go on and on.
The bottom line is, our society has been shaped and damaged by false claims that continued to persist long after they were disproven, simply because it’s a hundred times harder to dispel a lie than it is to tell one in the first place. So while Edwards’ “little white lie” isn’t likely to do much damage in the grand scheme of things, the practice of abusing the authority of publication to advance one’s own selfish interests has done untold amounts of harm.
As such, every writer, reporter, documentarian and scientist has a duty to think beyond the moment, to consider what the consequences of our actions will be, and to examine the claims we are making for as long as it takes to verify them before unleashing them on the world. To do any less is unethical and irresponsible at best, and malicious at worst.