Up Front: Urban Legends
January 30, 2008
Have you ever wondered why some ideas become part of the popular worldview in our culture and others fail? Truth rarely has anything to do with it. One example is the notion that humans use less than 10 percent of their brain.
Neurosurgeons wish this were true-the consequences of minor brain damage from an injury or oxygen deprivation would be inconsequential. The truth is we use all parts of the human brain. This urban legend has roots back from the 1924 World’s Fair in New York and was propagated by psychics and paranormals to explain their mystical powers.
GREAT WALL OF IGNORANCEAnother urban legend is that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure that can be seen unaided from space. A Russian cosmonaut took a digital picture from the space station in 1997 and you can see the Great Wall, if you have a great imagination. Think about it, the Great Wall of China is very long, but it is only 20 feet wide. Where did this urban legend start? In 1938 Richard Halliburton wrote in his novel titled “Second Book of Marvels” that the Great Wall of China was the only man-made structure that could be seen from the moon. How would anyone in 1938 know what could and could not be seen from the moon? But the urban legend lives on.
In the wall and ceiling construction world, we have had our urban legends as well. Here are some urban legends I am sure you have heard.
• “Gypsum wallboard was a good product until they started making it with recycled paper in the 90s.”
• “EIFS is the cause of leaky buildings.”
• “Stucco is inappropriate for wet or freezing climates.”
• “The galvanized coatings on steel are thinner today than they were a few years ago.”
All of these statements are pure nonsense and fail when the light of truth and common sense are shone upon them. Where do these urban legends get their start and why do they seem to stick? One key factor is the simplicity of the idea. Complicated ideas tend to be too involved and too detail-oriented. This causes most people to lose interest, get confused or get lost in the message. Simplicity is the key. I’m reminded of the adage, “One simple thought sticks, 10 great ideas get lost.”
I used to work for an architectural firm with some of the brightest people in construction I have ever met. We worked with lawyers on construction litigation cases on a daily basis, and because of our extreme attention to detail and in-depth knowledge of the codes, we typically prevailed in mediation and arbitration when dealing with lawyers. However, on the rare occasion we went to trial with a jury, fear of failure overcame us. History has shown that, while juries tend to believe that we are very knowledgeable about construction, the simple version is much easier to understand. For example, to explain that wood rot on a building is caused by leaks due to a juxtaposition of bad flashing, poor design, and inappropriate attention to detail is complex. Having said that, we then followed up by trying to explain that the complicated path of value engineering, revised details, supervision changes, code complexities and the complicated angles at which several materials all came together created a leak. While our version was true, it was just too complicated for most people to grasp. The simple explanation: “The building had EIFS and EIFS causes leaks,” which is easy to comprehend, even if it’s incorrect. The idea sticks and the jury finds it much easier to digest this information.
HOW TO STOP FALSE LEGENDSWhat can we do to stop the simple message of a false urban legend? Tell our people to question what they hear. Do not just believe something because you want to, or because it came from an apparent authoritative source. Most of us have probably heard the first non-construction related urban legends from someone like our parents. It does not insult our love for our parents to observe that they do not know everything. In fact, no one knows everything about anything. We are all learning, or at least we should be.
I am sure future urban legends about some segment of our wall and ceiling industry will come about again. The new urban legends will likely be simple, easy to comprehend ideas and the public will certainly eat them up. Negating these negative rumors will take swift, concise and–most importantly–truthful information. Our industry must keep alert for the starting of an urban legend and act quickly; first to rebuff the legend, and second to install some sort of an assurance to the public, developers and architects that the problem has been recognized and dealt with appropriately.