Why Skepticism is important

So you have probably heard this story already, or if not other stories like it. In Kenya officials are trying to stem a growing panic caused by a rumour that ghostly red numbers are appearing on mobile phones and killing people. Many people in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, have been forwarding this story on to their friends and families via text messages, warning them not to receive calls which will appear in red, resulting in the hysteria spreading to other major towns in the country. These messages read:

“Please don’t attend to any calls from 7888308001, 9316048121, 9876266211, 9888854137 and 9876715587, these numbers come in red colour…you may get brain haemorrhage due to high frequency”


Now this may sound crazy but it is still more believable than the version of this urban legend that popped up in Pakistan in 2007. Here it was claimed that listening to phone calls coming from red numbers would result in men becoming impotent and, get this, woman falling pregnant. Now I am no expert on reproduction but even with my limited knowledge I am pretty sure that’s not how things works. Meanwhile back in Kenya the Communication Commission have been investigating these claims and have put out the statement below, which prompted me to comment on this in the first place.

“Upon analysis of the messages, the Commission has established the warnings are a hoax generated by unscrupulous people bent on causing fear and despondency among members of the public. The listed numbers are non-existent as mobile, fixed or international calls,’


Maybe it is just my years as a battle hardened skeptic but I required no further analysis than reading the title of the article to know that this story was complete horse hockey. I think this just goes to show why skepticism and critical thinking skills are so important. In a world where everyone had a basic understanding of how to apply skeptical thinking to their daily lives things like this would simply never gain traction. This sort of thing, as well as a lot of email driven hoaxes, rely on the credulousness of the people receiving the messages in order to propagate. With something like this I don’t even think you need to have an understanding of the technology used by mobile phones to see that it is bunkum. It just requires taking a few seconds to see if it passes the sniff test.


But maybe my strong reaction to this story come not from the fact that I find it so amazing that people would fall for this, as reality tells us that there are a lot of credulous people out there, but rather because, to my mind at least, it represents something of a failure on our part. I know that we have to choose our battles and that there are a lot more pressing subjects that need our attention. But really things like this always leave me feeling somewhat depressed. Just as I think we are making progress a story like this reminds me just how far we have to go in getting the world to think skeptically.

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