Virtual anthrax

Terrorists are planning attacks at shopping malls on Halloween. Nostradamus predicted the Sept. 11 attacks. A deadly virus is being spread via the mail in blue envelopes.

How do I know all this? E-mails. One explains how a "friend of a friend" who had been dating an Afghan received a letter from him after he disappeared Sept. 6. He warned her not to fly on Sept. 11 or go to any malls on Oct. 31. Exactly who the original person was who sent this is lost in the electronic ether. Even were I to meet the person, this e-mail would still qualify as a dubious rumor.

I can't say there definitely won't be any incidents at malls on Halloween, but this e-mail provides no grounds for thinking otherwise. What about Nostradamus? I've received many e-mails showing how he predicted the attacks in a 1654 quatrain about "two brothers torn apart by chaos," which would precipitate World War III.

But the date given for the quatrains is 88 years after he died. In fact, a check of urban-legend websites like reveals the quatrains were invented by Neil Marshall, a Canadian university student, who was showing how nearly any verse could be loosely interpreted to predict any event. Another e-mail, describing Nostradamus's prediction of "two steel birds" falling from the sky onto "the Metropolis" seems convincing. Yet, steel was not much used until a couple of centuries after his death; the verses are not in the regular quatrain format.

Since Sept. 11, people have spoken of reordering priorities. It's time to start. The next time you get one of these e-mails, put aside pointless worries - and hit the delete key.

Howard Fienberg is research analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service, a think tank.

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