If you're reading this there's a good chance you're fan of Snopes.com, and I certainly count myself as the same. However, an issue recently came up a with particular Snopes article that was invoked on this very site to explain where the belief that everyone eats eight spiders a year comes from.

Snopes' explanation is as follows:

Fear not. This "statistic" was not only made up out of whole cloth, it was invented as an example of the absurd things people will believe simply because they come across them on the Internet.

In a 1993 PC Professional article, columnist Lisa Holst wrote about the ubiquitous lists of "facts" that were circulating via e-mail and how readily they were accepted as truthful by gullible recipients. To demonstrate her point, Holst offered her own made-up list of equally ridiculous "facts," among which was the statistic cited above about the average person's swallowing eight spiders per year, which she took from a collection of common misbeliefs printed in a 1954 book on insect folklore. In a delicious irony, Holst's propagation of this false "fact" has spurred it into becoming one of the most widely-circulated bits of misinformation to be found on the Internet.

That sounds credible, but Lisa Holst, the magazine (or newsletter?) PC Professional, and the text of the article are nowhere to be found on the web. At all. Other than links and references to the Snopes article there's just nothing. It's proving hard to verify that the author or the magazine existed at all! This seems to contradict Snopes' entire thesis that the Holst column was the source of the spider belief in the internet age. How could something so influential disappear without a trace?

The full citation given by Snopes is:

Holst, Lisa Birgit. "Reading is Believing" PC Professional 7th January 1993 (p71.)

The other two citations given in the article do seem to be real, though the Chicago Sun-Times story has the wrong author attributed. I checked it out to see if it was the source of the Lisa Holst information, and it isn't. The other citation is for a book that pre-dates email, so it can't have anything to do with Lisa Holst.

So what's going on here? I see three possibilities

  1. Snopes had in their possession the Lisa Holst column when they wrote their article and had a good reason to believe it was so influential, but somehow every trace of it has disappeared from the internet.

  2. Snopes made some mistake in the citation, as with the Chicago Sun-Times article, and that's making finding the Holst column darned near impossible.

  3. Snopes made up the Holst column out of whole cloth, perhaps as their own version of a "trap street," the fake streets map makers supposedly put on maps to catch other companies copying their material.

So, can anyone find evidence that Lisa Holst and PC Professional existed, outside of the Snopes article? Or that a column by Holst was source for the internet belief in spider consumption?

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    Just to be clear, I'm not posting this to slag on Snopes or suggest the site can't be trusted. But checking primary sources is an important habit for skeptics to cultivate, and in this case the sources just didn't check out. – Scott Hamilton Apr 13 '11 at 18:37
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    Thanks for fixing that. As to the German magazine, I guess my problem with that is that I don't see how Snopes could state so authoritatively that such a magazine was the online source of 8 spiders belief if the magazine wasn't even an English one! At this point I'm leaning towards the Holst reference being a copyright trap. The whole Snopes article is a sort of oddly written and short, so perhaps no one was supposed to examine it as closely as we are. – Scott Hamilton Apr 14 '11 at 14:18
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    There was also an ask metafilter thread that came up with nothing (new to us). – jozzas Aug 12 '11 at 3:06
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    Interesting to see this comment from 2001, long before the Snopes article, which blames a female US Newspaper columnist. – going Aug 16 '11 at 2:31
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    I live in Berlin, Germany and I think the magazine "PC Professionell" is in the city archive, so if people are interested I could go there and try to find it. This magazine ran from 1991 to 2007. German Wikipedia Article You can look it up here, too. – user7522 Jun 14 '12 at 1:56

It turns out that there's a nice chap who already investigated this, and found no evidence of the matter:

I first did a Google search for PC Professional Magazine. No such magazine.

[...]

Google turns up a fair number of hits for Lisa Holst; none of them is a columnist for computer magazines.

[...]

There is a British magazine called PC Pro. I called them. They’ve never changed their name and they’ve also never heard of Lisa Holst or PC Professional Magazine.

[...]

A quick email to the contact form on Snopes asking them where they found the magazine and whether they have a copy of it I can have a look at receives an automated response suggesting I use their search function.

[...]

A call to the Library of Congress confirms that they do not have, in their records, any magazines with the title “PC Professional” They don’t even have anything close.

Why eight spiders?

A big troll?

User Avery points out that Lisa Birgit Holst is an anagram for This Is A Big Troll. Hmmm.

Conclusion

The facts on this matter are:

  • one resource cites a name and a magazine
  • nobody seems to be able to confirm the existence of this person or magazine
  • the name of the author can be anagrammed to a clue

The only possible conclusion is "there is no evidence that Snopes is correct", and there is something suggesting it is a fake.

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    As a side note, I've contacted snopes to get some light on the matter. – Sklivvz May 12 '12 at 13:42
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    The magazin existed, just the spelling differs - probably a transfer error, since "Professionell" and "Professional" and "Magazin" and "Magazine" are very close. See links in my comments here – user unknown May 14 '12 at 5:24
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    The claim "nobody seems to be able to confirm the existence of this person or magazine" is wrong. I claim that the existence of the magazine isn't an illusion. You can find it at ebay, you can find references to it, at surely you can prove it if you visit an archive. – user unknown May 14 '12 at 11:38
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    @xiaohouzi79 There is no magazine called "PC Professional Magazine". Fact. There is no record of a writer call "Lisa Hoist". Fact. It could be a German magazine with a similar name. Speculation. – Sklivvz Jul 27 '12 at 12:58
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    Lisa Birgit Holst is an anagram for THIS IS A BIG TROLL. – Avery Oct 6 '16 at 14:35

No, an earlier list was published by Margot Anne-Stephanie Vigeant as author of the article Things to Stress Over in Cornell Engineer April 1992, volume 56, number 2, pages 24 and 25, (alternative link to full text):

My first topic for this issue is worries. I've decided that there are just too many well adjusted, un-paranoid people in this school (NOT), so I've decided to wreck their peace of mind by sharing a list of my favorite worries with them. These are the kind of things that just jump into your mind right before you're about to fall asleep - horrible little night gremlins whose goal it is to keep you up just a little bit longer. So here they are, hope you can sleep after this:

The average person swallows eight spiders while sleeping, in their lifetime. What if all eight show up tonight?

Also from 1992, the book Basic Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences Student Workbook and Study Guide says:

  1. Foofy read in the newspaper that there is a .05% chance of swallowing a spider while you sleep. She subsequently developed insomnia.

a. What is the probablility of swallowing a spider?
b. Why isn't Foofy's insomnia justified on the basis of this probability?
c. Why is Foofy's insomnia justified on the basis of this probability.
...

4.a. p = .05%/100 = .0005.
b. This is a very low p, indicating that, over the long run, we can expect to swallow spiders only 5 out of every 10,000 times we sleep.
c. Since p is not zero, we do expect to swallow spiders sometimes, and we don't know when it will happen.

Regarding the 1954 book Insect Fact and Folklore mentioned by snopes, search in snippet views in Google Books (which has multiple copies of the book) for words like "spiders", "swallow" and "sleep" shows nothing related to the myth, and as pointed out in the video posted in Michael's answer, a hardcopy of the book does not have such a myth.

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    This is an interesting find, and predates the supposed 1993 article, but not the supposed 1954 book. Is there any way to get a full copy of this article to understand the context better? For instance, does the author admit to fabricating this fact, or claim an earlier source? The other scary thoughts visible in Google's snippet are all hypothetical, so why is this part presented as fact? It's a tantalising clue, but doesn't feel like concrete evidence that this is the source, rather than an early instance quoting something earlier. – IMSoP Jul 22 at 2:55
  • @IMSoP I added a second link to the full text. It's a humor article, no admission of fabricating, no sources. I would just say this is the oldest printed version of the eight-spiders-swallowed- in-sleep concept that I could find. She could have heard it from someone verbally or through email or some early online forum. We could ask her I suppose. – DavePhD Jul 22 at 13:07
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    Thanks. It certainly seems from context that she believed it, rather than invented it - it's necessary background for the next "what if", and if it wasn't already an established myth, why not just say "What if you swallow a spider in your sleep?" My guess is that the myth was doing the rounds at Cornell at the time. – IMSoP Jul 22 at 13:13
  • @IMSoP I searched google groups, and the oldest there is 20 July 1992 groups.google.com/forum/#!search/… and second oldest, but more extensive discussion, is 9 August 1993 groups.google.com/forum/#!search/… – DavePhD Jul 22 at 18:18
  • @IMSoP in 1977 there was a legend that a girl feel asleep with Bubble Yum in her mouth and woke up with spider webs on her face, because spider eggs in the gum hatched. books.google.com/… – DavePhD Jul 22 at 18:38

Youtuber Lemmino actually located the only possible magazine that matched the description and got a copy of the article sent to him and translated. It contained nothing relevant to the spider story. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjlKIjLWq-Y

[Summary of video: youtuber purchases a hardcopy of the 1954 book Insect Fact and Folklore by Lucy W. Clausen, which is paged through on video, and he says that no information related to the eight spiders myth is contained in the book. Youtuber then unsuccessfully attempts to locate 1993 magazine articles corresponding the 1993 article cited by Snopes.]

Two points:

  1. The publication of The Pedant's Revolt by Andrea Barham took place after the original Snopes article, not before. The first edition of the book was in 2005. The Snopes article first appeared before then--I haven't found the original article, but there are forum comments from 2002 and 2004 which refer to it. So it was the book that referenced the article, not the other way around.
  2. I can confirm the YouTuber research into the 1954 book, as I have a copy as well. There is no reference to any myth about swallowing spiders.
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    Regarding the date of the article, although the visible text indicates only "Last Updated: 28 April 2014", comments in the page source list "23 April 2001 - original; 21 July 2007 - reformatted; 28 April 2014 - relisted". So it's not clear when the reference to Barham's book was added, but it does appear to post-date the original article. – IMSoP Mar 5 '17 at 19:11
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    It makes sense entirely that the Snopes article is the source of this, as they have some kind of trickster streak and used to have an entire section of their website with nothing but fake debunkings (not sure if it is still there). – Avery Mar 6 '17 at 16:47

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