The Rumour Watchers (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part 1

Through a weekly column published in the Boston Herald, Robert Knapp and the other staff members at the Boston Rumor Clinic would tackle various prominent rumors for in-depth analysis and refute them based on available information.   The rumor would be given in italics and followed by the FACT section (in bold-type) to set the record straight.   The column often included essays on the psychology underlying why these rumors were so popular.   Readers of the column often sent in suggestions for new rumors to be debunked though no anonymous suggestions would be accepted.   Everyone who wanted to have a rumor investigated had to agree to have their name posted in the paper.   

The column became highly successful with more rumor suggestions than Knapp and the others were able to handle.    Naturally enough, most of the rumors that were submitted related to the war effort including allegations of corruption, abuse of soldiers, and stories of impending victory or defeat.    There were also more implausible rumors, including many stories that we would label "urban legends" today.   Still, the war-related rumors were considered important enough for Knapp and Alport to appoint "morale wardens" to report sensitive rumors to the Massachusetts Committee for Public Safety. 

The wardens were also put in charge of distributing pamphlets and posters, complete reports on how the rumours spread and, generally, do whatever they could to "check the spread of Axis-inspired rumours."    As Knapp himself stated in the orientation letter he prepared for new moral wardens:  "The morale warden is not a spy or a police officer. His job  is to report facts relating to public opinion, rumor, and propaganda.”   The wardens were also charged with distributing the Boston Herald column to bulletin boards across the city as well as gather new rumours as they heard them.   As the Boston Herald issued a plea to its readers to "join in the war on Axis rumors," more volunteers agreed to become wardens and as many as three hundred were eventually recruited.

And the Rumor Clinic was hardly limited to Boston.  Through articles about the Boston Clinic in Reader's Digest and American Mercury, Knapp told readers to:

Send in your rumors! What wild, damaging, morale-eroding stories similar to those described in this article are current in your community? Readers who wish to help the Boston Rumor Clinic, and further the 811914[1]organization of similar clinics throughout the country, are urged to put such stories in writing and send them to Robert H. Knapp.

The Clinic received hundreds of letters in response and information on over one thousand rumors.  Knapp and Allport also got requests for help in setting up Rumor Clinics in other cities.   By October 1942, clinics had been set up in San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York City, Long Island, Syracuse, New Jersey, South Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Chicago, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Montreal, Oregon, and Washington.   Along with clinics set up by social scientists, there were clinics set up by women's groups, high school students, and university clubs.  It quickly became a popular way for civilians to get involved in the war effort.

Except, of course, for the fact that the U.S. government was still supposed to be the ones running the Rumor Project as originally planned.   The Office of Wartime Information (OWI) was formally established in 1942 with the mandate of overseeing all wartime information circulated in the United States.  That the Boston Rumor Clinic and the various spinoff clinics it had inspired were already working on the rumor control that the OWI was supposed to be dealing with exclusively led to major bureaucratic conflicts.   It likely didn't help that the OWI had a radically different slant on how rumors could be dealt with.   Instead of operating clinics, the OWI field staff conducted nationwide surveys of war-related rumors ising "rumor conscious" volunteers from across the country.   These volunteers were selected based on their relative standing in their local communities and how well they interacted with the public.   Dentists, barbers, journalists, and other volunteers gathered the rumors which were then analysed by the OWI. 

More than 3000 rumors were collected by the  OWI and, at least in the early stages, social scientists such as Robert Knapp and Gordon Allport acted as consultants.  While relations between the OWI and the Boston Rumor Clinic started off amicably enough,  things went downhill after Allport criticized a confidential OWI report on wartime rumors that was released in October, 1942.   Allport likely had good reason to be critical since the report specifically attacked local rumor clinics and argued that rumor control should be carried out by the OWI.   

Since Allport ended his critical letter with a set of recommendations calling for a more decentralized approach to rumor control, his suggestions were largely ignored by the OWI.   While relations between the Boston Clinic and the OWI stayed cordial (at least on the surface), a power struggle quickly developed.   The OWI had no interest in allowing social scientists to have the control that the Rumor Clinics gave them.   Despite the expanded role of social scientists in the government during wartime, OWI felt that Allport and Knapp were ivory tower academics who had no business operating a clinic without government approval. 

All of which then led to an active government campaign to put the existing rumor clinics out of business.   Since many of these clinics depended on the OWI for guidance and financial support,  a formal statement titled "Rumor in Wartime" was deliberately worded to criticize the rumor clinic concept.  Focusing specifically on the Boston Clinic, the report accused rumor clinics of ignoring the underlying factors that led to rumors being spread.   It ended by insisting that all rumor clinics by placed under government control since, "A large number of independent groups all scouting for the prevailing rumors and developing their own programs of counteraction would probably do more harm than good.”   

The OWI then issued a set of guidelines that rumor clinics would need to follow to get funding from the federal government.  The guidelines were included in a manual issued in October, 1942 that described how a rumor clinic should be run (or, more to the point, how it shouldn’t be run).   Community groups writing to the OWI asking how they could set up their own rumor clinics were sent an elaborate questionnaire that was largely intended to discourage the new clinics as much as possible.   Any group that actually succeeded in completing the questionnaire was then sent a “rumor bible” describing the recommended organizational structure for the clinic.   Not only was each clinic required to have a “project director”, but also a “research director”, an “educational director”, analytical assistants, field reporters, a general advisory council, etc.  Few community groups had the time or energy to try to meet these bizarre requirements.   Examination of the OWI’s rumor file after the war showed no indication that any of their questionnaires were ever completed.   Their bureaucratic stonewalling tactic had worked beautifully in preventing the established of new rumor clinics.

Along with discouraging new clinics, the OWI also discouraged the existing clinics by burying them in red tape (something that bureaucrats excelled in).   Specific procedures for dealing with rumors were included in the “bible” as well as guidelines regarding which rumors to ignore and which could be safely dealt with in the clinic.   The “bible” also targeted the procedures set up by the Boston Clinic and used examples from the Clinic’s Boston Herald column to demonstrate the various “mistakes” that were being made by the Boston group. 

Allport and Knapp responded to this not-so-veiled attack on their Clinic by issuing their own guidelines for existing rumor clinics to follow.  Though much simpler than the byzantine rules laid down by the OWI, the Boston Clinic simply didn’t have the nationwide reach that the OWI did.   In a 1943 New York Times story, the OWI flatly condemned the rumor clinics and suggested that “the rumor spiking department of the war information agency lives in constant dread that some of the [clinics] are going to make a rumor worse by printing it and denying it in the wrong manner.”   With the negative feedback from the OWI and the general decline of public interest in the scientific study of rumor, the rumor clinics themselves went into a slow decline.   Not only did fewer rumors get reported to the clinics, but newspaper editors quietly shelved the rumor columns in the papers and moved on to other news stories.   By the end of the war, no clinics were left operating although Allport and Knapp continued their own research on rumours.

 So, which approach was more effective in dealing with wartime rumors, the top-down approach championed by the OWI or the bottom-up approach of the Boston Rumor Clinic?    It was Gordon Allport who had the last word in a 1947 book he co-wrote with L. Postman.   In that book, he suggested that the OWI was more concerned with rumors being deliberately spread by “Fifth-Columnists” intended to destabilize the nation’s war effort (though the actual evidence of this was limited).   As for the Boston Rumor Clinics and the other clinics modeled after it, they focused more on local rumors and how they affected civilian morale.   

They also had radically different strategies for dealing with these rumors.   As Allport and Portman pointed out: 

The OWI’s philosophy held that to smother a rumor with facts is better than to single it out for disproof, lest in the process it become unduly advertised. The rumor clinic philosophy leaned in the opposite direction. People won’t see the relevance of facts unless it is pointed out to them. Name the rumor and pound it hard was the policy.

 Regardless of the value of the different approaches used by the OWI and the Boston Rumor Clinic, what happened during World War 2 highlights the danger often faced by social scientists who find themselves in conflict with government bureaucrats.    Though Allport and Knapp were primarily academic researchers, getting the federal government to give them the kind of freedom that they took for granted in academia proved to be next to impossible.  

 Though on the same side as far as the greater war effort was concerned, their differing visions about how  social psychology could be used to boost morale and defuse damaging rumors helped scuttle what might otherwise have been a fruitful collaboration between academia and government.   In many ways, the conflict between the OWI and the Boston Rumor Clinic reflects the problems faced by many government scientists, both in and out of wartime.  

 That science and bureaucratic micromanagement are often in conflict is a lesson that is still being painfully learned even today.






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