From Internet Scams to Urban Legends, Planet (hoa)X to the Bible Code
CSICOP Albuquerque Conference Has Fun Exposing Hoaxes, Myths and Manias
The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) came for the first time to the American Southwest with its conference "Hoaxes, Myths and Manias” Nov. 23-26 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The region has a rich scientific heritage going back to Robert Goddard’s rocket experiments near Roswell in the early 1930s, the birth of the nuclear age here in the 1940s, two world-famous national laboratories pushing the frontiers of applied science and technology, new astronomical observatories sprouting up on mountain peaks, and a Ph.D. per-capita ratio greater than any other state. It also, ironically, has always attracted more than its share of New Agers, mystics, and seekers, and of course it is home to that most famous of all modern myths and associated hoaxes, the Roswell crashed flying saucer story.
The conference was a lively affair with sessions spread over four days, Thursday evening to Sunday noon. Happily this time none were concurrent, so the nearly 300 registrants didn't have to miss anything. It was preceded by a limited-attendance windshield tour of Sandia National Laboratories on the southeast edge of Albuquerque and followed by a nine-hour, two-bus tour to the southeastern part of the state to Roswell and its weird little UFO museum. Lots of out-of-state attendees took extra time to explore New Mexico’s natural history and cultural attractions.
Field Trip to Roswell
One of the things that seemed to mark this conference was a nice mixture of near-legendary figures who founded the modern skeptical movement in the 1970s (Paul Kurtz, Ray Hyman, and at least six other CSICOP Fellows spoke) and a newer generation of skeptical inquirers who are advancing the cause of scientific skepticism in their own ways on Web sites, Web publications, and so on. It was an opportunity for them all to meet and hear each other. Everyone seemed to have a lot of fun-both at the conference and in their work/hobbies of exposing various scams, shams, deceits, deceptions, misconceptions, and other manner of skullduggery.
Two noted psychologists and CSICOP Fellows started things off with presentations designed to help people understand some of the general principles underlying specific cases they'd be hearing later from others. Barry Beyerstein (Simon Fraser University) presented a useful tutorial on, essentially, the psychology of belief, with abundant references to the Belief Engine model of CSICOP colleague and fellow psychologist James Alcock (SI May/June 1995). Then Ray Hyman (University of Oregon, emeritus), who later in the conference would be given CSICOP’s In Praise of Reason Award (see In Praise of Ray Hyman) described the psychology of the con, which included some demonstrations of how easily we can all be deceived. Con men (and women) all have a good practical knowledge of human psychology, and they prey on the human trust that make societies function. Successful con artists charm potential victims with their immense likability, and they combine that with an utter lack of compassion for their victims. They also often work in teams with one person posing as an innocent customer to help draw the victim in.
Alex Boese (author of The Museum of Hoaxes and creator of the Web site museumofhoaxes.com) began the first full day of sessions with a presentation perhaps prototypical of those at the conference: an amusing treatment of Internet and media hoaxes. He called the Internet “the greatest medium for hoaxes of all time.” Some hoaxers use e-mail, some use the Web. E-mail hoaxes spread rapidly in viral fashion; some are outrageous and amusing, others have broad consequences.
Boese clearly seems to enjoy good hoaxes; he complained that annoying e-mail hoaxes “give the phenomenon of hoaxes a bad name.” Other kinds he finds “more interesting.” These include fake press release hoaxes. Examples: Microsoft is buying the Catholic Church and has bought exclusive rights to the Bible, 1994; the false report originated by a humor Web site that of all the presidents, George W. Bush’s IQ is the lowest at 92 (The Guardian published it as fact on July 21, 2001, and Gary Trudeau used it in his Doonesbury comic strip); and Alabama changes the value of pi from 3.14 to “the biblical value of 3.0,” an April Fool’s hoax that originated with New Mexicans for Science and Reason, the local host of this conference, as a parody of creationist attempts to block evolution).
There are hoax photographs, including Cordell’s cat, a photo of a digitally enlarged 23-pound cat that quickly went out to millions of people worldwide, and the humorous photo of a shark leaping at a helicopter, a splice of two digital images. Another category is hoax political humor photos (President Bush with a book upside down, Representative Tom Daschle pledging allegiance with his left hand over his heart). Still another is “dark humor in the wake of disastrous tragedy,” like the hoaxed photo of a tourist on the World Trade Center observation deck as one of the hijacked airliners of September 11, 2001, flew toward him. It was the wrong kind of plane.
Web hoaxes are a little more difficult, Boese said, since spoofing the look of real Web sites “takes some work.” Nevertheless there are hundreds of hoax Web sites; among the most infamous was Bonsaikitten.com, which showed uniquely shaped bonsai kittens, grown in jars, a hoax created by grad students at MIT. Another was the hoax auction on eBay of the “ghost in a jar.” Someone paid $50,000 for the jar, and there were ghost-in-a-jar fan clubs.
Why are there so many Internet hoaxes? Unlike other media, says Boese, the Internet “has almost no barriers to entry. There are no gatekeepers or editors.” In that sense, he said, “The Net has democratized the phenomenon of hoaxes.” The Net is a haven for hoaxes and misinformation, he said, one that “tends to be the price we pay for an open society.” Hoaxes and lies are part of the messiness of an open society and, in any event, said Boese, “frivolous hoaxes are not much of a problem.”
Robert Carroll, a professor of philosophy at Sacramento City College and author/creator of The Skeptic’s Dictionary (based on his lively Web site skepdic.com), is another example of a speaker who has found a major role using the new media to offer reliable information about claims. He spoke on pranks, frauds, and hoaxes from around the world. There are plenty to choose from. His examples ranged from the Indian rope trick of 1890 to the herbal fuel hoax of 1996. And we've had two human cloning hoaxes twenty-five years apart, David Rorvik’s in 1978 and the Raelians’ this past year.
Carroll offered several valuable lessons including: “Don't trust people you trust” and “Don't expect any help from the mass media” (with some exceptions). Another is that almost anyone can be hoaxed. “It’s pretty easy to hoax people,” he said. “We want to be deceived.”
Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (ncseweb.org), gave a special luncheon address about hoaxes of evolution. Creationist critics of evolution often attempt to denigrate science by pointing out various paleontological hoaxes such as Piltdown Man. But, said, Scott, hoaxes within science are quickly corrected-that’s how science works.
One example she gave of science’s screening mechanisms working was a case that happened a few years back (1999-2000) of Archaeoraptor, the “Piltdown” bird from China. The paper touting it was rejected by Nature - the history of the fossil “was a little suspect,” Scott points out. But the National Geographic Society prematurely heralded it, then had to recant. The fossil turned out to be a composite of the body of a bird with the tail of a dinosaur. "It was definitely a fake,” although not necessarily a fraud, Scott said. In any event, she said, none of this affects the general point that transition fossils are abundant. “We have a wonderful series of fossils from dinosaurs to birds.” She also debunked the claim of creationist writer Jonathan Wells in Icons of Evolution that the famous peppered moth example used in many evolution texts is a fraud. She ended with a pitch for scientists to become more involved in science education issues in their fields.
Jan Brunvand and Ray Hyman
Urban legends guru Jan Harold Brunvand (University of Utah) was the conference’s keynote speaker (and recipient the next night of CSICOP’s 2003 Distinguished Skeptic Award), and he offered a retinue of urban legends like those he has collected in a series of lively books. “Why do some people believe some of these weird stories some of the time?” he asked. Well, because many appear as news items in legitimate newspapers, the stories often refer to particular police authorities, and they often give specific details (Brunvand calls these “reality anchors”). Also they appeal to us because they often depict “sweet revenge or poetic justice,” and some actually offer good advice. "Urban legends depict the world as we imagine it,” said Brunvand. He concluded with a one-sentence summation that is the title of one of his books: The truth never stands in the way of a good story.
Eric Krieg, an electrical engineer and president of the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking, is an example of an energetic skeptic who has carved out a niche for himself, in his case investigating claims of the promise of free energy. Here he encounters all manner of dreamers, schemers, and conspiracy theorists. “Some of these people are insane,” he said. Others are just honestly deluded. Still others, he said, know exactly what they're doing. These are con men. “They're like modern snake-oil salesmen,” he said. (See Krieg, ”Examining the Amazing Free-Energy Claims of Dennis Lee,” SI July/August 1997.)
Krieg offers a Randi-style $10,000 bounty for any demonstration of a free-energy device under test conditions. Promoters have given him a host of excuses for not subjecting their ideas to his tests: “It needs a few more adjustments,” “I'm worried it will collapse the economy,” "Buy my videotape,” and even “God told me not to show it.”
As the first skeptic to take on these people (although he is pleased he now has a lot of help from skeptics groups throughout the country), Krieg has frequently been the target of promoters’ invective, or worse (legal threats, efforts to bury his Web page). But that doesn't seem to bother him. “I enjoy a good fight,” he said. “I don't need much sleep. I take 'em all on. It’s a hobby for me.”
Physicist/mathematician Dave Thomas, President of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, updated his previous investigations of the notorious “Bible Code” (SI, November/December 1997, March/April 1998, and March/April 2003), which he called “the mother of all statistical apologetics.” Dave’s general point, stated in his usual wry way, is that “hidden messages are everywhere,” not just in the Torah, the Hebrew Bible. But do they mean anything? No, of course not.
Employing the same equidistant- letter-sequence methods that Bible Code author Michael Drosnin uses to find supposed “hidden messages” in the Torah-and supposedly nowhere else-Dave is able to find such references in just about any work, including War and Peace. Dave used to leave his computer on overnight number-crunching various letter-steps to come up with interesting phrases, but he now writes his programs in C++ (it’s like “Godzilla,” he says) and can do the searches in real time, projecting the results on screen while we watch. Dave found that Hitler and Nazi occur in Chapter 2, Book 2 of War and Peace within a sequence of only 244 words, “one-third of one percent of the length” Drosnin needed to find them in. Thomas found "Roswell UFO” and “Darwin got it right” in Genesis. In a 6,000-word excerpt from the book Bible Code II posted on the Internet, Dave earlier found this message, which seems to say it all: “The Bible Code is a silly, dumb, false, evil, nasty, dismal fraud and snake oil hoax.”
Astronomer Phil Plait (Sonoma State University) has made a name for himself with his Web site badastronomy.com and now a book of the same name. In his talk he wittily skewered a number of bizarre pseudo-astronomical claims, most notably Planet X, a planet unknown to astronomers that was supposedly to enter the solar system in May 2003 and destroy Earth. ("So much for doing your taxes,” he said.) He called his exposure of “The Planet (Hoa)X” case “the anatomy of some very, very bad astronomy.” The claim was made by a woman with little knowledge of astronomy who seemed to be able to see evidence of Planet X everywhere, while astronomers saw nothing unfamiliar.
“The hardest thing about being a skeptic,” Plait said about such claimants, "is maintaining a level of politeness.” Said Plait: “You cannot debunk these people. They are completely impervious to logic. . . . It’s just ridiculous.”
Another claim of a “Harmonic Concordance” revolved around an alignment of astronomical objects. But it mysteriously invoked, along with the moon and the major planets, Chiron, a 20-kilometer icy rock out past Saturn. Why? Because if Chiron weren't on the chart, “the chart wouldn't work,” Plait said. “It doesn't matter,” he said. The whole thing is a farce.
Plait labeled his viewgraphs with terms such as “The Achy Breaky Chart,” "The Grand Malignment,” and “Ommmmmmgod!” The latter was a reference to believers’ attempts to get 144,000 people chanting on the night of the concordance. The meaning? Plait asked, answering, “Not a damn thing!”
And so it went. . . speaker after speaker went on to expose promulgators of misinformation, misconceptions, hoaxes, scams, myths, legends, deceptions, and various other examples of human foibles and folly.
Benjamin Radford, Skeptical Inquirer's managing editor and author of the newly published Media Mythmakers (and co-author of a book with the same title as the conference), spoke on hoaxes and myths about monsters. He’s another example of the rising new generation of skeptics. So is Jim Underdown, executive director of the Center for Inquiry-West, who described his investigations in the studios of TV speak-to-the-dead mediums John Edward and James Van Praagh (SI, September/October 2003). Physicist Donald Simanek talked about perpetual motion machines and other unworkable devices. Astronomer and retired Air Force Maj. James McGaha described a variety of UFO hoaxes and debunked the claim of the so-called (and misnamed) Area 51 having anything to do with UFOs or aliens.
Three more CSICOP Fellows rounded out the speakers. Joe Nickell, CSICOP’s Senior Research Fellow and SI's Investigative Files columnist, described some of his investigations of alleged ghosts and spirits. Archaeologist and SI consulting editor Kenneth Feder (author of Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries) entertainingly told the story of the Cardiff Giant hoax that was a phenomenon near Syracuse, New York, in 1864. Feder’s point was to show that even in a case where scientists immediately recognized a fraud, the public fell for it anyway.
And physician Wallace Sampson, editor of The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, discussed in some detail four major hoax medical claims. One was Ernest Krebs, Jr.'s Laetrile hoax (a theory Krebs invented in the Bancroft Library at Berkeley) that “completely snowed the scientific establishment. . . . It was all made up. It was very sophisticated. It was a con,” Sampson said. It was also part of a stock swindle involving hundreds of millions of dollars on the Montreal Stock Exchange. Sampson said the four examples of famous scams all had major investors (several also had strong political support), all were hoaxes, all were part of alternative medicine, and all are “part of the mental state of accepting alternative medicine.”
Sacramento Bee Reporter Helps Public Avoid Being Stung by Scams
The recipient of CSICOP’s Candle in the Dark Award for the media’s contribution to skepticism was Edgar Sanchez, a consumer affairs writer for The Sacramento Bee.
Sanchez, in his weekly Scam Alert column, has tackled many consumer frauds and scams ranging from Nigerian money scams to phony police detectives to car-mileage fraud. Previous winners of the award have included Bill Nye the Science Guy and Scientific American Frontiers producer David Huntley. Sanchez was unable to attend the conference, but sent the following statement:
“Every day, more Americans are defrauded. Many are victims of identity theft. Some are duped by self-appointed 'psychics.' Still others fall for that notorious phone call: 'Congratulations! You've won a new car! But you won't get it unless you send a $1,500 processing fee.' To paraphrase Carl Sagan, 'Today’s scam world has millions and millions and millions of deceptions.' Today, more than ever, the public needs to be aware of ongoing, devastating scams. That’s the mission of The Sacramento Bee's weekly Scam Alert: to explain the latest fraud and how to protect yourself. I am honored to receive The Responsibility in Journalism Award. My sincere thanks to CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer. Keep up the good work.”
CNN’s Larry King was selected for the Snuffed Candle Award, for “encouraging credulity, presenting pseudoscience as genuine, and contributing to the public’s lack of understanding of the methods of scientific inquiry.” (See ”King of the Paranormal” in the November/December 2003 issue of SI.)