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Hoaxes: For Better or for Worse

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

November 19, 2010

Skeptics expose the hoaxes, but should skeptics ever be the hoaxers?

If hoaxes were true, it would be a vastly different world. Forwarding an e-mail would get us free travel, free lattes, free laptops, free shoes, and free beer. We would be able to buy third-world orphans for use as organ donors and would make millions of dollars transferring money from Nigerian bank accounts. We would have evidence of Bigfoot, fairies, giants, and aliens. Christopher Walken would be president of the United States, and while Will Ferrell, Axl Rose, and Paul McCartney would be dead, Elvis would still be alive.

With chain letters, virus hoaxes, and photoshopped images of big alien cats, it is April Fool’s Day every day online. The advice to “check Snopes (http://www.snopes.com/)” is becoming as fixed a phrase as “Google it.” If only there was a Snopes entry for everything in life.

When a Hoax Is Not a Hoax

Hoaxes, pranks, practical jokes, tricks, myths, and urban legends are all related phenomena. There are similarities and differences among them, but they all have in common that they are untrue but could be true.

The claim that Gene Simmons is dead is more of a rumor than a hoax, although to start a rumor is to hoax. Hoaxes are relatively static in storyline, while urban legends have less “version control.” Urban legends are more beliefs about events than hoaxes involving acts or artifacts, and tricks are generally “magic tricks” performed by magicians or a drunken relative during the holidays. We would say that the Jackass team plays practical jokes and performs stunts rather than hoaxes. Not all “hoaxes” are hoaxes. For example, the “Moon Hoax”—the belief that the 1969 Moon landing occurred in a studio—is a conspiracy theory, not a hoax.

These phenomena differ most in the intention behind them. People who spread apocryphal tales usually do so out of the belief that they are true, and these people have good intentions to inform and warn others. Conversely, there is no necessary social value in spreading hoaxes, even if we think they’re true. There is no obvious threat to anyone if there are (Cottingley) fairies in the bottom of the garden.

But there is a hidden threat. Unlike urban legends, hoaxes often have victims. The hoaxed has something to lose, like money or credibility, while the hoaxer has something to gain. Hoaxes usually result in personal gain for the hoaxer, whether that is the amusement of pulling a prank, publicity, or profit. In a prototypical hoax the hoaxer has the deliberate intention to deceive, usually with malicious intent (although those who perpetuate the hoax are not necessarily in on the hoax). An urban legend is misinformation that needs to be corrected, while a hoax is a claim to be exposed.

“To hoax” is closer to “to scam,” “to con,” and to dupe” and leans uncomfortably toward words like fake, forge and fraud and their legal implications. We don’t have names for the faceless many who spread urban legends, whereas hoaxers are fraudsters, charlatans, swindlers, scammers, crooks, and con-artists.

Missing Links

From Balloon Boy to the sale of holy relics, there are many themes to hoaxes. Georgia’s Imedi television created a political hoax in March 2010 falsely claiming that Russia had invaded Georgia. Hoaxes are often financial, such as the notorious Nigerian scams and other advance-fee frauds (and in a more broad sense, pyramid schemes). For financial or personal reasons, people have faked their own disappearances or even deaths.

Hoaxes frequently have paranormal or pseudoscientific themes. These hoaxes aim to make us believe a claim or to provide “evidence” of the supernatural. These hoaxes are often cryptozoological in nature, involving alleged anomalous animals. Some are hybrid creatures and sideshow “gaffs” such as P.T. Barnum’s infamous Fiji Mermaid, which was probably a monkey torso sewn onto a fish body. There has been an endless stream of “missing links,” including Frank Hansen’s Minnesota Iceman that toured carnivals in the late 1960s. This was a vinyl dummy, touted as a humanoid creature, frozen in a block of ice. In what is probably one of the world’s most infamous hoaxes, the head of the Piltdown Man consisted of the lower jawbone of an orangutan attached to a human skull. For forty years some experts believed the tampered remains were of a descendent of humans.

There are Bigfoot hoaxes aplenty, including the 2008 Dead Bigfoot Hoax in which an alleged cryptid found in the foothills of Georgia was revealed to be a costume. The 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film is more iconic than convincing, but while it is the best-case Bigfoot hoax for skeptics, it is the “gold standard” of evidence for Bigfoot believers.


Tell Me Lies…

The most successful hoaxes are the ones that leave us wondering, “Was that a hoax?” There are many enduring hoaxes that have become folklore “fact” well after they were revealed to be hoaxes. The Fox sisters initiated the Spiritualism movement with their séances, a practice that is still strong today despite the sisters’ eventual public confession that they produced the “paranormal” phenomena by cracking their toe joints and bouncing apples off the floor. Doug Bower and Dave Chorley admitted that their crop circles were art rather than alien, but this has done nothing to lessen the perception of the circles as evidence of extraterrestrial visitations.

In 1938 Orson Welles performed a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. For some who missed the show’s introduction, the radio drama was misconstrued as an emergency report of an extraterrestrial landing on Earth. The “news” quickly developed into mass hysteria. This wasn’t intended as a hoax, but the memory of the supposed “Martian invasion” remains.

Usually the hoaxer never intends to disclose the hoax. The truth is a secret for the skeptics to unearth. In 1986 James Randi famously debunked TV Evangelist Peter Popoff as a hot reader with a direct line to his wife rather than God. This should have been a ruinous revelation, but Popoff’s career has had a second coming. The proof of his deception has done nothing to shake the belief of true believers.

Skeptical Hoaxes

Hoaxes are something that skeptics are skeptical of, but sometimes the skeptics are the hoaxers. Like a modern-day Houdini, James Randi often exposes hoaxes, but he has also been the perpetrator of a few hoaxes himself.

From 1979–1983 two young psychics named Steve Shaw (Banachek) and Mike Edwards demonstrated their paranormal abilities to a team of parapsychologists in a laboratory. However, these “psychics” were really mentalists/magicians, and their participation was a hoax orchestrated by James Randi. Named Project Alpha,1 the hoax aimed to disprove complaints that a lack of funding prevents parapsychologists from undertaking useful experiments. Randi also wanted to show the need for a magician in the laboratory. Edwards and Shaw were selected from some 300 applicants to participate in the research project. They underwent over 160 hours of “scientific” testing that never revealed that their “paranormal” powers were mere magic tricks.

In 1988 American psychic José Alvarez arrived in Australia, claiming to channel a 2,000-year-old spirit named Carlos. With his incredible ability to stop his pulse he developed a fast following, save for a few narrow-minded skeptics who were convinced he was a fake. Alvarez boasted an impressive resume of appearances on (fake) television shows and radio stations and in (fake) magazines and newspapers, because he was a fake. The Carlos hoax was devised by Randi to demonstrate the ease of creating a cult and to reveal the gullibility of the media and public.

The Carlos hoax and Project Alpha are the most infamous “skeptical hoaxes,” although there are many other examples of this kind. Before the Carlos hoax, Bob Steiner toured Australia as psychic Steve Terbot in 1984. Steiner is a magician and former president of the Society of American Magicians, and he is the author of the book Don’t Get Taken. He initially presented his cold-reading techniques as skills in astrology, mediumship, and tarot and palm reading. After two weeks of amazing his audiences, he finally revealed his hoax on national television, explaining that his objective was to “warn the people of Australia to beware of people claiming to be psychics.”2

In the area of pseudoscience, physicist Alan Sokal penned the impressive-sounding “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The piece was a hoax. The article’s premise was that quantum gravity is a social construct, but the author’s premise was that the phony piece would pass peer review in an academic journal. The parody paper appeared in an issue of Social Text. In a subsequent issue of Lingua Franca, Sokal explained that he aimed to see if a scholarly journal would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”3

Hoaxes are a useful method of exposing other hoaxes. Inspired by the Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwich, I created my own piece of pop pareidolia, the Pope Tart.4 In another debunking I applied for a job with Absolutely Psychic. The application process should have revealed my lack of psychic abilities as they claim, “Our clients immediately notice that all readers are carefully handpicked. We are very ‘picky,’ and we’re proud of it! Unfortunately, 94.3% of most applications are turned away.”5 I was offered a job as a telephone psychic.

Magician Brian Brushwood hosts the popular Internet series Scam School.6 In this “Mythbusters” for the pool shark crowd, Brushwood pulls street cons, swindling and scamming in the name of skepticism. He teaches tricks “to get free drinks at bars and impress friends,” but the underlying message is that anyone can be tricked.

The Moral of This Story Is…

Skeptical hoaxes are social experiments. They reveal human behavior under natural conditions. Their purpose is to test media reporting and gauge the response of the public. They are intended for public gain, not for personal gain. They are not intended to deceive but rather to show us that we can all be deceived. Unlike other hoaxes, the skeptical hoax will always be revealed because that is the point.

In contrast to other hoaxes that bank on credulity, skeptical hoaxes hope to prompt critical thinking. Randi wanted people to see through his hoaxes. During Project Alpha, the young magicians were instructed that if confronted, they were to admit that the project was a hoax. But they were never asked. If skeptical hoaxes fail to elicit critical thinking, the hoaxers hope to teach critical thinking.

There are valid arguments against creating skeptical hoaxes. By staging a hoax the skeptical hoaxer can seem as bad as any other hoaxer. The hoax can backfire or incite resentment: nobody likes a “gotcha” moment or an “I told you so!” The worst thing that can happen is nothing: the lesson goes unlearned or the lesson is easily forgotten.

The ultimate success of hoaxes demonstrates that we can all be deceived. Skeptical hoaxes show that we allow ourselves to be deceived. As Blaise Pascal put it, “We like to be deceived.”

References:

1. Randi, James. 1983. “The Project Alpha Experiment, Part One: The First Two Years.” Skeptical Inquirer (Summer). See also: Randi, James. 1983. “The Project Alpha Experiment, Part Two: Beyond the Laboratory.” Skeptical Inquirer (Fall).

2. Steiner, Robert. 1989. Don’t Get Taken! Bunco and Bunkum Exposed: How to Protect Yourself. Wide-Awake Books.

3. Sokal, Alan. 1996. “A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies.” Lingua Franca (May). Available at www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html.

4. Stollznow, Karen. 2008. “Merchandising God: The Pope Tart.” Skeptical Inquirer (May/June).

5. Stollznow, Karen. 2004. “The Psychic Skeptic, Part I.” The Skeptic (Australian Skeptics) 24(4): 28–31. See also: Stollznow, Karen. 2005. “The Psychic Skeptic, Part II.” The Skeptic (Australian Skeptics) 25(1): 14–18.

6. Scam School with Brian Brushwood. Available at http://revision3.com/scamschool. Accessed November 11, 2010.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.