(Every time you visit, you get a new hoax image.)
|Can you guess what the image above shows? Hoaxes perpetuated in the name of science come in various flavors. On the one hand, there is the April's fool joke or urban legend in which someone tells a funny tale about alligators living in sewers. On the other hand, a more serious hoax can destroy an entire line of scholarship or provide an ineffective medical "cure" until the deceit inevitably comes to light.|
Above, you are currently seeing one of the following hoaxes. Can you guess which one? Pick one from below.
Mary Toft, the eighteenth-century girl who pretended to give birth to rabbits, is an excellent example of a hoaxer. Could a modern Mary Toft be walking among us, on the threshold of taking the entire world by storm with strange, miraculous births? Could she be your neighbor? Your boss? The teenager with pierced tongue working at Burger King? The janitor in your local mall? The miniskirted temptress in the latest MTV video? A Sri Lankan priestess? A Tai Chi guru named Xena burning incense and wearing lavenders in her long hair? If she gave birth to an embryonic dolphin or a hairless ape, who would believe her? Would you?
It is clear to me that medical episodes similar to Mary Toft's will reoccur in our modern age. The mass media -- including TV, radio, newspapers and magazines -- will play a pivotal role in disseminating the story, much like FOX-TV in America repeatedly aired a 1995 "documentary" purporting to be an actual autopsy of an alien found in Roswell, New Mexico. Monsters, vampires, and especially aliens are now a familiar part of our pop culture. The idea that mysterious beings are walking the planet and abducting humans with impunity has brought fame to writers such as Anne Rice, Budd Hopkins, Steven King, Dave Jacobs, Whitley Streiber, and Harvard psychiatrist John Mack who uses hypnosis to determine if people have been abducted. Recently, a teacher named Leah Haley wrote Ceto's New Friends, a book aimed at children ages 4 to 8, to teach them how to cope with their extraterrestrial visitors. On TV, The X-Files attracts millions of viewers. Hit movies like Independence Day and Men in Black have capitalized on the notion that our government is concealing news that it has retrieved saucer wreckage and alien bodies.
For those of you who have not seen the dramatic FOX-TV documentary "Alien Autopsy," imagine seeing a naked humanoid lying on an operating table in a small room. The creature has six fingers and a deep, foot-long gash in its right leg. Two humans in white contamination suits slice into its chest.
The 17-minute film, said to be taken in 1947, has no sound and is black and white. Although most scientists suggest the film is fake, some people still believe, or hope, that it is genuine evidence of alien life on earth. Various researchers and lay people argue about the film in magazines and on the Internet while intensely studying the footage.1
The controversy has created a little industry. Ray Santilli, the Englishman who sold the footage, says it has been seen in over 32 countries. The Fox TV show debuted to surprisingly high ratings, but since then many have asked questions such as: Why does the film go so conveniently out of focus at crucial moments? Why is the camerawork so jumpy? Why hasn't the original film stock been submitted to Eastman Kodak, which has a standing offer to do a chemical analysis that would verify if it was indeed manufactured in 1947?
Most special-effects artists think the film is bogus. Many biologists have found the alien's amorphous internal organs to be implausible considering how remarkably humanoid the creature appears on the outside. The beliefs of people who think the alien is real are easily shaped by TV, books, late-night radio, and rumors on the Internet.
In 1938, many Americans became panic-stricken after listening to a realistic live radio play of The War of the Worlds depicting made-up Martians landing in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. During the play, many listeners looked out their windows and even thought they saw clear invasion signs including flames from the battle. The incident is a testament to the remarkable power of expectation on perception.2 The strength of expectation no doubt played a role in the Mary Toft investigations.
Here's another great contemporary hoax promoted by the media. In 1993, The Morning Times of Laredo published a scam of a 300-pound, 79-foot long earthworm wandering along Texas Interstate 35. Its wet body was said to leave a slimy trail and making a squishy sound as it moved. Many citizens believed the story and dared not drive Interstate 35 at night.3
Are you still unconvinced that today's average person could easily be tricked into believing that a woman gave birth to rabbits? Consider this 1998 e-mail sent by a boy-scout master to an Internet mailing list (name changed to protect the innocent):
Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, five hundred thousand people were burned to death and/or hanged in Europe for witchcraft and making pacts with the Devil4. Other more mundane charges were often added: causing hailstorms; ruining the crops; stealing and eating babies. Prominent people of the day used inappropriate methods (usually horrible torture!) to investigate charges of witchcraft. Today we use other unsuitable methods5 (such as hypnosis) to elicit "recovered" and sometimes imagined memories about past child abuse, and to awaken "recollections" of alien abduction and past lives.
After being branded as superstitions and suffering centuries of ridicule, witchcraft and other areas of the occult and supernatural (including astrology, the I Ching, tarot, crying pictures of the Virgin, bleeding statues of Christ, demonic possession, etc.) have returned as respectable beliefs. Psychiatrists must be particularly vigilant not to inadvertently train patients into behavior that fits preconceptions. For example, various reports suggests how practitioners can "find" whatever they look for such as child abuse or multiple personality disorder (MPD) -- now known formally as dissociative identity disorder and characterized by the existence of more than one personality within the same individual.6
The recent epidemic of MPD has many causes: clinicians' diagnostic practices such as hypnosis that prompt patients to exhibit MPD; expectations communicated by the media; and widely available information regarding MPD's diagnostic features.7 It is chilling to think that certain disorders may be as much sociological as psychological in origin.
In summary, we live in a bizarre and perilous age that sometimes exhibits the paranoid passion of seventeenth-century witch trials and the delusions that persisted in Mary Toft's age. Today people are accused, tried, and convicted of heinous crimes on speculative "evidence" provided by memories that did not exist until a person underwent hypnosis or was given drugs to recover repressed memories. The crimes excavated by the therapist include horrifying animal cruelty, incest, and satanic ritualistic abuse performed or suffered by the patient. Families are destroyed. Children are removed from homes and sometimes coaxed to confirm parents' stories. Sadly, uncritical acceptance of "recovered" memories trivializes any genuine memories of abuse and increases the suffering of real victims.8 If Mary were alive today, could psychiatrists mistakenly use hypnosis to implant false memories of rabbit rape?
Superstitions can have other horrible consequences in our modern world. Consider the 1996 case of North Carolina state representative Henry Aldridge who explained why there was no need for his state to fund abortions for rape victims:
After Henry Aldridge's speech, the North Carolina State Legislature voted to reduce the amount of funds available to poor women having abortions from $1.2 million to $50,000. As a reward for his expertise on rape and pregnancy, Aldridge was appointed co-chair of the North Carolina House Committee on Human Resources, which oversees day care, services for the poor, and abortion funding.10
The word "hoax" is thought to be a shortening of "hocus-pocus"11 and may range from harmless mischief to more sinister charades. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an example of the most cruel and enduring hoax. The infamous political tract justified mass murder for decades by falsely documenting an international Jewish conspiracy against the world. Fabricated by the Tsarist secret police, it helped kill 100,000 Jews in pogroms before 1919. Even though the document was exposed as a forgery in 1921, it was widely distributed by Henry Ford under the title The International Jew. Hitler's Mein Kampf echoed parts of the Protocols as well. The evil forgery endures today, and since 1990 more than thirty editions have appeared in the U.S. alone.12
With many hoaxes, such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the skeptical explanation that would expose deception is not reported by the media. Hollywood certainly likes to ignore the scientific explanations. As just one example, consider the Amityville horror -- a hoax involving America's most famous haunted house located in Amityville, New York. In 1974, a man murdered his parents and siblings in the house. A year later a couple bought the house and claimed to witness many ghostly events. Subsequent investigations showed that the spooky happenings never occurred and that the murderer's lawyer concocted the horror story with the couple to make money.13 This never stopped Hollywood from producing the horror movie Amityville Horror: A True Story, which many audiences believed was true.14
Another example of a modern hoax is spirtualism. Modern spiritualism began in 1848 when two girls seemed to receive ghostly messages consisting of knockings on tables. The girls traveled all over the Unites States to promote their "Spiritualist" society. Four decades later, the sisters admitted they had secretly produced the rapping sounds.
In 1917, two English schoolgirls created a hoax that fooled learned men for years, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. The girls took the world by storm when they showed photos of themselves with fairies dancing in Cottingley Glen, England. The 1920 Christmas issue of Strand magazine featured an article by Conan Doyle entitled "Fairies Photographed: an Epoch-Making Event." News of the fairies traveled far and fast, prompting Conan Doyle to tour America giving lectures about the strange phenomena. As late as 1945, fairies remained both popular and profitable for Edward Gardner, a prominent member of the theosophist movement that professed belief in wood spirits. Gardner also published a book about the girls. Sixty years after the girls took the photos, the two grown women admitted that they had simply posed with fairy cutouts in order to create the photographed scenes. People's original reaction to their photographs was a strong symbol of post-Victorian thinking: science robs the world of mystery, wonder and beauty. British poet John Keats aptly summarizes this philosophy:
The Cottingley fairy hoax gave rise to the 1997 movie Fairy Tale: A True Story. Arthur Conan Doyle, played by Peter O'Toole, becomes interested in the girls' story for his monthly magazine. The magician Harry Houdini, played by Harvey Keitel, sees the girls' discovery as evidence of life's spiritual dimension. In the movie's final scene, the fairies swarm around the girls' bedroom! Movie critic Sy Becker remarked, "If Fairy Tale A True Story doesn't make a believer out of you, I don't know what will."
In Chapter 5 we discussed more recent hoaxes including psychic surgery, among the most dangerous of deceptions, in which practitioners pretend to remove "tumors" from peoples' bodies. These hoaxes are dangerous because patients may fail to get adequate treatment for tumors or other medical problems.
Mary Toft's story is so notable that it is actually on file at the U.S. Army Medical Library in Washington D.C.15 Because Mary Toft was never thought of as crazy before the incident, many accepted her tale. Even the cynical writer Alexander Pope asked a fellow scholar if he believed in the "miracle of Guildford." Some husbands did not let their wives venture out alone in the fields for fear of bunny sexual assaults.
What I have learned from Mary's legacy is that there is increasing urgency for scientists and leaders to be vigilant in their struggle against hoax, especially now that the mass media makes it particularly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Hoaxes, deceptions, and truth-stretching have become a common political weapon that shapes the destinies of nations. Nonscientific reasoning and bizarre therapies are gaining acceptance as medical treatments. And the rise of racial and religious prejudices rely on the most heinous of hoaxes. The best way of battling the spread of pseudoscience is an enlightened public, able to distinguish logic from delusion, charlatans from truth-tellers.
Like St. André, today's scientists also have preconceived beliefs, expectations, and egos. That cannot be helped. However, science is not just about performing experiments, but also about how to perform them. It is about controlling the influence of beliefs and expectations that can color our observations and inferences. If you tell people that a guru can perform miracles, many will interpret his words with greater respect. A believer in alien abduction will interpret a light in the sky as an extraterrestrial spacecraft. A psychiatrist who believes in alien abduction will interpret a client's hypnotically-facilitated ramblings differently than a psychiatrist who does not.
What will be our delusions, mysteries, and fears in the 21st century? Who will be the next Mary Toft?
Mary Toft's story and her physicians' gullibility show how "experts" can easily be coaxed into making confident pronouncements in spite of their misunderstanding and limited knowledge. Here are a few statements from learned men who freely gave their sexual wisdom and advice to the world. Notice that some of these theories deal with rabbits and the effects of maternal emotion on the developing fetus.
Imagine you are asking the questions. All of the experts' replies are based on actual quotations in the literature1.
"Mr. Expert, if a couple wants to make sure they have a baby boy, what should they do?"
"Wise Sir, are birth defects caused by the mother's longing for foods?"
"Sir, should a man over 50 years old have sexual intercourse?"
"Oh Wise Ones, is masturbation normal in children?"
Figure A.1 shows the effects of masturbation from the book The Silent Friend, published by R. & L. Perry & Co., 1853)
"Sir, does God think sexual intercourse is natural?"
"Sir, do women have an interest in sex?"
Here are a few additional quotations to get you in the mood on those, warm romantic nights...
In addition to the experts' sexual superstitions, exemplified in Appendix I, Mary Toft's predicament endured because "experts" had strange ideas about animals. Here are a few statements from learned men who freely gave their wisdom on the nature of animals. All of these are actual quotations in the literature1 and include the ideas of great men such as Aristotle and da Vinci:
A few final words of wisdom:
PrimaryClifford Pickover, The Girl who Gave Birth to Rabbits (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2000).
Jan Bondeson, A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1997).
The Editors of Time-Life Books, Hoaxes and Deceptions (Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1991).
Martin Gardner, Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1981).
Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. (New York: Dover, 1957).
Carl Sifakis, The Big Book of Hoaxes. (New York: Paradox Press, 1996), 72-75
Dennis Todd, Imagining Monsters (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995).
James Randi, Flim-Flam (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1981).
Nick Yapp, Greatest Hoaxes of the World, (London: Robson Books, 1992).
Robert E. Bartholomew, George S. Howard, and Ralph Bartholomew UFOs and Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery (Amherst, New York, Prometheus Books, 1998)
Daniel Cohen, Waiting for the Apocalypse. (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1983).
Kendrick Frazier, Science Confronts the Paranormal. (Amherst, NewYork Prometheus Books, 1986).
Martin Gardner, The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1988).
Martin Gardner, On The Wild Side. (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1992)
Martin Gardner, The Wreck of the Titanic Foretold? (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 1998)
Simon Hoggart and Mike Hutchinson, Bizarre Beliefs (London, Richard Cohen Books, 1995)
Phillip Klass, UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game. (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 1994)
Michael Loewe and Carmen Blacker, Oracles and Divination, (Boulder: Shambala, 1981)
Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. (New York: Crown Publishing, 1995), originally published in 1852.
Dennis Marlock and John Dowling. License to Steal: Traveling Con Artists, Their Games, Their Rules --Your Money (Boulder, Colorado: Paladin Press, 1994)
Terry Matheson, Alien Abductions: Creating a Modern Phenomenon, (Amherst, New York, Prometheus Books, 1998)
Joe Nickell, Wonder-Workers! How They Perform the Impossible (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 1991)
James Randi, The Mask of Nostradamus (Amherst: New York, Prometheus Books), 1990
Janes Randi, An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995)
Gordon Stein, The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1996)
Victor Stenger, The Unconscious Quantum (New York: Prometheus Books, 1995).
Robert E. Bartholomew, "The Martian panic sixty years later: what have we learned?" Skeptical Inquirer 22(6) (Nov/Dec 1998): 40-43.
Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches. (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 207.
Bertram Rothschild, "Encouraging multiple personality disorder." Skeptical Inquirer 22(6) (Nov/Dec 1998): 40-43.
Scott Lilienfeld, "Diagnosis and therapy gone haywire." Skeptical Inquirer 22(6) (Nov/Dec 1998): 54-55.
Elisabeth Loftus, "Remembering dangerously," Skeptical Inquirer 19(2) (March/April 1997): 20-29.
Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky, The Experts Speak. (New York: Villard, 1998), 14.
Joe Nickell and Matt Nisbet, "CSICOP compiles top ten paranormal hoaxes," Skeptical Inquirer 22(4) (July/August 1998): 14-15.
Jan Willem Nienhuys, "The top ten hoaxes," Skeptical Inquirer 22(6) (Nov/Dec 1998): 66.
Interested in reality hoaxes where people
explore strange worlds that seem to melt before their eyes?
two recent Pickover science-fiction novels exploring parallel realities.
You'll visit worlds replete with beautiful
women and their surgically altered brains, fractal sex, Noah's Ark,
hyperspace physics, hallucinating androids, prophetic ants,
vitamin B-12, cosmic wormholes, novel plastics,
intelligent spiders, and quests for God and the structure of ultimate reality.
The Lobotomy Club