Hoaxes orchestrated to be revealed as a deliberate ruse are enlightening. Yet, those that were taken in by the stunt are none too pleased afterwards. Skeptical hoaxes are an effective means of drawing attention to an issue but may not turn out as intended.
By Sharon Hill
Doubtful News ran the story about student in Edmonton who made a hoaxed video  of sky noises to show how easy it is to do such a thing. The video  soundtrack she used was, itself, a hoax. And, the original for that  was probably a hoax.
In our piece, we praised Claudine Gladue for showing that “her critical faculties were in the right place”. Not everyone saw things that way. Some believers in the sky noise phenomena were angry with the article and Claudine’s hoaxing. They accused her of riding the wave of the popularity of sky noises and getting her own web hits on You Tube (she currently has over 100,000 views).
Astoundingly, commenters on the Strange Sounds in the Sky blog were more forgiving of the original hoaxers who NEVER admitted to hoaxing and garnered WAY more hits.
Claudine said she was prompted by concern that her friends believed the sky noises were real and were afraid. She did not attempt to make her hoax widespread for media attention and was not responsible for uploading the video to YouTube. It appears that its popularity grew on its own. The original videos, deliberately published to YouTube and spawning dozens of copy cats, propagated the idea far and wide (accompanied by ads) and made millions of people wonder and worry if end-of-the-world cataclysms were upon us.
Deliberate skeptic hoaxes
Manipulating sounds, videos and pictures are easy these days. You can create your own UFO, even one that flies independently and looks realistic. Crop circles were hoaxed to make people believe aliens were sending us messages. Faking demon possession, illnesses or fantastic physical conditions (stigmata, crying tears of stone) convince many of their genuineness. Alien abduction scenarios, psychic powers, Bigfoot footprint casts have all been fabricated and the experts were fooled.
There are several reasons for undertaking a deliberate hoax. Hoaxes for personal gain are infamous but skeptical hoaxes are not about that. These are hoaxes to make a point about being skeptical about questionable claims.
Some people attempt to reproduce an effect, such as a paranormal event or a UFO, just to see if they can pass it off as real.
This is akin to hypothesis testing.
Hypothesis: X can be reproduced without unreasonable effort and will elicit a comparable effect from an observer. No appeals to paranormal or unknown variables are necessary in the explanation of X.
How else can you test the viability of X being engineered without attempting to engineer X yourself and observe the response?
A second goal of skeptical hoaxing is to make the public aware of a problem. Typically, the skeptical hoaxers will aim to show that the claim of a paranormal concept is flawed; it is not necessary to reach for a supernatural explanation when application of human ingenuity will suffice.
James Randi orchestrated many hoaxes in order to demonstrate how easy it is fool people, especially people who think they can’t be fooled.
With the “Carlos hoax”, Randi recruited a performance artist who played the part of a channeler communicating with a 2,000 year old spirit. The act was to show how uncritical the media were about such claims. Carlos continued the act that enthralled audiences. The press never questioned* the authenticity or verified his claims. This exploit demonstrated how easy it was to manufacture a story whole cloth, dupe the public, and manipulate the gullible media, who just ate it all up.
In 1979, funding to study psychic phenomena was awarded to scientists who decided to test young people who claimed to be able to bend metal spoons with mind power. Mr. Randi knew the trick of spoon bending and recruited two kids to infiltrate the experiments. Prior to the experiments, Randi advised the scientists that they should consider trickery at play in the study subjects and offered to help them spot it. He was refused. As part of the rules Randi and cohorts agreed upon for Project Alpha, they were to tell the truth if asked if they were faking. Regardless of the warnings, the kids were never asked. The scientists believed the two hoaxers were genuine.
Las Vegas magicians and entertainers Penn and Teller arranged hoaxes to be filmed for their TV show “Bullshit!”, continuing Randi’s tradition of showing people how easily they can be flim-flammed. In 2005, they spoofed a Bigfoot sighting caught on camera. Known as the Sonoma Video, the footage fooled the leading Bigfoot “research” organization who declared it authentic. Even after it was revealed to be a prank, the leader of the Bigfoot group accused them of lying to market their show. He stood by his statement that it was real . Many deliberate hoaxes (some revealed, some remain unrevealed or suspected) exist in the realm of Bigfoot, which is associated in the public eye with the act of hoaxing.
Many other hoaxes can be found on the Museum of Hoaxes website including the famous Sokal hoax where Alan Sokal sent in a paper full of gobbledegook words to a certain humanities journal to see if it would be accepted. It was. He succeeded in demonstrating the decline in standards of humanities journals and embarrassing some into reaction. [Paragraph edited: 31-Jan-2012 see comment below]
Drawbacks of hoaxing
It’s difficult for a minority opinion to be heard. Hoaxing and revealing can generate media attention for the unpopular opinion. While it doesn’t feel good to make someone look like a fool to their colleagues and the public, it can be useful to use such theatrical tactics to get your message across when other less dramatic methods are ignored.
Nevertheless, hoaxing to prove a point can have serious drawbacks including loss of credibility, creation of a public hazard and the threat that things can go seriously awry.
Whereas a fake UFO can potentially violate airspace laws and a crop circle causes loss of revenue for a farmer, one can’t predict if a hoaxee will react violently to the revelation that he has been duped. Attempts to exact revenge or other unanticipated consequences can result.
The critical thinking community adheres to scientific standards for evidence, and is careful about providing all facts to be weighed. Deliberate hoaxing will involve some degree of withholding or misrepresenting critical information.
Ben Radford, skeptical paranormal investigator and co-author of two books about hoaxes  says he has never attempted a hoax because it might tarnish his credibility as an investigator. “If I’m on an investigation, I don’t want anyone accusing me of faking anything in order to debunk it. There’s a fine line, however, when you’re duplicating an effect (for example asking a “sciencey” ghost hunter to evaluate a ghost photo that you purposely made to see if they can spot a fake).”
Radford also remarks, “I think that hoaxing to make a point might be useful in some cases, but people don’t like to be made fools of.”
Author and skeptical investigator Karen Stollznow has written about and been involved in skeptical hoaxes before. In her piece, Hoaxes: For Better or Worse, Karen gives several examples of deliberate hoaxes – including the Project Alpha, Carlos and Sokal hoaxes – describing them as “social experiments” which “reveal human behavior under natural conditions.” She also reminds us that these orchestrated hoaxes were not intended for personal gain but ultimately for the public good, to prompt critical thinking.
Karen took part in an elaborate orchestrated hoax with Bryan and Baxter of Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society .
The group concocted a story about seemingly paranormal events taking place in a home and invited a pro-paranormal investigator to evaluate the situation. As with Project Alpha, the group agreed to admit to all if confronted by the hoaxee. In addition, they left many clues as to their identity and purpose, which were never discovered. In their final analysis the group was emphatic that no one should enter such an elaborate hoax lightly – in fact, they suggested you don’t do it at all – because of the potential dangers in exposing someone and having the situation turn bad.
When the Rocky Mountain Paranormal group presented their story at a skeptical meeting , Karen says it was generally well received but there were concerns about the ethical breaches involved or the perception that they were “mean” to the hoaxee. She stressed that the underlying purpose of what they did was intended to expose the problems that this individual was causing by offering paranormal conclusions. Their group was highly experienced with the subject matter. Therefore, even though it may have seemed mean, a hoax was an effective way to observe the person in action and to gather evidence that the paranormal hoaxee was actually the unethical one – causing great harm by convincing clients of serious paranormal activity in their homes.
Still, there are those, including many advocates of critical thinking, who feel hoaxing of ANY sort is not acceptable, that it is irresponsible and against the ideals of truth-seeking or presenting honest criticism. Demonstrating that one can be fooled is a tricky area. On the one end, magicians fool us deliberately. Yet, that kind of buy-in is expected. We fully understand they are tricking us and we gladly participate. With the deliberate skeptical hoax, there is a time lag which allows observers to develop a greater connection to the events, to accept it as real, even publicly endorse it as genuine.
The sad truth about hoaxes
With the potential pitfalls that can occur as part of a deliberate hoax to expose shoddy thinking, people will still attempt it. It can make for a surprising and mesmerizing story that gains media attention to the issue that needs exposure. Lecturing, letter writing campaigns or offering your opinion to everyone around you is not going to garner the same attention as a dramatic tale of deception and reveal. So, as in all of life, a variety of different methods must be used to reach the varied audience.
A curious thing about hoaxes is they don’t often seem to impact the hoaxee in the intended way. In order to save face, the target of the hoax will make excuses and will insist that while THIS instance was a spoof, the phenomenon, in general, does exists . A display is particularly powerful if it reinforces part of one’s worldview (as with a perceived supernatural religious event, a UFO sighting, or that spirits of the dead can communicate). The will to believe is difficult to overcome. The greatest value gained in a publicly-exposed hoax is that the onlookers, the nonparticipants, are jolted into seeing so-called experts bamboozled. In the examples given, the field of parapsychology and the belief in channeling were revealed as having weak or no objective standards so one cannot readily distinguish real from fraud. Therefore, it is now potentially ALL a fraud.
Is hoaxing intellectual dishonesty? Temporarily. Dishonesty is required to some degree (on a spectrum from silence to elaborate lying) to perform a hoax. In the cases described, acting and deception was short-lived and done without the intent to cause harm or for personal gain. Skeptical hoaxers have repeatedly remarked how sad or disappointed they were that the hoaxee did not discover the ruse! Had the hoaxers been caught, it would have been some vindication that the hoaxed party was not nearly as naïve and credulous as was assumed. Ultimately, the skeptical hoax culminates in the act of exposing the game. That is a key to concluding that these skeptic hoaxes are appreciably different than other kinds of hoaxes.
The issues surrounding hoaxing are multiple and complicated. Truly unethical hoaxes stem from those malicious or greedy conspirators who attempt to gain from their stunt and never reveal their duplicity. In that category are those original sky noise hoaxers whose thoughtless and irresponsible constructions caused widespread fear that an epic catastrophe is about to befall us. It is one thing to personally believe that 2012 will be the year of the apocalypse but quite another to deliberately encourage that belief by manufacturing false events. Those acts are reprehensible.
Skeptical hoaxers, such as Claudine, Mr. Randi, Penn & Teller, and the Rocky Mountain Paranormal crew managed to deliver a very useful message – whether you liked their method or not: we can all be fooled. We ought to heed that warning with some humility and learn a lesson from it.
1. Edmonton video
2. Conklin video
3. Kiev video
4. The leader of this group (Bigfoot Field Research Organization), Matt Moneymaker currently heads a team on a popular TV show called Finding Bigfoot. So, the embarrassing event was quickly wiped from the web pages and from people’s memories. Bigfoot, even though popular as a hoax, is still popular in general.
5. Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking. By Robert Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford. Prometheus Books: 2003, 229 pages. And, The Martians Have Landed! A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes. Co-author with Robert Bartholomew. 2011, McFarland and Co. Jefferson, North Carolina.
6. You can listen to an interview with all involved available on the Token Skeptic podcast #70 – On Hoaxing The Hoaxers
7. The Amazing Meeting in 2011
8. An example of cognitive dissonance.
* Addendum 5-Feb-2012: Not everyone agrees the press was completely credulous or that this was a resounding success. As typical, the truth may be far more complicated than that.
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