The Bunk Stops Here

An interview with Alex Boese, curator of the Museum of Hoaxes

San Francisco, California, USA — As a historian of science, Alex Boese is well schooled in the art of deception — which is not as self-contradictory as it may seem, given that his academic specialty is the relationship between science and popular culture, a pairing that has begotten its fair share of humbuggery in modern times.

Since 1998, Boese has been the curator of the Museum of Hoaxes, a Web site chronicling 300 years of “sensational acts of deception” perpetrated by pranksters, pseudoscientific con artists and the mass media. Among the exhibits are the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, in which a New York newspaper reported that famed British astronomer Sir John Herschel had seen “man-bats” and other bizarre life-forms on the lunar surface through his telescope; the Cardiff Giant, a 10-foot-tall “petrified man” that became such a popular attraction in its day it inspired the saying “There’s a sucker born every minute”; and the Emulex hoax of 2000, a bogus press release posted on the Internet by a 23-year-old college student that alarmed Wall Street by sending the stock price of Emulex Corp. into a nosedive.

The project grew out of Boese’s research for his doctoral dissertation, which, he admits, took a back seat for a few years as he expanded the museum to include everything from outrageous April Fools’ Day pranks to Web hoaxes. It proved incredibly popular with Web surfers, won acclaim from the press and ultimately garnered Boese a book contract. Published last month by Dutton, “The Museum of Hoaxes: A Collection of Pranks, Stunts, Deceptions and Other Wonderful Stories Contrived for the Public From the Middle Ages to the New Millennium” is now available at bookstores online and throughout North America.

Though he is back hard at work on his dissertation, Boese graciously assented to an e-mail question-and-answer session on the suddenly hot topic of “hoaxology.”

The word “hoax” seems to crop up constantly in the news nowadays, and the Internet is famously rife with pranksterism and misinformation. From a historical perspective, is it accurate to say there’s more hoaxing going on today than ever before?

There are definitely more hoaxes around today than ever before. The reason for this is that far more people now participate in and have access to our public culture than ever before, thanks to the Internet.

One of the great motives for perpetrating a hoax is in order to gain publicity. Publicity, in a very real way, equals power in our society. But 300 years ago, it was relatively difficult for the average person to get a message (real or not) out to the public. The rise of urban populations in the 19th and 20th centuries, and with that the creation of the modern mass media, consisting of newspapers, radio, books and TV, enormously democratized our public culture. But still, most people were only content consumers, not content producers. All the content disseminated by the media continued to be produced and controlled by a select few. Therefore, a would-be hoaxer still had to go through the media gatekeepers in order to get his or her hoax out in front of the public.

The Internet has changed all that. Now anyone with access to a computer can potentially communicate a message to millions of people without having to go through any media gatekeepers. And so hoaxers are coming out of the woodwork from all over the place and taking advantage of that access. One manifestation of this is the incredible rise in hoax photographs sent through e-mail. Average people, just playing around on their computers, produce joke photographs (like the one of a man holding an enormous cat) and send them to a few friends via e-mail, and before you know it their creations have spread to millions of in-boxes around the world, without the traditional media having played any role at all in their dissemination.

So, what has happened is not that people have suddenly become more deceptive or gullible. Instead, it’s just become a lot easier to get a message out to the public. A lot of people want to get the attention of the public just for the thrill of it, but they don’t happen to have anything truthful to say that’s of much interest. For these people, a creative lie is the perfect answer.

What are some of the more notorious Internet hoaxes you’ve documented for the museum?

One of the classic ones from the early days of the internet, back in 1994, was the e-mail designed to look like a press release that announced Microsoft was buying the Catholic Church. Apparently, Microsoft would acquire exclusive electronic rights to the Bible in the deal and would facilitate the delivery of the sacraments online. Most people recognized it as a spoof, but enough didn’t that Microsoft felt compelled to issue an official denial.

Then there was BonsaiKitten.com, which was actually a prank perpetrated by some MIT students, but it purported to be the Web site of a company selling kittens whose skeletal structure had been deformed by sealing them inside small glass jars as they grew. The Humane Society flipped when they found out about the site and got the FBI to investigate it. The FBI, of course, found that no kittens had actually been harmed in the creation of the site.

Another notorious one was OurFirstTime.com, which debuted in 1998. Two wholesome teenagers, Mike and Diane, were supposedly going to lose their virginity together on the internet live via a free webcast. The story got picked up by the mainstream media and caused a huge international sensation. But it turned out to be a huge scam. Mike and Diane were actors, and the guy producing the stunt was actually planning to turn it into a pay-per-view event at the last minute. But his plan was exposed before it could ever come to fruition.

To back up a little, what exactly is a hoax, and where did the word come from?

I define a hoax as a sensational and purposeful act of deception that attracts the attention of the public. I deliberately made this definition fairly broad in an attempt to cover the broad range of activities that are popularly referred to as hoaxes, ranging from fake bomb threats to Enron-style business frauds to e-mail virus-warning hoaxes to lighthearted April Fools’ Day media hoaxes.

The part about attracting the attention of the public is what I think differentiates hoaxes from more everyday, small-scale acts of deception. And the part about hoaxes being purposeful acts of deception is how I separate hoaxes from urban legends. Urban legends, in my opinion, are not designed to be purposefully deceptive. They’re more like folktales, or rumors, that are false but not purposefully so, whereas hoaxes are lies that are purposefully designed by someone in order to mislead people.

As far as I can tell, the word “hoax” is a contraction of “hocus,” from the magician’s incantation “hocus-pocus.” The word first appeared in the English language during the 18th century.

Why do people go to such elaborate lengths to deceive the public?

I think that, very broadly speaking, people create hoaxes for the same reason they lie or deceive: to get something that they couldn’t get by telling the truth. But, of course, that just shifts the question to, “What are people trying to get by perpetrating a hoax?” And to answer that, I like to separate hoaxes into two separate categories, each of which attracts a different kind of hoaxer with different motives. For lack of better terms, I’ve begun referring to these two categories as “overt” and “covert” hoaxes.

Overt hoaxes are created with the intention that eventually they will be unmasked and recognized as deceptions. In fact, their public unmasking is usually the punch line to which the hoaxer has been steadily and patiently building up. Most media hoaxes and April Fools’ Day hoaxes fall under this category. A famous example would be the BBC’s “Swiss Spaghetti Harvest” hoax from 1957, in which they aired a documentary about spaghetti farming that managed to convince a good section of the British TV-viewing public that spaghetti grew on trees. Of course, the BBC didn’t want to permanently convince people that spaghetti grew on trees. They wanted people to realize eventually that it was just a joke, because that realization — the “gotcha” moment — is a large part of how hoaxes of this kind achieve their effect.

More recently, physicist Alan Sokal published an academic article in a social-theory journal called Social Text, and then turned around and declared that the article was pure nonsense, thus embarrassing the editors of the journal, who had believed it to be a piece of serious scholarship. Again, there was the intention from the very beginning that the hoax would, at some point, be publicly exposed as a hoax.

The overriding reason that people perpetrate overt hoaxes, as I noted above, is to gain publicity. There may be any number of reasons why they want this publicity: to satisfy personal vanity, to focus an embarrassing public spotlight on the credulity of some opponent (as in the case of the Social Text hoax), for advertising purposes, etc. But the desire for publicity seems, to me, to be a constant underlying theme.

Covert hoaxes, on the other hand, are not intended by the hoaxer to ever be unmasked as a hoax. Or, rather, the hoax doesn’t achieve its effect by being unmasked. The hoaxer, on the contrary, is quite simply trying to get away with something, and if the hoax does happen to become known, the hoaxer plans on being long gone by that time. Financial frauds, scientific frauds and artistic forgeries are typical of this kind of hoax.

For instance, I imagine the great art forger Hans Van Meegeren would happily have continued creating forgeries and pocketing huge paychecks without ever having felt the need to blow the whistle on his deception. The motive for perpetrating covert hoaxes can be as diverse as the motive for committing any crime, but it tends most often to boil down to the desire for money or for career advancement.

What are the ingredients of a successful hoax — “successful,” in the sense that it suckers a large number of people?

First of all, a hoax has to fall within the limits of what we think might be true. For instance, back in 1835, The New York Sun was able to fool a lot of people into believing that the Moon was inhabited by naked winged “man-bats” because most people, even those with scientific training, believed that life might exist on the Moon. But today the same hoax wouldn’t work, because very few people believe that lunar life is a possibility.

The best hoaxes will perfectly locate that gray area of doubt and exploit it to the fullest, pinpointing topics that we assume we know all about, but that we actually know very little about. That’s what made the “Swiss Spaghetti Harvest” hoax so funny, because spaghetti had been introduced to the British diet relatively recently, and many people still weren’t entirely sure of how it was produced, besides a vague idea that it came from Italy. For all they knew, it might actually have been grown on trees. They just weren’t sure.

Second, a successful hoax has to be startling or sensational. It actually takes a lot of creativity to come up with a claim that is genuinely shocking or novel and that will attract the attention of a lot of people. Typically, would-be hoaxers come up with ideas that are just kind of dumb or derivative and that go nowhere. For instance, how many times have radio stations tried to shock their listeners by pretending on April Fools’ Day that they’ve switched formats and become an all-classical or all-country station? I think that coming up with a hoax that is really original takes a lot more work than people realize.

Finally, many successful hoaxes will take advantage of our tendency to believe whatever reinforces our preexisting notions of what should be true, or what we want to be true. Many scientific hoaxes demonstrate this. For instance, the Piltdown Man skull from the early 20th century gained credence because scientists thought that a skull showing the missing link between humans and apes should exist somewhere, and for reasons of national prejudice they wanted it to be found in England. Likewise, UFO hoaxes and cryptozoology hoaxes find willing believers because people want to believe that UFOs, bigfoots and sea serpents actually exist, just because their existence would add an element of mystery to the world.

The infamous prankster Joey Skaggs, who has fooled the media and the public many times over with such elaborate hoaxes as the Final Curtain (a detailed business plan for a theme park catering to dead people), claims that his work is “social commentary” and promotes “media literacy.” Is there anything to those arguments, or is he just rationalizing?

A cynic would say that Skaggs, like many other hoaxers, is just an exhibitionist and likes the publicity that his hoaxes attract, but I actually think there’s more to his work than that.

What I find most interesting is his claim that his hoaxes are a form of art. In interviews he’s explained that he started out in his career by trying to be a somewhat conventional artist, producing works that are traditionally thought of as art (i.e., ones you could hang on a wall or put in a corner). But then he grew into the realization that he could use the media as his living, breathing, fluid canvas. And hoaxes are the paintbrush that he uses to paint on that canvas. I think that’s a cool idea.

As for whether Skaggs’s hoaxes serve an educational purpose by exposing how the media works, that’s hard to say. It’s hard for any artist to control what meaning audiences take away from their work, and that seems especially true in this case. I suspect many people just view them as funny curiosities and miss the social commentary that Skaggs tries to build into them. But that’s not really Skaggs’s fault. And anyway, even if they didn’t open a single person’s eyes to the media’s love affair with sensationalism, they would still help keep journalists on their toes, which in my opinion would be justification enough for their existence.

Not that I’m asking you to psychoanalyze yourself — or maybe I am — but what is it about lying and deception that so fascinates you personally?

Hoaxes can be funny and weird, and that’s a large part of their appeal. I’ve definitely been attracted to stories and tales about weird phenomena throughout my life. My mother’s family comes from the Pittsburgh area, and people from around there tell me that I got the “Pittsburgh gene,” which is like a gene for weirdness. Its existence is demonstrated by the fact that so many people from that region of the country have shown a definite propensity for weirdness, Andy Warhol probably being the most famous of them. I have a great uncle who invented a camera that can take pictures of the little people that live on plants. Evidently, he got the Pittsburgh gene too.

But I think hoaxes also have a deeper appeal, because they raise questions about knowledge and belief and whether what we think we know is actually true. By showing how easy it is to fool people, they show how vulnerable the foundations of our beliefs actually are, because when it comes right down to it, all of our knowledge about the world ultimately rests upon trust in other people. At some level even the most rigorously documented scientific claims always rest upon the assumption that other people haven’t been lying. If you start to think about whether and how often other people have actually lied, then potentially every scrap of knowledge could be undermined and the whole world reduced to a “Matrix”-style illusion.

In that sense, hoaxes prove endlessly fascinating to people with a touch of paranoid skepticism in them, which I guess I must have in ample doses.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/gate/archive/2002/12/19/aboese.DTL