Never gets old

These are just some reflections on the curious concept of the paranormal hoax, partially spurred by the comments on this post at Bad UFOs, as well as an earlier post of mine about hoaxes and lying. I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores, motivations of hoaxers and how often (or not) hoaxes appear; that’s a subject that’s far more complicated than it might seem, and being able to apply a simple label of ‘hoax’ does not in any way imply that everyone committing one falls within the same mindset, has the same motivations, gets the same satisfaction, and so on. I’ve met people who simply enjoy yanking people’s chains for a short while (I occasionally engage in this myself,) and pathological liars whose motivations are unclear, but likely quite deep-seated – to think these and many other attitudes can be considered comparable is ridiculously na├»ve.

Instead, this is a consideration of critical thinking, and the actions of the skeptic or ‘debunker’ when examining a hoax. While the ironclad determination that some incident is a true hoax is difficult to accomplish without an actual confession – we can only determine probability, even though in many cases the probability is ridiculously high (*cough* Billy Meier *cough*) – for now we’ll just consider the situations where the incident is actually a hoax, just not revealed. In other words, a fabricated event that remains a secret, known only to the originator.

A commenter on that Bad UFOs link questioned whether anyone would create a hoax that remains unrevealed for 64 years and counting, an Argument from Incredulity and apparently unaware of such incidents as the Cottingley Fairies and the Piltdown Man, to name two off the top of my head. The idea the commenter posits is that the joke is in the reveal, the ability to say, “Gotcha!” – but can we really consider this the sole, or even the prime, motivation?

I think we can all agree, a hoax relies on having a number of people fall for a premise, and the measure of its success is certainly how many people, and for how long. Assuming just for the sake of argument that it’s all building towards a reveal, at what point would the perpetrator decide that it was time? Most likely, when no further positive results seemed to be attainable, which begs the question of when anyone might conclude this to be – how little attention does a hoax have to receive before it’s considered ‘dead?’ Since this is entirely up to one person, the originator of the hoax, then this is going to be wildly subjective. However, if we were to consider that the delight lies completely in how successful it is, then the reveal only prevents further positive results, ending that game. Not to mention, it would probably make any future hoax endeavors difficult or impossible, since the perpetrator reveals him or herself along with the hoax.

Let’s consider the situation referred to in that post, a pair of photos taken by Paul Trent in 1950 purportedly showing a UFO over his farm. It has been posited, for actually most of their history, that the object seen in the images is really quite small, very close, and suspended from the visible electrical wires. If this were true, it would mean that, with about ten minutes or so of preparation, a bit of junk and string, and two frames of film, Trent created one of the longest-lasting and most referenced bits of UFO lore in existence – not a bad return on the investment. Well, no, that’s understating it just a tad – the success continues to this day, featured in an untold number of books, TV specials, websites, and discussions.

And Trent didn’t just snag the believers, but the skeptics as well. No small amount of effort has been expended in evaluating the images, doing enhancements, performing meticulous calculations, and on and on – both in the efforts to establish the images as ‘genuine’ and to establish them as not. Overall, these efforts have likely had little effect – believers are unconvinced by the points made by the skeptics, and the skeptics are unconvinced that a pair of grainy photographs can possibly be considered evidence of extra-terrestrial visitation. In fact, there’s extremely little that they could tell, even if we could definitively establish the images as genuine or hoax. Regardless, the hoaxer’s delight may not be so much from whether anyone believes the images show extra-terrestrial craft, but simply in who wastes their time even bothering with them in the first place. That would mean that the only people who aren’t part of the hoax’s success are the ones who couldn’t care less – and that the point where the positive results have petered out and any reveal seems best-timed has not yet been reached (and won’t, since Trent died in 1998.)

This does, of course, throw a certain consideration into the efforts of skeptics and debunkers, because any participation in the discussions (much less the extensive efforts to scientifically evaluate the photographs, or anything else given as evidence,) means that they’ve been snagged just as badly as any believer – perhaps even worse, if all their efforts cannot reveal a simple piece of junk dangling from a wire. What a joke science is! The commenter on the referenced post even tumbled to this idea, though curiously not mentioning that the believers were also snagged, and apparently unaware that this speculation completely trashed his/her original argument.

So should skeptics be self-conscious of being taken in by a hoax when even considering such cases in the first place? That’s really a personal thing, but overall, I’d have to say no; there are plenty of other reasons to evaluate any and all such claims, and useful information and perspectives to impart while doing so. The idea of a hoaxer ‘winning’ in a battle of wits is a petty and personal emotion, not having any effect outside of our minds, yet the methods of critical thought and examining what, for instance, any photo could really tell us – these remain useful and worth sharing. Not to mention that there may be a lot of personal satisfaction derived from the process, just like completing puzzles or figuring out murder mysteries; anyone’s choice of entertainment is their own.

As I’ve mentioned before, I used to be more active in the discussions of UFOs and paranormal claims, but I never got too deeply involved for a number of reasons. Partially it was because virtually no case examined, even if somehow proven authentic in some way, could possibly tell us much of anything; without rigorous controls and quantifiable results, there are no scientific benefits to be had. Partially it was, indeed, the idea of wasting a lot of time on a near-effortless hoax. And partially, it was because very few involved in such topics can be bothered to hear anything that counters their beliefs, even while repeatedly calling for “open-mindedness,” if you enjoy the irony.

But mostly, I found that the common denominator in all such topics, and many more besides, was the lack of critical thinking – of being able to compare situations, of applying perspective, of following a line of reasoning or seeing logical conclusions. I constantly saw, and see, people starting with a preferred premise and then finding only the supporting factors for it while ignoring all others; who insist on rigorous scientific evidence behind any disproof, but accept casual anecdotes as proof. Who argue that it cannot be a hoax if it remains unrevealed. This experience is, in part, why I started blogging, and why you don’t see posts dealing only with nature photography. It may or may not be working at all, but that’s my choice of entertainment.