Skepticism

Punctured Equilibrium

This week, the world was introduced to “Balloon Boy.” For those of you who turned your TVs off weeks ago because you were sick of Celebrity Death Coverage (latest news: All Still Dead), Balloon Boy (also known, really, as Falcon Heene) went missing at his home in Colorado last Thursday. Falcon’s parents were building a hot air helium balloon and it was initially thought that he had climbed into the balloon, undone the rope and floated away. The world watched as the balloon sailed across the Colorado afternoon skies and speculation ran wild as to whether the balloon could actually hold him, how they would get him down and whether he had fallen out already.

Twitter was… well, atwitter with the news. The skeptical twitter community quickly discovered that Falcon’s father, Richard Heene, was a UFO-chaser, a ‘life on Mars’ proponent and generally a bit of a whack job.

The Facebook and Twitter skepti-sphere was immediately filled with speculation that the whole thing was a hoax.

The skeptic in me points to the multiple appearances of the parents on reality TV shows.

and

So dad was building a radio controlled UFO. If kid is safe and this was a hoax to promote his Mars Pyramid theory, they better nail him.

Keep in mind, this was hours before the child was found, safe in his house, supposedly asleep in the attic. As it turns out, over the following days, it became more and more likely that the whole thing was a publicity stunt. Today, Colorado authorities are planning on pressing charges against the parents. And now, we’re getting a whole lot of “I totally knew it was a hoax!” This has made everyone feel very validated that they called it first. We were right! It was a hoax! Go Skepticism!

Once again, I don’t want 2 rub it in so I’ll let Elliot do it for me: http://bit.ly/cLNrp I called #balloonboy EARLY!!

Why is the ‘big news’ this morning that the balloon boy was all a hoax. Didn’t we know that less than a couple hours after it happened?

It makes me sad.

One of the most common challenges we hear as skeptics is that we’re really cynics. This incident really brought home why we hear that so often. Many people I like and respect in the skeptical community jumped to the conclusion that the Balloon Boy incident was a hoax, with pretty much no evidence. Taking the fact that the parents believed in strange stuff and making the leap that they would intentionally use their child to deceive the world is a really big leap.

I thought skeptics waited for evidence before drawing conclusions. When did “I don’t a balloon (whose dimensions I don’t accurately know) can lift a six-year-old kid of indeterminate weight” lead to “obviously, this was a hoax, and the cops should throw the book at them”? Was it as soon as we learned Richard Heene was on Wife Swap?

This is real life and real people we’re talking about. It’s not figuring out the ending of an M. Night Shymalan movie early! You took a leap based on very little and you guessed right. Does that make the leap acceptable? Is that really being a skeptic? Because if so, I don’t want to be a skeptic anymore.

Yes, we should have been suspicious. Yes, we should have had doubts, based on what we knew about the parents — that is, that the parents were human beings.

But to claim immediately that it was a hoax based on individuals’ personalities and no evidence… isn’t that what we accuse conspiracy theorists of doing all the time? I would rather be proved wrong after viewing the evidence than to sneer at claims when I have no evidence. And, because I’m human, that isn’t always going to happen. But we need to be aware that it’s happening. Don’t call it a win when we blindly make the right call. Call it an error in our method. Because otherwise, we’re going down a very dangerous path of assuming first, figuring out the details later.

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m too naive for this community. While I’m more comfortable knowing that people might be lying at any time, I am uncomfortable assuming people I disagree with are definitely lying.

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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82 Comments

  1. I view myself as a seasoned skeptic and my opinion on this story is none. I don’t really care if it was a hoax or not. It just isn’t interesting. The people like me who don’t care or the people who do care but are waiting for the evidence to come in haven’t commented yet. What you have seen is disproportionately skewed towards people who are comfortable offering their opinions with little evidence. I don’t think this reflects badly on all skeptics.

  2. Hey, I said nothing about the rest of your post. I actually tend to agree with you, though I was one of the cynical ones at the time. Actually, I was laughing at the /b/tards jokes about the incident, so I’m an even worse person than your regular every-day cynic.

    You are right about jumping to conclusions and I’m actually quite embarrassed that it didn’t occur to me to wonder if the volume of helium was sufficient to lift the kid.

  3. Damn, I run into one minor issue logging in and I miss the chance to point out that CyberLizard’s nitpick about what kind of balloon it was is ultimately irrelavent to the overall point. Granted, it is always good to have accurate information when discussing any issue, but the crux of the argument (which I agree with) does really live or die on that misstep.

  4. My “skepdar” was definitely going off on this one especially during the CNN interview but I completely agree that it is inappropriate to qualify a guess as evidence for accurate skepticism.

    But, you do have to admit it is fun to say, “Aha, I KNEW it!” ;)

  5. If you’re naive, then I’m downright stupid. I held out hope that this was not a hoax… I even looked at the “You said this was for the show” comment as an overwhelmed 6-year-old being thrown into a media blitz he wasn’t prepared for. And the Gawker story that the dad planned a media hoax with a weather balloon months ago, while making me raise an eyebrow, did not scream ZOMG TOTAL HOAX… you know, since the original plan did not involve his children. And you know, the police kept saying that there was no hoax, so I wasn’t assuming any kind of government cover up.

  6. @CyberLizard:

    Snark aside, you bring up a related point.

    Absolutely all the information we had about this entire incident came to us through the news media. The U.S. news media. News media like CNeffinN, which is so diligent in their science reporting that you could convince them the balloon was filled with neon and would totally be glowing if the sun wasn’t up.

    So not only were people jumping to conclusions with little evidence, we were jumping with evidence that came to us from the MOST untrustworthy sources we have.

    Not davew, of course, but others.

  7. The whole story is a hoax. They just include another hoax inside the story to throw us off the track. This is obviously a big cover story to hide what is clearly the beginnings of an alien invasion.

    Helium balloon phooey. That’s right, phooey. Did you see how that thing was moving? Helium balloons can’t move like that. Never in the history of Earth has a helium balloon moved like that.

    Maybe a six year old human is too heavy, but do you know what isn’t too heavy? A six year old lizard. Ever stop for one second and think about that, sheeple?

    I am a Hedge

  8. @Masala Skeptic: And I did edit my comment to include a funny tag and a winkie so that my attempts at humorous ribbing would be recognised. There was certainly never an intent to invalidate your post or smear you with anything, much less shame. Please accept my most humble apologies and let me still be a cabana boy on Skepchick Island.

  9. I kept waiting for someone to present the “x helium in y-sized balloon = enough lift for child” maths. Alas, there wasn’t enough info (or interest) out there at the time.

    The response to this has been emotional as opposed to rational. It’s a very common failing when the kiddies are involved. Some sort of residual species survival reflex. We just don’t like when parents use kids as props.

  10. And don’t be fooled by davew. He’s one of them. You can tell from his name. Look at it backwards.

    wevad

    now capitalize that:

    WEVAD

    Now, since we know you can always drop a few letters when constructing your false name, we have to interpolate the removed letters:

    WE inVADe

    It’s all right there in front of your face if you will stop watching football long enough to see it.

    I am a Hedge

  11. Isn’t Grey’s Law applicable in these situations?

    “Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.”

    As a skeptic, this is usually my default position. I assumed Heene was an incompetent nut before I discovered he was an evil self-serving nut.

  12. I caught the last 10 minutes of the flight by chance on the lobby TV at work. Anxious patients were fussing.
    I have a 9yr old. I told the patients I didn’t think a kid was in there. How does a 6 yr old get in that contraption AND untether it? Impossible. I wasn’t very worried.

    I said it was more likely he was playing around, got in and out, and then untethered it, leaving brother believing he was in it. And I thought he must be hiding…he would KNOW he was in such trouble!

    I admit at that point I didn’t suspect a hoax. I was looking at it thru a mom’s eyes, and they hadn’t yet said anything about the parents.

    Oh, and my son said something telling on Saturday. He has lied about his homework recently and temporarily lost our trust in that area. He said he had no homework this weekend.
    I told him to bring me his school plan book ’cause “I want proof.”
    He surprised me. He said with a big grin, “That’s ’cause proof is a skeptic’s…umm…best friend!” I must be doing something right!

  13. I think that human nature is something to consider when this type of thing comes up. We should look at who is making a claim and take their personal history into account when we evaluate their claim. If Kevin Trudeau claims that he has discovered a secret that is being covered up by the government or if Uri Geller claims that he has discovered something about how the brain works and what it is capable of they will be suspect from the start. It is possible that both of them will make actual discoveries but because of their past any claims they make will be suspect from the begining. The same goes for the Heene’s. They have a track record of seeking plublicity even through the sacrifice of their personal dignity. This past record makes their current claims suspect. To simply accept them wouldn’t be responsible. The authorities did the right thing and tracked the balloon for as long as they could. They were at the landing sight as soon as possible and now they are planning to prosecute for multiple crimes. This is also correct.
    I followed this in only a cursory way. I heard the report of the balloon and then heard the report that the balloon had been found without the child in it. At that point I thought of two horrible possibilities. One the child had fallen out and died which would be bad enough. The second one, the one that I thought was more likely, was that the parents had murdered their child and the balloon was an attempt to cover up that murder. I was thinking of something similar to Jon Benet Ramsey. I was very happy to be wrong.

  14. @Bookitty:
    Various people did the math – I think even on some of the TV analysis. The problem was getting the dimensions of the craft correct – the calcs in the wiki model the craft as a 20 foot diameter cylinder that is 5 feet high – which might could manage the lift – but I don’t think those dimensions are nearly accurate. In any case, the actual question to ask when we’re trying to figure out if it was an intentional hoax is, “Did the father have a reasonable belief that the balloon could lift his child?” – and once I saw the video of the lift-off, my answer to that was “No”. The balloon just manages to waft off of the ground – I’d be surprised if they had to apply even 15 pounds of force to keep it down.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcYGcBYzvWs

    As for the speculation that this was a hoax – I was starting to wonder when the kid showed up alive – after hiding in an attic. There were just a lot of things that didn’t add up – why would his brother say he’d gotten into this craft, when he really hadn’t, and then hold that position during the next four hours? How did a 6-year-old get into an attic that was inaccessible enough that the law enforcement people looked at it and totally dismissed it as a hiding place, twice?

    The “we did this for a show” comment, along with the video of the ‘launch’ linked above, pretty much sealed it for me.

  15. I consider myself to be fairly cynical, and I have no problem with that, but it wasn’t my cynicism that made me instantly tag this event as a hoax as soon as I heard about it.

    I heard about it (of all places) on Wonkette.com in a comment thread. Then a post popped up in my skepticism/science folder from I thought scienceblogs but now can’t find it again (searching sb for a specific post really needs to get fixed soon) in which the author explained the amount of weight a given volume of helium could lift and concluded that there was simply no way that the balloon could ever have lifted the child off the ground.

    That of course brings us to malice -vs- incompetence. I figured that since the dad designed and built the thing himself he must have had some idea of the amount of weight it could hold. At that point, a mere 10-15 minutes after hearing about it I was quite sure it was a hoax after only some cursory research that no one in the media bothered to do until yesterday.

    Interestingly my wife, who is not cynical and not particularly skeptical either, was sure it was a hoax from the beginning as well for reasons she couldn’t really pinpoint. Just a feeling she said, but she’s pretty good at those sorts of snap judgements about people and behavior.

    I think the reaction of many people, both skeptic and non, that this was a hoax was an example of Gladwell’s “Blink” hypothesis in which we can come to very sure conclusions in a snap in particular circumstances in which we are well versed without being sure of why we reached those conclusions.

  16. Maria,

    Thank you for this post. I agree with you. I spent the whole time the balloon was in the air hoping it was all a misunderstanding, and hoping all the skeptics who tweeted “balloon not big enough, they’ll find the boy safe somewhere” were right, but I had no reason to call “hoax” and didn’t think anyone else did either. Then, after he was found safe and they all tweeted “told you it was a hoax” I felt like I was the only one trying to give the family the benefit of the doubt, and assume it was all an innocent misadventure. It irritated me that all the headlines were “was it all a hoax?” but then the stories had no proof that it was or wasn’t. Everyone seemed to jump to that conclusion so fast!

  17. @Gabrielbrawley:

    If Kevin Trudeau claims that he has discovered a secret that is being covered up by the government or if Uri Geller claims that he has discovered something about how the brain works and what it is capable of they will be suspect from the start. It is possible that both of them will make actual discoveries but because of their past any claims they make will be suspect from the begining. The same goes for the Heene’s.

    Sure, but Trudeau and Gellar have made millions on fooling the gullible with extraordinary claims. If Trudeau comes on TV at 3am and says that Cherry KoolAid cures syphillis, it would be foolish to accept it immediately — both because of his history and because that would overturn a great deal of what we know about medicine.

    But if Trudeau appeared on the news at a press conference saying his son had disappeared from his back yard, how should we react? Kids go missing often enough that it’s not an unbelievable event. There’s nothing about Trudeau’s history as a lying douchebag that would inoculate his children from being kidnapped. Is it reasonable or humane to just says “That was the child abduction he DID want us to know about!” and write him off?

    I don’t know where “trapped in a runaway balloon” falls along the spectrum of KoolAid Syphillis Cure to Child Missing. I know balloons can be made to lift fully grown people, and I know young children can do things they shouldn’t when left unsupervised. I do not know enough physics to look at a picture of a balloon on CNN.com and say that it could not lift a kid off the ground.

    Now that Heene is exposed as a fraud, I don’t think anyone is surprised. But I think Masala’s point was that everyone assumed he was a fraud with little information, simply because he holds some nutball beliefs.

  18. Maria and Elyse, I agree with you. On Ben Radford’s Facebook page, a couple of us were fighting this out.

    Another woman and I agreed that even if you suspected a hoax, the right thing to do was to make sure that the boy was safe at all costs. Also, Ben stated that a parent would check every alternative before thinking that it was the impossibly crazy idea that their son had gone up in a balloon.

    The woman and I pointed out that irrational that it may be, if is human nature and parental wiring to instantly go to the worst case scenario and work your way back so that you can maximize the chance of your child being ok.

    I know that when you hear hoofbeats, you are supposed to assume horses, not zebras. However, these people had a zebra in their backyard.

    Of course, it turned out to be a hoax, and ha ha stupid people were worried.

    Whatever. I’m stupid. I will deal with it.

  19. I suspected a “hoax” just because of my aviation experience. It was a little while later that I saw the news coverage about the size of the balloon, the lifting agent supposedly used, plus the kid’s parent’s history on reality TV. My suspicions deepened considerably. Then the kid conveniently shows up, never having been on the balloon at all? My ‘baloney detection meter’ pegged at 100% and stuck there.

    Of course, most people don’t have any experience with any kind of aircraft, so the knowledge base isn’t there. I’ve been around all kinds of them for most of my life. I suppose that you could make the analogy to their claiming that a huge bird just picked up their kid and flew away with him.

    The story just didn’t ‘ring true ‘in my gut, and I’ve learned to trust that feeling because it usually means that my mind is trying to tell me something I’ve missed picking up consciously.

    The authorities did the right thing and I hope they nail these clowns to the wall. That was an expensive little hoax for the taxpayers and they need to pay for it.

  20. I heard an interesting description this morning of the incident as it happened. This person described what was seen on TV and heard on the radio as immediate “coverage” which he differentiated from “news reporting”. It was suggested that “coverage” will always lead to speculation and can only be seen as entertainment in a ratings sense and later the discussion and questions are asked. Not sure I agree but it seems an accurate description of the events. I would think the speculating and gossipy type of response to the story is nearly unavoidable and should be expected given how much we like a good story; and I think humans like looking over the fence and will rarely turn away from an opportunity to see something novel or interesting.

  21. @phlebas: Trudeau claiming that Koolaid cures syphillis would fall into his established patteren of behavior and would thus be more closely scrutinized.

    Heene’s use of family as a way to gain publicity fell within his established pattern of behavior. So it was and did raise alarm bells. People, working in lossely connected groups quickly began to dig up information about Heene’s past and using that information began to predict a hoax. Then or at the same time people began the calculations to determine wether or not the ballon could lift the child. As information was dug up it became more and more likely that this was a hoax and people began to call it that. People working in groups with access to the internet are a powerful tool and can be very accurate. There has been at least one and possibly more studies to the effect that a group will more commonly find the correct answer than a lone individual. Standing outside the group any one person will miss most of what is going on. You can’t follow all of the processes all you can see are the results and these can seem very counter intuitive. I don’t know if everyone assumed he was a fraud with very little information. They may have been assuming he was a fraud based on a large amount of information, collected very quickly by a large number of indiviauals.

  22. My thoughts on the story progressed something like this:
    – “Hmm, I wonder if that thing has enough lift to carry a kid.”
    – “Yeah, looks like lots of lift.”
    – “Oh, wait, got radius and diameter confused. So, 1/8th the lift. Borderline, then. Kinda doubt the kid was in there to begin with. Hope he’s OK either way.”
    – “Ah, kid was hiding. Probably just a kids’ prank gone wrong, then.”
    – “The parents set the whole thing up? Wow, these people are jerks.”

    Through it, I kept suspecting a prank or hoax but didn’t want to say so – even avoided thinking it – just in case the kid ended up hurt.

  23. @phlebas: Not quite, but sure, because those TV movie script writers always do such a good job with the science and research stuff.

    @Gabrielbrawley: I think it’s a great thing. Maher and his anti-vac stuff would have been given a pass fifteen years ago but now internet users and bloggers have hammered his ass to the wall over this issue. Seems like a good phenomenon that deserves an equally good name.

    How about facting?

  24. Really, I just want everyone involved in this story to die. Including those who spread it. ESPECIALLY those who spread it.

    I. DO NOT. FUCKING. CARE. GET THE FUCK OFF MY TV AND GET THE FUCK OFF MY TWITTERS.

    Even if it wasn’t a hoax. Even if the kid was actually in there. Even if he fell out and died in mid-flight.

    IT’S NONE OF OUR FUCKING BUSINESS. It’s nobody’s business but the family’s.

    If it’s real, let them worry and hope and grieve out of the spotlight. If it’s a hoax, starve the attention-whoring assholes. Either way, shut the fuck up.

  25. I’m fucking serious, though. This kind of bullshit reporting is, at best, a waste of everyone’s time. At worst, it’s an insult to the private pain of the families involved. Unless there’s some wider issue at stake — e.g., a serial killer or kidnapping, where public awareness can actually help resolve the situation — there’s no reason to make a news story out of this, except to fill air time.

    The cynical ones are the reporters who exploit these stories because they need an extra piece to round out their segment.

  26. @Joshua: Well, they kind of made it everyone’s business after they used a ton of resources for a hoax. I’m a-ok with publicly shaming them.

    Besides which, we have CNN on all day in the break room here at work, and it’s been ALL ABOUT Sherif Joe Arpaio today, and to be perfectly honest, I’d rather hear about Balloon Boy.

  27. @Joshua:

    At worst, it’s an insult to the private pain of the families involved

    ….Private pain? THEY are the ones that started the hoax. It is 100% a hoax. Whatever pain they are going through right now? GOOD. They deserve it.

  28. You cannot help but assume one way or another: “Do I think this is real or do I think it’s a hoax?” As skeptics we are generally much less accepting of something that initially seems too fantastic to be true. We feel vindicated when we are right, or kinda dumb when we are wrong. Either way, as long as we are willing to revise our opinions when more information becomes available then there really isn’t a problem.

    Trust in the scientific method!

  29. @Joshua:
    If you’re going to be coming into a comment thread with reasonable people, it’s probably best to do away with the “I wish these people would just DIE” stuff. It’s tiresome crap, and the rest of us don’t feel like listening to it, I think. If you’re that angry, then mental health counseling might be in order.

    FWIW, I think it was a totally worthy news story, at least, given our typical standard of things that are news. The fact is, at the time that this was all going down, there was a strong impression that somebody’s life could be in danger, and we, as humans, tend to care about the people around us – especially innocents, and the vulnerable. If you have a problem with anything here, it’s basic human nature. You want us to see and notice that someone is at risk, and then just turn away because we can’t do anything about it, and it’s not our business, I guess. I just don’t think that’s realistic at all.

  30. @Joshua:

    So when the news stations get a call from the kid’s dad that they need their helicopters to help find a missing boy in a fucking space ship… they shouldn’t cover that? Because I would cover that. Especially when the only other news thing to talk about that day is Megan McCain’s boobies.

  31. Masala Skeptic,

    “””Taking the fact that the parents believed in strange stuff and making the leap that they would intentionally use their child to deceive the world is a really big leap.”””

    I think it is not necessarily “big”, at least not by “scam standards”; think of how Mr and Ms Carrey treat their child’s autism, probably just because they think they’re doing the right thing. If people can do that for no logical reason and only for emotional impulses, imagine what they can do in case they have a goal, as the Heenes. The problem with bogus is that, by its very definition, it undermines standards of reasoning and leaves reasonable people without a criterion to evaluate the case. That’s why not lying, not deceiving and not scamming is socially important. And then, there are red flags: once people have been openly associated with e.g. UFOs, I think one can admit those people cannot be trusted to the same extent as somebody else who has not got involved in that stuff. Individuals’ history of past actions is as much of a form of evidence as the facts they may be currently involved in; the former may not overrule the latter, but they must definitely be considered every time a new assessment remains uncertain.

    “””I thought skeptics waited for evidence before drawing conclusions.”””

    As I’ve said, they wait for new evidence, but they must also take old evidence into account.

    “””This is real life and real people we’re talking about.”””

    “Real” yes, but that doesn’t mean “ordinary”. And since most USA families (millions) don’t usually fly fake flying saucers in the air, the Heenes constitute an anomaly and must therefore be applied a higher standard of scrutiny. Otherwise, it would be cheap for anybody to try the same circus and have the country paralyzed to earn some publicity. If that was so easy, planes wouldn’t be able to fly. So, if somebody is going to play a game no other person in the country can play because they understand the consequences, whoever wishes to play that game must be evaluated accordingly strictly.

    ‘””Yes, we should have been suspicious. Yes, we should have had doubts, based on what we knew about the parents — that is, that the parents were human beings.”””

    Well, I would say that there was more than that: there were from the beginning rather suspicious details, like the sequence of phone calls. Chances are that, upon hearing about the story, you also heard a couple of things that didn’t add up. It doesn’t take a lot of skepticism to extrapolate from there.

    “””But to claim immediately that it was a hoax based on individuals’ personalities and no evidence… isn’t that what we accuse conspiracy theorists of doing all the time?”””

    I would say no. As far as I know, conspiracy theorists have no evidence for the supposed agendas they attribute to the agents, but only a bunch of isolated facts they connect as they see fit. As for the Heenes, you have e.g. the phone call history, which for a 9/11 conspiracy theorist would have been like having a listing with three calls from the White House to Osama Bin Laden a couple of days before the attack. Conspiracy theorists lack anything but circumstantial evidence, whereas the Heenes called the media before than 911, which is much more than circumstantial, since the established emergency action is to call 911 right after something has happened. Failure to do is as challenging to normal behavior as homeopathy principles are to standard physics.

    “””we’re going down a very dangerous path of assuming first, figuring out the details later.'””

    But science is precisely about predicting. And you could certainly predict a few things either from Heenes’ past behavior or from the chain of events during the balloon episode. I do not see the problem with “assuming” here if we “assume” when calculating Saturn’s orbit; predicting is legitimate as long as you predict on the basis of previous observations. And hell there were a few, in this case.

    “””Maybe I’m too naive for this community.”””

    I think it generally makes sense to exercise prudence and that there are a lot of cases where there is no easy answer and where it is therefore necessary to approach issues with a both curious and humble attitude. But in the present case, where we have an asshole trying to paralyze a country to get TV exposure, you can just call it what it is. No remorse.

  32. @Joshua: GOOD GOD YOU ARE ANGRY ABOUT THIS, DO YOU NEED A XANAX? BECAUSE SERIOUSLY.

    @Joshua: How can there be a “hypothetical” situation when it was actually a hoax. Like, we’re kind of past the hypothetical, here.

    Turn off the tv, turn off the radio, turn off your computer, go outside, get some air, get a drink, take some fucking xanax, I don’t care, but good gracious you are angry over almost nothing. When you start wishing DEATH on people, it’s time to take a step back. Seriously.

  33. Really, I just want everyone involved in this story to die. Including those who spread it. ESPECIALLY those who spread it.

    Yeah! Everyone who spread the story, DIE! Time to die, all you twitter users and CNN reporters! EVERY one of you! Not the adults who *started* the hoax, of course, no … just those who spread what was originally thought to be a legitimate story.

    I. DO NOT. FUCKING. CARE. GET THE FUCK OFF MY TV AND GET THE FUCK OFF MY TWITTERS.

    WAIT! I thought you didn’t turn on your TV? I’m confused, here, Joshua.

    Even if it wasn’t a hoax. Even if the kid was actually in there. Even if he fell out and died in mid-flight

    First of all, it WAS a hoax. Second of all, as someone else mentioned, it’s pretty much human nature to be interested in a YOUNG BOY who may be in PERIL. I agree that the news went apeshit about it and that’s not necessarily good, but jesus christ, there are seriously better things to be SCREAMING ABOUT on the internet, Joshua.

    IT’S NONE OF OUR FUCKING BUSINESS. It’s nobody’s business but the family’s.

    It kind of is our business when they waste resources because they are attention whores.

    If it’s real, let them worry and hope and grieve out of the spotlight. If it’s a hoax, starve the attention-whoring assholes. Either way, shut the fuck up.

    Why the “Ifs”? We know now that it WAS a hoax.

    I’m fucking serious, though.

    Again, you’re serious about wanting people to DIE? I know you’re *really* not, but come the fuck on. This is getting to be mighty ironic. You light into everyone who overreacted about this story, but you’re doing the EXACT same thing.

    The cynical ones are the reporters who exploit these stories because they need an extra piece to round out their segment.

    I dunno, I think the cynical ones are the ones wishing death upon people, but maybe that’s just me.

  34. Also, his twitter stream shows me this:

    RT @angrytownhall: RUMOR: Balloon boy works for ACORN and sent a SPY BALLOON to take pix for Obama’s SECRET CENSUS. #fact #

    So apparently, *he* can tweet about it, but no one else can! I know it was a joke tweet, but if you’re going to get that riled up and say that everyone who spread the news should die, and then you yourself made a tweet about it? POT, KETTLE, shake hands, thx.

    Mmmm hypocrisy, so tasty.

    And that’s all I’m going to say about that, because clearly Joshua is having an off day.

    Josh, take your pants off and relax with an ice cold brewskie, and maybe tomorrow you’ll wake up on the right side of the bed.

  35. @Gabrielbrawley: No, it’s possible he has done this kind of thing before, I just don’t recall and I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I am also notoriously bad about remembering who is a troll/who is an asshole, unless they do something really bad and directly piss me off, and even then I’m likely to forget.

  36. @Gabrielbrawley & @marilove:

    Josh is one of the good guys… perhaps a little angrier than seems reasonable over a kid in a balloon, but certainly not a troll.

    We do like him. Maybe not when he’s wishing us dead, but that’s so rare we can usually just look past it. Especially considering the extreme amount of stress the Boston skeptics are feeling right now with the loss of Rebecca to England and all… it’s like all that tea dumping was for nothing.

  37. When I first heard the report that the balloon had lifted the boy up and had come down in 2 hours I assumed he was dead. Typically when a helium balloon goes up, it expands due to the reduction in air pressure and goes way up; so high that there isn’t enough O2 in the air to stay alive.

    Real people risked their lives on account of this hoax. They should throw the book at these clowns; jail, fines, and finding them to be unfit parents. They are unfit parents.

  38. I didn’t assume it was a hoax immediately, but given the background info on the family, I found it impossible to rule out, along with all the other possibilities. I don’t know how many skeptics leapt to “It’s a hoax” and how many simply accepted it as one valid possibility. My guess is some of the commenters that annoyed you were in the latter camp but their expression of it came across as cynical, not skeptical. Although I do agree in this case that line was blurred if not totally eliminated.

  39. I thought skeptics waited for evidence before drawing conclusions.

    Masala, I see your point but…

    a. I am not a scientist or investigative reporter with the resources to prove or disprove if this was a hoax. I make assumptions based on the available information. There are very few things in this life that I’m sure of, most everything else is a belief. I believed it was all a hoax from about 10 seconds after seeing the footage of a Mylar balloon zooming across the sky with the leading edge dipping rather than where the payload would be.

    b. If it looks like a dead fish and it smells like a dead fish, someone should flush it.

    c. If we don’t make minor assumptions that something is false, who would ever take the time to prove it?

  40. For Joshua:

    Here’s the deal when it comes to news media and the like. My first career was as a photojournalist and I asked my boss and chief photographer about similar types of stuff, especially regarding accidents and crime scenes, because people love to accuse journalists of exploiting other peoples pain, etc.

    The simple fact is the journalists are there for the same reason that people crowd around a crime scene tape, slow to 20 mph because there’s an accident on the other side of the interstate, hell plain gossip. In short when somebody asks me why I’m there photographing some incident or tragedy, I say it’s for the same reason they’re standing there watching.

  41. @spellwight:

    I am not a scientist or investigative reporter with the resources to prove or disprove if this was a hoax. I make assumptions based on the available information.

    But why? We’re talking about the first 60 minutes after this story hit the news. Why is it important to have an opinion about the truth of an event when very, very little reliable information has come in?

    Hell, the idea that this was a hoax didn’t occur to me until well after the balloon was down. Shame on me, I suppose.

    I believed it was all a hoax from about 10 seconds after seeing the footage of a Mylar balloon zooming across the sky with the leading edge dipping rather than where the payload would be.

    Does “not look like a child is inside” have to mean “hoax”? In this case it did, but this drive to make an assumption immediately is not doing anyone any favors.

    All MHO, of course.

  42. @daedalus2u: I heard one report saying that the balloon reached 10,000 feet. That wouldn’t be fatal, although altitude sickness might be possible if you shot up to 10,000 feet very, very rapidly. I’d worry far more about exposure to the cold, but again 10,000 feet isn’t t00 horribly scary for oxygen, cold, or altitude sickness. 20,000 feet would be scary. 30,000 feet would be dead.

    Your comment about the balloon expanding is often true, but doesn’t apply in this case. This craft was made of mylar, which does not stretch. Also, large balloons intended for very high altitudes are launched quite under-inflated, with a lot of slack in the fabric. As you described, the helium expands as the external pressure drops, taking up the slack in the fabric and filling out the balloon as it reaches great altitude.

    But in this case we had a no-stretch balloon fully filled at ground level, so the volume was constant even as it gained altitude.

  43. @Skepthink: I understand what you’re saying but my frustration is with people who were making the call long before we knew anything about 911 calls. It was based purely on the parents’ background in pseudoscience.

    I had one person cite the 911 calls as reasoning and that seemed like at least they were working with some evidence.

    @spellwight: Yes, it’s difficult to wait for the evidence. But if we are going to call ourselves skeptics, that’s what we have to do. “Hunches” can go very, very wrong; we know the human brain seeks patterns, looks for solutions and fills in the blanks all the time. That’s why eyewitness testimony is so notoriously poor as evidence.

    I am simply advocating looking before leaping. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, etc etc.

  44. @Masala Skeptic: I could be totally wrong, I often am, but can we assume that everyone who said this was a hoax was doing so in the absence of evidence? Smart people who are conversant with the internet can quickly gather evidence in this day. More so people in groups, even loose groups can gather information at a speed that defies explination in the old terms. It is possible that people were calling this a hoax based on the evidence beyond just a gut feeling.

  45. Just to weigh in a little bit:

    I think it’s clear that, while a lot of people clearly were not just saying that they disagreed with the parents’ worldview and therefore thought it was a hoax, some probably were and Masala’s point is still a good one. That is, we always want to remember the highly polarizing tendency of human nature to reduce a situation to “us vs them” tribalism, and to be quick to make assumptions. It’s still a valid point to remember, even if you personally think you had enough evidence to claim it was a hoax.

    But again, the police treated the situation as though there was a kid in the balloon until they found out otherwise, so what we think was totally moot anyway. And that’s exactly how it should have been handled. I’d be far more worried, Masala, if our tweet-theories actually had any impact on the situation, or if the people handling the situation had treated it as such without finding out for sure.

    Tribalism, though. Quite possibly one of human kind’s most troubling evolutionary baggage. Just visit a middle school playground.

  46. Okay, I haven’t read the intervening comments since this post showed up in my feedreader this afternoon, but I’ve been thinking about it since then.

    See, I’m one of those people who doesn’t get their news from TV, and hasn’t watched TV in about 8 years. I consider myself a skeptic, and you would probably call me a cynic, but I don’t see myself that way. Your attitude is based on the premise that “kids go missing all the time,” but that’s not true. Kids rarely go missing. It’s the selective bias of television news that makes us think that a rare occurence like a missing child is in fact a common event. It’s not. It’s a highly unusual event that usually falls into a small number of well-known categories, like custody disputes or runaways. And “disappearing in mid-air from a helium balloon” does not fall into any of those categories.

    For me, the Security Guy at work, stereotypically, was the one who first informed me that a kid from the TV show “Wife Swap” had disappeared in mid-air while in a runaway helium balloon. I immediately said, “Probably an attempt to generate a viral interest in the show.” I don’t think this was cynicism on my part. This was a) the realization that missing children are actually rare, and b) missing children floating in the air in a helium balloon are rare beyond calculation.

    I should have mentioned this in today’s AI, but the biggest problem I see with the Skeptic Movement is the tendency to take televised news stories at their word. It’s not cynicism to say that CNN, MSNBC, or FOX are making shit up. It’s an honest observation.

  47. I didn’t jump to the conclusion it was a hoax right away. I DID immediately think there was no way the kid was actually inside the balloon. It wasn’t floating the way a balloon floats that has a weight at the bottom. It also didn’t seem large enough to lift a child but that was just a guess based on Mythbusters. I assumed the kid got out before it lifted or the sibling was lying because they sometimes do try to get each other in trouble like that.

    After some of Heene’s background came out and the fact the kid was hiding in the attic I started getting suspicious. The CNN interview and the morning show interviews are what made me decide it was probably a hoax. Not just what Falcon said but that his parents dragged him to not just one interview where he threw up but then to another one right afterwards.That raised big blaring warning sirens that somethign fishy was going on.

  48. Okay, so call me a turd but I was really disappointed that kid hadn’t tumbled out of the balloon, at least from a height that would have snapped a few of his smart-ass little limbs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a parent who didn’t or wasn’t willing to exploit their kid for a few minutes of air time or money. I don’t agree with it, but how is this so much different than Toddlers and Tiaras? Slap those dumb-ass Heene’s with the bill and lets move on.

  49. @Howard:

    I immediately said, “Probably an attempt to generate a viral interest in the show.” I don’t think this was cynicism on my part.

    That is, indeed, cynicism. If the initial reaction is to question the motives of those involved, then you are being a cynic. You can still defend that, but it’s practically a textbook example of cynicism.

    I am a Hedge

  50. @daedalus2u:

    jail, fines, and finding them to be unfit parents. They are unfit parents.

    No jail. Jail is just yet MORE resources they will be wasting.

    Tons and TONS of community service, however, and therapy. But mostly, LOTS of community service. Make them give back some of what they took.

  51. @Howard:

    It’s not cynicism to say that CNN, MSNBC, or FOX are making shit up. It’s an honest observation.

    But they WEREN’T making shit up. The parents of the child were. There is a huge distinction. While the media has some fault in that they went super crazy (but that’s normal for them, so whatever), they were only working on what they were given, INCLUDING a sheriff who said, with certainty that the boy WAS in the balloon (I heard it: “Yes, the boy is in the balloon.”). The media didn’t make anything up.

    And yeah, textbook example of cynicism.

    I was on the, “Well…this is crazy. This father is kind of creepy. It COULD be a hoax…but wow, what an elaborate hoax. It could be real. And if it IS real, then the boy is in serious danger. And the sheriff just said the boy WAS in the balloon….”

    So I was on the, “believing it until I get some evidence otherwise, but wow that’s some crazy unbelievable shit!” side. Which, in my opinion, was the only logical place to be at the time it was happening.

  52. @marilove:

    Tons and TONS of community service, however, and therapy. But mostly, LOTS of community service. Make them give back some of what they took.

    I don’t know. Picking up trash in the open air is still within sight of the cameras.

    I think an injunction forbidding them to be shown on television would get them where it hurts. And rechristen poor Falcon to something like “Jim.”

  53. @phlebas: Then have them do stuff inside, like painting or clean-up or serving food in a homeless shelter. Hell, send them to Arizona and Sheriff Joe will shackle them up in 120 degree weather and have them dig ditches. They may not want to be on TV when they are sweating balls, covered in dirt, and red as tomatoes from the heat. It also wouldn’t be fun or easy. :)

  54. @Masala Skeptic: I also see your point and I thoroughly agree that there might have been a not necessarily small number of skeptics who may have come up with an opinion on the issue before any opinion could be reasonably based on objective data, but this set of people does not necessarily overlap with the set of people who were able to form their own opinions on the issue in a fast way. For instance, take the whole media circus into account; I would say that, country-wide, in any given week there are a number of events involving children/teenagers that may be as worrisome and as this one (e.g. other DIY experiments, parties, behavior at swimming pools, car races, etc.). However, you don’t hear about most (understandably so: the persons in that kind of situations generally don’t want to be laughed at by the entire country); we’ve just heard about this one. So, I can understand that, for some people, that could have already amounted to an asymmetry which required an explanation. Before that explanation arrives, the most reasonable hypothesis -which turned out to be in fact true- is that the media were called at a relatively early stage, which clearly suggests a very specific intent.

    Therefore, in my opinion it was not entirely impossible to smell the hoax relatively soon and by applying relatively “first-aid skepticism”, which is why I could understand it if there were people who reasoned this way. If, however, it’s as you describe and there were skeptics who were performing as instinctive “hoax-chasers” themselves and who could tell the hoax just by looking at the Heenes’ faces and knowing what they eat on Sundays, then I agree that’s BS in its purest form and a part of some skeptics’ behavior that I also dislike greatly.

    However, as far as the model skeptic is concerned (which I take to resemble Steven Novella), I think this whole topic admitted some reasonable suspicions right from the very beginning.

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