Afternoon Inquisition 4.11

Earlier this week, catching up on podcasts on my only night off this month (and continuing my journey through every solitaire game ever created), Dr. Dean Edell; was talking about the most recent UFO hoax and ensuing media circus. He brought up an interesting angle I hadn’t considered and that I thought would make for good discussion here.

Do you think creating fake paranormal events and then exposing them as false is an effective way to advance skepticism in the general public? Does it encourage real critical thinking or just cynicism?

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  1. Terrible idea all around.

    Believers will write it off thinking that because it was a hoax all along, it was simply a rigged stunt.

    Also, across all media especially the web the “fake” paranormal event will be broadcast like contagion where it will live on forever casting doubt on debunkers everywhere.
    Meanwhile the “Reveal” part of the hoax will be conveniently overlooked by all but about 10% of mass media, and even that will fizzle as a story in about 30 min.

  2. . . . .catching up on podcasts on my only night off this month. . . .

    Sounds like you and I are in the same boat these days, Carrie. I’m actually posting this comment from my desk at work. It’s Saturday afternoon and I’ve been here all day. On a Saturday!!

    And I don’t see any end light at the end of the tunnel yet. Sheesh!

    Anyway, I would say hoaxing to teach is a bad idea, but for weird, Sam reasons. I despise practical jokes. And hoaxing with a reveal would seem like a practical joke to me, with the mark never aware of what’s going on until the end.

    I prefer humor that everyone is in on from the beginning, and I would prefer to teach and demonstrate critical thinking with everyone in on it from the beginning.

    Just my take. Now back to work.

  3. I think that there is some value in this method insofar as it can help people to realize just how easily their senses can be fooled. So while there are obvious drawbacks I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s a bad idea all around.

  4. The biggest problem is doing the hoax so that the message gets to those who should be your real target audience; the “fence-sitters”. Those who are seduced by the woo-woo idea, but not really committed.

    The true believers aren’t going to swayed no matter what; they’ll find some way to reason themselves as being right anyhow. Also, if your hoax only serves to humiliate them, you’re going to turn off a lot of the middle ground away from learning to get the facts just out spite for you.

  5. Not a good idea…Why set them up when we already know it’s all hooey? If you do set them up and they manage to expose you as the faker, it lends them (illogical, but true) credibility.

  6. Not a good idea. If you look at all the ufo photos, crop circles, ghost hauntings, etc. that have been proven to be hoaxes or simple, demonstrable misinterpretations, and which continually come up as “evidence” of paranormal/extraterrestrial activity, you realize that debunking usually has no effect. Every show on ufo’s you’ve ever seen describes the same, tired old stories, the same photos, even though they’ve been explained. It’s a sort of “Gish Gallop”, wherein by the time you’ve shown that the first 10 things were fake, there are 20 more things to explain away. Don’t give the sensationalists any more ammunition, or the credulous any more silly crap to have faith in, or the conspiracy theorists any more “evidence”.

  7. I don’t think it’s a matter of whether hoxing is a good or bad idea. Rather, it’s the purpose and execution of the hoax that can be good or bad.

    Do it to humiliate the credulous fools, thus giving one the opportunity engage in a Nelson laugh = Bad.

    Do it to educate by leaving clues within the hoax that it is a hoax, and follow up with an explaination of why the hoax was performed and how one could have recognised it as such = Good.

    Good intentions but poor execution = Bad.

    Critical thinking is a skill that needs to be developed. If the hoax is a means to encourage critical thinking then I think it can be of benefit.

  8. The best person to answer this question would be James Randi, who has orchestrated several hoaxes in his career as magician/skeptic-with mixed results. Most noteworthy would be the Carlos Hoax and Project Alpha.

    In the Carlos hoax, Randi created a fake psychic out of his friend Jose, who allegedly channeled a 20k yr old spirit (which was really Randi whispering to Jose through a radio in his ear)- They advertised all over Australia with fake references no one had checked out (including fake video footage of ‘Carlos’ in front of a huge US audience which turned out to be the crowd at a Penn&Teller stand up act). Randi then went on 60 minutes and exposed the hoax, explaining his intent to demonstrate media gullibility. Even after the confession, many ‘believers’ still insisted Carlos/Jose channeling was real.

    In the Alpha hoax, Randi had 2 friends pose as psychics and enter in private study of the paranormal. The scientists studying the fake psychics-for a time- believed the powers were real. This fraud study went on for 3 years before the confession came by Randi, causing great anger at the 3 yrs of lost research money, but also causing many to reevaluate research methods and validity in paranormal research.

    It’s hard to say with believers- Some people simply have a permanent mental block and will not change their position even when facing irrefutable evidence (the Jose/Carlos fans still believing in Carlos even after Jose himself denies it). However, I think it does do some good for people who are not totally gullible, but only uninformed, like people who may believe in astrology only because the implausibility has never been explained to them. (i.e. ‘the general masses’, the American-idol watchers, etc…)

    In any case, it can’t hurt, and if it does (like Project Alpha, and the loss of 3 years of funding) good should always come later in the reevaluation. Angered or impressed, these frauds will certainly generate critical thinking.

  9. I guess it depends on how it’s handled. If it’s done simply to insult people, I might have a problem with it. On the other hand, it’s often done to demonstrate how easily the average person can be deceived into thinking sleight of hand is, in fact, real magic. That’s a different sort of thing. It goes a long way toward making people wonder if the miracles of myth weren’t just hoaxes, too.

  10. I think it is a good idea. Stephen Moore stole my idea of charisma and debunking.

    And if the media (or kook sites) used my pictures or materials, I’d simply sue the crap out of them. I don’t think they have money to burn.

  11. I was a fence-sitter but when I heard about Project Alpha I fell off on the skeptical side and started reading literature critical of the woo.
    I think hoaxes can be beneficial.

  12. @Middleman: Agreed. One won’t change the true believer with any amount of reason. Personally, I target the people who are “fence sitters.” Those that aren’t sure. They kinda believe but they haven’t looked into it much. They often take the credulous media at face value. I like to show how easy it is to capture “paranormal” or “ufo” stuff on camera. All my top viewed photos are in these two categories.

  13. I think if you could get media buy-in up front, it could be practical. If, before the hoax, you could meet privately with the newspaper of TV station and get them to agree to tell the *whole* story, there could be benefit. So you would perpetrate the hoax (with your media partner recording the set-up), release it into the world and let everyone go crazy, and then have your partnered media outlet report on the whole story, showing how guilable people can be.

    Handled correctly, I think it could be beneficial. But there are a lot of places it could blow up.

  14. It might be more effective to skip the hoaxes altogether and just “confess” to the existing stuff. “Loch Ness Monster? Yeah, that was us. Sorry about that. We won’t do it again. Promise.”

  15. Steve, I think the crop circle guys tried that approach….

    Their success at convincing the masses was underwhelming.

    Unless by “us” you meant the Govt.

  16. I think it is a good idea. I can still remember watching Lenorad Nimoy with his show “In search of” and how later wehn I learned it was all bullshit, that it taught me a cruacial lesson in questioning something that was presented to me. And yes chilfern I am old. I hope you might know who leonard Nimory was. If you don’t it was te actor who played spock veofre silar did in the upcoming mo ie. Anyway. Sex is more fun than logic. I can’t prove it but it is, in the same since the carala bruinie is an that elmar cogan isfn’t.

  17. Meh, people who are trumpeting the cause of UFOs are pretty already well established as quite recalcitrant in the face of common sense, they will inevitably adopt a “alien of the gaps” response and point out, irrelevantly, that all the other lights in the sky are still aliens. So it’s effect on them, either way, is essentially negligible. Fencesitters who haven’t been inclined to seriously consider the topic in any way might switch their default switch from “all lights always are aliens” to “all lights are weather balloons and road flares,” which, while not what we probably are aiming for, is going to be closer to the truth most of the time, and at least generates fewer episodes of Montel. In the meantime, it is frakking hilarious-and makes for a fine teaching example for youngin’s and converts.

    No effect on the true believers, a better choice for the fencesitters, entertainment for us watching folks chase their tails? Seems like a decent, if mostly irrelevant, use of an afternoon.

  18. I think a poorly chosen target will be at best a wasted effort, and at worst playing to the cynic stereotype. A good target would be something that would get a lot of attention, and has evidence that’s claimed to be conclusive. With something like ghost photos, there’s crap loads, and it’s expected that the vast majority are nothing, but the belief that maybe just one of them is real carries on the belief. Crop circles are a better example. They were claimed to be so perfect and complicated that there was no way it could POSSIBLY be a hoax. Now that’s a perfect target. Or a bigfoot video. If someone claims it’s impossible that it was a guy in a suit, well, rig up a guy in a suit and prove it IS possible, and then go from there. The more impressive the hoax and the more it’s been held up as solid evidence, the better a target it is.

  19. If I were clever enough to think up a way to fool people into thinking they saw a real UFO, I would want t enlist the help of a media journalist to help document the whole thing from the beginning. That way, the story is not just the hoax, but also the reaction to the hoax becoming part of the story. You would want to find a journalist who has traditionally been a bit skeptical themselves so that you could be sure that they would faithfully go along with the secrecy until the reveal.
    I could see that as an advantageous plan because the journalist, knowing what was going on ahead of time, could center the meat of the story not on the hoax itself, but the public reaction to it. That way, maybe people could see how being a little more critical might save them from looking foolish in the future.

  20. Hoaxing a UFO is performance art. How could your artistry be appreciated if it went unacknowledged? Gotta expose the hoax, because experience shows that it would have to be really really badly done to get caught.

    As for promoting the cause of skepticism, it might influence a few fence sitters, but mostly it would be interpreted to fit whatever confirmation bias was most pleasing to each observer.

  21. Glad this has been brought up. I agree with most of the commenters here, this is a bad idea. It fails in its very concept because attention will be paid toward the hoax itself and not its actual explanation. in the media anyway…..

    Also…… would be a big fat lie and if there were a vengeful god (which there almost probably isn’t), he/she would smite you till you were nothing but vapour. Further more, no-one would trust you, due to your investigative reporter-esque skills of double back stabbing people you claim to defend.

    What an easy target.

    Convincing some ufo nuts that your ufo hoax was real would be about as easy as convincing Jenny McCarthy that vaccines are dangerous.

    It doesn’t encourage real critical thinking. It encourages cynicism and un ethical approach to obtaining results. Use science and education not entrapment. The very idea could actually encourage more people to the exact opposite of the intial intention.


  22. Setting up a ruse or hoax to make a serious point could be quite effective unless it’s allowed to go on too long and potentially cause unwarranted harm. Mind you embarrassment and some judicious applications of humiliation are never unwarranted when smacking wooers in the maw.

  23. There are situations that it’s well suited to. I think the Alpha Project, whether or not it was a publicity success, was a good idea. The research being done was being put out as scientific evidence for paranormal events. Simply stating that the methodology was flawed and the quality control terrible wouldn’t have had any traction, and would have come off as cynical, or slanderous. Instead they had solid evidence that the methodology too poor to give meaningful results.

    I suppose that’s what it comes down to – what are you targeting. Using a hoax and reveal to show that UFO believers are easy to make believe in UFOs is nothing special. Proving that so called high quality evidence, serious research, impossible to fake evidence, or otherwise scientifically compelling material is total crap is worthwhile, and effectively done by faking the unfakeable or exposing the unscientific.

  24. I’m conflicted on this. Our local news has been just begging to be hoaxed lately with feature stories on local hauntings reported matter-of-factly and giving some charlatans an air of credibility by labeling them “paranormal investigators” and “ghost experts”.

    I want someone to punk them so hard, just to call them out on their crap journalism. But, as others have pointed out, these things never seem to go well.

    I did have a dream a few weeks ago about a group of badass physicists and mentalists teamed with a crew of professional audio and special effects engineers putting together an elaborate hoax on those cable tv ghost hunter guys during a live special they’d somehow managed to set up; taking over their tv show in a glorious feat of stealth debunking and mad skeptical ninja skills.

    Somebody make this happen, please! Skeptical Ninjas. You know you’d watch that show!

  25. The real problem is then if the news station runs a faux UFO story and they then reveal it was a fake, what of their OTHER news stories? This idea cannot be considered in a vacuum of just “fake UFO story” but “fake story” overall.

    “Oh, millions of people die every year from AIDS in Africa? Must be a lie, remember that UFO story? That was a fake, too.”

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