Friday, March 6, 2015

Classic #7

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015. 

Hoaxes – Curtis Daniel MacDougall

Human beings will believe anything. Ample evidence of human credulity is provided by this journalist’s descriptions of about 500 hoaxes of various types and scales. The subject matter ranges from a college student’s practical joke that drove a professor to suicide to the Cardiff Giant, the Mummy of John Wilkes Booth, and the Loch Ness Monster. Journalists don’t trouble themselves with strict definitions like scholars do; therefore, MacDougall happily goes over fringe beliefs, faddish delusions, common superstitions, research misconduct, swindles generated by humbugs in business and myths, legends and scams designed by religion hucksters.

Written in the 1940s and updated in the 1950s for a Dover Publications edition, it pulls examples from a more innocent era when most people not only read newspapers but believed what they read. For instance, Connecticut’s Louis Stone, aka the Winsted Liar, invented newspaper stories such as the tree that grew baked apples, the cow that ate radishes and produced burning milk, and the tame squirrel that used his tail to shine his owner's boots each morning.

The book opens with explanations of the reasons for perennial human gullibility. These include indifference, ignorance, superstition, suggestibility, the unwary conferral of prestige to sources and the powerful readiness to believe for the sake of financial gain, vanity, and prejudice. Finally, people thirst for vicarious thrills to enliven the dull routine of life. 

This book works better as a list of examples than an analysis. As a list, it may provide grist for thought for social and cognitive psychologists. It may also give would-be con and hoax artists ideas to update for our post-modern times. Skeptics and readers who like Martin Gardner and Carl Sagan will like this writer. Macdougall’s last book was Superstition and the Press (Prometheus Books, 1983), which examined the abysmal credulity of the press when covering supernatural and paranormal phenomena, thus perpetuating irrationality and ignorance.

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