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Can you Detect Hoaxes?
Discover why it is not easy

Abridged from Alex Boese 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 Millenium. Penguin Books, 2002.

How to Avoid Being Hoaxed
A hoax is something intended to deceive, like Piltdown Man or the Hitler Diaries. Unfortunately there is no simple way to avoid being hoaxed other than to shut yourself away from all sources of information including people. This is because information by itself cannot tell us whether it is true or false. Nor can we rely on common sense. Many claims known to be true, such as the earth going around the sun, were once seen as false because they defied common sense. The only way to detect a hoax is to check the evidence external to the claim, that is, where it came from, how it was produced, and why. But hoaxers are good at preventing this.

For example, the claim may depend on evidence that only the hoaxer has access to such as an alleged manuscript; or it may depend on evidence that is hard to access such as equipment left on the Moon; or on evidence that has been invented under a prestigious name to persuade you to believe it.

Indeed, true claims can seem just as far-fetched as false ones. Without outside evidence (that is, real evidence, not just opinions) there is no way of telling which is which. But try it for yourself:

Test your skills
Imagine you are a newspaper editor. A reporter has handed you a story containing the statements listed below. But the reporter is no good at detecting hoaxes. So which statements do you accept? Could your readers rely on you to detect the hoaxes? There are 16 statements. Which are true and which are false? Saying "I don't know" is not an option. The answers are given at the end.

#1. The Eskimo language has over a hundred words for snow. #2. A lake in Massachusetts is called Lake Chargoggaggoggmanchaugagoggchaubunagungamaug, a Native American word meaning "You fish on your side, l'll fish on my side, nobody fish in the middle." #3. When Columbus sailed to America in 1492, most Europeans believed the earth was flat. #4. Sharks do not get cancer. #5. Long-tailed South American monkeys cross rivers by clinging to each other in a long chain between trees on either side of a river. Other members of the pack then climb across this monkey chain to reach the other side. #6. Lemmings commit suicide en masse by hurling themselves off cliffs. #7. In Vilacabamba, a small village in Ecuador, the inhabitants have an average life-span of more than 100 years. #8. Lightning has been known to imprint photographic images of surrounding scenery onto the skin of people it has struck. #9. Early Dutch traders bought Manhattan Island from a local tribe for a few trinkets today worth about $US700. #10. When the English Pilgrims landed in the New World, they met a Native American who had lived in England for many years. #11. Mud throwing was an official event at the 1904 Olympics. #12. The ancient Sumerians worshiped Ninkasi, a goddess of beer. #13. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two of America's founding fathers, both died on 4 July 1826, fifty years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. #14. Cockroaches can survive for up to a month with their heads cut off. #15. Turtles never die of old age. #16. Gravity has a stronger pull at the Earth's poles than it does at the equator. So a person weighing 150 pounds at the equator would weigh nearly 151 pounds at the poles.

The first eight statements are false:

#1. The Eskimo language has only qanik (snow in the air), and aput (snow on the ground), which are then modified as in English (snowfall, snowdrift, etc). #2. The lake name is correct (the English name is Lake Webster) but not its meaning, which is something like "the fishing place at the boundaries of neutral meeting grounds." #3. In 1492 few people believed the earth was flat. When at sea they could see the curvature by looking at the horizon. #4. Sharks definitely do get cancer, but less often than humans do. Eating shark cartilage does not confer protection against cancer. #5. Monkey chains are a myth that was started by early European explorers of South America. #6. Lemmings do not periodically commit suicide by hurling themselves off cliffs. The idea was promoted by a 1958 Disney documentary White Wilderness in which lemmings were herded off a cliff to show this supposedly natural behavior. #7. The Vilacabambans were lying about their age in order to attract more tourists. #8. Lightning can leave strange markings on the people it strikes but there is no evidence that lightning has photographic properties.

The last eight statements are true:

#9. A 1626 letter exists in which a Dutch merchant reports the sale of Manhattan Island. But the local tribe didn't actually live there and had no right to sell it. In effect the sale was a con. #10. The English-speaking Native American whom the Pilgrim Fathers met had been taken from his village by a British captain around 1605. He lived in England for nine years, was sold into slavery in Spain in 1614, and eventually made his way back to Massachusetts in 1619 via England. He had crossed the Atlantic a total of six times. #11. The 1904 Olympic Games held in St Louis MO were the most bizarre on record. The modern Olympics had begun only eight years before and the St Louis organisers were uncertain which sports to include. So they had events such as mud fighting and greased-pole climbing in which "primitives" such as Pygmies and Patagonians could compete separately. The outcome was such a fiasco that the Olympic committee reheld the games two years later in Athens to get them back on a more dignified footing. #12. A recipe for beer exists as part of a hymn to the goddess Ninkasi on a 3800-year-old clay tablet from Sumeria. The beer tastes like apple cider with the fragrance of dates. #13. Jefferson died at his home in Virginia and Adams died the same day at his home in Massachusetts. Americans were fascinated by the coincidence and read great meaning into it. For example Adams's son John Quincy Adams, who was President at the time, declared the coincidence to be a "visible and palpable" sign of heavenly favour. #14. Cockroaches need their heads to eat but not to breathe. Without heads they ultimately die of starvation. #15. Unlike humans, turtles do not continue to age once they reach maturity. In principle they could live forever (ages beyond 150 years are known), but in practice they die from injury, disease, or predation. #16. The Earth is not perfectly round but is slightly flattened at the poles. A person on the equator is 13 miles further from the Earth's centre than at the poles, and enjoys slightly more centrifugal force, all of which results in the weight difference.

By now the moral should be clear: True claims can seem just as far-fetched as false ones. Without outside evidence (that is, real evidence, not just opinions) there is no way of telling which is which. If you missed seeing hoaxes such as Bridey Murphy, Count Balmoris, Nantucket's Sea Serpent, and Minnesota's Icemen, you can find them and many more at the Museum of Hoaxes

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