Whose side are the hoaxsters on?

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On Saturday, Chris Russo and Joe Rudy came all the way from New Jersey to Manhattan to talk to a good sized audience of NYC Skeptics. The title of their talk was, How and Why We Staged the Great UFO Hoax of 2009 (audio coming soon to the NYC Skeptics website). They gave an entertaining account of their activities on January 5th through February 17th of this year, in which they tied simple flares to helium-filled balloons that they then released to fly over Morris County New Jersey and the fallout from these activities. Perhaps not surprising from reading the title, I went to the talk with one main expectation, the “how” of the hoax had been made apparent after these two guys came forward by publicly revealing themselves as hoaxsters in an article in Skeptic Magazine, but the “why” still seemed a bit mysterious to me.

In their Skeptic Magazine article they say:

We had always had a strong interest in why people were so easily fooled by such irrational superstitions as psychic ability, spiritual mediums, alien abductions, and the like…  We brainstormed the idea of producing a spaceship hoax to fool people, bring the charlatans out of the woodwork to drum up controversy, and then expose it as nothing more than a prank to show everyone how unreliable eyewitness accounts are, along with investigators of UFOs.

And in their talk they mentioned perpetrating their hoax as a “gullibility experiment,” as well as a wish to “change just one person’s mind” about belief in such forms of pseudoscience as alien visitation. But I felt that their underlying message was that creating this hoax was their form of skeptical activism. And this makes me wonder, is fooling people to make a point any better than fooling people to make a buck or achieve fame or whatever reason people have for pursuing pseudoscientific activities?

I reread the book “What Do I Do Next?” by Daniel Loxton, editor of the Junior Skeptic, which is essentially a list of 105 ways to become an active skeptic. I am sure that the author and participants in creating this list would not avow that it is an exhaustive detailing of the only ways to be an activist. But in this list of 105 suggestions they did not say “create and perpetuate hoaxes”; although, debunking and exposing hoaxes was recommended throughout. And yet… where would the skeptical movement be today if it wasn’t for a very important hoax engineered by one Mr. James Randi, commonly referred to as Project Alpha?

I am still of two minds on this issue. But I admit to being somewhat relieved that when Chris and Joe got to the “future directions” part of their powerpoint, coming up with more hoaxes was not on their todo list.

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4 Responses to “Whose side are the hoaxsters on?”

  1. Page Says:

    Fascinating diatribe by the commentators on those posts, mjr256. Thanks for the links!

  2. mjr256 Says:

    Ben Radford had a similar response (http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blog/nj_ufo_hoax_by_skeptics_proves_point_but_raises_questions/)

    I agree that skeptics don’t want to make a habit out of becoming the tricksters always hoaxing people and then admitting it later (except for psychics. We should definitely do more psychic hoaxing). However, I don’t object to skeptics pulling off staged hoaxes every once and a while, especially spread out across various didn’t pseudosciences. Now like Sylvia Browne, I possess no psychic powers and so can’t read the R&R’s true motivations, but they do seem to be sincerely interested in interacting more with the skeptical community and not just becoming known for just pranking people. Also, I think they went about this particular hoax the right way by arranging to have their reveal done on eSkeptic.

    I’ll also admit to being a bit more inclined to agree with what they did given that since I wrote up a short report about the lecture myself, the MUFON guy who apparently invited them to their symposium in February has been relentlessly and obsessively trolling the comments section of the article:

    http://www.examiner.com/x-9090-NY-Atheism–Skepticism-Examiner~y2009m7d19-Morristown-UFO-hoaxers-speak-in-NYC

    And if you look at the Ben Radford article linked to above, you’ll find the same guy posted a few angry comments in that article as well.

  3. J. Says:

    I attended the Russo and Rudy talk. They took a stab at trying to present a serious looking slide lecture but I couldn’t help but to be aware of the high spirits and callowness of these two young men gloating at having put over a practical joke. People need a bit of excitement in their lives, suburban reporters need stories and Russo and Rudy had a lark. The older among us envy the young but we are not obligated to be astonished at their wisdom and cleverness.

  4. NYCSkepticsMike Says:

    I didn’t attend the lecture, so I can’t comment on Russo & Rudy’s motivations, but I’ll not that the Project Alpha hoax was a bit different than their UFO hoax. The target of the Project Alpha hoaxters were the working scientists who were taken in by claims of psychic powers in a laboratory setting. A more accurate comparison to Russo & Rudy would probably Randi’s Carlos hoax, which specifically targeted the mass media. Guess TV news hasn’t learned much in 20 years!

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