The Museum of Hoaxes was established in 1997, as a place to catalog and document the phenomenon of hoaxes—“a variety of humbugs and hoodwinks—from ancient deceptions all the way up to modern schemes, dupes, and dodges that circulate on the Internet.” The tricky part is that the Museum of Hoaxes doesn’t actually exist.
Well, it does, but only virtually. Alex Boese has been operating the Museum as a running website-slash-blog for nearly a decade at www.museumofhoaxes.com. Boese (pronounced BURR-za) runs the show from a fat broadband connection in his California home, although there’s been enough confusion about the issue that he regularly gets emails requesting tickets and driving directions. There are 50 or so different categories, or “wings” in the Museum of Hoaxes, including “Con Artists,” “Conspiracy Theories,” “Mass Delusion,” “Military,” “Pranks,” “Religion,” and, of course, “Gnomes.” Boese updates the site frequently—often several times a day—and corresponds with a huge following of readers who submit items for display. The Museum averages about a million page views a month.
Boese’s efforts have won him a reputation as a leading “hoaxpert,” and he often advises media types when the inevitable April Fools Day feature stories rotate onto editorial calendars. Spend some time scrolling through the digital halls if the MoH, and you’ll find evidence of a man obsessed. The Museum is a remarkably comprehensive chronicle of misinformation, tirelessly cataloged and researched. What began as research for a doctoral dissertation in the history of science, has turned into a full-time occupation for Boese. He’s written two books on the subject—The Museum of Hoaxes: A History of Outrageous Pranks and Deceptions and his latest work, Hippo Eats Dwarf: A Field Guide to Hoaxes and Other B.S.
Hippo Eats Dwarf keeps the focus on modern-day hoaxes and pranks, and it’s a fascinating read. Boese doesn’t just compile wacky stories, he digs in with the tenacity of a scholar. While much of the material is just weird and funny, some of the stuff here is, frankly, terrifying. Not so much the baby-in-a-bottle kind of items (though there’s plenty of that, too) but rather the relentless, seemingly institutional dishonesty in our society—governments, corporations, and media. Boese frames the material with a tone somewhere between healthy skepticism and weary cynicism.
Your books and ongoing blog reveal a pretty deep fascination with hoaxes. Where did that come from? What is it about the concept of hoaxes that you find interesting?
I’m sure there’s something in my psychological make-up that causes hoaxes to appeal to me. I’ve always been a skeptic, distrustful of authority, and unwilling to take things at face value. Plus, hoaxes appeal to my sense of humor. But what I find really interesting is the question of why we believe what we believe. When we read something in a newspaper or in a textbook, why do we accept it as true? Basically we’re taking it on trust. Realizing that—how little of our beliefs depend on first-hand experience and how much depends on trust—can make one a bit paranoid about what really is true. What if that trust is misplaced? I guess I’ve allowed my sense of paranoia to develop into a full-blown obsession with how belief is manipulated and distorted.
Where did the term “hoax” come from?
The word hoax dates back to the 18th century. The most popular theory is that it was a contraction of ‘hocus’ from ‘hocus pocus,’ which itself was a satirical play on ‘hoc est corpus,’ the phrase used by priests when they performed the act of transubstantiation. Protestant jesters making fun of priests were the first to use the phrase ‘hocus pocus,’ and from there the phrase developed into ‘hoax.’
Your background is in the history of science. Mass media technology and especially the Internet have fundamentally changed how information moves around. From a historical perspective, how have these technologies affected hoaxing?
The history of hoaxing is the dark underbelly of the history of communications. As communications evolve, so do opportunities for hoaxing. What I find interesting is that the advent of new forms of communication, such as the telegraph, TV, and the Internet, have all been accompanied by utopian expectations that by facilitating better communication these technologies would usher in a golden age of peace and harmony; the idea being that if people can communicate better, they’ll learn to understand and accept each other. But the irony is that making it easier for information to spread simultaneously makes it easier for misinformation to spread as well. This is very evident on the Internet, which has become the greatest breeding ground for hoaxes ever seen in the history of Mankind. Whereas in the past only a select few had access to the tools of the mass media, and thus were in a position to create hoaxes that could reach huge audiences, nowadays, thanks to the Internet, everyone has access to those tools. In this sense, the Internet has democratized the phenomenon of hoaxing. Although thankfully the Internet has also made it easier to debunk hoaxes, as well as to create them.
What are some of the most notorious Internet hoaxes you’ve documented?
Easily the most notorious internet hoax I’ve documented has been Bonsai Kitten, which is a site that purports to show how to grow mutant kittens by raising them inside of glass jars so that their bones mold to the shape of the jar. To this day it continues to generate controversy, years after being debunked.
Another classic is Objective: Christian Ministries which purports to be the homepage of some fanatically fundamentalist Christians who rant about how Apple computer is a front for “evolutionism” and want to stamp the word “GOD” in big letters on the American flag. It’s very hard to tell whether or not the site is a joke.
Finally, there’s the Blair Witch Project, which documents the history of Maryland’s Blair Witch in very convincing fashion. So convincing that it persuaded millions of people to believe that the Blair Witch was real and helped to propel the movie it was promoting into becoming a blockbuster hit.
Do have a personal favorite hoax, or type of hoax?
I’m always fond of satire mistaken as news, which is when reporters are fooled into believing that some ridiculous story is true and print it up as fact. There’s just something gratifying about the media being made to look stupid. Perhaps because the media often takes itself so seriously.
Classics in this genre include the time that newspapers reported that Indiana congressman John Hostettler was introducing legislation to change the name of Interstate 69 to the more “moral sounding” Interstate 63. Their source was a hoax story penned by Josh Whicker of Hoosier Gazaette.
And one of the all-time classics was Alan Abel’s Society For Indecency to Naked Animals. Back in the early 1960s, Abel fooled the media for years into believing that there was an organization of this name seriously devoted to promoting the cause of putting clothes on all the naked animals in the world. Its slogan was: “A nude horse is a rude horse.” Its members would even issue “SINA citations” to people caught walking naked dogs.
There’s this relatively new term, “culture-jamming,” that suggests deliberately using media in a subversive way against itself. Would you classify culture-jamming as distinct from hoaxing in general? What are some examples of culture-jamming?
‘Hoax’ is a very broad term that includes a lot of different activities (pranks, frauds, tall tales), so I wouldn’t say that culture-jamming is distinct from hoaxing in general, but rather that it’s a distinct type of hoaxing: hoaxing with a social conscience.
The group of activists known as the Yes Men are probably the most well-known culture jammers. They scored their biggest coup in 2004 when they fooled the BBC into announcing that Dow Chemical was going to pay $12 billion to the victims of the 1984 chemical disaster in Bhopal, thereby causing Dow’s stock value to temporarily drop and also highlighting that, in reality, Dow wasn’t doing much for the victims of that tragedy.
Can hoaxing be considered a form of art?
There are certainly hoaxers who consider themselves artists. For instance, the hoaxer Joey Skaggs argues that his hoaxes are a form of performance art, and that the media itself serves as his canvas. Hoaxes are the paintbrush he uses to manipulate them. Some of his hoaxes include his “Cathouse for Dogs” in which he posed as a “dog pimp” running a bordello for dogs. And then there was the time he posed as Dr. Josef Gregor and announced he had invented Cockroach Pills that were a cure for just about everything including acne, allergies, menstrual cramps, and radiation sickness. The media, of course, completely fell for it.
Then there are more literary hoaxers who weave elaborate fictions, and present these fictions to readers as fact. Not many people realize that quite a few of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories were originally printed as fact, not fiction. Poe loved to manipulate audiences in this way. And on the web you can find sites such as Boilerplate which is the very convincing (fake) history of a Victorian-era robot. I definitely consider Boilerplate to be a work of art.
You’ve written that it’s useful to separate hoaxes into two categories, “overt” and “covert.” What are the distinctions there?
Overt hoaxes are meant to be exposed. The moment of exposure is the punch line, when the hoaxer lifts the curtain on his farce and reveals that all the people who fell for it are gullible fools. These hoaxes are a form of prank or practical joke. Covert hoaxes, by contrast, are not intended by the hoaxers themselves to ever be exposed. The hoaxers are simply trying to get away with something. They’re pulling a con. It’s interesting that overt hoaxes reverse the relationship between liar and victim. Usually we blame liars for telling lies. But in the case of overt hoaxes we actually blame the victim for believing the lie, and we celebrate the hoaxer for his cleverness.
There’s a kind of epistemological issue running through your work, which can be very interesting and slightly creepy: How do we really know what we think we know?
Welcome to my world, in which a vague sense of doubt surrounds everything. Basically I don’t think we can be sure that we really know what we think we know. We have to decide what evidence we’re willing to accept, and proceed from there. As the saying goes, “In a trickster universe, doubt is the only certainty.” That may sound like a paranoid view of the world, and maybe it is, but I think this kind of self-doubt—realizing there’s a limit to what we can know—is a good thing. I don’t trust people who are sure that they’re absolutely right and won’t consider any other point of view.
Your book can also be a little paranoia-inducing in that it reveals just how much misinformation is floating around, and how many people are essentially lying for a living, in advertising and politics. Do you ever despair about it all?
The scams that advertisers, politicians, and the media get away with frustrate me enormously, and I often wonder why people allow themselves to be manipulated so easily. I suppose it’s because the scammers successfully prey on people’s hopes and fantasies, so that people willingly go along with the lies.
I have a 90-year-old great uncle—a lifelong skeptic who likes to point out that during World War II he was literally an atheist in a foxhole—who firmly believes that the proliferation of lies is due to the public being incurably stupid. He often claims that several national polls have shown 50 per cent of American adults to be marginally literate. I haven’t yet reached my great-uncle’s level of cynicism, but a few more elections like the past two may get me there.
For those looking to delve deeper, do you have any favorite books or other resources on hoaxing?
Some of the books that should be in the library of anyone interested in hoaxes are Hoaxes by Curtis MacDougall, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science by Martin Gardner, and The Encyclopedia of Hoaxes by Gordon Stein. Unfortunately all these books pre-date the internet, but I still find myself referring to them all the time.
But I actually find the greatest resource to be the visitors to my site. Their knowledge never ceases to amaze me. No matter what the question, one of them will have the answer.