Strange but true: This is the golden age of hoaxes
She strolls onto the stage as if into her own living room, casually elegant in a twinkling, black tunic top and matching trousers. "I love you, Sylvia!" cries an exuberant young woman, her enthusiasm rising above the applause of 2,400 paying audience members. Sylvia Browne--psychic, medium, prolific author--accepts the affirmation gracefully and takes the podium. "I want to talk to you about angels, about spirit guides, and about how to become more psychic." Shudder. This is precisely the conversation I've spent most of my life avoiding. But I was trapped in a sea of believers, and having paid $78.50 of U.S. News's money for my seat in the Atlantic City Convention Center auditorium, I didn't dare attempt an escape.
What is a hoax, exactly? When does a good deal become too good to be true, and where does belief end and credulity begin? In the stories that follow, we present elaborate swindles, outrageous gags, and insidious disinformation campaigns. They're all hoaxes--proof there's a sap for every scam artist, an easy mark for every mountebank, a chump for every charlatan. The notion that the Eskimos have 100 words for "snow" isn't true--more urban legend than hoax--but English certainly has a telling number of mots juste for stretchers of the truth and the suckers who believe them. And it is a collaboration; history shows that a successful hoax often depends not so much on the guile of the hoaxer as on the gullibility of the hoaxed.
Life is full of decisions to believe or not to believe. When it comes to psychics, I'm quick to adopt a skeptical stance. Yet despite any number of analyses exposing the psychic's art as, at best, a clever party trick, many people--perhaps even you, dear reader?--clearly believe this stuff. Sylvia Browne's Book of Dreams (Dutton, $25.95), about connecting with loved ones on "the other side," is on the New York Times bestseller list. John Edward, who also offers a link to the dead, has a hit with his television show Crossing Over, and other dabblers in divination and necromancy are perennial favorites on TV talk shows. I went to see Browne not so much to test her psychic powers as to test my own ability to resist the temptation to believe in them, real or not. Sadly, my status as a hardened skeptic did not survive unblemished, but more on that later.
Scale o' lies. The word hoax is thought to derive from the old magician's incantation "hocus pocus." Nailing down a precise definition is no easy task, but on the spectrum of mendacity, most hoaxes fall somewhere between a scam on one side and a practical joke on the other. Unlike urban legends, notes Alex Boese, who maintains the Web site museumofhoaxes.com, a hoax should be traceable back to a perpetrator who's knowingly trying to deceive the public. (Boese, a Ph.D. student at the University of California-San Diego, has a book coming out this fall based on his hoax research. By coincidence--or is it!--he shares Browne's publishers.) When tall tales, such as those spun by the infamous Charles Ponzi (story, Page 57) are used to trick the unsuspecting out of their money, they also become fraud. But while some recent business dealings--Enron's accounting practices, that whole "new economy" thing--can certainly feel like hoaxes, they rarely rise above the level of dirty tricks or mass wishful thinking.