Strange but true: This is the golden age of hoaxes
Good show. Despite the tingles of recognition I felt during her reading, I didn't leave feeling convinced of Browne's powers. But neither did I feel ripped off--she puts on a good show. (I might have felt differently if I'd paid the $700 fee for a private telephone consultation, but with the waiting list full until 2005, I didn't have a chance to find out.) One woman, whose husband died in the World Trade Center attacks, told me that despite her family's misgivings, Browne's message gave her a sense of peace and closure, noting, "If you don't need it, you won't come looking for it."
And that--whether Browne is for real or not--points to the first law of constructing a hoax; find a need and fill it with a good story, and the world will beat a path to your 1-900 number.
Given the current spate of "accounting irregularities," you might think we'd learn to be a little more skeptical. And yet, pulling off a hoax is sometimes so simple, it can even happen by accident. Just ask Paul Guinan, a Portland, Ore., artist whose Web site (www.bigredhair.com/boilerplate) features a "mechanical man" named Boilerplate, supposedly created in the 1880s. The site, a joke from start to finish, includes photos of the charming robot meeting Pancho Villa and journeying to Antarctica. Guinan was shocked--and a little chastened--to find his innocent site duped many visitors, including historians. "I felt both pride and embarrassment that I fooled all these people," he says. "If I can do it, I guess anyone can." A sucker born every minute? Shoot, if you believe that lowball estimate, I'd like to talk with you about buying the Eiffel Tower.
hoax: a sensational lie that catches the attention of the public
urban legend: a widely known, often lurid story based on hearsay
rumor: an unsubstantiated report in general circulation
With Theodore Blern, Mother Shipton and Lemony Snicket