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Friday, April 17, 2009 | Spaghetti doesn’t grow on trees. Australia had no plans to convert to “metric time” with millidays and centidays. And NPR was pulling our legs: Richard Nixon did not run for president in 1992 with a new slogan: “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I won’t do it again.”
Alex Boese knows the truth about these stupendous April Fools’ Day hoaxes from the history of foolery. In fact, the La Mesa resident and University of California, San Diego graduate may be the world’s leading expert on the art of the hoax.
Boese — pronounced “Ber-za” in the original German, but he doesn’t mind if you rhyme it with “nose” — has been quoted everywhere from NPR and BBC Radio to The New York Times and the Washington Post.
His website, museumofhoaxes.com, inspired a 2002 book with the same title. He followed up with 2006’s “Hippo Eats Dwarf: A Field Guide to Hoaxes and Other B.S.” and 2007’s “Elephants on Acid: And Other Bizarre Experiments,” about scientists gone rogue.
Boese sat down to talk to us about man-bats on the moon, a turkey head on a stick and what makes a great hoax.
How did you become a leading expert on hoaxes?
Giving into procrastination is the way it worked for me.
I was in grad school here at UCSD doing a Ph.D. in the history of science. Just as part of doing the research, I had to spend a lot of time in the library. I was browsing and came across some references to 19th century hoaxes.
Being the kind of person I am, I gravitate toward any weird stories. I thought “Wow, that would be a fun thing to write my dissertation on.” I convinced my advisors that I should do this.
I just started to collect all these examples of hoaxes. This was the mid-1990s when the web was still in its infancy. I put this list (of hoaxes) up online, and I liked the attention it got.
It grew bigger and bigger, until I was contacted by a publisher and they said, “Why don’t you turn this list you have at the Museum of Hoaxes into a book?”
What were the hoaxes you first heard about?
The first one was the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. There was a newspaper called the New York Sun and it announced that the famous British astronomer John Herschel had invented this massive telescope with which he discovered life on the moon.
There were these unicorns on the moon, biped beavers, man-bats, all this kind of stuff. A lot of people pretty much bought it hook, line and sinker. It’s remembered as one of the most famous hoaxes of the 19th century and set the tone for the sensational journalism that would follow.
It also reminded me of the internet, how this new communications technology, the mass media newspaper, was emerging. The internet is also playing with all these issues.
How far do hoaxes go back?
You had deception as long as you’ve had human history, but the word hoax was only coined back in the 18th century. (The word is derived from “hocus,” as in “hocus pocus.”)
You need this public audience before you have what we recognize today as real hoaxes. It’s a signature genre of the modern age. They’re very much a product of the mass media.
What’s your favorite hoax?
The Spaghetti Tree Hoax of 1957. The BBC had a prestigious news show called “Panorama,” and on April 1 at the end of the broadcast, they said we have this special segment from Switzerland about the spaghetti harvest this year.
Thanks to the elimination of the dreaded spaghetti weevil, the Swiss are enjoying this bumper spaghetti harvest, and they had this footage of Swiss peasants and their spaghetti trees.
Thousands of people bought this thing, and even the BBC director fell for it. Many viewers called and said, “How can I grow my own spaghetti?” They were told that what you need to do is put a sprig of spaghetti into some marinara sauce and hope for the best.
That’s a funny hoax, but can hoaxes be a bad thing?
A good example of that is the Piltdown Man hoax, when a hoaxster buried fake missing-link fossils. (They weren’t exposed as a hoax for 40 years.)
Whoever did, it, and there’s some controversy about that, probably wasn’t trying to have it exposed at some point.
People wasted their careers studying this thing that turned out to be fake.
What’s the difference between a hoax and an urban legend?
Urban legends aren’t purposefully designed to be deceptive. People pass them along thinking they’re true, and the author of a urban legend is usually not known.
Hoaxes are not rumors, they’re intentionally deceptive.
What’s the secret to a good hoax?
A good hoax fools a lot of people and is believable, but in hindsight is totally ridiculous. The victim should have known better, but got fooled anyway.
Is April Fool’s Day a national holiday for the hoaxster?
Not for professional hoaxsters. They don’t like April Fools’ Day. They think it’s just like an amateur day.
But it’s definitely the day that my site gets bombarded with visitors since I created this list of the top 100 April Fool’s Day hoaxes. It’s one of the most popular sites on the internet on April 1.
You also write about strange science experiments. What’s your favorite?
I like what I call the horny turkeys experiment. These guys decided to see what the minimal stimuli that was required to arouse a male turkey.
So they exposed a male turkey to all these artificial objects. They started with a model of a female turkey, then they slowly removed parts from this model, they took off the feet and the tail and slowly got it down to just a head on a stick.
It turned out that the male turkey actually loved the head on a stick more than anything else. Apparently, in one of these weird bits of trivia I like to collect, when a male turkey mates it focuses on the head. That’s all it needs to get going.
But that can only go so far for the turkey in question.
Yes. This happened in the 50s, and I love the image of these guys in white coats taking this seriously while a turkey is gobbling around next to a turkey head on a stick.
— Interview by RANDY DOTINGA
Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.