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Alex Boese talks about his interest in hoaxes

Alex Boese's book and website, Museum of Hoaxes, lists all sorts of cons and pranks pulled through the ages. I asked Alex Boese about his interest in hoaxes, and about his favorite reading.

READERSVOICE.COM: What are your favorite hoaxes?

ALEX BOESE: In my opinion, the best hoaxes should gently deflate our pretensions about ourselves and how much we think we know, without hurting anyone.

Given that, my all-time favorite is the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest hoax of 1957 in which the BBC introduced British tv viewers to the process by which spaghetti is grown on trees.

I like it, because spaghetti is one of the many things we all take for granted about the world, but which most people (especially back in the 1950s) have never thought too deeply about (in terms of where it comes from, etc.).

Then there was the Burger King Left-handed Whopper, the condiments of which were rotated 180 degrees for the benefit of left-handed customers.

There just seems to be a twisted logic about the idea of that.

Then there’s the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, in which the New York Sun convinced much of the American public that astronomers had just discovered that the moon was inhabited by winged humans.

The newspaper explained that astronomers had made this discovery after building a huge telescope with a 24-foot diameter lens capable of seeing objects on the lunar surface with extraordinary clarity.

A 24-foot diameter lens is, of course, huge, and was way beyond the limits of 19th century optical technology.

But of course, most people at the time had no clue about the limits of lens making, so they bought the story.

RV: How did you become interested in hoaxes?

AB: I came to hoaxes through an interest in the history and sociology of knowledge.

These disciplines ask questions such as: what is the process by which people come to accept claims as true, and how can perfectly rational people embrace completely opposite beliefs about the world.

At some point I stumbled across the phenomenon of hoaxes, which struck me as being rather like games of knowledge and belief played out in public.

I thought it was interesting how hoaxes can be used to reinforce our separation of the world into fact and falsehood, by (upon being exposed) revealing the facts beneath the falsehoods.

RV: How did you research your book?

AB: I spent a lot of time in libraries tracking down obscure references.

Newspapers tended to be my major source for news about hoaxes.

Researching modern newspapers is easy, because most of them now have electronic archives that can be searched over the internet.

But for all papers before the 1980s, I had to get very familiar with microfilm readers.

Whenever I travel, I also try to explore the local hoaxes of the places I’m visiting.

So, for instance, when I visited England two years ago, I dragged my wife on what turned out to be a very long cross-country walk to find a crop circle.

But we eventually found it.
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-copyright Simon Sandall.