Interview with Alex Boese, author of Hippo Eats Dwarf
Did a hippo really eat a dwarf? What about that picture of Snowball, the eighty-seven-pound cat, is it real? Not according to Alex Boese in Hippo Eats Dwarf, an extensively researched and humorous guide to debunking urban myths, e-mail hoaxes, and advertising testimonials. Boese shares his thoughts on the Misinformation Age and how trusted sources get swindled into reporting hoaxes. Reality Rule 10.3: Truth is often stranger than fiction, but that doesn’t mean every strange thing is true.
Q: You are considered an expert in the detection of hoaxes. In addition to two books, you have created a museum devoted to hoaxes and pranks, www.museumofhoaxes.com. How did your fascination with this subject develop, and where do you see it leading you?
Recognized as a hoaxpert by CNN and the New York Times, among others, Alex Boese holds a master’s degree in the history of science from the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of The Museum of Hoaxes and the creator and curator of www.museumofhoaxes.com
. He lives in San Diego.
Growing up, I never was much of a prankster. I must have a naturally suspicious or mischievous streak in me, though, because while I was a graduate student at University of California, San Diego, I came across some stories about hoaxes. I was immediately intrigued and wanted to find out more about the subject. It snowballed from there.
Q: With the knowledge that even Yahoo! News, CNN, and the Economist inadvertently report stories that are not true, how do you personally determine the real from the counterfeit? Do you research everything you read or do you try to determine the likely accuracy of news, ads, and political statements based on intuition and experience?
LOL. If I researched everything I read I soon would have to give up reading. No, one definitely has to develop an intuition about what might be real and what might be false. Intuition is far from infallible, but at least it can give you a clue that something seems fishy. There are three major clues that something might be bogus: if it sounds absurd, if the source of the information is unreliable—“I heard from a friend of a friend”—or if the source of information is nonexistent.
Q: Are hoaxes becoming a part of our formal history, essentially becoming true because they have been written and believed?
There are many hoaxes that have become accepted as historical facts. A classic example is that Americans believed bathtubs to be dangerous to their health, until Millard Fillmore popularized bathtubs by installing one at the White House during the 1850s. This story has often been repeated. In fact, it used to be told during White House tours. But it’s not true at all. The story was invented by the journalist H. L. Mencken in 1917 as a joke. Speaking more philosophically, it’s interesting to note that until a hoax has been exposed as a lie, it’s actually the truth. Therefore, there may be many hoaxes that have become part of our formal history. But because we believe them to be true they are true, practically speaking.
Q: What are your thoughts on the social impact of false testimonials related to product advertising, finance, and politics?
Hoaxes can serve an educational purpose by exposing credulity and superstition. But in the case of advertisers, businessmen, and politicians who lie, there is no redeeming quality to those fabrications. They’re self-serving manipulations of the truth, and I think they undermine the integrity of public discourse—and ultimately democracy itself. However, I also don’t think it’s realistic to expect these characters to stop telling lies. It’s human nature. The only defense seems to be to educate ourselves to recognize these kinds of lies.
Q: There have been recent studies related to the prevalence of lying in our society. Is this human nature or does there seem to be an increase in lying and a subsequent trend in fabricating stories or facts? If it’s a trend, why do you think people find it so easy to lie?
I think that our society is very tolerant of lying, much more so than other societies around the world, or those throughout history. And I suspect that this might have something to do with our belief that any means justify the end—and the desired end is “making it.” So we “fake it till we make it.” We bend the truth or alter our appearance a little, fudge our résumé, or lie about the product we’re selling. Once we’re a success, none of those lies seem to matter very much.
Q: Some of these hoaxes are rather insidious, though many are harmless, like “Hippo Eats Dwarf.” Do you have any favorites that you consider particularly entertaining?
One of my favorite stories, besides “Hippo Eats Dwarf,” was the one about the woman who was using a toilet on a Scandinavian Airlines flight. The woman flushed the toilet while she was still sitting on it and discovered that the vacuum flush feature had sucked her downwards, causing her buttocks to form an airtight seal. She couldn’t get up and was stuck there for hours until the plane landed. This story was reported as fact by Reuters, until Scandinavian Airlines complained that it had never happened. The scenario had been described in a flight training manual and that was where Reuters picked up the story. Once you become aware of it, you realize that all kinds of urban legends and satire get reported as real news.
Q: What about the theory that all of these stories are true and that you are the one perpetuating a hoax by denying their authenticity?
If I said that I’m a liar and that I make everything up, would I be lying when I said that or telling the truth?