Benign hoaxes

are usually 

designed to be


revealing the 

nature of 



and fallibility.


Benign Hoaxes
Wake-up Calls to the Gullible
 By Jeanine DeNoma 

Based on a talk given by Dr, Barry Beyerstein at the Skeptics Toolbox in Eugene in August of 1998.

Experts, especially those with high levels of education, can be recalcitrant and arrogant when it comes to seeing their own errors. But an expert who claims exceptionally acute powers of observation, extremely precise measurements, or supernatural abilities that allow him to see what others cannot becomes an attractive target for the kind hoax that will reveal his foolishness, gullibility, or incompetence.

     Unlike deceptions carried out for money or fame (see Pro Facto, Fall 1998), these largely “benign hoaxes” are perpetrated to reveal to the individual, and to the public, hidden motivations and errors in methods. And unlike the typical scam artist, who goes to great lengths to hide his deception, the perpetrators of benign hoaxes may be intentionally transparent. The hoaxer’s actions may be clumsily executed, carried beyond the pale of reasonable believability, or laced with revealing puns and humor, all designed to give the target individual repeated, easily identifiable signals that a hoax is underway. The best of these hoaxes even provide a “trap door” through which the target has multiple opportunities to escape if he to recognizes the signals. By not comprehending the hoax and using the trap door, however, the target is left appearing even more foolish once the hoax is revealed.

     Benign hoaxes are usually designed to be educational, revealing the nature of human gullibility and fallibility. They may uncover a target’s overly certain belief in his own invulnerability, often bolstered by education or intelligence. In these cases, the hoax demonstrates that genuinely intelligent people can be fooled, especially when they step outside their field of expertise. And they show how intelligence does not necessarily confer “practical smarts,” and is no protection against being fooled.

     The four examples of benign hoaxes discussed below reveal the nature of self-delusion. Each demonstrates how self-deception may be fed by an unquestioning adherence to ideology, an unswerving commitment to a cause, or a credulous belief in a phenomenon. These examples reveal how powerful the force of belief can be and how individuals may sequester or dismiss uncomfortable facts that challenge their core beliefs or self-esteem. These benign hoaxes also demonstrate how unchecked perceptions and inferences can lead to false conclusions and the spread of misinformation and false beliefs.

Rene Blondlot’s N-rays

     One of science’s most famous hoaxes revealed that a newly discovered form of electromagnetic radiation was in fact a figment of its discoverer and his followers imaginations.

     In 1903 physicist Rene Blondlot, a member of French Academy of Sciences and an expert in electromagnetic radiation, published his discovery of N-rays in the scientific journal Comptes rendus. By the following year, more than 50 papers appeared describing the curious properties and sources of N-rays.

     N-rays had quite remarkable properties. They passed through materials opaque to visible light, such as metal, wood and paper, yet were blocked by water, which transmits light. Blondlot used an aluminum prism to bend the N-rays and water-soaked cardboard to block them. N-rays were found to emanate from the sun and the typical gas burner, but not from Bunsen burners. Augustin Charpentier, a medical physicist, found that the human body emitted N-rays, especially the nerve and muscle cells. He suggested they could be used in medicine to detect the outlines of organs.

     Other researchers challenged Blondlot’s right to be noted as the discoverer of this new ray. Gustave le Bon, also a physicist, wrote Blondlot to say he had discovered a similar radiation seven years earlier. P. Audollet claimed that he, not Charpentier, had been the first to find N-rays were emitted from the body; and a spiritualist, Carl Huter, challenged both Audollet and Charpentier for this credit.

     Several laboratories outside of France, however, reported difficulty detecting this new radiation. One physicist having trouble was Robert Wood, a well-respected researcher in the field of optics and electromagnetic radiation from Johns Hopkins University. The British journal Nature sent Wood to France to observe Blondlot’s methods. Wood was an interesting choice because not only was he a noted physicist, he was also well-known as a showman and prankster with a wide range of interests. He had investigated spiritualists for fraud and pursued an interest in using scientific methodologies for solving crimes.

     In the first experiment Wood observed, N-rays concentrated by an aluminum lens were said to brighten an electric spark if a hand was passed between the spark and the N-ray source. Wood said could not see any increase in brightness, but Blondlot attributed this to Wood’s lack of visual sensitivity. Wood noted, however, that Blondlot couldn’t correctly identify when Wood’s hand was or was not present.

     In Blondlot’s second demonstration, a photographic plate, rather than the eye, was used to detect the increased brightness. Unfortunately, Wood noted, the conditions under which the plate was exposed were subject to “many sources of error.” The most serious being that the plate was moved back and forth by hand for five-second exposures under first one condition and then the other. Wood pointed out that unconscious bias by the experimenter, who knew the conditions, could account for the increased exposure clearly visible on the plate subjected to the intensified N-rays. He suggested a series of blinded experiments which would eliminate this source of error. Blondlot dismissed such precautions as unnecessary.

     In the third and most famous experiment, Wood was shown how an aluminum prism bent and spread the N-rays into a spectrum. Again, this was detected visually, this time by an increase in brilliancy at certain points along a strip of phosphorescent paint. Wood made a conclusive judgement about the reliability of Blondlot’s observations by surreptitiously removing the prism. Blondlot, not realizing the prism had been removed, continued to report seeing the expected changes.

     Wood writes, “I was unable to see any change whatever in the brilliancy of the phosphorescent line...and I subsequently found that the removal of the prism (we were in a dark room) did not seem to interfere in any way with the location of the maxima and minima in the deviated (!) ray bundle.”

     After a couple lesser tests yielding similar results, Wood left the lab convinced that N-rays were “purely imaginary.” Wood’s report was published in Nature on September 29, 1904. Wood carefully avoided naming Blondlot in his report, although it was widely known by researchers in the field whose lab Wood had visited.

     Following its publication Blondlot was encouraged to conduct a definitive test to settle the N-ray issue once and for all. Blondlot did not respond to these requests until 1906 when he wrote, “Permit me to decline totally your proposition to cooperate in this simplistic experiment; the phenomena are much too delicate for that. Let each one form his personal opinion about N-rays, either from his own experiments or from those of others in whom he has confidence.” Blondlot continued his work on N-rays until his retirement in 1909.

     When Blondlot published his discovery of N-rays, the X-ray, alpha and beta “rays,” and gamma rays had all recently been discovered. Scientists were primed to expect more discoveries and, initially, most embraced N-rays with excitement. Skepticism set in only when other labs were unable to repeat Blondlot’s observations. Although many French scientists helped debunk N-rays, a small group clung to their belief in the authenticity of N-rays long after the evidence warranted. Personal attachment and French nationalism seemed to motivate this belief. Some French defenders were known to claim that only Latins had the intellectual and visual “sensitivities” to detect N-rays.

Project Alpha

     A classic hoax carried out by James Randi and two teenage magicians under the code name “Project Alpha” had all the elements of the best designed hoaxes and scientific experiments.

     James McDonnell of McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft donated funding to Washington University in St. Louis for a psychical research laboratory. Randi hypothesized that parapsychologists at the lab would encounter two major obstacles: their “strong pro-psychic bias” and their resistance to “accepting expert conjuring assistance in designing proper control procedures.” As a result of refusing this assistance, Randi predicted the researchers “would fail to detect various kinds of simple magic tricks” (Randi, 1983a).

     When the lab was established in 1979, Randi contacted its director, Peter Phillips, with advice about testing human subjects. Randi even offered to go to the lab at his own expense to help assure that subjects did not cheat during testing. His assistance was refused.

     The lab screened 300 applicants before selecting two test subjects—two teenage magicians posing as psychics who had been sent to the lab by Randi as part of Project Alpha. When Project Alpha began, Randi and the two teenagers, Steve Shaw, age 18, and Michael Edwards, age 17, agreed on the ground rules for the hoax: The deception would be revealed at some time in the future. And, if at any time the boys were asked if they were using trickery they would immediately admit to it and reveal they had been sent by Randi. They were never asked.

     “From the very beginning,” writes Randi, “the researchers ignored the rules I had suggested.” The two teenage magicians were able to control the test conditions and subterfuge the experiments just as Randi predicted. As Steve and Michael surreptitiously bent objects, switched tags, cued one another during ESP tests, and tampered with electronic lab equipment, Randi continued to write the researchers offering his assistance as a consultant. Phillips, however, remained convinced he couldn’t be deceived.

     Two years into the experiment Randi leaked hints about Project Alpha at a magicians convention. Rumors about Steve and Mike circulated and were even reported back to the boys as being a great joke. They were never asked if there was any truth to the rumor. Phillips, however, asked Randi for a videotape showing examples of faked psychokinesis. Randi supplied the tape along with a second tape describing how the fakery was accomplished. In exchange, Phillips sent Randi a videotape of Mike and Steve.

     Phillips showed his tape of “real” phenomena along with Randi’s tape of faked effects at a parapsychology conference. Following the conference, Randi pointed out to Phillips where Steve and Mike showed signs of fakery. This apparently impressed Phillips and his co-workers. Upon returning to their lab, they changed their experimental protocols and tightened controls. The two magicians could no longer work by trickery.

     By the time the hoax was revealed, however, Steve and Mike were also visiting other parapsychology labs. Randi (1983b) describes even greater abuses occurring in these labs. One parapsychologist, Walter Uphoff, told the media that Mike and Steve really did have psychic powers, but were now lying about them. “How do these kids know they’re fakes?” he told one reporter.

The Cottingley Fairies Affair

     The Skeptical Inquirer (July/Aug 1998) listed the Cottingley Fairy hoax among the top five “enduring paranormal hoaxes.” A revised version of the story made it into the movies in 1997 as Fairy Tale: A True Story. Of course, the movie didn’t reveal that “the true story” was all about a hoax. While this hoax was not originally executed to reveal the gullibility of individuals who should have known better, that was its final effect.

     The affair began in 1917 when Elsie Wright, then 15, and her cousin Frances Griffith, age 10, took Mr. Wright’s camera to a woods near their home and photographed the fairies with whom they said they played. Shortly thereafter, the pictures took on a life of there own. Elsie’s mother passed them to Edward Gardener, a theosophist and lecturer on the paranormal, who passed them to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and into the annals of famous hoaxes. The only really astonishing thing about the affair is the credulousness Doyle displayed in embracing the authenticity of the photographs. Lacking promotion by such a famous person, the photographs would have created little interest.

     Doyle had the photos examined by two Kodak Company experts who found no evidence of fakery, but who stopped short of declaring the pictures “authentic.” Then, Gardener and Doyle provided Elsie and Frances with a camera and plates, secretly marked plates to detect tampering, and asked them to take more photos. The girls obtained a total of five photographs, two from Mr. Wright’s camera and three from the camera provided later.

     Doyle first publicized the pictures in a December 1920 Strand magazine article in which he published the two photographs the girls had taken with Mr. Wright’s camera. In 1922, Doyle published his book The Coming of the Fairies. At that time, Doyle’s interest in spiritualism was just becoming widely known. Doyle had lost his son in World War I and, in trying to contact his dead son through various mediums, he had become one of spiritualism’s most dedicated promoters. Doyle did not connect the fairies with spiritualism, but he attributed their existence to the girls’ ability to create the fairies like a medium might materialize a spirit.

     “Essentially, Doyle opined that the fairies were thought forms brought into being by the ‘associated aura of the two girls...this joining of auras producing a stronger effect than either can get singly, being common enough in psychic matters’,” writes Crawley (1982). Doyle’s friend, Gardener suggested “the fairies and their clothes were composed of protoplasm emanating from the children’s brains.”

     How could Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a highly intelligent and well educated man, be so taken-in by this prank? In addition to Doyle’s vulnerability to spiritualism, Doyle may have been trapped by his aristocratic mind-set. Randi, writing in Skeptic (1997), says Doyle could not believe that two young English girls could deceive “an aristocrat like himself...because they were ‘of the artisan class’.”

     The hoax endured, surfacing periodically over the years, because, while there were theories about how the girls made the photographs, there was no conclusive evidence of fakery. That was, until 1983, when Elsie, at 81, and Frances, at 75, confessed to cutting fairy pictures from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, supporting them on hat pins, and photographing themselves with the cutouts (Crawley, 1982).

Crop Circles

     Investigators of crop circles can site numerous examples of cereologists (a title crop circle enthusiasts coined for themselves) who have claimed the ability to distinguish “real” circles from “fakes,” but who have failed when put to the test.

     Colin Andrews, a “leading British authority and researcher” and author of Circular Evidence, was asked to examine a crop circle which a BBC film crew said they had found. Andrews assured the crew it was “genuine,” only to be told the circle had been hoaxed for the test. In another case, Andrews not only declared 98 circles on a single hillside to be “genuine,” but went on to say they were “something of major proportions... because of the scale of the formations, we are sure there is no human involvement.” Unfortunately for Andrews, the farmer clarified the situation by explaining he had made them “to encourage grouse to settle” (Nickel and Fischer, 1992).

     Two Hungarian high school agricultural students created a media sensation by making a crop circle in an agricultural area 40 miles west of Budapest. Eye-witnesses reported seeing UFOs, experts reported measuring deadly radiation levels, and two UFOlogists certified the circle was made by extra-terrestrials. These last two came to regret their declaration when, as they verified their verdict on a TV talk show, they were confronted by the two students. The students showed photographs of the circle being made and explained the simple methods they had used to produce it. “The effect of this disclosure was rather strong, and the expressions on the faces of the ‘experts,’ who were not prepared for such a confrontation, left the studio audience as well as the TV audience screaming with joy” (Bencze and Randi, 1993).

     In 1991, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, described as two “jovial con men in their sixties” came forward to claim responsibility for many crop circles. Using two boards and a piece of string, they demonstrated their construction methods for TV crews. The men’s confession had a dampening effect on the media’s enthusiasm for crop circle reporting and seems to be correlated with a decline in the phenomenon worldwide.

     Enthusiasts point out, quite correctly, that one hoaxed circle doesn’t prove them all to be hoaxes. It does, however, demonstrate that crop circles can be hoaxed and that “experts” can’t tell the hoaxes from “genuine” circles. There are other lines of evidence, however, which indicate that we may not need to look much further than man-made causes.

   Frequency pattern. Crop circles began being spotted in the mid-1970 and making media headlines by the early 1980s. Their frequency began to wane by the early 1990s, coinciding with confessions by hoaxers and media tests that showed experts and cereologists could not distinguish the “real” circles from man-made ones.

   Distribution pattern. Most circles appeared in southern England. In the 1960s and 70s this was one of the most famous UFO observation sites. Nickel and Fischer (1992) suggest this provided a climate ripe for hoaxes. Once the media began publicizing crop formations in England, circles began to appear in many cereal growing areas, especially in Europe and English speaking countries, although England continued to be the center of activity.

   Increasing complexity. A common characteristic of hoaxes is that they become increasingly elaborate—in part to maintain the media’s interest. Crop circles have followed this hoax pattern. Starting as simple circles, they developed more complex con-centric ring patterns. In 1987, one field carried the message “WEARENOTALONE.” By 1990, complex patterns and pictograms began appearing, culminating in a pictogram from the Mandelbrot set.

   The “shyness factor.” Most crop circles appear to be made at night and only if no one is observing. During an eight-night observation vigil by cereologists, not a single circle appeared anywhere in England! This was during a season when several hundred were reported. Then, the day following the end of the vigil, a large ringed circle appeared in the area where the vigil had been staged.

   Other telltale evidence. Signs of new techniques being practiced, circles being completed over a number of days rather than in one night, and efforts to weave unusual patterns into the fallen plant stocks all provide evidence that crop circles are of human origin. Then there is the unusual playfulness with which patterns appear. No sooner would a cereologist declare a “rule” for circle patterns than a new pattern appears which breaks this rule. Some cereologists have concluded this particular property indicates the forces creating the circles are guided by a intelligent design.

     That may be true. But are these intelligent designers of human origin? And, is there sufficient evidence to support a more mysterious explanation than the joy of hoaxing?


Bencze, Gyula and James Randi. 1993. The great Hungarian crop circle. Skeptic 2(1):20-1.

Crawley, Geoffrey. 1982. The astonishing affair of the Cottingley fairies. (Part 1 of a 10-part series). The British Journal of Photography. December 24, 1982 pp 1375-1380.

Hines, Terrence. 1996. What ever happened to N-rays? (includes Robert Woods report to Nature). Skeptic 4(4):85-87.

Klotz, Irving M. 1980. The N-ray affair. Scientific American. May, 1980.

Nickel, Joe. 1995. Crop circle mania wanes: an investigative update. Skeptical Inquirer 19(3):41-3.

Nickel, Joe and John Fischer. 1992. The crop-circle phenomenon. Skeptical Inquirer 16(2):136-7.

Randi, James. 1980. Flim Flam! Prometheus Books.

Randi, James. 1983a. The Project Alpha experiment: Part 1. The first two years. Skeptical Inquirer 8(4):24-35 (Summer, 1983). Reprinted in Science Confronts the Paranormal. pp. 158-165. Kendrick Frazier, ed.

Randi, James. 1983b. The Project Alpha experiment. Part 2. Beyond the laboratory. Skeptical Inquirer 8(5):36-45. (Fall, 1983).

Randi, James. 1997. Fairies, frauds, and fuss. Skeptic 5(3):10-11.

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