The skeptic

Wendy Grossman is a humourless spoilsport and proud of it

tortoise200Skeptics are supposed to be humourless spoilsports and for once I’m going to conform to the stereotype. I’m writing just after April Fool’s Day, and there’s been the usual panoply of spoof news stories peppering the major media. The one most often cited to me from this year’s crop was the Guardian‘s plan to limit all stories to the 140-character maximum length allowable in Twitter messages (“tweets”).

Twitter, if you haven’t read any British newspapers for the last six months, is the leading microblogging service; think of microblogging as blogging for the SMS/mobile phone generation. Yeah, yeah, sad, yeah, pathetic, yeah, yeah, waste of time, yeah, yeah, you watch, in a year or two you’ll be talking about how useful it is.

In fact, the story went on, the paper is busily converting its entire archive of news stories to the new length and adopting the slogan “All the news that’s fit to tweet” before the New York Times (“All the news that’s fit to print”) could grab it.

Isn’t anyone but me tired of these shenanigans?

At this point, it’s traditional for some sourpuss to pop up and say that the reason I feel this way is that I’m No Good at writing April Fool’s spoof stories. There is some justice to this accusation. I wrote one, once, and I’ll be the first to admit the results didn’t set the world of comedy alight. But the experience did teach me why these things continue: journalists like writing them. (This is also the secret to why Twitter is getting so much press: it’s perfect for the hummingbird-flitting mentality of most of us.)

But that’s really not enough of a reason to keep doing them.

Sure: harmless jokes, just for entertainment and fun. Right.

The thing is that jokes don’t always stay jokes. As part of putting together a book to be published by the same fine folks as run this magazine, Why Statues Weep: The Best of The Skeptic, I’ve had occasion to reread a piece we ran years ago by David Langford, best known for winning more Hugo awards for fan writing than anyone else, ever. A slightly deranged publisher convinced Langford, back in 1979, that writing a UFO hoax would be a good idea. Langford obliged with a purportedly modern repackaging of a (Langford-penned, in Victorian style) manuscript he attributed to one of his wife’s great-great-grandfathers and claimed to have found in the secret compartment of a desk in his attic. In what he now calls “satanic webs of deception” the story, which tells of a close encounter experienced by one William Robert Loosley, has gone all over the place. Whitley Streiber cited it as genuine in his novel Majestic.

In 1996, Langford wrote in Fortean Times in a column available on his Web site, “Despite various giveaways in the text and on the jacket (where the biography of learned physicist Langford had suspiciously many mentions of sf), the central story seemed plausible enough to take on a ghastly life of its own.”

And this is the thing. The Internet (and the offline world, too, of course) is filled with stuff that is MDW: misleading, debatable, and wrong. (It’s also filled with stuff that’s ITR: intelligent, thoughtful, and right.) It is hard enough to convince people that, for example, the Face on Mars is due to advanced human pattern recognition rather than intent on the part of Martians; that astrology and Nostradamus seem persuasive because when we read stuff we look for the ways it relates to us and things that are familiar to us; and that psychics typically feed back to us information we’ve already told them. The difficulty of debunking the MDW masquerading as ITR is why sites like Snopes , Quackwatch , and The Skeptic’s Dictionary require so much work to create and maintain. Do we have to deliberately inflate the supply of MDW every year?

You may think – and I might even agree with you – that the stuff that makes good April Fool’s stories is – or winds up being – too ludicrous for anyone to seriously believe. But, unlike the stories published every day in The Onion, which are typically designed to be clearly satirical, the whole game with April Fool’s news stories is convincing people that the stories are genuine so that they’ll feel Really Stupid when they find out the truth. Google and Virgin to launch a Mars mission? A tortoise addicted to smoking? A mobile phone service that gives people maps showing where their spouses are? These are all stories the Daily Telegraph picked as the ones the paper wasn’t sure about. The last one is actually sort of almost true: Google’s new Latitude service allows user-selected friends to see each others’ whereabouts.

I mean, honestly. Don’t we already have enough work to do?

Wendy Grossman is founder and former editor (twice) of The Skeptic magazine.

  1. Ms. Grossman,
    Enjoyed this piece. I learned the UK “celebrates” April Fool’s Day too. I also have a new excellent looking site The Skeptic’s Dictionary where I can spend time, and I had a few chuckles.
    But in this short piece you managed to come up with three things to be a humorless spoil sport about, run-of-the-mill spoofs (April Fool’s fun),
    spoofs on a grander scale (Langford’s UFO story) and MDW stuff. These are all quite different, or can be. The only thing they have in common would seem to be, when created by a journalist or some other words huckster, the creator hopes to get some gain from them.
    Of course a well concocted spoof can be a dangerous thing (Orsan Welles’ Invasion by Martians) but might otherwise be very intellectually stimulating.
    But MDW obviously is the troublesome one, especially when used for propaganda purposes.
    Oh yes, let’s not forget twittering which you seem down on.
    Think of it this way, twitters might eventually become an art form similar to haiku.

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