On the New York Times opinion page Stanley Fish recently offered some thoughts
about the Wine Spectator hoax
, comparing it to the Sokal hoax
of the 1990s. After musing about the two hoaxes, he draws this lesson about hoaxes in general:
a hoax that is sufficiently and painstakingly elaborated can deceive anyone if the conditions are favorable. This means that the success of a hoax reflects on the skill of the hoaxer and says nothing about the substantive views of those who were fooled by it. One can relish and even admire the cleverness of Mr. Goldstein and Mr. Sokal without drawing any conclusions – which would be unwarranted – about the soundness or unsoundness of the projects engaged in by their victims.
A hoax, after all, is a piece of theater. (Blackburn tells the story of an actor who gave a meaningless and nonsensical lecture on mathematical game theory and physical education to approving audiences made up of medical professionals and psychologists.) It’s like a magic trick: one hand does the misdirection, the other does the work behind the scene. Think of “Witness for the Prosecution,” “The Sting,” Clifford Irving’s “authorized” biography of Howard Hughes and the many successes of forgers, counterfeiters and imposters. If a hoax comes off, and there is praise to be bestowed, it should go to the ingenuity of the master illusionist who has set the whole thing up.
So high marks to Goldstein and Sokal for being able to construct a stage setting that produced a calculated effect; but no marks for any claim that what they were able to do had implications for anything beyond its own performance.
So what he's saying is that while hoaxes may be amusing pieces of drama, they reveal nothing about the gullibility or character of their victims. Hmm. I completely agree about hoaxes being essentially theatrical in nature. They're artistic creations. But does art only refer to itself, telling us nothing about the external world? I don't think so.
Satirists, parodists, and hoaxers all use the tools of fiction. They dramatize, exaggerate, and simplify things. They reduce their subjects to caricatures. But their creations only work if they expose some recognizable part of the character of their subjects. Otherwise, they fall flat. (Of course, it's a matter of subjective opinion whether they've fallen flat or scored a hit.)
So, yes, hoaxes are staged pieces of drama, but I wouldn't dismiss the view they offer us onto the nature of their victims as being meaningless for that reason.