Do hoaxes tell us anything about the character of their victims?

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.


Posted on Wed Sep 10, 2008


a hoax that is sufficiently and painstakingly elaborated can deceive anyone if the conditions are favorable.

Isn't this the out for the gullible--simply claim that the hoax was so elaborate that anyone could be fooled. The problem being that few hoaxes actual qualify. Many hoaxes, especially the two mentioned, are constructed precisely to illustrate the gullibility of the target. A critical element of this is to make the hoax just good enough, with plenty of openings to be deflated.

In other words, a big part of the comedic effect of the Wine Spectator hoax is that it would have been easily discovered had Wine Spectator's awards been genuine, and not just a cheesy fraud.

(This is the exact point of the Sokal hoax--he knew the publishers would just glance over the paper and see what they wanted to see. That was his entire point!)

I believe that most hoaxes tell us far more about the victims than the perpetrators.
Posted by Joe  on  Wed Sep 10, 2008  at  12:41 PM
My view of this is almost the opposite of Fish's. All a successful hoax tells us about the hoaxer is how clever, daring, and/or lucky he or she is.

It tells a great deal more about those taken in by the hoax: What they believe, how they test the reliability of a claim, how they think the world works. Most of all, it tells us what the hoaxees want to believe. It gives us a window into their deepest desires and/or fears.

Fish also skirts around the most important issue raised by both Golstein's and Sokal's hoaxes: the implicit challenge to the authority and standards of the journals that were hoaxed. In the Sokal case, the issue was whether the review Social Text (and by implication, the whole school of analysis to which it belongs) exercised sufficient academic rigor. In Goldstein's caper, his larger point was that Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence can be had so easily that it doesn't mean much-- a point that, in my view, Goldstein went a long way toward proving.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Wed Sep 10, 2008  at  12:58 PM
Gullibility and Guile are the two base characteristics of every hoax. The third part is the conclusion: acceptance or denial. A hoax is really a hunt. If the hunter
Posted by hulitoons  on  Wed Sep 10, 2008  at  01:15 PM
I'm always skeptical of the phrase "elaborate hoax". So many times the media will say something like, "This is either the real thing or an elaborate hoax."

They leave off the option that it's a very flagrant and simple hoax told to someone gullible and (especially in the case of the media) too lazy to ask the few simple questions that would expose the hoax.
Posted by JoeDaJuggler  on  Wed Sep 10, 2008  at  01:54 PM
"[A] hoax that is sufficiently and painstakingly elaborated can deceive anyone if the conditions are favorable."

This statement, which could fairly be called the central thesis of Fish's piece, is so equivocal that it doesn't mean much. It could be paraphrased as "A hoax can deceive anyone who is deceived by it," or "A well-constructed hoax will succeed, unless it doesn't."

But as Joe and JoeDaJuggler (same Joe? different Joe?) point out, the most interesting and amusing hoaxes, including most of the ones in the Museum of Hoaxes archives, tend to be the ones where the falseness of the claim was so transparent that any "reasonably prudent person," as lawyers like to say, should have seen through it. Want to buy a Bigfoot corpse, or a pill that will double your gas milage? The fact that some people who otherwise seem fairly intelligent fall for these gambits tells us some interesting things about those people in particular and about human psychology in general. If Stanley fish doesn't want to sample the wine at Osteria L'Intrepido while talking over the latest evidence that Bigfoot and the Shroud of Turin are real, he'll miss out on a lot of fun.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Wed Sep 10, 2008  at  03:23 PM
"I'm always skeptical of the phrase 'elaborate hoax'. So many times the media will say something like, 'This is either the real thing or an elaborate hoax'."

Yup, you nailed it. I have personally played a part in a few media hoaxes which were described exactly that way after exposure. Reporters like to think of themselves as hard-bitten skeptics and use the "elaborate hoax" excuse when they realize they've been fooled.

While it's true that a good media hoax takes considerable planning, they usually aren't "elaborate" in the way that the deceived press corps would like to imply.

I personally have perpetrated hoaxes which cost less than a hundred dollars total to put together. Often, the quality of the performance(s) is more important than the "sets" and "props."

The press would like you to think that any hoax which fools it MUST involved hundreds of thousands of dollars and dozen of participants. T'aint so.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Thu Sep 11, 2008  at  01:32 AM
I think that grouping all hoaxes together is rather misleading, too. There are all sorts of different types, done for different reasons, with different outcomes.
Posted by Accipiter  on  Thu Sep 11, 2008  at  09:12 AM
Make that dozenS.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Sat Sep 13, 2008  at  02:31 AM
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