Hoaxes as lessons

During Joe Nickell’s talk at TAM 7, the concept of hoaxes came up. Sometimes skeptics will, for example, take pictures of an alleged Bigfoot and post them online. They’ll let it go for a few weeks/months, letting the Bigfoot people ponder over it before finally revealing “AHA! It was all a scam!” I don’t know how I feel about these little demonstrations. 

1) We end up looking like dicks. While a hoax can expose people for their lack of critical thinking, it does make a spectacle out of them at the same time. That’s kind of a dick move and I think we’re better off using such “hoaxes” as examples of how easy it is to fake something, without ever actually trying to promote it as true.

2) These hoaxes can be ultimately self-defeating because the people likely to believe such a hoax are also more likely to come up with some conspiracy for why it wasn’t a really a hoax (i.e., “the man” is pressuring people to suppress the information after the fact).

3) Hoaxes may be amusing for us, but they may compound the problem for true believers. If they aren’t around for the final reveal, we run the risk of having someone believing yet another piece of crap that’s our fault. That broken brain is now partly the hoaxer’s responsibility.

4) A hoax is nothing but a spectacle that doesn’t give believers what they really need — the skills to think critically. We shouldn’t be out to tell people what to believe or not, only to give out the knowledge we have along with critical thinking skills and hope they reason their way into a decent intellectual position. Does a hoax accomplish that? I argue that it actually sabotages that aim.

So should we give it a rest? What benefits of this method haven’t I considered?

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