The story of the "Balloon Boy" — the 6-year-old whose family claimed he had climbed aboard a homemade balloon, triggering a nationwide police search — has been officially declared a hoax, and news reports suggest that an arrest in the case is imminent.
It seems that this stunt was done for publicity, though the motives for creating a hoax are as varied as the hoaxers themselves. Some do it for fun or profit; others to make a social statement; still others pull hoaxes for no clear reason.
History is filled with great hoaxes — "great" meaning important or influential, not necessarily smart or beneficial. Here are some of the most remarkable and curious hoaxes of all time:
In 2004, a religious sect called the Raelians claimed that a group of their scientists had created the world's first human clone, a seven-pound baby girl named Eve. The ultimate goal, according to leader Rael (who claims to have descended from extraterrestrials), was to achieve immortality. The announcement was met with widespread public condemnation and skepticism among scientists, while President George W. Bush called for a ban on human cloning. The claim was eventually exposed as a publicity stunt when the group failed to produce evidence of the experiments — or the cloned child.
Mary Toft's bunny births
In 1726 England, a young woman named Mary Toft told a neighbor that she had been sexually assaulted by a huge rabbit while weeding a nearby field. Her story was dismissed as a bizarre delusion until six months later a doctor was called to her bedside. According to his published report, the woman gave birth to five bunnies! While news of the strange birth spread throughout England and Europe, Toft gave birth to a few more rabbits, astounding many learned men of the day. Eventually skeptical investigators exposed her, and she confessed to having her husband secretly hide bunnies in her bedsheets, whereupon she would further secrete them in what was euphemistically called the "dumb oracle."
Crazy for crop circles
Though many people believe that crop circles have been reported for centuries, in fact they only date back about thirty years. The mysterious circles first appeared in the British countryside, and their origin remained a mystery until September 1991, when two men, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, confessed that they had created crop circles for decades as a prank to make people think UFOs had landed. They never claimed to have made all the circles-- in fact many were copycat hoaxes done by others-- but their hoax was responsible for launching the crop circle phenomena.
Laughing at the Ivory Tower
When well-respected physicist Alan Sokal submitted an article titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" to "Social Text," a leading journal of cultural studies, the piece was accepted without question. The article, in 1996, was in fact filled with academic jargon and nonsensical, pseudointellectual gibberish, a parody of post-modernism and philosophical relativism. "I intentionally wrote the article so that any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize it was a spoof," Sokal said. The journal's editors didn't, and Sokal's hoax exposed an Ivory Tower emperor without clothes.
Tawana Brawley incident
In 1987 America was riveted to the story of a young black girl named Tawana Brawley, who said she had been gang-raped by six white men, including several police officers. Rev. Al Sharpton and others fanned racial tensions and accused police of a cover-up. The following year, following an extensive investigation (and revelations about contradictions in Brawley's story), a grand jury concluded that the girl had hoaxed the incident. A New York prosecutor successfully sued both Brawley and Sharpton for defamation.
In 1974, six members of an Amityville, New York, family were killed by their youngest son, Butch DeFeo. The following year George and Kathy Lutz and their three children moved into the home, and soon, they claimed, they were supernaturally attacked by a demonic ghost or spirit. They collaborated with novelist Jay Anson, who embellished their tale, and the story was soon adapted into a screenplay for the hit film "The Amityville Horror." Investigators, skeptical of their claims, were proven correct years later when DeFeo's lawyer admitted that he and the Lutzes made up the whole thing, and all profited handsomely from the hoax.
Here are a few other recent hoaxes you might recall:
Strange lights over New Jersey: College kids Chris Russo and Joe Rudy used a helium tank, five balloons, five flares, fishing line and duct tap to spawn a host of UFO reports in January, 2009. The duo videotaped their hoax, so the real story eventually came out — and they got fined $250 by a local judge for the activity.
April's Mom: Hoaxes are easy now with the Internet. A supposedly pregnant woman recently spent months blogging about her compelling personal journey of anguish as her unborn child (named April, after the month she was due), had a rare and fatal birth defect. Tiny April's brain would not form properly, the story went. Thousands fell for it.
End of the World: By now, everyone has heard the world will end in 2012 (we promise to keep you updated). Well, actually, they've heard the supposed prophecies and, in one case, some folks have been duped by a slick web site promoting a new movie.
Plus, an all-time classic that spawned many copycats:
Alien abduction: In the 1960s, Barney and Betty Hill claimed they were pursued by a glowing UFO through parts of New Hampshire. This first reported incident of an alleged alien abduction in America. Even UFO buffs eventually found their increasingly outlandish claims hard to believe.
- Ten Classic Alien Abductions
- Urban Legends: Vote for the Most Outlandish
- Most Popular Myths in Science
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. He wrote about media hoaxes in his book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.