Sunday, September 5, 2010

What The Cottingley Fairies can teach us -or- 50,000,000 Elvis fans CAN be wrong

I slept in, and woke up feeling fine. I didn't know what I was going to blog about, but I knew it would come to me without too much effort. When I found my subject, I did a little research, and ended up getting sidetracked by people trying to convince me that mermaids are real. Just like the day I wrote the blog Mars time, I came away feeling drained and punch drunk. It's amazing how much a few pieces of media can pull out of you.

The Cottingley Fairies. It has to be one of the best examples not only of the psychology of deception, but the psychology of self-deception (without which, very little deception would take place).

A brief history: In 1917, two girls, cousins, ten and twelve, tell their mothers that they see fairies out by the stream (or beck, as they were in the UK). They borrow a camera and take two photographs that apparently depict fairies. The mother of one of the girls thinks this is something neat, and makes them public. The photos are approached as being serious business.

Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series, is very impressed by the photographs, and outspoken. In 1920, Edward Gardener, member of the Theosophical Society, gives the girls a camera to take more pictures. They took three more pictures of apparent fairies. Mixed reception. People gradually forget.

About 40 years later, the girls are all grown up, and one of them says, in an interview, that she may have been photographing her own thought forms. The media loves this, and as a result (or as a cause) the public does as well. Randi and associates say the pics are fakes, and strings are visible.

In 1983, sixty-six years after the first photograph was taken, and one year after my own birth, the girls admit that it had all been a fake. One of them drew the fairies, they cut them out and stood them up with pins. They disagree about whether the fifth photograph was a fake. One girl persists that it is real, until her death, soon after.

(story paraphrased from Wikipedia, which is always accurate)

See all five photos here.

This whole story has always been remarkable to me. It's a great illustration of some of the elements that can come together to make even the hardest-to-swallow stories believable. There is popularity, media coverage, celebrity interest, arguing experts, and trustworthy-looking witnesses.

I could say that the plum tree in my yard was a real life womping willow, even when it was heavy with plums, and if it happened to have: popularity, media coverage, celebrity interest, arguing experts, and if I was a trustworthy looking witness, then my "real life womping willow" Facebook page would have followers in the millions.

A person may think that I would have to have some kind of evidence to gain a few of those things, but that is exactly why these things fool people. If you make something ridiculous very popular, then the media will be inclined to cover it. Celebrities are as fallible as any of us, and some of them will be duped. The media will choose, or create, experts to argue over this celebrity-backed story. And then I just have to be good at lying, which many people are. Then, even if the average person sees that it is clearly a hoax, it will be hard to believe that all of those prominent people would be arguing over something so silly, so the obvious conclusion is, "I must be missing something."

Well, you're not missing anything. Your own powers of perception are greater than the collective perception of the media. If you noticed that the fairies (even in the fifth photo) seemed to have paper edges, and seemed to be highlighted uniformly, like a flat piece of paper, then you solved the mystery, even as the media picked up more speed. If you saw the "Surgeon's Photograph" of the Lock Ness monster, and it looked like it was about eight inches tall at first glance, it wouldn't have done you any good to listen to experts argue and muddle your brain. If you noticed that we seemed to be sending forces into Iraq in response to an attack from someone completely different, then you were already way ahead of the game.

I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but only a capitalist. There is a big market in you not trusting your own eyes, and if you let the media treat you like you are stupider than you actually are, then even the most obvious truths will always be just out of reach.

Thanks for reading.

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