Peter Brookesmith on the failure of skeptics to tackle the nature of hoaxing

Peter Brookesmith

Monday, May 17 2010 at 7:30PM

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283 High Holborn

Peter Brookesmith

What's the talk about?

The standard rationalist response to manifestations of irrational, unexpected or allegedly paranormal phenomena seems to be an attempt to explain it away: and when a hoax is uncovered, the case is regarded as ‘solved’. The tacit assumption is that no further energy need be expended on it.

To counter this idle tendency among skeptics and to encourage them to think a little harder and deeper—even, perhaps, a little more tolerantly—I propose that those who subscribe to various strange beliefs and those who, by means of hoaxes, subtly encourage them, may be attempting to maintain modes of understanding that cannot otherwise be expressed in a culture dominated by scientific rationalism. That ‘science’ and skeptics find these expressive modes unmanageable is a comment on their limitations, not a knee-jerk condemnation of popular delusions and the madness of crowds.

This presentation offers a tentative taxonomy of the many kinds of hoax, scam, fraud, prank and ostensive activity, but more particularly delves into why these occur and what they satisfy, socially and individually.

Acknowledgement: most of the ideas presented have been developed in collaboration with crop-circlemaker Rob Irving, to whom I owe much by way of intellectual stimulation.

Peter Brookesmith spent six years in academia, studying English & French literature and music. He worked in proper jobs as an editor of school science texts for the Nuffield Foundation and then as editor and occasional instigator of highly-illustrated, large-scale publishing projects. He currently works as a writer and publisher of high-quality fiction. Despite his editorship of the best-selling partwork The Unexplained he is nowadays generally abhorred and reviled among paranormalists as a skeptibunker, pelicanist and hyper-skeptic. While this is largely true, it is no excuse for letting skeptics off hooks of their own making.

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