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April Fools' Special: History's Hoaxes

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 1, 2003
 
At first glance, the headlines sound plausible: Shark leaps from ocean
to attack a hovering helicopter. Mild winter brings Swiss a bumper
spaghetti crop. Taco Bell Corporation purchases Liberty Bell from U.S.
Government. Alabama legislature votes to change the value of the
mathematical constant pi. But they are all lies.

Happy April Fools' Day. In celebration of the day, National Geographic News has compiled a listing of some of the greatest hoaxes in history. They are the lies, darned lies, and whoppers that have been perpetrated on the gullible and unsuspecting, probably since humans evolved the art of speech.

Internet Hoaxes

The Internet has given birth to a rise in popularity and proliferation of hoaxes. E-mail inboxes are bombarded on an almost daily basis with messages warning of terrible computer viruses that cause users to delete benign chunks of data from their hard drives, or of credit card scams that entice the naive to give all their personal information, including passwords and bank account, to identity thieves. Other e-mails make users gasp with incredulity and awe, which is where this list begins.



Shark "Photo of the Year"

National Geographic's Web site was deluged with hundreds of queries a day when an e-mail containing a photo of a shark leaping out of the water to attack a helicopter began flooding inboxes around the world in August 2001. The email claims the photo is National Geographic's "Photo of the Year."

National Geographic replied that the photo is a fake and sent out its sleuths to track down the source. They found that the image was spliced together from a U.S. Air Force photo taken near San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge by Lance Cheung and a photo of a breaching great white shark taken by South African photographer Charles Maxwell, but the person responsible for making the composite image has never been identified.

Maxwell, who has worked for National Geographic several times, is not thrilled that an image from his Web site was taken and manipulated in this fashion, but told National Geographic News that he'd "like to make contact with the person who did this—not to get him or her into trouble, but because it's a lot of fun and it is a good job."

The e-mail containing the hoax reads:

AND YOU THINK YOUR [sic] HAVING A BAD DAY AT WORK!!

Although this looks like a picture taken from a Hollywood movie, it is in fact a real photo, taken near the South African coast during a military exercise by the British Navy.

It has been nominated by National Geographic as "THE photo of the year."


Tourist Guy

Shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, a photo began circulating the Internet that showed a man in a black cap and sunglasses standing on the observation deck of the World Trade Center just seconds before it was struck by American Airlines Flight 11, which is seen in the background. The photo was accompanied with a message saying it was found in the wreckage and that the tourist has no name and is missing. A few months later, well after the photo leaked from a close-knit circle of friends to e-mail inboxes around the world, Peter Guzli, a man from Budapest, Hungary, stepped forward and accepted responsibility for the hoax.

Guzli, who first came clean by e-mailing the original photo to Wired, said it was taken while on vacation to New York in November 1997. After 9/11, he found the photo and spliced it with a picture of an American Airlines plane taken by Jonathon Derden at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport that was part of an aircraft photography database maintained by Airliners.net. Guzli then sent his creation out to a few friends for a dark laugh. It spread around the world.

Alex Boese, the author and curator of The Museum of Hoaxes (see sidebar), says the photo represents successful dark humor. "It did manage to capture some of the feelings people were experiencing at that time," he said. "Seeing someone with their back turned to the plane evoked a feeling of being sucker-punched."

Alabama Changes Value of Pi

The April 1998 newsletter put out by New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR) contains an article titled "Alabama Legislature Lays Siege to Pi." It was penned by April Holiday of the Associmated Press (sic) and told the story of how the Alabama state legislature voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the round number of 3.

The news story was written as a parody of legislative and school board attacks on the teaching of evolution in New Mexico. At the suggestion of the real author, Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist Mark Boslough, Dave Thomas, the president of NMSR posted the article on April 1 in its entirety to the Internet newsgroup talk.origins, where creation vs. evolution is lively debated. That evening, Thomas posted a full confession and thought he had put all rumors to bed.

To Thomas' surprise, however, several readers of the newsgroup forwarded the article to friends and posted it on other newsgroups. When Thomas checked in on the story a few weeks later he was surprised to learn that it had spread like wildfire. The telltale signs of it being a hoax, such as the April Holiday and Associmated Press's bylines, had been replaced or deleted. Alabama legislators were bombarded with calls protesting the law. The legislators explained that the news was a hoax, there was not and never had been such a law.

Media Hoaxes

Before the advent of the Internet, and even still today, traditional media outlets such as newspapers, radio, and television, have often hoaxed their audiences. The deceptions run the gamut from purported natural disasters to wishful news.

Swiss Spaghetti Harvest

In what is Boese's all-time favorite Hoax, on April 1, 1957 the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) aired on television a report on the news show Panorama about the bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. Viewers watched Swiss farmers pull pasta off spaghetti trees as the show's anchor Richard Dimbleby attributed the bountiful harvest to the mild winter and the disappearance of the spaghetti weevil. He detailed the ins and outs of the life of the spaghetti farmer and anticipated questions about how spaghetti grows on trees. Thousands of people believed the report and called the BBC to inquire about growing their own spaghetti trees to which the BBC replied, "place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."

"It [was] a great satirical effect about British society," said Boese. "British society really was like that at that time. The British have a tendency to be a bit insulated and do not know that much about the rest of Europe."

Taco Liberty Bell

On April Fools' Day in 1996 readers in five major cities opened their newspapers to learn from a full page announcement that Taco Bell Corporation had purchased the Liberty Bell from the U.S. government and was re-locating it from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Irvine, California. The move, the corporation said in the advertisement, was part of an "effort to help the national debt."

Hundreds of other newspapers and television shows ran stories related to a press release on the matter put out by Taco Bell's public relations firm PainePR. Outraged citizens called the National Historic Park in Philadelphia to express their disgust. A few hours later, the public relations firm followed with another release stating that it was a hoax.

White House press secretary Mike McCurry got into the act when he remarked that the government would also be "selling the Lincoln Memorial to Ford Motor Co. and renaming it the Lincoln-Mercury Memorial."

As a marketing ploy, the hoax was successful, states PainePR on their Web site. The firm claims that more than 70 million Americans were exposed to the story, which resulted in a U.S.$500,000 sales increase for Taco Bell on April 1 and a $600,000 increase on April 2.

The threat of disaster and the wonders of science and nature are often evoked in the form of a hoax. Other scientific or natural achievements are so seemingly unbelievable that some people cannot accept that they are in fact true, and to this day maintain that what is real is really a hoax. Some of these include:

Crop Circles

Strange, circular formations began to appear in the fields of southern England in the mid-1970s, bringing busloads of curious onlookers, media representatives, and believers in the paranormal out to the countryside for a look. A sometimes vitriolic debate on their origins has since ensued and the curious formations have spread around the world, becoming more and more elaborate as the years go by.

Some people consider the crop formations to be the greatest works of modern art to emerge from the 20th century, while others are convinced they are signs of extraterrestrial communications or landing sites of UFOs.

The debate rages even today, although in 1991 Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, two elderly men from Wiltshire County, came forward and claimed responsibility for the crop circles there over the past 20 years. They made the circles by pushing down nearly-ripe crops with a plank suspended from a rope. It seems logical to think that their art was copied around the world, but who knows?

Piltdown Man

In December of 1912, a 500,000-year-old skull that represented the "missing-link" between modern humans and their prehistoric ancestors went on display at the British Museum in London. The specimen was recovered by an amateur fossil collector named Charles Dawson and put on display by Aurthur Smith Woodward, keeper of the Department of Geology at the museum.

The skull caused a stir amongst scientists, who felt that the lower jaw belonged to a different species, perhaps an ape. Eventually, however, those in favor of Piltdown Man's authenticity won out and the skull was given the scientific name Eoanthropus dawson and recorded in the textbooks.

Over the next several years, Dawson recovered other bones from the Piltdown site and they were added to the collection. It was not until 1953, 37 years after Dawson had died, that British Museum researchers Kenneth Oakley, Wilfred Le Gros Clark, and Joseph Weiner published a paper in which they announced that the fossil was a fake. They concluded that Piltdown Man was a combination of human cranial pieces and the jawbone of an orangutan that had been stained to make it look old.

Moon Landing a Hoax?

Ever since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sent astronauts to the moon between 1969 and 1972, skeptics have questioned whether the Apollo missions were real or simply a ploy to one-up the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The debate resurfaced and reached crescendo levels in February 2001 when Fox television aired a program called Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?.

Guests on the show argued that NASA did not have the technology to land on the moon, but, anxious to win the space race, acted out the Apollo program in movie studios. The conspiracy theorists pointed out things such as the pictures transmitted from the moon do not include stars and that the flag the Americans planted on the moon is waving even though there is thought to be no breeze on the moon.

NASA quickly refuted these claims in a series of press releases, stating that any photographer would know it is difficult to capture something very bright and very dim on the same piece of film and since the photographers wanted to capture the astronauts striding across the lunar surface in their sunlit spacesuits, the background stars were too faint to see. For the flag, NASA said that the astronauts were turning it back and forth to get in firmly planted in the lunar soil, which made it wave.

The issue may have been put to rest when NASA pointed out that the show never raises a question about the more than 800 pounds (363 kilograms) of rocks brought back from the moon. "Geologists worldwide have been examining these samples for 30 years, and the conclusion is inescapable. The rocks could not have been collected or manufactured on Earth," NASA says on its Web site. Regardless, the conspiracy theory abounds today.
 

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