As for the ice borers, many readers of the original report noted that the April 1995 issue of DISCOVER was peppered with true stories—about rats on Prozac, mini-mammoths, and buddy-system birds—whose authenticity might well be questioned. Indeed, the very image on the cover of the magazine could be suspect—a grotesque blowup of a false-colored micrograph of a 0.03-inch Microphthalmus, accompanied by the oversize headline “Exclusive Photos: Aliens on the Beach! The Unseen Creatures Beneath Our Feet.” (I apologize for the hyperbolic wording—my compensation was based on newsstand sales.) And the ice borer itself was just a fantastic twist on a hardly more believable animal, the Namibian naked mole rat, a nearly blind mammal that has a social structure like an ant’s. To fake a photo of an ice borer that accompanied the hoax story, the magazine’s art department Photoshopped a red-tinted trilobite onto the head of a naked mole rat.
I now feel a pang of guilt about the hoaxes. As a man of science, I was smugly delighted that creationists seized on the Neanderthal tuba but dismayed that zoologists and other scientists also believed our fakes. Magicians often say scientists make the best audience because they think they’re too smart and observant not to trust what they see with their own eyes. Ricky Jay, the sleight-of-hand master, told 60 Minutes (video) that “the ideal audience would be Nobel Prize winners....They often have an ego with them that says, ‘I am really smart so I can’t be fooled.’ No one is easier to fool.”
I told the magician Penn Jillette about the ice borers. “Smart people learn to believe things that are counterintuitive,” he said. “Black holes, string theory, germs, trips to the moon, radio waves—they’ve had practice believing crazy s--t.” Penn was right, of course. Is a bowling-ball-size fundamental particle any less plausible than 26-dimensional string theory? Or smog-clearing bellows any less harebrained than, say, BP’s plan to plug its oil geyser with golf balls? We live in interesting times. Modern physics is incomprehensible, and cowboy engineering schemes—private companies racing to get to the moon or to sequence our genomes cheaply—are commonplace and may be our salvation.
Science has always aimed to explain the world around us, and humanists used to portray scientific explanations as draining the joy and mystery from life. These days, though, scientific explanations often defy everyday experience. The fact that creationists are citing science to further their agenda is a sign that scientific discovery has become as marvelous and inspiring as any tale from religion.
Richard Dawkins says there is an evolutionary advantage in believing what authority figures tell us: Children would wander off into the woods if they didn’t heed their parents’ admonition to stay near their homes. Toddlers cannot understand how a stovetop could burn them, yet most of them follow their parents’ warning to stay away from the range (as well as believe whatever they are told about Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and Dawkins’s favorite bugaboo, the Almighty).
I asked Stephen Greenspan, the author of Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It, to explain why intelligent people accepted our April Fool’s stories. “People trust authority—and DISCOVER is an authority for science news—unless the authority says something too far-fetched,” he said. Our economy and all other social interactions are based on trust and would collapse if we all doubted one another, he added. In other words, a society of paranoids and cynics would not function as a society. It is sobering to realize that human beings blindly trust authority and that authority figures like Nobelists are the ones most easily duped.
When I learned that Greenspan, perhaps the world’s foremost scientific authority on gullibility, had put $400,000 of his own retirement savings into funds that invested with Bernie Madoff, I no longer felt so stupid believing that Matt Damon was starring in a film about shogi. Come to think of it, the plot of the purported movie sounded a lot like Invictus.
Paul Hoffman, editorial chairman of BigThink.com, is the author of King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game.