Got Another One!
This is not the first time I've managed to get smart people to believe dumb things (although this may be the first time I've done so without meaning to). I used to do it all the time. Back in the day, a friend and I used some judicious if low-tech special effects to convince a visiting Brazilian scientist that the Deer Island house we were staying in was haunted. When all the blinds in her room shot up simultaneously at three a.m., I swear she never touched a single step on her way downstairs and out the door. She not only refused to step back inside the house, she high-tailed it right off the island. Did the rest of her field work out of Grand Manan. (In hindsight, we actually felt kind of bad about that.)
But perhaps my proudest moment was during my doctorate, when I convinced a couple of fellow grad students (in arts, granted, but still) that whenever I went into the field I had to strip naked and glue yellow sponges all over my body, because harbour seals couldn't see yellow wavelengths. (Why not just wear yellow clothes? you ask. Why, because it would have to be yellow rain gear — given the wet field environment — and rain gear is slick, i.e. reflective, i.e. the seals would still be able to see the glare if not the actual colour.) My victims were astonished, and profoundly impressed by my dedication to the cause — "There has to be a better way", they insisted — but when I begged them to name one ("because seriously, those fuckers hurt when you rip them off"), they came up blank. Nice Matisse t-shirts, though.
Of course, the word gets around. These days, all I have to do is open my mouth and pretty much anyone who knows me will accuse me of trying to bullshit them. Still. I'm frequently astonished at how easy it is to Punk the People. I'm finally getting around to reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan, which takes way too long to get to the point but which makes a similar point: we as a species often believe the most absurd things as long as there's some kind of narrative attached. We are pattern-matchers, because patterns allow us to distill the environment into a series of simple rules. So we see patterns whether they exist or not, and stories that tie causes to any given phenomenon (I glue yellow sponges onto my naked body because harbour seals can't see yellow) are a lot more believable than those which simply report the same phenomenon in isolation (I glue yellow sponges onto my naked body). We are engines in search of narrative. Evidently this goes a long way towards explaining the inanity of most CNN headlines.
Not sure I buy it completely, though. If the telling of stories were really so central to the human condition, you'd think those of us who did it for a living would at least get a decent dollar out of it.