Lunar Man-Bats? Nineteenth Century, Meet the Twenty-First

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Mr. Goodman is the author of The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York, published by Basic Books.

In the summer of 1835, a newspaper in New York called the Sun managed to convince a majority of the city’s residents that the moon was inhabited. An ingenious series of six articles published in the Sun described the remarkable lunar creatures purportedly discovered by the eminent British astronomer John Herschel – among them unicorns, beavers that walked on their hind legs, and, most astonishing of all, four-foot-tall man-bats that talked, flew, built temples, created art, and fornicated in public (although on those details the Sun remained decorously mum).

The moon series of 1835 remains, to this day, the most successful of all newspaper hoaxes – indeed, so successful that by the time the series finished its run, the Sun had become the most widely read newspaper in all the world.

When I first began work on my book about the moon series, the world in which it took place seemed to me nearly as strange and distant as ancient Rome. (This was a time, after all, in which much of Manhattan consisted of uninhabited forest, and newspaper editors routinely fought in the streets.) But the more deeply I researched the particulars of the story the less comfortable I was with the notion of distance. More and more I began to detect certain uncanny similiarities to the world of today, much as one might discover unexpected resemblance in a grainy photograph of a long-deceased ancestor.

As it turns out, the man who actually wrote the moon series – the Sun’s editor, an expatriate British journalist named Richard Adams Locke – had not intended the series to be a hoax at all. Locke was a political radical as well as a religious free-thinker; he strongly believed in the liberatory power of modern science, and was opposed to any kind of religious influence on free scientific inquiry. He wrote his moon series as a satire of the popular religious astronomers of the day, who believed that all of the heavenly bodies were inhabited – not just the moon but also the sun and all the stars and planets – because God would not have created these worlds without also creating intelligent beings there to appreciate them. This was, Locke correctly understood, merely religion masquerading as science. His moon series was meant to burlesque the idea of a populated universe, and in so doing, he hoped, expose it for the nonsense it was. (Locke, unfortunately, failed to foresee that the public had been so schooled in religious astronomy that most people simply believed the Sun’s articles.)

That was nearly two centuries ago. And yet the long conflict between the competing claims of science and religion is far from settled. According to one recent CBS News poll, for instance, a majority of Americans do not believe in the theory of evolution, preferring to believe that God created human beings in their present form. In parts of the country, efforts are still being made to have so-called “Intelligent Design” taught alongside evolution to the nation’s schoolchildren – a notion supported by, among others, President George Bush. At one of last year’s Republican presidential debates, several of his would-be successors raised their hands in answer to the question of which among them disbelieved in evolution, in so doing proudly asserting their own ignorance of modern science.

Even today, then, religion still asserts its pre-eminence over truths revealed by science; too often, it might be said, theology holds sway over geology. But surely, in the sophisticated twenty-first century, with so much technology at our disposal, we would not be vulnerable to such a ridiculous hoax as the one perpetrated by the Sun? After all, Locke’s series was predicated on the fact that the real-life John Herschel was then living in South Africa. In those days before the telegraph, it would be months before word could reach Herschel of the alleged “discoveries” that had been claimed in his name. Today, in the age of instant communication, such a scheme would clearly be impossible. A simple email or text message sent to Herschel at his South African observatory could bring, in a matter of moments, his stout denial of all such lunar activities.

Yet speed of technology can just as well assist as deter the transmission of a hoax – as was amply demonstrated by the welter of scurrilous rumors that arose during the recent presidential campaign. Barack Obama, it was suggested, was a secret Muslim. Barack Obama refused to place his hand over his heart when reciting the pledge of allegiance. Barack Obama did not possess a valid United States birth certificate. All of these claims were nothing more than hoaxes, without even the veneer of authenticity that Richard Adams Locke worked so hard to achieve in his own imaginary story. Yet despite having been soundly refuted in the print media, the false claims about Obama continued to circulate throughout the campaign season, passed from one blog to another, from one viral email to the next. And they were, in distressingly large numbers, believed – in large part because, like the Sun’s claims about an inhabited moon, they seemed to confirm what large numbers of people already thought. One survey conducted by the University of Texas just days before the election found that 23 percent of Texas voters – nearly one in four – believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim. The Internet, which might be such a potent medium for the debunking of hoaxes, seems to be at least as effective in carrying them.

And this points up what is perhaps the most striking similarity between the 1830s and today. The Sun was the first of the penny papers, a revolutionary form of journalism that gave readers the kind of news they really wanted – snappy, exciting, locally based, and affordable. It was a formula that proved highly successful; before long penny papers had appeared in cities throughout the country, and had soon displaced the stodgy, expensive merchant newspapers of an earlier era. Today we may be witnessing just such a phenomenon, as Internet journalism – free and constantly updated – is strongly challenging the primacy of the printed newspaper. In the nineteenth century the penny paper supplanted merchant newspapers within about twenty years; two decades from now the printed newspaper may well have been rendered virtually extinct.

The past, Barbara Tuchman once reminded us, is a distant mirror. If we look closely enough into it, we might dimly make out ourselves today: still looking for ever-faster means of communication (however unreliable they may be), still ready to sacrifice reason to faith, and still willing, it seems, to believe almost anything.

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Randll Reese Besch - 2/23/2009

Napoleon knew that he could rally people behind flags and ideas no matter how absurd if they believed in it whole heartedly and gave him what he needed. It doesn't matter how intelligent or educated you are for once you pass the threshold of acceptance of a certain point of view of the world all other will be filtered out. Once you accept that there is some unmeasurable super-intelligent all controlling force that can synthesize anything for any reason then science and its empirical ways are useless. (All you are doing is measuring the wares of the Deity.) And since in order to be fully accepted as a believer you are forbidden to look beyond the 'veil' to find concrete proof for it violates that most important aspect of belief. Indeed if you do you are not a believer and therefor you entrance into Heaven is forfit! To believe without proof or a disengagement of the neo-cortex our most recent and advanced parts of our brain. It is for the more emotional parts that are most affected in this case.

Now if we can just keep them from ruining our science as was done in other cultures such as Germany and Russia of the last century as recent examples. Where science was twisted to follow some sort of philosophical and religious ideology.

I agree with the Stoics and Dr. Stephen J.Gould that science and religion/mysticism are separate domains and should remain so.

Paul Ross Burnett - 2/15/2009

America appears to have been served an extra-large helping of gullible ignoramuses. Just because the high technology of the Internet helps them communicate more efficiently, there are still yahoos who are fleeced by those who take advantage of their ignorance. Intelligent design creationism is supported almost solely by overtly or covertly religious apologists - not scientists. It's roundly condemned as pseudoscience by essentially every actual science organization in America. Just look where it's gaining traction: Bible colleges, Louisiana, Kansas... Mr. Goodman is right: Some people will believe almost anything - even something as patently absurd as intelligent design creationism.