We lead off this issue with a two-article section on Conspiracy Theories and Incredible Tales, a timely look at thinking and behaviors that are at the root of many modern claims and confusions. Nearly every day’s news brings new evidence of conspiratorial thinking or word of someone embellishing the truth about their own lives and obsessions.
Jeffrey S. Debies-Carl, an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Haven, shows how social science research can help us understand conspiracy legends. He begins with last year’s notorious “Pizzagate” incident, in which a young man shot up a popular Washington, D.C., pizzeria after being persuaded by online conspiracy-promoting sites that something nefarious was going on there. Preposterous as this series of events was, it typifies how conspiracy theories work. Folklorists see stories like the one that appealed to this troubled man as a legend, in which the events are presented as possible even if they are bizarre and not necessarily plausible. No firsthand witnesses can be found. Multiple versions surface with varying details. Their lack of credibility isn’t necessarily obvious. The Internet supplies an abundance of sympathetic websites and posts that seem to confirm the weird claim. Conspiracy theories are notoriously resilient to criticism, as sociologist Ted Goertzel made clear in his 2011 Skeptical Inquirer cover article “The Conspiracy Meme.” Debies-Carl notes that psychological research shows how difficult it is for people to admit they were wrong once they have strongly committed to a belief or course of action. And action, not just talk, is regrettably sometimes the result, a form of “legend-tripping.” As he notes, “Legends, like fake news, can lead to real-world consequences.”
In “Becoming Fantastic,” Eric Wojciechowski, a writer trained in psychology, explores why some people embellish their already accomplished lives with incredible tall tales. His concern is not just exaggerations but imagined narratives that stretch into the realm of the fantastic. His examples come from the field of UFOlogy with people like Philip J. Corso, Robert O. Dean, and Steven M. Greer. They all were accomplished figures (the first two in the military, Greer in medicine), yet they all tell stories about themselves that seem incredible. We cannot know for certain why, but it does make their lives seem more exciting. The examples of these well-known people seemingly making up things can be multiplied many times over by lesser known figures doing the same.
The rest of the issue is our typically rich mix of topics. We offer five timely reviews, including our first-ever pictorial film review, courtesy of skeptic and artist/illustrator Celestia Ward. Bertha Vazquez answers ten questions about evolution; Stuart Vyse reports on a near-forgotten pioneer science communicator and also on the effort to raise the bar of “statistical significance” in science; Brett Taylor examines “Hollywood Curse Legends”; I give some of the facts behind the Roswell UFO myth; and Amy Kelly tells her very personal story of how her skeptical thinking saved her personal-needs child.