17 February 2012


Robert E. Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford. The Martians Have Landed; A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes. McFarland, 2012.

Guy P. Harrison. 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True. Prometheus Books, 2012.

Bartholomew and Radford’s book carries on from a number of other titles by Bartholomew, looking at social delusions, as well as another book on panics and hoaxes co-edited with Hilary Evans. This seems to be a rather slighter volume with over thirty topics dealt with mostly in fairly short chapters.
Although most of the panics and hoaxes covered will be fairly familiar to Magonia readers there are a number of topics which I have not seen covered in similar compilations, such as the racist Internet and media-led rumours surrounding Hurricane Katrina, and a number of scares resulting from over-realistic TV and radio dramas, including not only the Orson Welles broadcast and its violent South American sequels, but the invasion broadcast that caused a crisis in the Caucasus. The authors also do a good job of looking at the way some genuine concerns were dramatised by the media – ‘Bird Flu’, ‘video nasties’ and a number of over-the-top ‘elf'n’safety’ panics.

There are a couple of specific points I would take issue with. The account of the ‘Mattoon Gasser’ ignores some recent research which suggests that much of the panic may have been the result of the activities of one specific individual. I also feel that the chapter on the ‘Satanic panic’ is very much US-oriented and does not examine the rather different nature of the allegations in the UK and Europe.

There are some contributions by individual researchers who are able to examine in more detail topics in which they have a specific interest. David Clarke gives a comprehensive account of the ‘Crying Boy Painting’ legend and the role that the tabloid Sun played in promoting it. The chapter by Felicity Goodyear-Smith and Helen Petousis-Harris gives a useful background to a number of vaccine panics in New Zealand and elsewhere, but could perhaps have benefitted from a more international outlook.

If there is a problem with this book it is that it tries to cover too much ground and does not go into most of the stories in sufficient detail, (but there are comprehensive references, many with Internet links, for those who wish to delve further), and perhaps there is insufficient distinction between out-and-out hoaxes (or even April Fool spoofs – I would like to have read a description of the BBC Radio Merseyside hoax which led to thousands of Liverpudlians rushing to the Pier Head to see the alleged ‘record low-tide’ which was allowing people to walk across the Mersey to Birkenhead! * ) and media panics which may or may not have been helped along by vested interests. In all though the book is an interesting compilation of tall stories and their factual backgrounds.

Perhaps brevity as a result of trying to cover too much ground is also a problem with Guy Harrison’s book. Probably the clue’s in the title, and 50 beliefs is just too many to plough through in one volume.

I actually find little to disagree with in most of the arguments that are presented here. The chapters on Roswell and UFOs are generally sound, and Harrison, unlike some other sceptical writers on Roswell, is secure enough in his argument to defend the ‘crash-test dummies’ explanation for the Roswell ‘aliens’ by outlining the problems of misleading memories of events from twenty, thirty, or more years ago. He gives an interesting example of ‘false memory’ from his own experience.

A slightly irritating feature (apart from the cartoons) is the way that topics are introduced by chapter headings which are a series of dogmatic statements: “Most Conspiracy Theories Are True”, “A TV Preacher Needs My Money”, “Television News Gives Me An Accurate View of the World”, even, presumably for the sake of balance, “All Scientists Are Geniuses and Science Is Always Right”. Clearly Harrison has little difficulty in demolishing these straw men.

There’s very little that’s actually wrong with this book (apart from the chapter on global warming) but I think one chapter heading missing is “Prometheus Press Really Needs to Publish Another Fairly Superficial Round-up of Skeptical Opinions Which Is Only Going To Be Read By People Who Agree With Them Already”. I think that statement would be fairly easy to refute. – John Rimmer.

* Those crazy scousers at Radio Merseyside were at it again last Hallowe'en, faking an alien invasion.

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