Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The king of the hoaxers

In general, I really dislike hoaxers.

They make a skeptic's job so much harder.  It's bad enough dealing with the implicit biases in human perception, our occasional failures in logic, and the sheer contrariness of nature.  When people deliberately set out to mislead, confuse, or lie outright, it adds a whole new level of difficulty and frustration to the enterprise.

Still, there are times that there are hoaxers whose ingenuity I can't help but admire.  Such a man was Alan Abel, who died last week at the age of 94.

Well, at least I think he did.  Abel faked his own death in 1980, using over a dozen accomplices -- one acting as his grieving widow, another as the undertaker, others as family friends -- and the hoax was good enough that the New York Times ran his obituary, and had to publish a retraction when Abel rose from the grave and gave a news conference.

This time, his death was confirmed by the Regional Hospice and Palliative Care facility in Abel's home town of Southbury, Connecticut.  Which, I have to admit, would be an unlikely group of people to participate in a hoax about someone dying.

Abel's successful hoaxes make a long, hilarious, and amazingly creative list.  Here are a few:
  • The creation of the Society for Indecency of Naked Animals, which proposed clothing all domestic animals to hide their naughty bits.  Supposedly Abel got the idea when he was driving somewhere and had to stop his car to wait for a cow and a bull in the middle of the road to finish having sex, and he thought he could convince people that this kind of behavior would be less likely to happen if the animals weren't running around naked all the time.  Apparently, there were a number of people who thought it was serious, and joined the society -- a group of them even picketed the White House in 1963 to try to get Jackie Kennedy to put pants on her horses.  (The slogan was "A nude horse is a rude horse.")
  • He created a fake presidential candidate in 1964, a retired Jewish grandma from the Bronx named Yetta Bronstein.  Her platform included such points as fluoridation, having national bingo tournaments, and dispensing truth serum into congressional drinking fountains.  Her motto was "Vote for Yetta and things will get betta," which when added to the Nude Horse slogan from SINA, leads me to believe that Abel may have been good at hoaxes, but he was freakin' brilliant at coming up with mottos.
  • The creation of Omar's School for Beggars, which was supposed to educate people in techniques of better panhandling.  In the publicity photographs, Abel himself (wearing a hoodie) posed as Omar, and his friends posed as the students.  As wacky as this one is, it took in not only New York magazine, but the Miami Herald.
  • A coed musical quartet that always performed wearing only pants.  Apparently Frank Sinatra thought this was a cool idea, and tried to book a recording session with them, only to find out the Topless String Quartet didn't exist.
  • The Ku Klux Klan Symphony Orchestra, which -- no lie -- David Duke accepted an invitation to conduct.
  • Females for Felons, a group of selfless women who devoted themselves to having sex with the incarcerated.
  • Euthanasia Cruises, which catered to people who "want to expire in luxury."
  • Posing as a former White House staffer, Abel had a lot of people convinced that he had located the lost/erased eighteen minutes of the Watergate tapes.  
  • A 1971 documentary -- completely made up, using actors as "scientists" -- called, "Is There Sex After Death?"
And that's just scratching the surface.  What's amazing is that he never got publicized as a hoaxer.  You'd think, after one or two, people wouldn't believe anything the guy was involved in, but he bamboozled everyone time after time.  Part of it was sheer craftiness; he was always careful to keep his name and face out of the spotlight.  But part of it was that he was really good at playing into tendencies that are strong motivators -- outrage, prurient interest, curiosity (morbid or not), and a simple desire to see the powers-that-be getting a good shaking-up.

An illustration from one of Abel's fliers for the Society for Indecency of Naked Animals

The fact is, he more or less got away with it his whole life.  (He did, however, one time quip that Walter Cronkite hated him more than he did Fidel Castro.)

The world has lost a funny guy who, even if he was engaged in an activity I generally find obnoxious, I have to give some credit.  He certainly was good at what he did.  So let's raise our glasses to Alan Abel, who went on to the Great Beyond last week, where -- one can only hope -- there will be Topless String Quartets and heaven-wide bingo tournaments, not to mention sex after death.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun one.  If you've never read anything by Mary Roach, you don't know what you're missing.  She investigates various human phenomena -- eating, space travel, sex, death, and war being a few of the ones she's tackled -- and writes about them with an analytical lens and a fantastically light sense of humor.  This week, my recommendation is Spook, in which she looks at the idea of an afterlife, trying to find out if there's anything to it from a scientific perspective.  It's an engaging, and at times laugh-out-loud funny, read.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]

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