SOCORRO, N.M., Jan. 3, 2007 – A new book written by a New Mexico Tech English professor recounts a provocative era in American history during the mid- to late-1800s in which fake news stories about scientific and technological discoveries were widely circulated.
Lynda Walsh, an assistant professor of English at New Mexico Tech, is the author of Sins against Science, a recently published book that examines several science-based hoaxes perpetrated on 19th century American readers.
In her book, Walsh focuses on hoaxes which fooled tens of thousands of readers and were concocted by famous writers such as Richard Adams Locke, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Dan De Quille.
Based on Walsh’s doctoral dissertation, Sins against Science offers an investigative look at this intriguing “guerilla tactic” employed in the historical struggle between the arts and the sciences during this critical transitional period.
“This was all taking place at a time when science and technology were becoming more and more a mainstream part of American society,” Walsh said. “Scientists were helping develop useful technologies such as telegraph and public railroad systems, which soon became readily available to the general public. . . . Science quickly became professionalized.”
As science — and scientists — began to assume more revered positions of power and influence in society, a backlash began to develop among various practitioners of the arts, particularly among notable literary figures.
“Many were concerned by a perceived shift in values and loss of public support the arts seemed to be suffering as a result of the emergence of science, so, in response, a few writers mounted a guerilla resistance campaign against scientists and their popular theories through the perpetuation of hoaxes,” Walsh said.
These media hoaxes succeeded because of two factors that came into play at the same time science was professionalizing in pre-Civil War America: an urban population boom and cheap newspapers widely distributed among these new readers.
“American society had gotten too complex for readers to be able to verify for themselves everything they needed to know to function in it,” Walsh explained. “They had to trust what they read in the papers. The media hoaxers took advantage of this new faith to puncture the sudden popularity scientists and their work were enjoying in the press.
“In essence, these hoaxers were saying ‘You trust anything scientists tell you, and this is not a good thing,’” she added.
One of the major hoaxes Walsh covers is the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, in which Locke reported on what astronomer J.F.W. Herschel had seen while looking at the Moon through what-was-then the world’s biggest telescope.
“Locke’s article described in journalistic fashion the occurrence of several strange life forms on the Moon, as well as the presence of extraordinary geologic features, such as numerous active volcanoes,” Walsh related. “Among other places, New York was in an uproar over the ‘man-bats’ that Locke so vividly described.”
An illustration for Locke’s article, which was published alongside it in the New York Times, is featured on the cover of Walsh’s book.
American literary giants Poe and Twain also made their mark as great hoaxers of the time: Poe, with his Balloon Hoax of 1844; and, Twain, with his Petrified Man story.
“All of the media hoaxes in this book mounted an indirect criticism of the way the American public was assimilating scientific knowledge,” Walsh explained.
Walsh’s book, Sins against Science — The Scientific Media Hoaxes of Poe, Twain, and Others, has been released in a hardcover edition by the State University of New York as part of its ongoing series, “Studies in Scientific and Technical Communication.”