Some hoaxes and motivation

Discovery of Fire using Bipedal Beavers on Mars in 1835
Discovery of Fire using Bipedal Beavers on Mars in 1835

Literary hoaxes, documents or books that muddy the waters, are dangerous to researchers but amusing. Some are written for gain, some to prove a point, and some, written for fun and never intended to deceive escaped into the wild. They can be very hard to spot especially as a good hoax in say Alternative History will contain valid information carefully misinterpreted. A good hoax, when the intent is not financial gain, should leave clues to its nature though unfortunately some clues may be hard to spot or only visible to insiders.

Authenticated Hitler doaries
Authenticated Hitler doaries

Hoaxing for money: Hitler's Diaries

In the early 1908s West German news magazine Stern paid nearly 9 million German Marks for 60 small volumes said to be Adolf Hitler's diaries, covering the period from 1932 to 1945, plus a "special volume" about Rudolf Hess' flight to the United Kingdom, and published extracts of these in April 1983. In April 2013 Stern publisher Gruner + Jahr donated 58 volumes to the German Federal Archive in Coblenz: the House of the History of the Federal Republic in Bonn and the Police Museum in Hamburg received one volume each. The final volume had been auctioned off in Berlin to an anonymous buyer, who paid 6,500 euros for it in April 2004. [1]

Initially experts said the handwriting was Hitler's and some historians said the diaries were genuine but later backed off. Analysis showed the diaries were written on modern paper using modern ink, were full of historical inaccuracies and the handwriting failed to match even the most basic characteristics of Hitler's handwriting. The diaries were actually written by a well known forger,, Konrad Kujao. who, along with a partner, was jailed for forgery and embezzlement (sounds like they threw the books at him, the latter being a rather odd charge in the circumstances).

On being released from prison Konrad Kujao, cashed in on his fame and opened a studio selling “Original Kujau forgeries” With this he joined a select band of forgers who's work became valuable in its own right.

Ironically he denounced a book entitled Die Originalität der Fälschung ("The Originality of Forgery") appearing under Kujau's name as a forgery. After his death in 2000 his great-niece, Petra Kujau, was subsequently charged with selling hundreds of fakes of his fakes. She would buy oil paintings from art schools in Asia, usually for as little as 10 euros apiece, write Kujau's signature on them, and resell them for up to 3,500 euros.


Initial tests and checks made all the right motions but conclusions were drawn too hastily. Stern wanted a big story and, to keep the story secret till publication did not let enough experts examine the documents properly. Not checking the age of the paper and the ink was, in hindsight, an obvious error. The motivesfor the hoax seems to have been financial and the acceptance of what later turned out to have been poor quality forgeries has been blamed on a national fixation with Hitler by middle aged businessmen for whom he had been a background figure in their early childhood, if only by hearing accounts from their parents and the media [2]. The precise mechanism can only be guessed and will never be known precisely. Today such a hoax would be harder to bring off, and tests of ink and paper would probably be the first step not an afterthought.


The entire story [1-3] is fascinating and amusing but out of scope here.

Proving a point: Arachne Rising

Arachne Rising is a hoax book written to prove a point. Science fiction novelist, skeptic and arch materialist John Sladek wrote the book to try and show that people will believe anything [4] (A fairly redundant effort if you look at current affairs ). He presented a mass of historical, literary and numerological evidence to show that the Zodiac Sign Arachne had been suppressed [5]. As is the case with all good hoaxes of this sort he included some giveaways (but only for insiders) including astrological case histories for Cassandra Knye, the name under which Sladek and Thomas Disch had published spoof Gothic novels, and James Colvin, a New Worlds house pseudonym often used by Michael Moorcock. Anansi, the spider, is an African trickster god, though it is not known whether Sladek was aware of this when weaving his web of words

He massaged statistics to show that people born under Arachne (13 May to 9 June) were usually psychics, leading to enthusiastic mail from Arachnoid readers who claimed they'd known it all along. He even managed to work the iconoclast Charles Hoy Fort who was born on 6 August, into Arachne Rising on the basis that the moon was in Arachne that day.

Elegant though the hoax is books like this are dangerous for researchers who cannot spot the giveaways and sooner or later a convoluted thesis will be developed using Arachne Rising as a basis . When the hoax is pointed out the researcher will lose credibility and the field of alternative history will plunge further into disrepute.

For the record the Signs of the Zodiac are a twelve fold division of the sky into segments of 30 degrees, about the distance the Sun travels in a month and are aligned with the seasons so that the March Equinox falls on the boundary between Pisces and Aries. Constellations are pattern of stars that, as seen from Earth, move across the Zodiac. These constellations are at best loosely associated with the signs of the zodiac and the constellation found in a particular sign changes over time [6]. A thirteen fold division of the sky would have been hard, if not impossible to construct, a sign would probably not correspond to the distance the sun travels in a month as closely as the twelve fold division and would require a thirteenth month which would also have been suppressed. Whether such a zodiac could be related to a lunar calendar is left to experts.

The Accidental Hoax: Alternative three

Arachne Rising is a hoax book written to prove a point. Science fiction novelist, skeptic and arch materialist John Sladek wrote the book to try and show that people will believe anything [4] (A fairly redundant effort if you look at current affairs ). He presented a mass of historical, literary and numerological evidence to show that the Zodiac Sign Arachne had been suppressed [5]. As is the case with all good hoaxes of this sort he included some giveaways (but only for insiders) including astrological case histories for Cassandra Knye, the name under which Sladek and Thomas Disch had published spoof Gothic novels, and James Colvin, a New Worlds house pseudonym often used by Michael Moorcock. Anansi, the spider, is an African trickster god, though it is not known whether Sladek was aware of this when weaving his web of words


He massaged statistics to show that people born under Arachne (13 May to 9 June) were usually psychics, leading to enthusiastic mail from Arachnoid readers who claimed they'd known it all along. He even managed to work the iconoclast Charles Hoy Fort who was born on 6 August, into Arachne Rising on the basis that the moon was in Arachne that day.

Elegant though the hoax is books like this are dangerous for researchers who cannot spot the giveaways and sooner or later a convoluted thesis will be developed using Arachne Rising as a basis . When the hoax is pointed out the researcher will lose credibility and the field of alternative history will plunge further into disrepute.

For the record the Signs of the Zodiac are a twelve fold division of the sky into segments of 30 degrees, about the distance the Sun travels in a month and are aligned with the seasons so that the March Equinox falls on the boundary between Pisces and Aries. Constellations are pattern of stars that, as seen from Earth, move across the Zodiac. These constellations are at best loosely associated with the signs of the zodiac and the constellation found in a particular sign changes over time [6]. A thirteen fold division of the sky would have been hard, if not impossible to construct, a sign would probably not correspond to the distance the sun travels in a month as closely as the twelve fold division and would require a thirteenth month which would also have been suppressed. Whether such a zodiac could be related to a lunar calendar is left to experts.

Hoaxing as a research tool

John Bohannon, a news correspondent for the Journal Science fooled 157 Peer reviewed journals with a fake paper [11] that could be called a virtuous hoax. He concocted a scientific paper into which a group of experts inserted errors intended to be obvious and boring to anyone expert in the field. He submitted the paper under the name “Ocorrafoo Cobange,” supposedly a biologist at the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara. No such institute or biologist exists. He made the paper seem as if it was written by a someone who did not speak English as their native language by using Google Translate to translate the paper into French then back to English and correcting the worst mistranslations (presumably not correcting them might have given the game away). He then created multiple slightly different versions of the paper, for example by combining Swahili words and African names with generic institutional words and African cities and sent them to 304 peer reviewed open access journals round the world. 157 (over half) of these accepted the paper and only 36 ( less than one in 8) responded with comments showing they had spotted the errors.


Many of these journals had American or European sounding titles but were actually based in India. One physicist at Cornell University also commented that in some developing world countries governments and universities are filling up with people who have bogus scientific credentials.


This sort of hoaxing can be considered virtuous because it exposes the danger of regarding peer review as the gold standard for academic excellence. It would be interesting to know whether the reviewers were incompetent, overworked, failed to understand the poor English of the paper or simply decided to give a third world author the benefit of the doubt.

Hoaxing in Research shows the value of obfuscation

Many years ago I read a paper in ( as I recall) the IEEE transactions in Professional Communication. The Authors claimed to have taken a published paper and produced three versions with equivalent information. One was easy to read, one was as easy to read as the original and the third was deliberately made hard to read.

They then sent the papers to a number of experts asking them to rate the competence of the author. The easy paper generated the lowest competence ratings and the hard to read one the highest. It is possible that the reviewers reasoned “I am finding this hard to follow and I am an expert, but I see no obvious mistakes so the writer must be clever” and, for the easy to read papers they simply said “This is more like popularisation so the writer must not be very good”.

It would seem that being too clear about what you are saying can be a career handicap, even outside the field of politics and public relations. Confusing people with trivialities that sound profound has along pedigree and the ambitious should develop this technique into an art form.

The Wrap

Some beautiful hoaxes in the fields of Academia and Literature ave had to be left out, but some trends can be seen even at this high level. Hoaxers may do it for money and if lucky make a career as a faker. They may do it to prove a point, as with Arachne Rising, or they may intend to be spotted but be taken seriously, as with Alternative 3. Or they may hoax as an investigative or research technique: some would argue that this is not hoaxing. It has also had to avoid discussion of events reported as hoaxes where the report of the hoax was, apparently, itself a hoax. Why people get fooled is another matter.


Hoaxers have many motives. Caveat Lector

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