Preceding articles from this blog have talked about Fake News.
The following article from the Columbus Dispatch is written by Brad Lepper, the curator of archaeology at the Ohio History Connection. He says that through the years, scientists have had to devote considerable effort to debunking so-called “alternative facts. Does this make us feel better about today?
Peter Hancock, a psychologist at the University of Central Florida, has studied several examples of what you might call alternative artifacts, and in his new book, “Hoax Springs Eternal: the psychology of cognitive deception,” he shows why some hoaxes are more successful than others.
Hancock argues that prospective perpetrators of hoaxes must “identify the dream” of their target audience. In other words, they determine what the victims of their scam fervently want to be true so they can give it to them.
Ohio’s most infamous fake artifacts are the so-called Newark “Holy Stones.”
These are several carved stones engraved with Hebrew writing found at the Newark Earthworks and nearby mounds between 1860 and 1867. Some scholars believed these artifacts proved that ancient Israelites had something to do with building Ohio’s amazing earthworks, but my colleague Jeff Gill and I have shown they are clever forgeries.
Hancock argues that successful hoaxes are never “too perfect.” By “creating something that is suggestive, indicative and open to interpretation, you have made an artifact that many people can use to support their view of the world.”
The creators of the Newark Holy Stones did this so well that it has been hard to identify the primary target of the hoax.
Members of a local Masonic Lodge believed the Holy Stones showed that ancient Masons built the Newark Earthworks. Some Latter-day Saints believed they provided confirmation of the Book of Mormon.
But Jeff and I say the Holy Stones were tailor-made to fulfill the dreams of the Rev. Charles McIlvaine, then the Episcopal bishop of Ohio. In 1839, McIlvaine expressed his belief that someday artifacts would be found in the mounds of Ohio that would prove that “all the races of men have descended from one common stock.”
Why was this so important?
McIlvaine was an ardent support of emancipation. Finding Hebrew artifacts in ancient Ohio mounds would prove that America’s history was part of biblical history. And if biblical history was true, then the indigenous peoples of America — as well as the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa — were children of Adam and Eve and not separate creations of sub-humans.
This would mean that slavery was an intolerable injustice that must be abolished.
The Newark Holy Stones, if authentic, could have made McIlvaine’s dream come true. Instead, these ersatz artifacts offered nothing but false hope.
Hancock offers timely advice for anyone who wants to avoid falling for fake news. He said we must “reserve our greatest doubt for our most cherished beliefs. Where doubt is our companion, hoax will find it difficult to flourish.”
I am participating with Hancock and others in a symposium called “‘Fake News’ from the Past: Archaeological Mysteries and the Psychology of Deception” on May 13 at the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Coshocton, where the Holy Stones are on display. For more information, contact the museum.