It’s generally a good thing to assume the best of people. When you’re the editor of a newspaper in a major international city, however, it’s not a good idea to assume that people will recognize satire when you run a blockbuster story as if it were truth.
This lesson was learned by Richard Adams Locke in 1835. The editor of the New York Sun had grown frustrated by the popularity of what he considered to be, in contemporary vernacular, “junk science”. He set out to do something about it; to be precise, he was going to write a series of preposterous articles about an existing scientific investigation. When people read his articles, he thought, they might take a more skeptical view of some then-current assertions.
Taking aim at handful of internationally famous contemporary “science” writers, he wrote about an expedition by Sir John Herschel to South Africa, where the famed astronomer was examining the moon through a new device he’d constructed. The thing was supposedly the equal of current high-powered telescopes, and Locke decided to have fun.
He wrote of fields of poppies, of a bison-like species that roamed the moon fields, of blue unicorns, horned bears, a biped beaver that lived in crudely constructed houses, and bat-winged humans. Each successive article grew more fanciful, and he waited for the response.
The response was not the one he’d expected. Rather than nod knowingly and smile at the editor’s cleverness, people believed him. The distribution of the Sun soared. Caught flat-footed, the editor stopped producing the stories, although he made a mistake – he drunkenly vented his frustration at the obtuseness of his readership to a reporter, and specifically a reporter for a rival newspaper.
Although he tried denying it for a while, Locke eventually admitted what he’d done. Rather than being punished for the falsehood, he kept his job and the enhanced distribution numbers remained;generally, people thought the attempted satire was clever and funny – as long as they could claim to have been one of the rare people who didn’t fall for it.
One person who didn’t think it was funny or clever was Sir John Herschel, who found himself fielding questions about his “discoveries” for years to come, as a testament to the perpetually gullible.
Question of the night: What are some of your favorite satirical humor pieces?