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Word of the Day: Cottingley Fairies

In 1917, two girls spent much of their summer playing by a stream. Repeatedly scolded for returning home wet and muddy, they said that they were playing with fairies. To prove it, they borrowed a camera and returned claiming that they had proof. That photo is shown here.

A total of five photos were taken over several years. The fairies were called the Cottingley fairies after Cottingley, England, the town where the girls lived.

A relative showed two of the photos at a 1919 public meeting of the Theosophical Society, a spiritualist organization. From there, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a devotee of spiritualism, took the baton. He wrote a 1920 article in The Strand Magazine that made the photos famous. To his credit, Conan Doyle asked experts to critique the photos. The opinions were mixed, but he decided to go with the story anyway.

Spiritualism, the popular belief that we can communicate with the spirits of the dead, was waning at the time of the article. Magician Harry Houdini, annoyed by fakers using tricks to defraud the gullible, devoted much time to debunking psychics and mediums in the 1920s until his death in 1926.

Houdini and Conan Doyle had been friends, but the friendship failed because of their opposite views on spiritualism. Conan Doyle believed that Houdini himself had supernatural powers and was using them to suppress the powers of the psychics that he debunked.

Research in 1983 exposed details of the Cottingley hoax, and the two principles finally admitted that they had faked the fairies by using cardboard cutouts of drawings copied from a book.

I learned of a modern parallel to this hoax at The Amazing Meeting in 2004. James Randi told the story of Project Alpha, during which he planted two fake psychics (Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards, actually talented amateur magicians) in the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research in 1979. Randi contacted the researchers before planting his fakes to caution them how to avoid being deceived. The advice was thorough and genuine, and if they’d followed it, they would have uncovered the trickery.

Two years later, after the lab’s successes were well known within the psychic community and the fake psychics were celebrities, the deception was made public. The press was so bad that the McDonnell laboratory shut down.

The moral of the story: unless you’re a magician, don’t pretend that you can expose a magician. Said another way, just because you’re smart (and let’s assume both that the researchers were smart and most skeptics are smart), don’t think that you can’t be duped. This was Conan Doyle’s failing.

Magician Ricky Jay said, “The ideal audience would be Nobel Prize winners. … They often have an ego with them that says, ‘I am really smart so I can’t be fooled.’ No one is easier to fool.”

If you believe in the existence of fairies at the bottom of the garden,
you are deemed fit for the [loony] bin.
If you believe in parthenogenesis, ascension, transubstantiation and all the rest of it,
you are deemed fit to govern the country.
— Jonathan Meades

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related posts:

Related links:

  • Paul Hoffman, “Why Are Smart People Some of the Most Gullible People Around?” Discover, 2/10/11.
  • “Cottingley Fairies,” Wikipedia.
  • “The Derbyshire Fairy,” Museum of Hoaxes.
  • Emma Clayton, “Photographic expert uncovered hoax after testing cameras used by Cottingley cousins,” Telegraph & Argus, 11/17/10.

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Orbital Teapot

    To Bob S,

    I am puzzled. What the blazes do fairies have to with Christianity and apologetics?

    Did you know, rather, that around that time, mainstream science was downright racist, while the Catholic Church held to the equality of races? Or did you know that a bit later, while social sciences massively rejected any suggestion of a human nature, the Catholic Church held fast to the idea, and that now, decades later, scientists are realizing that there is indeed such a thing as a human nature?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Seems like this topic a useful way to stretch the vocabulary that’s relevant to rational thinking to me. But if it doesn’t do anything for you, that’s OK.

      mainstream science was downright racist

      If you mean that many scientists thought that the evidence pointed to differences in races, okay. I’m not sure what the point is.

      while the Catholic Church held to the equality of races

      How was this expressed?

      scientists are realizing that there is indeed such a thing as a human nature?

      I have no idea what “a human nature” means. Explain please.

      If your point is that a church happened upon a scientific position that we today accept, through sheer luck, okay. I can accept that. I’m not sure what we conclude from that, though.

      • Orbital Teapot

        To Bob S,

        Yours is an understatement. 100 years ago, mainstream science was blinded by ideology. Hitler did not come in a vacuum. Mainstream scientists put whites at the top of the so-called hierarchy of races. And they put Western Europe at the top of human culture, and they even thought that it was THE civilization, meaning that other peoples lacked it.

        Science has also an appalling record of its treatment of mental diseases, or what was perceived as mental diseases. Think of homosexuality. It was not made into a mental disease for scientific reasons, and later it was not excluded from mental diseases for scientific reasons EITHER (but on account of pressures by gay activists).

        I guess in 100 years, people will look down on us and say that our own science was blinded by ideology, though we don’t know now what its weaknesses are.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Eugenics is policy. Evolution is science. Don’t blame science for eugenics.

          Science isn’t clairvoyant, and I’m not sure what beyond this you’re accusing science of.

        • Orbital Teapot

          To Bob S,

          ???

          I’m not speaking of eugenics. I’m speaking of how mainstream science thought that whites were better than other races, while Catholics denied that.

          My point is that you cannot split the world into enlightened scientists and deluded religious nuts (who believe in fairies and are like trekkies).

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Mainstream science thought one thing, and now it rejects that. Science is sometimes wrong (from varying perspectives), but what else have we got? You seem to imagine that religion has a valid alternative approach to discovering reality, and I don’t see this.

      • Orbital Teapot

        To Bob S,

        A human nature are basic properties that all normal humans share, because they belong to the same species. They are not cultural constructs. They exist independently of cultures. For instance, everyone knows what smiling means.

  • Bob Calvan

    share & bookmark

    RAY COMFORT’S

    the intellectual
    embarrassment
    “Just because a few atheists believe that everything came from nothing doesn’t mean that all atheists believe that.” Robert Madewell

    It’s not a matter of not believing it. It’s a matter of definition. If you say of your Ford Expedition that you have no belief that there was a maker, then you think that nothing made it. It just happened. You have defined yourself as having that mentality.

    So if you call yourself an atheist, you are saying that you have no belief in a God—a Creator. Creation just happened. Everything you see—all the different breeds of dog (both male and female), all the different breeds of cat (both male and female), all the different fish in the ocean (both male and female), giraffes, elephants, cattle, sheep, horses, birds, flowers, trees, the sun, the moon, the stars, the four seasons, night and day, the marvels of the human body—the eye with its 137,000,000 light sensitive cells (we have been made well Robert) . . . all these marvels of creation were made by nothing. They all just happened. That’s atheism at its core. What an intellectual embarrassment.

    Then the professing atheist has the unbelievable gall to consider himself intelligent, and he thinks that science backs up his delusion. Think of the ludicrous language an atheist is forced to use. He can’t say that creation was “created” and he has to avoid saying that everything has been “made.” He will even say that he has no beliefs . . . that he is “without belief.” His problem is that he hasn’t thought his beliefs through. If he has any intellectual self-respect he will move from the “nothing created everything” belief, to the “something did it but I just don’t know what it was.” And in doing so he distances himself from the embarrassing label of “atheist.”

    • Bob Seidensticker

      (Bob C’s source: http://www.pulltheplugonatheism.com/art15.shtml)

      What an intellectual embarrassment.

      Where’s your argument? Back this up with something. Is it that you don’t understand so you lash out at those who can accept reality?

      Another tip: don’t go to Ray Comfort’s site for serious scholarship!

  • Bob Calvan

    As Cornell university is quoted:

    “….Space and time both started at the big bang and therefore there was nothing before it.”

    So something came from nothing is Bob S. Faith presupposition. Gases and matter came from non-gases and non -matter is Bob S. Faith commitment

    • Bob Seidensticker

      (Bob C’s source: http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/question.php?number=364)

      Read a little closer and you’ll see that “something from nothing” isn’t what it says.

      You’re trying to tar me with the faith brush. I can see your motivation. I imagine that you’re feeling pretty embarrassed out there all alone, clinging to silly things by faith. But I’m afraid it doesn’t apply. I accept things based on evidence.

  • Bob Calvan

    Another tip: don’t go to Ray Comfort’s site for serious scholarship!

    LOL! Like your blog?

  • Bob Calvan

    I accept things based on evidence.

    By faith you accept matter came from non-matter and life came from non life. Where is you empirical evidence?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      It must be cool being able to read minds! But I think you need to give your head a whack because your clairvoyance sensor is acting up.

      I accept no more in science than science gives me. There is no theory of abiogenesis. If one becomes the consensus, then I’ll accept it. Right now we just have speculation.

      I see you eagerly trying to pull me down to your level, the wallowing-in-faith level. I understand your motivation–heck, I’d probably want company too if I were down there!–but it doesn’t work. You accept stuff on faith; I don’t.

    • Orbital Teapot

      To Bob C,

      There is no good reason to believe that an intelligent designer created life from scratch. Sure, the origin of life is so far a mystery for scientists, just as the origin of mental diseases or the age of our planet were. Now we know. Maybe in some decades we will know more, and your intelligent designer will have to move to another gap in our knowledge, as he has been doing since the beginnings of science.

      Did you know that Newton, the top scientist of his age, put God in the gaps of his theory of gravitation? It may have seemed a good argument then, but thereafter scientists filled the gaps and dispensed with God in classical physics.

      Likewise, some early biologists thought that lifeforms had a life force that accounted for organic matter. But then a chemist in 1828 managed to artificially produce organic matter. And the life force vanished.

      If your claim is that life is “superior” to nonlife, and therefore that nonlife cannot account for it, then you cannot turn to science to find support, because it does not accept that. Life is not essentially different from nonlife, it’s just organized and complexified matter. Nothing magical there.

  • Bob Calvan

    OT
    My point is only the Chrsitian worldview can account for Creation, Science, Reason, Logic, and Morality. By the impossibility of the contrary.

    • Orbital Teapot

      To Bob C,

      For some atheists, the world has always existed, and contrary to your claim, the big bang does not absolutely exclude that.

      For others, the world just popped up into existence. Hume claimed that the principle of causality was subjective.

      Reason and logic may indeed be a challenge to atheists, but even if it took a supreme being to account for it, it would not prove that that supreme being is identical with the Christian God. It may be any God.

      Morality: atheists may rely on a social contract to justify universal ethics. See John Rawls.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Bob C:

      And how does the Christian worldview account for this? Just because you think so? Or would like to imagine it so?

      I’m afraid I’ll need a lot more evidence than that.

  • Bob Calvan

    And how does the Christian worldview account for this? Just because you think so? Or would like to imagine it so?

    Well if you wish study this read. Cornelus Van Till or Dr. Greg Bahnsen

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Thanks for the reading suggestion, but it’d be great if you could summarize the reasons why you (or van Till or Bahnsen) argue that Christianity account for creation, science, reason, logic, and morality.

      One caution: you often confuse theology with argument. Simply stating your views (“The Christian sees science supported by God in this way …”) doesn’t help. That’s an expression of your views, not an argument.

  • Bob Calvan

    That’s an expression of your views, not an argument.

    All we get from you is your admitted subjective relitive opinion. Which has no more weight or standard of absolute truth than any one else’s relivitve subjective opinion. In your worldview of relitivism that is all you got. Bankrupped,. As your leader Dawkins says:
    ” In the universe of blind and physical force and genetic replication some people are going to get hurt, and some people are gonig to get lucky. And you won’t find any rhyme or reason for it. Nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pityless indiference. DNA niether knows or cares. DNA is, and we dance to its music.”

    Pityless indiference.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      (Hmm. Someone’s being evasive. I guess some recent comment hit a nerve.)

      Which has no more weight or standard of absolute truth than any one else’s relivitve subjective opinion.

      Agreed. And yet I stumble through life about as well as anyone else. Similarly, scientists stumble through their day and continue to make marvelous discoveries that inform us about reality.

      If an absolute truth exists, I await (not very patiently anymore) your evidence for it. Since you’ve shown me none so far, you can hardly be surprised that I haven’t accepted your claim of absolute truth.

      Am I deluded in thinking that absolute moral truth doesn’t exist? If so, I guess the fault is yours since you’ve done nothing to correct me.

      “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

      His Holiness Pope Richard I has indeed hit the nail on the head. He compares a hypothetical godless universe with the one we happen to be living in … and finds them identical. Ouch! I’m surprised you give a quote that devastates your position so thoroughly.

  • Bob Calvan

    Tell me Bob S. is that what you teach your children.

    That some people are going to get hurt, and some people are gonig to get lucky. And you won’t find any rhyme or reason for it..? Nor any justice….?
    “,, No design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pityless indiference…”?
    Or are you inconsistent ( as most Atheist are) and barrow from the Chrsitian worldview and teach your children we value human life, and there are morals, and right and wrong, and we use the laws of logic to think rationally?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      is that what you teach your children. That some people are going to get hurt, and some people are gonig to get lucky. And you won’t find any rhyme or reason for it..? Nor any justice….?

      Sure. Why do you ask? Is there rhyme, reason, or justice in the universe that I’ve overlooked?

      The Banda Ache earthquake and tsunami hits Indonesia in 2004 and a quarter million people die. Drowned. A pretty horrible way to go, I imagine. Where’s the reason or justice in that? None that I can see–just an indifferent and capricious (from our standpoint) earth.

      Hitler is partly responsible for a war that devastates Europe and kills 50 million people, many of them noncombatants. And then he just shoots himself. Where’s the justice in that? None that I can see.

      We can wish there were justice. We can wish the universe operated by human morals. But wishing don’t make it so.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      [Do you] barrow from the Chrsitian worldview and teach your children we value human life, and there are morals, and right and wrong, and we use the laws of logic to think rationally?

      You flatter yourself. Christianity doesn’t need to exist for people to value human life, have morals, and use logic.

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