Saturday 18 April 2009

The Basingstoke Fairies Vs The Cottingley Fairies

I went for a short walk in the woods this afternoon with the wife and kids. In the midst of the dark woods I saw a glint of light flash past my eyes. We all stood still for a few moments and focused our eyes, what looked like a large dragonfly hovered just above a branch. We sat still and watched closely. Gradually it came nearer and settled a few feet away from the children. By this time we could clearly see that it was not a dragonfly, but we had in fact been lucky enough to catch a rare glimpse of a woodland fairy. We stayed in the woods a little while and gradually the fairies gained enough confidence to come up to my children and even settle on their outstretched hands. I was fortunate enough to have my camera with me and so was able to take the following photographs.

The photograph’s I took of the Basingstoke fairies today, reminded me in many ways of the Cottingley fairies photographed in July 1917. Picture below.

However, unlike the photographs I took this afternoon, the Cottingley fairies were widely regarded as genuine by a large number of people, including a non-critical thinking Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I believe the young girls who faked the above picture kept up the pretence into their old age before finally admitting to the prank.

Everyone who looks at my pictures will instantly think that I have photo-shopped some images of fairies from the Internet on to some snaps I took of my kids. And of course they would be quite right. The reason, however, they would jump to this conclusion I think is no reflection on my Photoshop skills, I believe they would have reached the same conclusion, however professionally done the photographs looked. The reason why everyone automatically assumes that my photographs were faked is because we are all familiar with the tools and techniques for doctoring photographs. You don’t need to be Jonathon Creek to work that one out.

When the Cottingley fairy pictures were taken, people were not so familiar with the notion of altering photographs or producing fake images, so the initial assumption with many people was that they were real.

My hypothesis suggests that as people become more familiar with the tools and techniques used by charlatans, hoaxers and fraudsters, they become less accepting of their claims and more likely to lean towards a more rational explanation for what they see.

Therefore if we all become more familiar with cold reading, will more of us find rational explanations to why psychics seem to know the unknowable?

If Richard Wiseman teaches us all how to bend spoons, will we be less impressed with certain Israeli conjurors?

If we understand more about neurology and pareidolia will we see less ghosts and UFO’s?

The example of my fairy photo’s suggest that all we need is a bit of familiarity in the methods of the hoaxers.


Craig A. Mullenbach said...

Right on, Crispian. Knowledge is power. At least that's what I like to believe. However, some people just don't care. Perhaps, it's just my delivery.

I found the best two books to help people figure things out for themselves are: The Demon Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark and Flim Flam by James Randi.

Ralph said...

I agree with the more general point that "Knowledge is power", but I don't think people would dismiss you pictures as fakes because they know it can be done in Photoshop.

People know what computers can do, but they still believe pictures and videos of ghosts, demons, ufos and other more contemporary "phenomena". Rather, they wouldn't believe the fairies pictured are real because, nowadays, fairies are intuitively silly.

In fact, I'd wager some people who still manage to believe in them in this day and age would come up with elaborate reasons to either believe or disbelieve them, instead of going with the more likely explanation that the pictures are simply photoshopped for kicks. "The halos are wrong", "that's not how real fairies dress", "well, fairies do appreciate the innocence of children", "you were lucky to get the fairies while they were out celebrating the arrival of summer", etc.