Wednesday, July 29, 2009


So many things come together in The Sun and the Moon by Matthew Goodman: Science, fiction, journalism, religion, politics, Edgar Alan Poe, P.T. Barnum . . . lunar man-bats. If it were written as a novel, no one would believe it. But here it is, well researched and documented. And, oh, the wondrous and disturbing things it reveals about our species!

It seem that back in 1835, the New York Sun announced that life had been discovered on the Moon, and the world bought it. Don’t laugh. How many times has CNN announced the discovery of life on Mars?

This wasn’t a pair of jokers with Halloween costume in a block of ice, it was cleverly thought out prank played by an intelligent man, Richard Adam Locke, using materials gathered from the literature and science of the day, his experience as a reporter in the still-developing newspaper business of the time, and a feeling for the credulity of his audience. Essentially, he was doing what science fiction writers would be doing later, only he was printing his story where they would be assumed to be true. The story was reprinted, translated, and believed, all over the world.

Yes, things haven’t changed all that much, but there was more going on here than the general public’s ignorance of science and the willingness of people to accept fantastic stories as fact if there is something appealing about them. And Locke’s vision of the Moon with its caverns, waterfalls, volcanoes, birds, unicorns, and furry winged humanoids who worship in crystal temples is an appealing fantasy. And fantasies are even more appealing if they can be seen as the truth.

Goodman not only chronicles the hoax itself, but the times and industry that created it. This is a world where Edgar Alan Poe was struggling to establish himself and perpetrate his own Moon hoax, and P.T. Barnum was acquiring Joice Heth, his first humbug. (I like the term "humbug," – it should be revived.) Anytime you are distributing information, presenting it in an entertaining manner so you can make money, distortions happen. When we read a newspaper, or a website, or a cable news network, or talk radio show, we buy into the way it filters reality.

Find a newspaper that gives you exciting gory details of the crime in town, and eventually you find yourself wondering if you should contribute money to buy bibles for the ignorant savages of the Moon.

The Sun and The Moon is not only great bizarro entertainment, but provides a lot to think about in our so-called Information Age. It may not be so great that everybody can tailor their media input to suit their idiosyncratic tastes and beliefs. Can you be sure if you are not basing your important decisions on a sci-fi humbug?

Dare to dream – but check and change your filters regularly.

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