Author Kevin Young says P.T. Barnum didn’t invent the hoax, but he came close to perfecting it. The author of Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News says Barnum provided people with a good show. But Young says some the acts are troubling “when you look at his shows up close.” Note: This interview was originally published in January.
Young will speak at Western Michigan University Thursday March 28th at 7:00p.m. in room 2452 of Knauss Hall. His appearance is sponsored by the University Center for the Humanities and Western’s English Department. The event was scheduled for January, but was rescheduled due to weather. Young says hoaxes are not about the thin line between fiction and fact. Instead, he says they are about the deep divisions between people.
Bunk examines a history of hoaxes and fakery. Those include memoirs with wild exaggerations and pure fiction. Journalists who make up stories, and get them published by trusting editors. Young says the hoax often works because we want it too. Such is the case of Lance Armstrong who eventually admitted to using performance enhancing drugs to win the Tour de France and other cycling championships. Young says “All of us know someone who has dealt with cancer, and it wasn’t enough for us just to survive we wanted someone who was going to triumph.”
Young says Barnum sold the idea that everyone could be an expert, but he says now the idea is that “there are no experts.” Young says the biggest hoax is accusing someone of a hoax or calling something “fake news” if you don’t like it. “Fake news” is a term often used by President Trump to describe negative news coverage. Young says sometimes the President is taking advantage of cynicism and sometimes he feeds it. Young says the best way to guard against the hoax is listening, and being a little skeptical. But he says “we shouldn’t be so cynical that we can’t recognize the truth when we see it, especially when it makes us a little uncomfortable.”