At about the age of 18 months babies start to get sneaky. They hide food they don’t like and go in for bouts of fake crying. In other words, they have learned that reality, far from being set in stone, is something that can be performed, tinkered with or even made to disappear completely. This, suggests Aja Raden, is the great foundational moment of life, indeed of all our lives. From now on we spend our time tiptoeing along the boundary between true and false, with a dizzying sense of how little there is to choose between them.
From here Raden takes us on a whistle-stop tour of hoaxes and cons. She’s not talking here about little fibs, the grownup version of hiding your spinach under your plate, but rather the swaggery whoppers that are capable of bringing down a whole peer group. Something like the Bernie Madoff scandal, a long con that lasted three decades and involved a lot of very rich people believing a criminal when he promised to make them even richer, without explaining how. In effect, and on Madoff’s own eventual admission, he was running a $65bn pyramid scheme, which used the money from new investors to pay off the marks who had been in the game for longer. All fine and dandy until the day came when he ran out of fresh meat and the whole wonky structure came tumbling down.
Why on earth would anyone – especially smart, rich anyones – fall for such obvious nonsense? Raden explains that it’s because, in the grand scheme of things, it benefits us to take information on trust. If we felt obliged to test knowledge before believing it, most us would have to spend at least a decade of our adult lives satisfying ourselves that the Earth is indeed round (assuming our maths was even up to it). Raden isn’t suggesting for a moment that the Earth is actually flat, simply that we have learned to rely on collective intelligence and majority decisions as a way of shortcutting a lot of tedious grunt work. In the case of Madoff, investors believed that his scheme must be a Good Thing simply because so many other people, including CEOs and Hollywood stars, already thought it so.
That is why the most compelling hoaxes start with a nugget of truth. Take snake oil. The indentured Chinese labourers who built the American transcontinental railroad in the 19th century naturally looked to their medicine chests to soothe their smashed joints and sunburnt skin. Snake oil, made from the rendered fat of black water snakes, was extraordinarily rich in Omega-3 and worked a treat as an anti-inflammatory. Soon news of its efficacy had spread throughout the whole blistered-fingered west. Demand outstripped supply (the medicine had to be imported from China since there are no black water snakes in North America) with the result that any number of fakes started to appear. The best – or worst – was from Clark Stanley, who invented Stanley’s Snake Oil by boiling up a rattlesnake (woefully light on Omega-3) and murmuring something about how the Hopi swore by it. In time Stanley didn’t even bother with essence of snake, but simply bottled up mineral oil and turpentine and slapped a fancy label on it. And at a stroke you have original – or rather fake – snake oil, sold in hundreds of thousands of bottles throughout 1890s North America.
The fact that people went on swearing that Stanley’s Snake Oil eased their aches and pains is testimony, Raden writes, to our very human need to believe. On a crazier scale she tells the story of how Animal Planet showed a documentary in 2013 which suggested that mermaids were real. Not that they were sexy fish ladies exactly but rather that they were aquatic animals that had evolved from early coastal hominids many millions of years ago, in the same way that dolphins and whales are known to have evolved from early coastal canids. Everyone fell for it, including Raden herself. What’s more, she went on wanting to believe it, even after newspapers started running spoilsport headlines such as “No, Mermaids do not exist”. What she longed for, she says, was the possibility that somewhere in a world stripped bare of enchantment there remained a corner where magic and mystery still reigned supreme.
The Truth About Lies claims to be a “taxonomy” of deceits, hoaxes and cons, but actually it is no such thing. “Taxonomy” is one of those words that sounds important and semi-official. But Raden never makes any attempt to bring her stories into any kind of relational or ranking system (not even one that works only because we have all consented to its existence). Instead, what we get is a ragbag of anecdotes, from the original Ponzi scheme of the 1920s to the slips and sleights of big pharma that have led to the current opioid crisis. All hugely interesting, and certainly entertaining, but not quite the serious and scholarly investigation that Raden would have you believe.
• The Truth About Lies: A Taxonomy of Deceit, Hoaxes and Cons is published by Atlantic (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.