Book Review: The Martians Have Landed!: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes by Robert Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford

It’s an aphorism that is phrased various ways. Yet the truth general truth of “It’s not the idea, it’s the execution” holds true in almost any endeavor. Books are no exception.

Sociologist Robert Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, have an intriguing concept in exploring the media’s spread of hoaxes and furors over imaginary or minor events. However, the execution in their book The Martians Have Landed!: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes doesn’t quite live up to the potential.

The book looks at not only commotions spread by radio, television and newspaper but also through urban legend and on the internet. Given the potential breadth of these topics and the fact the latter two are continually growing, The Martians Have Landed! does a fairly good job of selecting subjects within these areas. Thus, we not only read about radio broadcasts of alien invasions, the phony stories that followed Hurricane Katrina and the uproar over Satanic cults but also fascination with chemtrails, the chupacabra, morgellons and the anti-vaccination movement. Yet editorially the book fails.

There doesn’t seem to be a sense of proportion. For example, while chapters on human organ thefts and the sexual abuse of children by Satanic cults are five pages each, some 11 1/2 pages are spent on a British story about a curse that supposedly causes fires in homes that have a copy of a widely sold painting of a crying child and 10 pages are devoted to the set-to in 1970s and 1980s Britain and New Zealand over “video nasties,” films on video cassettes criticized for their graphic violence. Although the longer pieces in the book are written by contributors, not Batholomew and Radford, the chapter on Satanic cult scares ends up paying lip service to all the elements involved in it while there is in-depth investigation of the painting story.

The chapters also have a tendency to have the tone of almost academic essay. In fact, the two chapters dealing with radio presentations supposedly documenting an alien invasion appear spun off from an article Bartholomew wrote for Skeptical Inquirer in late 1998. And almost every chapter seems to conclude with a somewhat censorious statement of the media’s role in initiating, misreporting or spreading the story and either a warning that it could happen again or that it could be even worse given the speed and massive reach of today’s media. Perhaps even more perturbing is The Martians Have Landed! seems to have lacked a highly attentive editor. It isn’t just that words are missing from some sentences; that, sadly, seems to occur far too frequently in the book market these days. It’s more that writers weren’t required to be a bit more dynamic or creative.

For example, a chapter on a story that spread in Taiwan in 1956 about a razor-wielding maniac says that “rumors swept through Taipei of numerous young girls being slashed at primary schools.” Five sentences later we are told that children were kept indoors because “rumors abounded about young girls being slashed at numerous primary schools.” Likewise, the second paragraph of the chapter on Satanic cults reports that “there was the odd story of satanic murder or kidnapping by wayward youths calling themselves satanists.” Nine paragraphs later we are told there are “reports of ‘Satanists’ killing people, but these are rare and usually involve attention-seeking youths who call themselves satanists in name only.” In neither case is the reader given new information, only a rephrasing of a prior sentence.

The Martians Have Landed! could have been an excellent compilation of or resource on media-inspired hoaxes or even just an interesting read. Sadly, it leaves us with a sense of a medley of short academic essays broadly summarizing the topic of the chapter. It is an idea failed in execution.

Fear and panic sell; skepticism does not.

Robert Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford, The Martians Have Landed!

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