Carl Sagan´s guide to fake news: the real story of the fairy photographs

In 1983, Elsie and Frances finally admitted in an article published in the magazine “The Unexplained” that the photographs had been faked, although both maintained that they really had seen fairies. Elsie had copied illustrations of dancing girls from a popular children’s book of the time, Princess Mary’s Gift Book, published in 1914, and drew wings on them.  They said they had then cut out the cardboard figures and supported them with hatpins, disposing of their props in the beck once the photograph had been taken.

However, by then over 60 years since the photographs were originally taken, the girls still managed to create some doubts about the story. Frances claimed that the fifth picture taken was genuine whereas Elsie claimed it was another fake – they both claimed to have taken this particular picture.

With the benefit of hindsight it seems clear the pictures are faked.  By the standards of modern photoshopping the pictures are unexceptional.  So why was Conan-Doyle so convinced of their veracity?  and why did so many follow his lead?

This would seem to be a clear case of “confirmation bias”.  Sir Arthur wanted the story to be true due to his acute interest in the supernatural, and so he “disregarded other hypotheses” (such as the girls faking the photos) failed to apply “Occam´s razor” (the simpler explanation is the more likely) and used “ignorance (absence of knowledge) as proof” – i.e. I can´t prove that fairies don´t exist therefore they do exist.  He sought out like-minded “experts” who, following his lead (“trust because of authority”) endorsed his view.

The last word should probably go to the girls themselves. In a 1985 interview on Yorkshire Television’s Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers, Elsie said that she and Frances were too embarrassed to admit the truth after fooling Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes: “Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle – well, we could only keep quiet.” In the same interview Frances said: “I never even thought of it as being a fraud – it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in – they wanted to be taken in.”

Click on Carl Sagan´s Guide to Fake News if you want to find out more about fake news or the baloney detection toolkit.



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