I was in college in the early 1970s, and it was a decidedly odd time to be around. It wasn’t just the whole ‘sexual revolution’ nonsense, a trend created almost entirely out of whole cloth by the media, or the anti war movement. It was everything, including a resurgence in all things supernatural or ‘fringe science’.
The whole ‘alien astronaut’ nonsense was still at it’s height, sparked by the utterly ridiculous claims of people like Eric von Daniken in his Chariots of the Gods book that came out in the late 60s. The equally ridiculous Bermuda Triangle was being hyped up around that time, launching it’s own sub-industry of nonsense. Astrology was going through a resurgence as well. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people who should have known better were tramping through the woods in search of Bigfoot or Sasquatch or whatever you want to call it…
It was, as one of my friends at the time put it, ‘Crazy Season”.
And we, being a) bored, b) broke, c) curious, and d) broke (or did I mention that already?) So we spent way too much time sitting around drinking cheap coffee in the student union talking about — stuff.
One day someone showed up with yet another in what was apparently a never ending string of paperback books claiming ancient aliens built, well, everything because our ancestors were even stupider than we are and were utterly incapable of stacking one rock on top of another, and it sparked a conversation about the gullibility of the human race in general, and why people believe things that are just plain, well, stupid.
One of our professors was with us that day because he was a) bored, b) broke… Well, you get the idea. To be perfectly honest, I don’t even remember which one it was. It was, after all, about 45 years ago. But the general tone of the discussion changed from idle speculation, into how we could try to figure out how this all worked. I.e. why people believe things that are pretty much ridiculous.
We should, said he, run an experiment to gather information because that is, said he, what people in university did: run experiments. Well, that and drink a lot, but the less said about that the better.
We pointed out that there were some problems with this, the first being that we didn’t know what the hell we were doing.
He reminded us that neither did anyone else. That’s why you did those experiment thingies and all that, because you didn’t know what the hell you were doing. If you did know what the hell you were doing, you wouldn’t need to run the experiment in the first place.
Overwhelmed by the brilliance of his logic, we decided to go see if they still had 5 cent beers at the local pubs in the early afternoon so we could be blitzed before we had to go to our Russian Literature class and help numb the pain.
But he persisted, and eventually convinced us that this was, as they say, A Good Idea. So the question now, was experiment on what, who, why and how.
Well, we were interested in why people believe dumb things, so the experiment had to look at, well, people believing dumb things, right? he said.
Okay, that kinda made sense. So, how? And even more important, was this going to cost us money? Because what little money we did have was being reserved for the aforementioned 5 cent beers.
One of our little group regularly read the horoscope in the local paper. There really was something to it! he would tell us on a regular basis, despite the fact we mocked him, also on a regular basis, for believing that nonsense. So we considered something like a fake astrology thing, but that would have required resources we didn’t have, like how the hell do you publish the thing, for example. The campus had a newspaper, allegedly. No one had ever actually seen the newspaper, but the administration said we had one.
We finally figured that the cheapest option was some kind of fortune telling scam. You didn’t need a heck of a lot of equipment, it wouldn’t be that hard to do, wouldn’t require a lot of setup. All you needed was a fortune teller, some kind of prop to distract the subjects, and observers hidden around to watch what happened and break up any potential physical assaults.
Props… what would we do for props… Crystal balls were out. You have any idea what those things cost? And while Sandy offered the use of a snow globe she had, it didn’t seem really appropriate.
Finally someone came up with the idea of Tarot cards. There had been a resurgence of that in the last couple of years as well as all the rest. It was sufficiently mystical and spooky and all that fun stuff, and because no one really knew what the hell it was all about anyway, we didn’t need to do a heck of a lot of research and thus cut into valuable drinking time. All we had to do was make it up as we went along.
What about subjects/victims? We’d do what researchers had been doing for generations, use unsuspecting college students without their knowledge.
Great fun would be had by all.
We even came up with a budget: $3.97. Oh, goodie…
I was volunteered to get me hence to the local head shop to pick up a deck of these Tarot card thingies. And among the bongs, roach clips, water pipes, sex toys, over behind the copies of “Naughty Nurses” and “Slippery Stewardesses”, I found one and scurried off before someone saw me.
Now, dear friends, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting bored with this already. This is already too long, and it’s only going to get worse, so let’s take a break, and you can keep reading this in The Great Experiment Part Two.