This New York Times article carefully described it and said at least 1,500 others saw it. Elsewhere many thousands more saw it. But it never existed.
A few years ago, a federal judge permanently barred a South Carolina company from selling plastic devices with antennas attached to them, which the company had been hawking for up to $8,000.
There were, it turns out, too many of us willing to believe that this modern-day divining rod could detect everything from drugs to golf balls. (What? No wallets or car keys?)
Therein lies the puzzle. Why in an age saturated with information, do we believe such bizarre things? Things like crop circles, alien abductions, and 9/11 conspiracy theories? Why do we believe wild Toyota stories like the 94 mph "runaway Prius"? The gearbox allowed shifting into neutral by merely reaching out a finger, but the driver told credulous reporters he was afraid to do so because he needed to keep both hands on the steering wheel. And regarding that cell phone in his hand?
Why a steady stream of mass hysterias, like swine flu?
We believe bizarre things for many reasons, but at the core is that despite our computers and communications devices and other gadgets, and despite all the scientific discoveries made, we still have pretty much the same brains as Paleolithic man some 40,000 years ago.
Being the sophisticates we are, magic belongs to other times and other cultures! Not hardly.
We fear what we don't understand, so when lacking an explanation that suits us, we simply assign one. With Paleolithic man, because he understood so little, most things were magic. Thunder and lightning, the appearance of game, illness. The Ancient Greeks and Romans simply assigned all unexplained phenomenon to "the gods." During the Middle Ages, black magic came into its own and a crop failure could mean a hot time for a an ugly old crone in the village.
Because we are so heavily wired to accept magic as an explanation, most of us at best think Occam's razor -- a 14th century principle that says the simplest and most likely explanation is probably the best -- is the latest product from Gillette. At worst we actually employ the opposite, skipping over the likely and latching onto the bizarre. Minor things like physical impossibility are ignored.
Even when they are pointed out, to us the constellations don't resemble what they're named after. The constellation at the very bottom, middle, is supposed to be a water goat. Right.
So-called "Gulf War Syndrome," for example, is back in the news with a new Institute of Medicine study, with lots of stories referring to the "mystery." The media have put forth an incredible list of "causes," including such bizarre things as Scud missile fuel and the common insecticide DEET. The non-mysterious explanation is that, like everyone else, Gulf vets get sick and die. Huge numbers of studies show they're no more likely to do so than comparable veterans who didn't deploy – and far less likely than comparable civilians.
There's also massive talk in the media, among trial lawyers, and by the government, about the "mystery" of Toyota's sudden acceleration. "Cosmic rays" have been suggested, and quite commonly a "ghost in the machine." In fact, Toyota sudden acceleration complaints were miniscule until a horrific accident last August got tremendous publicity, whereupon they soared. But that's a simple explanation, therefore it's ignored.
Looking for Patterns
We also suffer from Paleolithic man's dependence on pattern-seeking -- the only science he truly possessed -- which helped tell when berries would appear or when a wild animal was dangerous. But pattern-seeking also leads to superstition. Stellar constellations, "finding" patterns in random assortments of stars, was a science to the Ancient Greeks.
Today we're constantly offered "patterns" from random events. We personally would never have identified them. But once somebody else identifies them, they become "obvious." Stare at a bunch of dots long enough and you'll eventually find what you seek.
That's especially true for those with an agenda, including some in the media. They thrive on sensationalism and often convince even themselves it's right there in those random dots. Sensationalism brings money, fame and prizes to reporters. But in fairness, they're just giving the public what it wants.
What was the pattern the WHO and UN saw linking swine flu to Spanish flu? Both started out mild.
So we get events like that in 1909, when thousands of people throughout New England saw a huge airship. The New York Times gave a very detailed description of the ship, its altitude, and movements. But there was no airship; it was all a hoax. (Look at the actual Times piece; it's a hoot!)
That's how we get "cancer clusters," such as recently "discovered" in a southern Florida community that "consumer crusader" Erin Brockovich, in the pay of trial lawyers, has promoted. Never mind that it happens to include benign tumors and even tumors diagnosed prior to the patient moving to the area.
That's why, beginning in late April, 2009, with all of eight swine flu deaths reported worldwide, the World Health Organization and the U.N. warned it could be the next Spanish flu, an outbreak that killed 675,000 Americans in 1918-19. The only "link" they could find, though, is that both outbreaks began mildly. Had it begun fiercely, would they have felt reassured?
Patterns inherently soothe the Paleolithic brain, even if they indicate something terrible. And so we naturally become agitated as well as embarrassed when skeptics show there's nothing there. Nobody likes a party pooper.
But skeptics are out there -- just don't use a divining rod to find them. And be sure to be skeptical of them, too. We aren't cavemen, after all.