Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Right to the Source: Exploring Science and History with the Library of Congress

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Right to the Source: Exploring Science and History with the Library of Congress

Article excerpt

Don't Believe Everything You Hear--or Read

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles broadcast his now famous "War of the Worlds" radio drama, causing panic among many listeners who believed an actual Martian attack was afoot. The realistic, news-bulletin format of Welles's broadcast has been blamed for the misunderstanding, but the public's gullibility due to a lack of science literacy may also have played a role.

By the late 1930s, most serious astronomers had ruled out the notion of intelligent life on Mars. As early as 1894, astronomer William Wallace Campbell's spectroscopic readings indicated a scarcity of the water and atmospheric oxygen necessary for such life.

However, articles such as this October 1912 piece from The Salt Lake Tribune (pictured) continued to perpetuate wild theories. As with many fabricated stories designed to reel in the gullible, the article peppers in references to real-life astronomers and established scientific facts. Using those same spectroscopic readings mentioned above, the Tribune article argues that while intelligent animal life may not exist on Mars, intelligent vegetable life certainly does. Meanwhile, a drawing of "The Pitcher Plant Devouring a Rat" near the bottom of the page implies that one had better not relax just because these Martians are vegetables.

A further look at historical newspapers and magazines shows that these types of speculative science articles continue to appear in the mid to late 1930s, when Welles performed his broadcast. Many of these publications also contained "real news," perhaps blurring the line between factual reporting and fanciful speculation or simply fiction. …

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