A hoax can be defined as "to trick into believing or accepting as genuine something false and often preposterous." Orson Welles "War of the Worlds" hoax is an inadvertent manifestation of this phenomenon. On October 30, 1938, hundreds of thousands of people listened in terror as Welles conveyed the scene of a martian landing. According to Welles, a large meteorite had hit the earth on a New Jersey farm. With further news bulletin "updates", Welles told of how aliens were emerging from the smoldering meteorite. Police phone lines became encumbered with the calls of terrified citizens wondering about the aliens wreaking havoc in New Jersey. This is one of few hoaxes which wasn't created to be a hoax. The havoc was created by listeners who had changed radio channels after the conclusion of a rival radio program. They missed the beginning of the broadcast, which had plainly told people that it was a characterization of the novel "War of the Worlds". What really made it so convincing to these ignorant listeners was the delivery of the news. Welles and his radio affiliates had created the broadcast in an update-style delivery. They would periodically interrupt a musical ensemble in order to deliver the urgent news. This style mimicked the update style of war time news delivery, therefore giving the broadcast an element of authenticity which was believable from the standpoint of Americans who had become accustomed to the combat updates of WWII. The beliefs of the day also played a large role in the inadvertent success of the hoax. At this point, science fiction was a widely popular genre among Americans. Also, space had become the last unexplored frontier and thus was the subject of great curiosity among the public. In many ways, this was a "perfect storm" for the creation of hoax.
When looking at this hoax in the perspective of critical thinking, one must remember how people received their news in that time period. All forms of media were encompassed in print and radio. These forms of media had no real time mechanism in which the media and their "listeners" could interact and thus people had to put their trust in what they were being told. However, if they had known of the six scientific thinking principles, they perhaps would have been much more skeptical of Welles extraordinary claims. The principle which seems to fit that situation perfectly is "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." The only evidence they had of this phenomenon was the word of Welles, which was hurriedly conveying the scene alien destruction. These people were taken for a ride due to their lack of skepticism, accepting claims which held only the evidence of "eye witnesses" on the scene. The other applicable scientific thinking principle is Occam's Razor, which is the reason of this hoax in the first place. Either the broadcast was fake (which it had been declared to be) or they were conveying the first contact with aliens. Had the people heard the beginning of the broadcast, there would have been no doubt as to what was really happening. The two sides of the claim would have been present and there would have been virtually no one who would have chosen to believe the characterization of humanities destruction by the hands of aliens.
It is safe to say that the magnitude of this hoax will never be seen again. With changes in delivery of news, skepticism accumulating over decades, and a generally better educated population, it would be hard to fool this amount of people (especially if you had made it clear that it was fake in the first place). This one-of-a-kind occurance is not only a great example of a hoax, but it is a great part of American history.
""War of the Worlds": Behind the 1938 Radio Show Panic." Daily Nature and Science News and Headlines | National Geographic News. Web. 12 Oct. 2011.
"Hoax - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary." Dictionary and Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 12 Oct. 2011.