Fiction is a polite word for lying. If you pick up a novel or a short story, you know going in that it’s not true, at least not as a whole. Historical novels have some real history in them; science fiction novels have some real science in them — but characters, dialogue, and situations are made up.
And yet, for many of us, the world inside our favorite novels is at least as real to us as the actual world in which we live. I first read Lord of the Rings in the unauthorized Ace Books edition back in 1966 (sorry to say, I no longer have those copies) and have re-read it every couple of years since. There are any number of books about which I have the same feelings: the early Saint stories by Leslie Charteris, most of the oeuvre of Robert Heinlein, Pride and Prejudice, and many more.
I lose myself in these alternate and unreal worlds consciously, in a process known to writers as the “willing suspension of disbelief.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but we start to run a risk when we willingly suspend disbelief about stories that aren’t labeled as fiction. That’s when we fall completely into the world of hokum.
Some cases of hokum are relatively harmless. If you believe in the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs, or Bigfoot, you probably aren’t going to live your life very differently. The basic idea — that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy — isn’t inherently silly. Occasionally, things once thought to be fanciful turn out to be real, as in the case of the once-mythical black swan. But that’s not the way to bet.
Some beliefs start out legitimate and turn into hokum. When respected psychiatrist Immanuel Velikovsky first proposed his theory that Old Testament legends reflected actual catastrophic close-contacts with other planets, he was attempting to perform legitimate science. Stephen Jay Gould said of him, “Velikovsky is neither crank nor charlatan — although, to state my opinion and to quote one of my colleagues, he is at least gloriously wrong.”
And wrong he was. His proposed celestial mechanics were physically impossible, violating the laws of conservation of energy and momentum, among others. There is no sin, however, in being wrong. But for anyone today to believe Velikovsky, the term “crank” becomes increasingly accurate.
Religion is a notorious breeding ground for hokum. Before you get offended, let me point out that even the most religious person doesn’t believe in the stories of all the other religions. If you’re a strong Christian, you tend to reject Hindu or Muslim stories as hokum — and, of course, they return the favor. But any religion is more than the stories told in its holy books. Religions provide moral and ethical codes, prescriptions for daily living, and in some cases suggestions on the proper ordering of society. One can accept a moral prescription without necessarily accepting the dogma that goes with it — although the reverse is not true.
Hokum becomes increasingly dangerous when it forces a rewrite of things known to be true. In science, evolution is merely the best known area of disagreement, but the website Conservapedia goes so far as to attack the theory of relativity! In Texas, there’s an attempt to modify American history itself, removing such dangerous figures as Thomas Jefferson from the curriculum.
The desire to embrace hokum — the need for hokum — seems baked into the human psyche. It can promote a sense of wonder and mystery, or simply be a harmless pastime. But hokum is a dangerous thing, both for those who embrace it, and those who must suffer under the yoke of those who do. Confining yourself to the self-aware hokum of fiction may be the safest course of action.