When I was around 4 years old, my family took a trip to Nevada.  While there, I saw my first orange moon.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.


When I returned home, I told my best friend, Adam, what I’d seen.

Me: In Nevada, I saw an ORANGE moon!

Adam: Once I saw a PURPLE moon!!

A few months later, there was an orange moon in Northridge.  I quickly pointed it out to Adam.

Me: Now do you believe that I saw an orange moon in Nevada?

Adam: I sure do!

Me: So did you really see a purple moon?

Adam: Nope.

What was Adam’s initial motivation?  There are two main possibilities:

1. Competitiveness.  Adam didn’t want to feel like I was better than him by virtue of my special experiences.

2. Poetic justice.  Adam thought I was lying, so he “punished” me by telling me an even bigger lie.

When I reflect on this story, I see a major mechanism for the birth of tall tales, urban legends, mythology, and religious miracles.  I see Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, alien abductions, and much much more.  You don’t have to believe that anyone is consciously thinking, “And now to fabricate and publicize an absurd lie!  Bwa ha ha!”  Adam wasn’t acting strategically; he was acting impulsively.  He heard a crazy story, and his deeply human reaction was to spit back a crazier story to put me in my place.

If I’d pressed him, no doubt Adam would have invented detail after detail: Where he saw his purple moon, the precise shade of purple, the time of year, and so on.  And given the frailty of human memory, it’s quite conceivable that my childhood friend now sincerely “remembers” seeing a purple moon.  Multiply all this by the distortions of hearsay, exemplified by the telephone game, and it’s amazing – if not miraculous – that common sense skepticism ever managed to arise, survive, and even thrive.