4 Challenges That People Were Mistaken to Laugh Off
A man walks into a lawyer’s office and says, “I’ll bet you $200 that I can bite my own eye.” The lawyer replies, “That challenge is absurd. I want no part in it. Please leave this office. I have a lot of work to do.”
That may not sound like the most entertaining resolution to that story. But challenges like these offer all kinds of pitfalls. It’s crazy that two people would ever agree to one, because one — or both — of them is bound to get screwed.
A Measles Skeptic Offered €100,000 If You Could Prove Measles Is Real
A decade before vaccines for this latest plague were getting rejected by skeptics, the anti-vax movement was already alive and well. Which is more than we can say for the children of these anti-vaxxers, who kept catching preventable diseases, but the movement’s disciples stayed strong. One German anti-vaxxer, Stefan Lanka, didn’t just question vaccines — he disputed the very existence of several famous viruses. He denied that HIV is real, and in November 2011, he offered €100,000 to anyone who could prove the measles virus exists.
He said the symptoms exist, but they're psychosomatic, caused by trauma, much like how stress might give you a rash. Another German scientist, David Bardens, knew well that measles really is a virus, and he answered the challenge by collecting half a dozen papers on the subject. Lanka refused to pay. So, Bardens took him to court, which ruled that Bardens had been able to prove the existence of this long-established pathogen, and Lanka had to pay him.
End of story, right? Eh, not so fast. Lanka appealed, using the reliable read-the-fine-print defense. He hadn’t merely said “prove measles”; he’d laid out specific criteria. For starters, he’d demanded proof of the isolated virus, and the papers Bardens had submitted instead showed the virus in “transport vesicles” of cells (because viruses can’t exist independently of cells or vesicles). Lanka had demanded the diameter of the virus, and the papers showed a range beyond what he considered acceptable. Plus, Lanka had demanded that everything appear in a single paper, but Bardens had had to find multiple papers that each proved an individual fact, since that’s how papers work.
All this meant that the final verdict was in favor of Lanka. He had to pay nothing, other than a few hundred euros in legal fees. Don’t think you can win so easily against skeptics. It’s harder than you think.
Holocaust Deniers Offered a Prize of Their Own
The next story sounds, at first, similar to the last one. This time, the conspiracy theorists were a group of Holocaust deniers, the Institute for Historical Review (IHR). The group held that Germany had killed some Jews, but the six million who are so often said to have been murdered actually emigrated to Israel. They further said that Auschwitz had chimneys, but those came from the bakery, not from any crematorium. In 1979, they offered $50,000 to anyone who could prove the Nazis mass-murdered Jews in gas chambers.
Many people wouldn’t dignify this challenge with a reply, since gathering proof of something — even something so well-documented — takes a lot of work. In 1979, you couldn’t just reply to an argument with a bunch of URLs (if URLs would even convince Holocaust deniers, which they wouldn’t). But one Auschwitz survivor, Mel Mermelstein, happened to have just completed a memoir about his time in the camps. He’d already compiled photos, newspaper articles and other documents to support his own testimony. Who better to call the IHR’s bluff than him?
The IHR, expectedly, dismissed the account of Mermelstein, who then took them to court. So, this sounds like the setup for a lengthy legal battle, in which both sides present evidence, and then a judge compares them to decide whether the Holocaust happened. Right?
Nope. Because California had a rule, which had its basis in English common law, saying the court can look beyond the exhibits and consider “facts and propositions of generalized knowledge that are so universally known that they cannot reasonably be the subject of dispute.” In short: That which is known need not be proven. The court ruled in Mermelstein’s favor, saying, “Jews were gassed to death at Auschwitz Concentration Camp. It is simply a fact.” They ordered the IHR to pay double what they’d offered, and ultimately, the institute had to pay up.
A Man Told His Lover Women Can’t Write Erotica
Speaking of Nazis, let’s zoom in on German-occupied France, in the year 1942. The Resistance published a magazine called Les Lettres Françaises. The editor was Jean Paulhan, and one writer there was named Anne Desclos. In English, a “French letter” is a slang term for a condom, so you should not be surprised to learn Paulhan and Desclos started sleeping together.
A decade later, the two were still a couple. Paulhan had now written a preface to 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade, and Desclos — just to please him — said she might me interested in writing something like that erotic book one day. Women aren’t capable of that sort of writing, said Paulhan. Though dismissing a woman’s literary prowess was an established method of asserting dominance in a relationship, Desclos took this as a challenge. She went and wrote an erotic novel of her own, Story of O.
Again, this was just to please him, she’d later say. She wrote it in a notebook, in pencil, and didn’t intend to publish it. But when Paulhan read this book about a submissive joining a sex cult, he got so turned on that he dispensed with his negging and insisted she share it with the world. Though his own boss turned it down, they found a new publisher and printed it under the pen name “Pauline Réage.”
France hauled Paulhan into court on obscenity charges, but he protected Desclos’ identity. In fact, despite the name “Pauline” appearing on the cover, many people assumed for decades that a man had written it. Desclos only came out as the author in the 1990s, at the age of 86. Story of O remains well-known today. It even led to the widespread BDSM practice of wearing a ring known as a Ring of O.
A Court Dwarf Offered to Duel
In the 16th century, kings and queens had a tradition of employing a court dwarf, a diminutive man kept around for everyone’s entertainment. Charles I kept a guy named Jeffrey Hudson, whose name is so mundane it almost sounds like an anachronism. When he was eight years old (and already noticeably small), the Duke of Buckingham had him jump out of a pie to present him to the Queen Henrietta.
In 1644, he and the Queen were living in France, her home country, which she considered a safer place than England thanks to the English Civil War. A man named Crofts, brother to the Baron William Crofts, insulted Hudson in some manner. We don’t have a record of this insult, but we’re guessing it had something to do with his being a dwarf. Hudson challenged him to a duel, and Crofts accepted.
Crofts said he accepted, anyway. He didn’t take the duel seriously, however, and when he showed up on horseback at the scheduled time, he held a squirt gun. Hudson, on the other hand, carried a regular gun and very easily shot him dead.
That ended poorly for Crofts. It also ended poorly for Hudson because duels were illegal (that’s why Crofts hadn’t taken the idea seriously). Queen Henrietta had to dismiss him from her court and send him by ship to England. As miserable an end to his story as that sounds, it actually got worse. During that brief sea voyage, pirates attacked his ship, captured him and made him a slave.
Okay, that sounds like the miserable to end to his story, and he experienced years as a slave before returning to England. Weird thing, though: Despite being 30 years old when he was captured, he now grew almost two feet taller, essentially doubling his height. This sounds like some messed-up fairy tale about the virtues of punishment breaking the curse that made him a dwarf. It actually may be a case of physical exertion triggering the release of dormant growth hormones, but what’s the difference? Some say that all of science is one big fairy tale — and they’re offering a prize if you can prove them wrong.