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A Dash of Pixie Dust: Are Fairies Real or Mythical Creatures?

Are Fairies Real or Just Mythical Creatures?
Every once in a while, you come across news reports of people's encounters with fairies that leave you wondering whether these fairies are real or simply a figment of your imagination. Nonetheless, anything about fairies should make for an interesting read; after all, mythical creatures, be it fairies or the Loch Ness, have always fascinated mankind.
Abhijit Naik
Last Updated: Mar 13, 2018
... while more evidence will be welcome, there is enough already available to convince any reasonable man that the matter is not one which can be readily dismissed, but that a case actually exists which up to now has not been shaken in the least degree by any of the criticism directed against it.
― The Coming of The Fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
That fairies are clearly defined as 'mythical beings', doesn't stop people from believing in their existence. Time and again, someone or the other comes up with so-called evidence to support their existence, in the form of photographs (videos of late), skeletal remains, and―in the case of tooth fairies―gifts left by them. Additionally, there are those 'reliable' witnesses, who boast of a firsthand experience of seeing and even interacting with these mythical creatures. Can so many people be wrong? Are fairies real? Evidence can be planted, but what about the people with firsthand experience?
The Curious Case of the Rossendale Fairies
Earlier this year, John Hyatt, a lecturer at the Manchester Metropolitan University, came into the limelight when he claimed that he had photographed fairies in Lancashire, UK. In an interview to the Manchester Evening News, Hyatt said he had clicked these pictures over the course of the last two years, but only realized that he had something special in his possession when he enlarged them with 'normal-sized enhancement techniques'. He even added that he had crosschecked these pictures with that of flies and gnats, and they were nowhere similar.

As expected, Hyatt's fairy pictures got immense media coverage. And if this coverage was not enough to make people believe that these fairies were real, the decision to put them on display at the Whitaker Museum in Rossendale, definitely was. That his claims were refuted by many scientists and skeptics alike, was not important, as it didn't make for an exciting read.

Skeptics were prompt to come up with the explanation that Rossendale Fairies were simply some insects; chironomids or non-biting midges in most likelihood. Some also added that they may not be flies or gnats as Hyatt points out, but it's worth noting that there are many species out there, which are yet to be discovered.
Before That, There Were the Cottingley Fairies
Hyatt is definitely not the first person to claim that he had captured fairies on his camera; scores of people claim to have pulled off this feat. Interestingly, however, none of them convinced, or rather fooled the world the way two girls from England, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths did. In 1917, 16-year-old Elsie and 10-year-old Frances pulled off an amazing hoax when they passed off cardboard cutouts of fairies as 'real fairies' in the now famous Cottingley Fairies hoax.

It became one of the biggest hoaxes of all time, such that even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and arguably the most famous person in England back then, fell for it. In fact, Doyle even wrote a book titled 'The Coming of The Fairies' on the entire episode, based on the investigation of Edward Gardner, an eminent member of the Theosophical Society. During his investigation, Gardner had approached photography expert Harold Snelling and technicians of the Kodak Company, who swore by the authenticity of the photographs.

The Cottingley Fairy hoax stayed in the limelight for several decades until finally in 1983, the two masterminds themselves, revealed that the pictures were fake. Both Elsie and Frances admitted that they had orchestrated the entire event, as their families refused to believe that there were fairies in the valley. (Throughout their life, they themselves believed that fairies existed and even claimed that the fairies in the fifth photograph were real.) They also revealed that their cardboard fairies were inspired from the drawings in the 1914 book titled 'Princess Mary's Gift Book', and that they used hatpins to hang the cut outs from trees.

Even before Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths confessed, many people had proved that the entire event was fabricated. In 1980s, for instance, Geoffrey Crawley, the editor-in-chief of the British Journal of Photography, exposed the farce in his series of articles. After thorough analysis, he had come to the conclusion that the pictures were manipulated. He highlighted the fact that the devices used to click them were not advanced enough to capture such sharp images.

In his book titled Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions, renowned skeptic James Randi tears through all the evidence put forth by Doyle and Gardner. He makes it all the more simple with his analysis based purely on critical thinking. For instance, he is quick to note that the waterfall in the first picture is blurred as the water is moving, but the wings of fairies are not, despite the fact that they are also moving.
The Mummified Fairy of Derbyshire
In 2007, yet another so-called evidence turned out to be a hoax, when the discovery of mummified remains of a fairy in Derbyshire turned out to be an April Fool's prank. In this case, the remains were even analyzed and verified by forensic experts. The skeleton, which resembled that of a child, had hollow bones and even a navel, as a result of which, people were quick to jump to a conclusion that fairies could reproduce. After much fanfare, Dan Baines, who had orchestrated the entire hoax, revealed the truth on April Fool's Day. (The picture of the fake mummified fairy continues to make waves in cyberspace, with believers relying on the 'Police Evidence Bag' in the background to make a point.)

Had the creators themselves in both cases not admitted to their prank, people would have simply dismissed the likes of Crawley and Randi as ignorant. That's exactly what happens when you question people's beliefs. And these, mind you, are just a few examples. There is no dearth of such cases out there. What's common to all these cases is the fact that they are frauds, and that becomes obvious when you resort to critical thinking and question them.
Other Evidence
Other evidence put forth by those who believe that fairies are real is even more juvenile. For instance, some people argue that the existence of fairies has never been disproved and until that time, we should believe that they do exist. These people put the onus on skeptics to prove that something doesn't exist, instead of themselves proving that it exists. Then there are others who evoke the spirituality clause and argue that we lack advanced scientific tools that can detect their presence. Also, some people are naive enough to believe that fairies exist only because they have been a part of the folklore for ages. As expected, none of these arguments can stand the test of critical thinking.
If the claims of having seen and interacted with fairies (or other mythical creatures) are often followed by a disclaimer that you will only be able to see them when you approach them with an open mind, that's for a reason, and that reason is simple: fairies are not real. They are mythical creatures―products of our wishful thinking.

So where does the problem actually lie? It might have something to do with all those fairy tales that children are read to. Some children are left dejected when they are told that tooth fairies are not real and that the gifts found under their pillow were kept by their parents. Even worse, some children simply refuse to believe it and even find their comfort zone in these fairy tales. If at all, the stories that they are read out to at an impressionable age make them vulnerable to a cognitive distortion, referred to as magical thinking. And that, in turn, increases their likelihood of believing in superstitions and irrational beliefs later on in life.

Let's admit it, we don't teach children the wrong method of counting when they are young, and correct them once they reach a certain age. So, why do we put fairies, elves, and the Loch Ness in their mind during childhood only to 'correct' them when they grow up? Definitely a question worth giving a thought to.
Post Script: Many people cite Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's belief in the existence of fairies as an evidence. That the person who created Sherlock Holmes believed in fairies is no evidence, irony ... maybe.