Historically, scientists and philosophers have, in their pursuit of truth, challenged long and deeply held social conventions. Both the scientist and societal institutions like Church and State, have each kept a watchful eye on the other–the former pursuing progress but stumbling, due to impatience or pursuit of fame and fortune, into unethical territory, the latter seek to maintain order but often misguidedly stifling the free exchange of new ideas in the process. The general public get caught in the middle, waiting with growing cynicism for answers and guidance from whoever shouts the loudest.
Scientific hoaxes, ranging from pranksters and anthropologists planting the fake remains of supposed “missing links” in the evolutionary chain, to professors reporting on completely fabricated findings and experiments that never happened, only serve to deepen the distrust between lay-person, academic, and (amateur and professional) scientist. Nevertheless, they make for entertaining stories and each debunked hoax stands as a testament to the upstanding whistleblowers and ethical scientists who debunked them.
Interestingly enough, the majority of notable scientific ruses reported here were perpetrated either before the turn of the century or in the modern age (post-1950). One might reasonably suggest the reason for this is that both periods of time saw a leap forward in human knowledge and technology (first with the advent of electricity, then with computers and the Internet) combined with an unprecedented level of curiosity in and access to this info and tech on the part of the lay-person and the amateur scientist/ armchair philosopher. With the general public’s ever-present and warranted skepticism, and such a wealth of every-changing information, but no trustworthy guides to interpreting and learning this information, even in the age of the Interweb, more opportunities exist for pseudo-science and misinformation to influence people than ever before. One way to avoid being led astray: Educate yourself about what bad science looks like so you will know good science when you see it.
15. The Great Moon Hoax of 1835
Quite a few hoaxes since the 1800s were actually pranks meant either (for the critic) to satirize the self-important and grandiose theorizing of 19th century academics and scientists, or (for the scientifically-minded) to skewer the more superstitious and dogmatic among us. In either case, the notable hoaxes all have in common that they backfired and were taken as legitimate contributions to science and spirituality. This particular case comes to us from the imagination of journalist Richard Locke, who simultaneously wanted to increase readership for his paper, New York’s The Sun, and lampoon the work of several astronomers of the day who had been making outlandish claims.
Locke’s article in The Sun extended a German astronomer’s sincere (1824) suggestion of the existence of “lunar inhabitants;” Locke added descriptions of these inhabitants, telling the U.S. public that the Moon was host to unicorns and bat-winged humans. The public ate it up, especially as these findings were attributed to a totally fabricated physician companion (Dr. Grant) of an existing and reputable astronomer, Sir John Herschel… that is until the good Dr. was found to be a figment of Richard Locke’s imagination.
14. The Cardiff Giant
One of the most widely known skeptic-perpetrated pranks, the Cardiff Giant is another case of superstitious or otherwise willing believers having no sense of humor. Cardiff resident and known atheist, George Hull, invested ($2,600) in the creation of a carved mineral giant, having the giant buried in a cousin’s yard, and having a water-well dug over the spot where the “giant” was buried. All of this to mock the fundamentalist Methodists in his community for believing that giants like Goliath used to roam the Earth.
The dig site became such a lucrative (Hull made an estimated $20,400 in 1870s money) tourist trap that several other giants were miraculously uncovered in other parts of the UK almost immediately. While paleontologists were not fooled, clergy and theologians, not knowing the fake giant was made by a nonbeliever, took it as proof of their beliefs until it was revealed in an 1870’s court case to be a hoax.
13. The Piltdown Man
The atheists and skeptics got a taste of their own medicine when a fake missing link in the chain between chimp was supposedly literally uncovered shortly after the turn of the century. The Brits seem to have a penchant for paleo-anthropological hoaxes; maybe it’s the Arthurian mythology in their cultural roots or a dry sense of humor combined with a vein of Puritan/Protestant piety in their history, but the pious and atheist alike have garnered fame then notoriety for “finding” and cataloging the fossilized remains of alleged prehistoric and ancient animals. In 1908, in the town of Piltdown, East Sussex, a man named Charles Dawson claimed some orangutan teeth he had put in the underdeveloped skull of a human (post-mortem, of course) was a prehistoric man’s skull. Only in 1953 was Dawson’s “dawn-man” officially revealed to be a hoax.
12. Perpetual Motion Machine In 1813
Very little is known about Charles Redheffer, the man who made his living as so many in the 19th century did, preying on people’s curiosity in an era before social media and forensic science and at a time when the world’s fair expositions were as popular as the Olympics and ‘inventor’ was a viable career path.
What is known is the man made a relative fortune charging people to see his supposed perpetual motion machine (a machine that defies the laws of physics by powering itself through its own operation). His perpetual motion machine grift first took Redheffer to Philly, until he got cocky and applied for gov’t funding to build a larger version of his machine. This led to an official inspection of the machine and the discovery of its power source, so the man hopped over to NYC with a different looking but equally fraudulent machine. Once this second hoax was found out, he disappeared from the history books, as Charles Redheffer at least.
11. Clever Hans, The Horse That Knew Math
One of the most famous horses next to Sea Biscuit and Mr. Ed, many people now know the Cleve Hans story as a prime example not of animals doing amazing things or even of scientific tomfoolery and trickery, but of the power of suggestion. Scientists in training all learn the story of the horse who could do arithmetic, but not because he was good at mental math but because he was socially sensitive enough to pick up on cues like amazed audiences gasping when Hans’ hoof taps would approach the correct number. Fledgling researchers learn this story as a cautionary tail and to explain why good science involves using experimenters who do not know what the predicted outcome is going to be.
10. Shinichi, The Archaeologist With Divine Hands
At the height of his falsely earned fame, Shinichi Fujimura was called the archeologist with “divine” hands—after some findings that actually changed the accepted anthropological timeline/history of early Japanese humans (extending the Paleolithic period in the East by 30k years). Between 1981 and ’84, at the beginning of his amateur archeology career, Fujimura found stone tools and other novel artifacts across multiple dig sites, some dating as far back as 50k years ago. After that, he went on a 180-dig run almost always finding some timeline-alternating, literally and figuratively groundbreaking artifact. Critics and skeptics published their reservations almost immediately, but it was only post-Y2K when photos of Shinichi and friends burying the artifacts they would later dig up surfaced.
9. Alien Autopsy: Cover-Up Or Well-Timed Publicity Stunt?
One of the most famous and enduring hoaxes of all time, though set in Area 51, Roswell, New Mexico, was yet another Limey-perpetrated hoax. Ray Santilli, a musician, record/film producer, and entrepreneur working in London, was likely trying to take advantage of and cash in on the wave of fascination with the potential for extraterrestrial life, abduction and government conspiracy, that came to a head with the rise in popularity of the X-Files through much of the 90s. The grainy, black-and-white found footage of a dead alien that eventually aired on FOX News, was at first alleged to be leaked, archival military footage. Santilli never claimed the events depicted never happened but tempered his original story in 2006, by claiming his film was meant to be a reenactment of the actual footage, which miraculously deteriorated immediately after Santilli saw it.
8. The Archaeoraptor
This fossil-based prank made it all the way past the discerning eyes of Nat Geo’s editorial board before being debunked. Archaeoraptor was the name given to the too-perfectly preserved skeleton of a bird-like lizard or lizard-like bird, which discovering paleontologists dubbed the missing link between two-legged small dinos and their less scaly, winged descendants, the birds. The scientific community had its reservations about this finding before it was announced in a 1999 issue of Nat’l Geographic, and after light investigation into the matter, the fossil was found to be a jigsaw puzzle of several species.
Fortunately, there was some truth to this bit of dishonesty in that this hodgepodge of petrified parts actually boasted some (parts) from a previously identified, ancient, bird-like creature, and some from a previously unidentified animal, named in 2000, the Microraptor. Still, the remains of the link between bird and reptile, the original feathered dinosaur, remain to be excavated.
7. Nordic Models On The Endangered Species List
If the English prefer pulling the wool over people’s eyes with fake artifacts and remains, the Dutch and German seem to have a monopoly on fraudulent research. A little digging quickly revealed the 2002 finding that there were too few people on the planet carrying the blond hair gene for this trait to sustain in the gene pool past 2022, originally attributed to a report from the World Health Organization, was originally published, two years earlier in a tabloid-esque German women’s magazine. The story, including the fact that the last blonde person would be Nordic, was picked up by the BBC before The Washington Post and others started poking holes in the story.
6. The Tasaday Tribe: Natives Or Opportunists?
Because this story comes to us from within a dictatorial regime, where information is highly regulated, and at a time of political upheaval and social unrest, and in a country characterized by conflicted native-colonialist relations, most blogosphere accounts of the events surrounding the “discovery” of the extant Tasaday tribe living deep in the thickest parts of the Philippine jungle are flat out incorrect. Some click-bait has Manuel Elizalde, the shrewd or conniving but surely wealthy son of imperialist descent who introduced the anthropological world to the Tasaday as the leader of the Philippines at the time, fleeing the country when the tribe was discovered to be totally modernized.
In reality, Elizalde was no ruler and his scientific boondoggle was only a half hoax. The Tasaday were bribed by Elizalde to put on more primitive airs, and then fled in the wake of a politically fueled assassination; however, 15 years after their 1971 introduction to the public, an anthropologist who was allowed to spend more than several weeks with the tribespeople found their stone-aged living quarters abandoned but found them deeper in the jungle and clearly speaking a dialect unique to their own.
5. The Villejuif Leaflet: Lemons’ll Kill Ya
Alternatively called the Villejuif list or flyer, just to drive home the point that this is a piece of paper that was circulated and had things listed on it, this pamphlet, to throw in another synonym for portable-sized piece of flattened wood pulp with words for other people’s benefit on them, was a list of food additives, from basic vitamins like citric acid (a.k.a. Vitamin C) to things obviously not meant for human consumption like formaldehyde as carcinogenic. The leaflet, for synonym number five, allegedly began circulating in France around 1976 and spread like wildfire because the term “viral” had not come on the scene yet. Thanks to lack of social media, the leaflet went through an often literal game of telephone that, in the end, misinformed an estimated 7 million people over the course of a decade. At some point in the chain of lies a copy of a copy of a copy was made on letterhead from a hospital in the town of Villejuif; the original author’s whereabouts then and now, on the other hand, were and are still unknown.
4. Jan Schon: Semi-(Mis)conducter Master
Pranks or false discoveries that get out of hand are one thing, but when you start to talk about making things up that have implications for people’s health and well-being or that could revolutionize a scientific field, that’s when things get less cheeky/cute and more shamefully (and/or shamelessly) unethical. Former doctor Jan Schon of Germany, was a physicist dabbling in electrical engineering, and rose to the rank of scientist rockstar before his breakthrough findings in semi-conductor research were revealed to be the result of doctored data; the majority of his study results were eventually revealed to be entirely fake, at which point Schon admitted to his transgressions and had his doctoral degree and several awards revoked. Of course, as most caught liars do, he rationalized his behavior and even unsuccessfully sued to have his PhD reinstated.
3. Diederik Stapel And The Disappearing Data
A more recent case of research fraud comes to us from the home of Van Gogh and legal prostitution (or tulips and windmills): Dutch social scientists Diederik Stapel, in short, fabricated a large fraction of the research he made his name on. Frustrated with the slow pace of peer-review publishing and research in general, jaded over being a social psychologist in a world where findings must be boiled down into a catchy self-help, Ted-Talk tidbit or fall on deaf ears, and drunk with the clout of a star profess all combined to motivate Stapel to tweak or fully fabricate data to fit with his predictions over 30 times.
Like Redheffer’s perpetual motion machine, Stapel’s ruse collapsed under intense scrutiny after a high profile publication in Science was found to be falsified. While he may still be gainfully employed as an academic, the blow to the public’s faith in social science research will take far longer to recover from.
2. The Chess-Playing Mechanical Man
The Mechanical Turk, as it was known, would have actually been the first chess playing robot, and many decades before Deep Blue won two games against Kasparov in ’96 this clockwork, turban-headed man blew the Western world’s collective mind by besting Ben Franklin among other, The Turk was basically a glorified music box, shaped and dressed up like a citizen of the Ottoman Empire and built into a chess board.
Unveiled in 1770, it is an amazing feat of engineering without its alleged artificial intelligence, but for close to a century it was one of best kept secrets in the scientific community that The Turk’s chess-playing hand was actually operated by a more warm, fleshy person who could sit within the enclosure below the chess board that housed the intricate maze of camshafts and cogwheels. What I have trouble understanding is why a crowdsourcing service offered through Amazon and through which more and more social science research and market and user experience research is being conducted, would be named after the Mechanical Turk that proved to be less a technological advance and more one of the longest held and most mystery-shrouded hoaxes of all time.
1. Dr. Rader Can Cure It All
American physician, Dr. Bill C. Rader, continues (as of 2015) to perpetrate his deceit and under legal auspices albeit in Mexico, claiming he and his team have cured up-until-now incurable diseases ranging from cancer to Parkinson’s, simply by injecting people with fetal stem cells in an unproven, unregulated, undocumented and exorbitantly priced procedure. Rader refuses to report any of his paradigm-shifting findings and no testimonial videos show clear improvement in before and after footage. Patients (a.k.a. consumers) also have no recourse when inevitably their Russian-exported stem cells do what they do in regulated laboratories which ranges from doing nothing to increasing skin and hair growth to causing full-blown cancer.
The medical community knows Dr. Rader’s claim that his data would be misinterpreted and butchered by editors is a deflection from the fact that he operates in a medical malpractice loophole, namely abroad, and has no evidence beyond potentially coerced or paid actor testimonials to back up his claims. But, as long as his desperate uneducated customers keep buying in, literally, the stem cell scam will remain lucrative for Rader and his kind.
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