15 Of The Most Disappointing Scientific Hoaxes

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.

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.

13 The Piltdown Man

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.

11 Clever Hans, The Horse That Knew Math

10 Shinichi, The Archaeologist With Divine Hands

9 Alien Autopsy: Cover-Up Or Well-Timed Publicity Stunt?

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.

7 Nordic Models On The Endangered Species List

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.

5 The Villejuif Leaflet: Lemons'll Kill Ya

4 Jan Schon: Semi-(Mis)conducter Master

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.

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.

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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15 Of The Most Disappointing Scientific Hoaxes