Scientific Hoaxes, Part I
Copyright 1993 by Edward Willett
Science progresses not only when scientists have brilliant ideas, but also when they're wrong. A wrong idea faces testing through experiments, and those experiments sometimes not only disprove the wrong idea, they uncover the truth.
Because of this, science has always been susceptible to hoaxes. A well-executed hoax appears to have solid evidence behind it, and therefore to be worthy of discussion.
A history of scientific hoaxes would take up a book -- and has. Having only a small column, I, alas, must limit myself to the most famous hoax of all: Piltdown Man.
In 1908 an English lawyer and amateur archaeologist, Charles Dawson, wrote to his friend Arthur Smith Woodward, head of the department of geology at the British Museum, that a crew of laborers had turned up an ancient fragment of human skull in a gravel pit near Piltdown, England. Dawson said further excavations had turned up more skull fragments, animal bones and flint tools. He invited Woodward to come take a look.
Woodward accepted, and after studying the skull fragments, concluded Dawson had stumbled on some of the oldest human fossils ever found. A few days later he and Dawson came up with an ancient lower jaw, some teeth, and a bunch of bone fragments.
Woodward publicly announced this "monumental" discovery before the Geological Society of London in December, 1912, where he exhibited a complete skull, reconstructed from the fragments he and Dawson had found. He estimated it to be 500,000 years old and said it could be the "missing link" between humans and apes, because although the skull was completely humanoid, the jaw was very ape-like.
Java Man, Peking Man, Neanderthal Man, Cro-Magnon Man and other famous folk had recently been uncovered, but all the same, many scientists were skeptical of Piltdown Man, or "Eanthropus dawsoni" (Dawson's Dawn Man). If his jaw were that primitive, and he really had lived 500,000 years before, he didn't fit at all into the evolutionary tree they'd been drawing up for humankind. They argued the jaw was not just ape-like, it was pure ape, and had ended up next to the human skull only by coincidence.
Woodward and Dawson, however, pointed to the molars found with the jaw, which were flat like human teeth, not pointed like ape teeth. In 1915 an identical skull-and-jawbone set turned up not far from the original, and seemed to clinch things. An ape jaw and human skull might be found in close proximity once by coincidence, but twice, within two miles of each other? Not likely.
A year later, Charles Dawson died, knowing Eanthropus dawsoni enjoyed general scientific acceptance. Woodward continued excavating, but found no more fossils.
Other fossils from other places, however, made Piltdown Man increasingly hard to fit into evolutionary theory, leading, in 1949, to a re-examination of the original fossils. New dating techniques showed the skull was only 50,000 years old, not half a million.
Four years later the most exhaustive tests ever carried out on any fossils confirmed the skull was only 50,000 years old, and revealed that the jawbone wasn't ancient at all: it belonged to a recently deceased orangutan and had been stained brown to look like a fossil. The flat teeth were actually pointed ape teeth that had been filed down.
That settled it: Piltdown Man, enshrined in textbooks and museums for 40 years, was a hoax, perpetrated, further detective work proved, by Charles Dawson.
The moral of all this isn't, as the rabidly paranoid might think, that you can't trust scienctists. The moral is, keep questioning, keep experimenting, keep thinking.
Science sometimes confuses people because findings announced with great fanfare are often called into question by other findings shortly thereafter. But contradiction and argument, for science, aren't weaknesses: they're strengths. It's through testing and re-testing ideas that new knowledge is uncovered and old knowledge is refined.
The point of Piltdown Man isn't that Dawson fooled science for 40 years; the point is that, even after 40 years, an idea could be tested, a hoax uncovered, and truth revealed.
In science, more than any other endeavour, you learn from your mistakes.
Scientific Hoaxes, Part II
Copyright 1993 by Edward Willett
Last week's column on Piltdown Man was supposed to be about scientific hoaxes in general, but my prolixity defeated me: I had a bunch of left-over hoaxes. In the spirit of Hollywood, therefore, I now present Scientific Hoaxes 2: Lost in My Research.
Piltdown Man wasn't the only fossil hoax. Faking fossils is a tradition in the hoax field, going back to the early 18th century in Wurzburg, Germany, where the recent discovery of mammoth bones had prompted a huge debate. The notion that fossils were the remains of prehistoric life was not yet generally accepted; Dr. Johann Beringer, head of a committee from the University of Wurzburg that investigated the fossils, declared they weren't bones at all, but "capricious fabrications of God" hidden to test mankind's faith. He proceeded to write and lecture on the subject for several years, until a couple of colleagues got fed up with his pomposity and decided to take him down a peg or two.
They made fake fossils in the shape of birds, beetles, butterflies, comets, moons, stars and more and planted them for Beringer to find. When he accepted them as genuine, they threw in several tablets inscribed in Hebrew, Arabic and Latin with a single word: God.
Beringer took this as proof of his ideas and wrote a book. The hoaxers confessed, but he wouldn't believe them. His book came out in 1726 and caused a sensation -- but then he uncovered a tablet with his own name on it, and knew he'd been had.
Beringer, his reputation ruined, spent every pfennig trying to buy all the available copies of his embarrassing book, which ironically made it a collector's item. (A second edition brought out in 1767 as a humorous curiosity sold thousands more than the first!)
Another hoax in the same mineral vein was the Cardiff Giant, the 10-foot figure of a nude man, twisted in agony, carved out of a slab of gypsum in 1868 by George Hull, a cigar maker from Binghamton, N.Y. He wanted to make a fool of a clergyman he'd argued with who'd insisted that giants once walked the Earth because "it's in the Bible."
Hull buried the giant on his cousin's farm near Cardiff, N.Y., and a full year later arranged for it to be "accidentally" found by well-diggers. News of the giant's discovery spread and crowds thronged the site. As Hull hoped, some religious people thought it was a fossilized Biblical giant, although others, along with some scientists, claimed it was a statue. Some also came right out and called it a fraud, but two distinguished Yale professors declared it to be a real fossil. Crowds grew huge and Hull grew rich.
But then P.T. Barnum tried to buy the giant. Rebuffed, he exhibited a plaster copy of it as the real thing. When taken to court, he argued he was only exhibiting the hoax of a hoax. The public demanded an inquiry, and after a few days' study, one of the Yale professors who had earlier called the giant genuine said it was a "decided humbug."
Hull later offered the best explanation for why any hoax works: "I suppose it worked because people wanted to believe in it. I completely underestimated public gullibility."
Combine public gullibility with mass media and you've really got something. In 1835 the New York Sun took advantage of public fascination with astronomy (because of that year's reappearance of Halley's Comet), and presented a seven-part series on the astonishing new discoveries of respected astronomer Sir John Herschel, who just happened to be in Capetown, South Africa, where no one could easily contact him.
Reporter John Locke wrote that Herschel had invented a powerful new telescope to observe the Moon, and with it had discovered evergreen forests, rolling meadows, oceans , animals, and, finally, Man-Bats -- bat-winged creatures that walked upright like men!
Circulation skyrocketed. A special pamphlet came out containing all the details, plus drawings, and soon the stories were even being reprinted in newspapers across Europe.
Locke finally confessed the hoax to a reporter from a rival paper who demanded to see the "40 pages of calculations" Locke had claimed been appended to Herschel's original publication of his findings in the (actually defunct) Edinburgh Journal of Science.
Herschel himself finally received a copy of the pamphlet and is said to have been amused until he received a letter weeks later from a Springfield, Mass., women's club asking how they could contact the man-bats in order to convert them to Christianity.
Man-bats on the Moon, indeed! We are fortunate to live in an age when no newspaper would dare print such far-fetched tales.
By the way -- seen Elvis recently?
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