good to be true
after Piltdown man was exposed as an outrageous fraud,
Tim Radford selects his all-time favourite science scams
November 13, 2003
Piltdown man mystery
The Piltdown fraud - exposed as a hoax 50 years ago
next week - was neither the wickedest scientific fraud
ever carried out nor the silliest, but to this day remains
the one that everybody has heard about.
Eoanthropus dawsoni, or Piltdown man, was found in a
gravel pit at Piltdown in Sussex in 1912 by Charles
Dawson, and for 40 years Piltdown man, with his huge,
humanlike braincase and apelike jaw, remained on display
in what is now the NaturalHistory Museum in London as
an example of the notorious "missing link"
between humanity and its primate ancestors.
On November 21, 1953, however, scientists pronounced
it a crude forgery, the marriage of a modern human skull
and an orang-utan's jaw, and decided that the entire
package of fossil fragments at Piltdown - which included
a ludicrous prehistoric cricket bat - had been planted
The world of palaeontology went pink, and the conspiracy
theorists went ape. There was no shortage of potentially
guilty men to name, and for the next five decades, they
The cast of plausible potential pranksters in this anthropological
whodunnit includes enthusiastic amateurs, passionate
professionals and disinterested jokers.
Theorists have even pointed the finger at a Jesuit priest
- Pere Teilhard de Chardin, who posthumously became
a New Age guru - and the begetter of Sherlock Holmes
himself, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who in 1912 composed
his own palaeontological thriller, The Lost World.
"Piltdown matters for a number of reasons,"
says Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural
History Museum. "One is that it is still an unsolved
mystery: we don't know for sure who did it, how they
did it, why they did it. Those mysteries remain. I think
we have gone a long way towards building up the true
story, but we haven't got the whole story yet."
What is certain is that everything found in the gravel
pit was fraudulently placed, and by an expert.
"When you do a dig anywhere, most of the stuff
you find is little flakes of bones and you don't know
what the hell it is and you can't identify it. In Piltdown,
every single fossil was diagnostic of a species and
they were all small, so they were all bits that would
fit in someone's pocket, or trouser turnup or whatever.
So someone had the knowledge to say: how much of a rhino
tooth do I need to show it is a rhino?" says Stringer.
There have been several scandals involving planted evidence.
Fossil fraud is a lucrative business.
"We get people coming into the museum with supposed
Homo erectus skulls they have bought from a trader in
Java. They are carved out of fossil elephant bones,
and they are beautifully done. People carve them and
sell them for $500, and we have to say: it is a fake,
I am sorry."
amazing Tasaday tribe
In 1971 Manuel Elizalde, a Philippine government minister,
discovered a small stone age tribe living in utter isolation
on the island of Mindanao.
These people, the Tasaday, spoke a strange language,
gathered wild food, used stone tools, lived in caves,
wore leaves for clothes, and settled matters by gentle
persuasion. They made love, not war, and became icons
of innocence; reminders of a vanished Eden.
They also made the television news headlines, the cover
of National Geographic, were the subject of a bestselling
book, and were visited by Charles A Lindbergh and Gina
Lollobrigida. Anthropologists tried to get a more sustained
look, but President Marcos declared a 45,000-acre Tasaday
reserve and closed it to all visitors.
After Marcos was deposed in 1986, two journalists got
in and found that the Tasaday lived in houses, traded
smoked meat with local farmers, wore Levi's T-shirts
and spoke a recognisable local dialect. The Tasadays
explained that they had only moved into caves, donned
leaves and performed for cameras under pressure from
Elizalde - who had fled the country in 1983 along with
millions from a foundation set up to protect the Tasaday.
Elizalde died in 1997.
3. A crop
They appeared overnight in fields in southern England
in the 1970s, and spread over the world - and over acres
of summer newsprint, too.
Observers talked of balls of light and high-pitched
noises over fields of wheat, and experts reached for
their favourite "scientific" theories. One
group favoured tornado-like vortices in the air, another
suggested "directed plasma" while a third
argued that ley lines focused a vital geomagnetic current
through the Earth.
Intelligent aliens were invoked, along with top secret
military experiments and gaseous toxins from below the
soil. Some people claimed that the circles revealed
mysterious scientific formulae or religious symbols,
others that they had healing powers.
Then, in 1991, a pair of crop circle hoaxers confessed
and showed the press exactly how they perpetrated their
hoaxes. Some buffs were not convinced, however, and
still continue to invoke strange forces.
great IQ scandal
Sir Cyril Burt, professor of psychology at University
College London, used studies of twins to prove that
IQ was mostly inherited. It was the largest study of
its kind, so even those who rejected his explanation
accepted his figures. He was one of the architects of
the much-debated 11+ examination, which determined children's
secondary school careers.
After Burt's death in 1971, researchers were shocked
to find that some of the key research into IQ was fraudulent.
"The numbers left behind by Professor Burt are
simply not worthy of our current scientific attention,"
Argument continues about the extent of the fraud, but
some people claim he not only invented some of the data
but even the names of his research assistants. Even
today, the argument over how much of your IQ is down
to your genes, and how much down to nurture, remains
faces at Bell Labs
Jan Henrik Schon, a young researcher at Bell Laboratories
in New Jersey, had five papers published in Nature and
seven in the journal Science between 1998 and 2001,
dealing with advanced aspects of electronics. The discoveries
were abstruse, but he was seen by his peers as a rising
In 2002, a committee found that he had made up his results
on at least 16 occasions, publicly embarrassing his
colleagues, his employer and the editorial staffs of
both the journals that accepted his results.
Schon, who by then was still only 32, said: "I
have to admit that I made various mistakes in my scientific
work, which I deeply regret." Nature also reported
him as adding in a statement, "I truly believe
that the reported scientific effects are real, exciting
and worth working for." He would say no more.
alien corpse at Roswell
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is real,
though we haven't found them and (probably) they haven't
found us. But the fixation with UFOs and alien abductors
reached new heights with the television screening of
what is claimed to be a film of an autopsy on an alien
who died when a flying saucer crashed in 1947 in Roswell,
In 1995, the US Committee for the Scientific Investigation
of Claims of the Paranormal challenged almost everything
- the age of the film, the photographer's military status,
the injuries to the alien and the way close-ups of alien
organs went out of focus - about the black and white
sequence. "The film has all the earmarks of an
obvious hoax," said an investigator.
signature of God
In 1726, Johann Beringer of Wurzburg published details
of fossils found outside the Bavarian town. These included
lizards in their skin, birds with beaks and eyes, spiders
with their webs, and frogs copulating.
Other stones bore the Hebrew letters YHVH, for Jehovah,
or God. He believed them to be natural products of the
"plastic power" of the inorganic world, and
said so in a book.
Alas, they had been planted fraudulently by spiteful
colleagues. The legend is that Beringer impoverished
himself trying to buy back all copies of his book, and
the finds became known as lugensteine, or "lying
Cars that run on water, and fusion machines that generate
more energy than they use are staples of inventors'
fantasy. They pop up all the time.
Charles Redheffer raised large sums of money in Philadelphia
with a perpetual motion machine and then took it to
New York in 1813, where hundreds paid a dollar each
to see it.
It did, indeed, seem to keep itself turning. In the
end, skeptics removed some wooden strips to find a cat-gut
belt drive, which went through a wall to an attic where
an old man was turning a crank.
But the dream continues. In 1984, CBS News in the US
featured the "energy machine" of Joe Newman,
who declared: "Put one in your home and you'll
never have to pay another electric bill." People
the world over are still getting bills.
spring of Trofim Lysenko
Lysenko was an agricultural researcher who in 1929 claimed
to have invented "vernalisation". He chilled
and soaked winter wheat, and planted it alongside spring
wheat, and reported that he got a better harvest. In
fact, vernalisation was an old peasant technique, and
Lysenko's experiment was based on one field of wheat,
in one season, on his father's farm.
He also claimed that acquired characteristics could
be inherited by the next generation - as if parents
who go in for weightlifting could be sure of children
with big biceps and six-pack abs. This evolutionary
heresy is still known as Lysenkoism.
Joseph Stalin liked practical peasants who promised
success, and the state bureaucracy wanted immediate
improvement in Soviet agriculture - why wait for a five
year plan? - so Lysenko came to dominate Soviet biology.
His theories were preposterous but he stayed director
of the Institute of Agricultural Genetics until February
1965, when an expert committee finally exposed a long
career of false data and distorted science.
In 1999, a triumphant team at Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory in California, bombarded lead with high energy
krypton particles and then announced that they had found
the superheavy element 116 and, for good measure, element
118 as well.
The US secretary of energy, Bill Richardson, called
it "this stunning discovery, which opens the door
to further insights into the structure of the atomic
nucleus ... "
By 2002, both discoveries had been withdrawn and a physicist,
Victor Ninov, had been fired for falsifying data that
provided the base for the claims.
"In the end, nature is the checker," said
one of the laboratory's directors. "Experiments
have to be reproducible."