A report last year that dozens of studies published in respected scientific journals were fake, or mere “computer-generated nonsense,” suggests that we live in an era of scientific hoaxes. Scientific scams, however, have a long history.
For fossil hunters, discovering cave-man remains is like striking gold. Charles Dawson must have thought all his birthdays had come at once, when in 1912 he found the Piltdown Man in a gravel pit in Piltdown, England. With a humanlike head and an apelike jaw, many scientists believed it was the missing link between apes and humans.
For 40 years, the Piltdown Man was on display in London. However, following scientific testing in 1953, the specimen was revealed as a rudimentary forgery: The skull may have been a prehistoric human, but the jaw belonged to a modern-day orangutan.
To this day, no one knows who was responsible for the forgery, but several suspects have been named, including Dawson, who died in 1916. Considered the most damaging scientific hoax ever, the scam set the development of evolutionary theory back as scientists spent years trying to fit an impossible ancestor into our fossil record.
Self-taught archaeologist Shinichi Fujimura burst into the limelight in 1981 with his apparent discovery of a 40,000-year-old piece of stoneware, which would have been the oldest such find in Japan. In subsequent years, Fujimura unveiled objects that seemed even older and that helped piece together Japan’s early history.
In 2000, things started to fall apart for Fujimura when he came forward with a cluster of stone pieces that he suggested had been made by primitive people. He also pointed out several holes that many thought had once held supports for prehistoric shelters. Evidence suggested that his find was more than 600,000 years old, making it one of the oldest signs of human life in the world. Later in 2000, however, photos emerged of Fujimura digging the holes himself as well as planting the artifacts that he later “found.”
Following this revelation, Fujimura admitted that he had faked many of his discoveries, claiming he had been “possessed by an uncontrollable urge.”
A researcher at the prestigious Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, Jan Hendrik Schön was a prodigious advanced electronics expert. Between 2000 and 2001, he published seven papers in the journal Nature and nine in the journal Science. Schön was also awarded several prizes in physics for outstanding contributions to science.
However, things changed after some scientists started to question his data. In 2002, a committee found that he had invented some of his results. Not once — but on at least 16 occasions.
This finding resulted in the public embarrassment of him, his co-workers and his employers, as well as the editorial boards of the journals that published his work. Following the scandal, Schön was stripped of his PhD by the University of Konstanz in Germany for dishonorable conduct.
Perhaps the biggest shame is the millions of dollars wasted on scientists and projects trying to build on Schön’s faulty work.
The Cardiff Giant is one of the most famous scientific hoaxes in American history. In 1869, workers discovered what seemed to be the petrified body of a 10-foot-tall man in a well in New York. The giant was, in fact, the creation of an atheist named George Hull, who had it created as a joke on a fundamentalist minister who believed that the Bible told of giants who roamed the Earth.
Although scientists said the giant was a fake, it became so popular with people that the showman P.T. Barnum offered $60,000 for a three-month lease of the figure. Surprisingly, his offer was turned down; Barnum then decided to create a replica giant and put that on display.
The replica became more popular than the original, which ledHull, the owner of the “authentic” fake, to sue Barnum. A judge threw out the lawsuit, stating that unless the owner could prove the original giant to be genuine, there was nothing wrong with Barnum’s actions. Hull eventually confessed to having faked the petrified giant.
The archaeoraptor fossil was discovered in 1999 and was believed to be the evidence that showed modern birds to be descendants of carnivorous dinosaurs. It was quickly exposed as a total scam: Scientists showed that the find was actually the fossilized head and body of an early bird glued to the hind limbs and tail of a dromaeosaur dinosaur fossil found by a Chinese farmer. But the fraud was revealed only after National Geographic published a story that treated the find as real (a decision that the magazine soon acknowledged had been a mistake).
Interestingly, both halves of the contrived construction were actually unique finds in themselves. And although this early “evidence” was debunked, the idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs is now widely supported by a lots of (real) feathered dinosaur fossils.
This story was adapted from a piece in Guru, an online science magazine.