Top Ten Greatest Hoaxes In Science: From No. 10 to No. 6 (Part 1)

Science is a pursuit of truth and, thus, it entails a responsibility on the practitioner to be honest. Unfortunately, evolution has chosen the practitioner – an individual of the species Homo sapiens to have deceptive qualities. As long as humans do science, there will be human fallacies jealousy, greed for the limelight, dishonesty getting entangled in all matters scientific.

Here we take a look at a selection of ten instances of fraud or hoax in science that have brought the scientific community, known for scrupulous integrity, to shame.

In Part 1, we look at numbers 10 to 6 in our countdown.

# 10: Uncanny graphical resemblance from Bell Labs

Protagonist: Jan Henrik Schön, a promising young researcher working on nanotechnology at Bell Labs

Location: Bell Labs, New Jersey

Date/Time: 1998 to 2001

Jan Hendrik Schon

Schön was considered brilliant by many and a prodigy by a few. He had five Nature publications and seven Science publications between 1998 and 2001. His publication rate 40 papers a year was astounding. His ideas were futuristic and his publications were a notch above the current trend. He was good too good, it seemed, to be true.

Bell Labs set up a committee in 2002 to investigate and they found at least 16 cases of fraudulent data. Two papers on two completely different topics having the same graph sealed the deal. He apologised, while still only 32, I have to admit that I made various mistakes in my scientific work, which I deeply regret.Thus, ended a promising career.

# 9: Much Ado About Embryonic Recapitulation

Protagonist: Ernest Haeckel, a German Zoologist

Location: Irrelevant

Date: 1790’s

Ernest Haeckel

This is an old and golden case of fraud. Haeckel was a blind follower of Charles Darwin. He originated the theory of embryonic recapitulation’ or Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’.

The idea was simple an individual in its different stages of embryonic growth (Ontogeny) goes through a series of resemblances of adults of its ancestral line (phylogeny). To this effect, he drew up sketches of embryos at different stages of development, using his own imagination lavishly while at it, and used these to demonstrate’ how accurate Darwin’s theory was.

Sketches Haeckel made to support recapitulation theory

It is now recognized that the whole theory is wrong. It is now widely accepted that embryos resemble the embryonic stages of their ancestors in the early stages of development and then differ to form an individual of the representative species. Sadly, this one instance of fraud has been constantly used by creationists in their attempt to malign Darwin’s theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

# 8: Doing it for dear ol’ Einie

Protagonist: Arthur Eddington, the renowned astrophysicist

Location: Great Britain and Germany

Time: 1915 to 1919

Arthur Eddington was a great admirer of Einstein. So convinced was he of the accuracy of the theory of General Relativity (GR) much before he was called upon to verify it that he rejected as many as 16 slides, because these did not quite fit into the theoretical frame of things.

The power of this verification’ is so powerful, however, that we still know that GR was verified by Eddington during a solar eclipse in 1919. Fortunately, GR has been verified to unprecedented accuracy countless times and in countless different ways.

# 7: Buried in God’s name

Protagonist (here, victim): Johann Beringer, faculty of Medicine

Location: In and around the University of Wurzberg

Time: 1725-1726

Fossils of birds, beetles, animals along with inscriptions in Hebrew on stone buried in Mount Eibelstadt (where Beringer often went looking for fossils) confirmed Beringer’s long entrenched belief that fossils were capricious fabrications of God’ meant to test believers’ faith. The fossils were, however, planted by his colleagues Ignatz Roderique and Johann Eckart as an elaborate hoax, which they reckoned was a justified response to Beringer’s intellectual snobbery.

Lugensteines: Sketches by Beringer of his 'discovery'
Beringer's book

The fossils’ appeared carved and the Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions appeared too perfect to be true. Beringer saw it differently, though the chisel wielded by the Almighty had to be perfect. He published a book on his findings’, only to be rudely jolted back to reality when one of the stone tablets had his own name inscribed. Beringer went bankrupt trying to buy back his own book. The hoaxers lost their jobs and reputation. The stones were put to rest in the pages of time under the name of Lügensteine, or lying stones’.

#6: Mysterious Crop Circles

Protagonist: Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, confessed professional pranksters’.

Location: South Great Britain

Time: 1970’s to early 1990’s

A series of elaborate designs made by using circles, created by flattening crops, appeared in Southern England in the 1970’s. The scale was so big that one could only make out the shapes from the air. The mysterious symbols attracted widespread media coverage and sparked off a huge debate as to what they actually symbolized. The symbols were thought to carry secret messages from God or aliens, revealing some deep secret about the Universe.

An image from the sky
One of the most impressive circles. This has 409 circles

News channels and books devoted huge resources to report half-baked, but sensational pieces of news about the circles. Everything from the use of directed plasma’ by aliens to the immutable hand of God was sought. In 1991, however, Bower and Chorley confessed to the hoax, demonstrating how to make a crop circle using simple tools in under an hour. Some people still believe in the Crop Circle mystery, attributing these to whatever makes them happy.

Watch out for Roswell, the Philadelphia experiment, the Cold Fusion disaster and the Piltdown Man in the next part.

Don’t miss Part 2, the top five of the greatest hoaxes ever!

Published by

Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.