Top Ten Greatest Hoaxes in Science: The Top Five (Part 2)
By on June 13th, 2011

We were taking a look at the ten greatest hoaxes in science history. We saw five of them in Part 1. Let’s continue our journey.

The countdown continues and we give you the five greatest science hoaxes ever perpetrated. Here you go, the Top 5.

#5: Live like the Tasaday, till you’re found out.

Protagonists: Manuel Elizalde Jr., a local Filipino official

Location: Mindanao, a densely forested Filipino island

Time: 1970′s to 1986

In the midst of civilization, lived a group of cavemen, virtually unchanged for a few thousand years.

The Tasaday

The Tasaday, as they called themselves, were discovered by Elizalde in a few caves in Mindanao.

They hardly wore any clothes, making them mostly of leaves and other tree products, stood only five and a half feet tall, did not hunt and survived on berries and whatever they got by gathering. They were extremely non-violent and had no weapons. Their basic tools were made of stone. They spoke in their native tongue.

General Marcos, the then-dictator of the Philippines, declared martial law in the surrounding regions for their protection. Elizalde brought them food, earning him the name of the God of the Tasaday’. He proceeded to make a documentary. He founded PANAMIN US Foundation for this purpose. This would go on, till 1986, when General Marcos was ousted and a free democratic government took its place. The wonder of the Philippines was could now be studied by anthropologists the world over.

A Tasaday girl nibbling nuts

Unfortunately, apart from the aforementioned characteristics, the Tasaday also looked too clean. Their tools appeared chiseled, their tongue too close to that of a modern tribe who lived nearby and, at the dead of the night, a few individuals smoked cigarettes. A Swiss anthropologist named Oswald blew the cover, when one day they discovered the same people a few meters from the caves wearing jeans trousers and T-shirts. Slowly, it was realized that the locals had been forced to put up this show at Elizalde’s behest with him threatening them with physical harm as well as offering them huge sums of money. The hoax was elaborate, the whistle blowing spectacular and the results dramatic. Elizalde fled to Costa Rica taking huge sums of money from PANAMI, but died a pauper in 1997 after squandering all of it.

# 4: Jumping Sea-Liners: The Philadelphia Experiment

Protagonist: Carlos Miguele Allende and Morris Jessop

Location: Philadelphia, Norfolk, Philadelphia

Time: Summer 1943 to present

Everyone loves a good science experiment and a nice controversy to top it off. It works best if somehow Einstein and his unfulfilled dream of a grand unified theory are involved, along with some insanely cool, albeit unrealistic and wrong, physics. The US destroyer USS Eldridge was the center of an alleged experiment conducted by the US Navy, which focused on using the equations of a Unified Field Theory that Einstein had proposed to bend light so much that it could render something invisible. Further, this could alter the very fabric of space and time, causing exotic phenomenon like time travel.

The USS Eldridge

The destroyer vanished for a few seconds Allende reported ten and then reappeared. Some report the ship to be instantly transferred to a dock in Norfolk. The crew was supposedly dizzy, unable to remember anything about the incident. Some of them had simply vanished. A few of the crew, those willing to talk, were apparently brainwashed by the US Navy.

This is now widely recognized as a hoax there was no Project Rainbow’, at least not having the same colours as indicated by the hoaxers. Einstein never completed a Unified Field theory, because he did not know of the huge advances in quantum field theory. The claims contradict basic sciences magnetic fields cannot bend light (that contradicts Maxwell’s equations), space time can be bent by extremely massive objects and nothing close to that mass could exist on Earth.

The Philadelphia experiment has, however, inspired generations of Hollywood film makers and has held thousands, wanting to believe in esoteric physics, in awe.

# 3: A corpse from outer space: Roswell incident.

Protagonists: Ufologists, gullible public and an unsuspecting (non-existent) alien corpse.

Location: Roswell, New Mexico

Time: 1947

Surely, you must have heard of Roswell! It’s the greatest of all UFO stories and Roswell has practically become a synonym for extra-terrestrials. An alien saucer’ had reportedly crash landed in Roswell and alien bodies were recovered. Professional ufologist Stanton Friedmann, who was involved in the recovery of the original crash material, publicized his view that this was indeed an authentic event, giving greater credence to believers. Witness’ testimonies swelled up the number of crash sites to as much as eleven; a group of gypsy aliens had perhaps run out of gas and crash landed.

One of the alleged corpses

This is a classic case of folklore: it has multiple narratives, it has exciting new characters and no research was done on the subject. Karl Pflock, one-time supporter of the crashed saucer hypothesis, put it rightly:

Simply shovel everything that seems to support their view into the box marked ‘Evidence’ and say, ‘See? Look at all this stuff. We must be right.’ Never mind the contradictions.

 

Roswell has spawned TV shows and FX movies for about three generations now. There have been claims of being abducted by aliens, of being beamed up into their ship and then brainwashed. As Carl Sagan put it, aliens don’t know the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

# 2: Cold Fusion Confusion

Protagonists: Martin Fleischmann, one of the world’s top electrochemists at the time and Stanley Pons, an electrochemist

Location: University of Southampton (Fleischmann) and University of Utah (Pons)

Time: 1989

During an electrolysis of heavy water (which is D2O, meaning that hydrogen in water is replaced by deuterium, the heavier isotope of hydrogen) using palladium (Pd) electrodes, Fleischmann and Pons found some anomalous heat produced in the electrolytic cell.

Fleischmann and Pons in their lab

Eliminating all possible sources of such heat generation, they came to the conclusion that nuclear fusion was happening! The only problem was that the energy provided was too low for nuclear fusion to take place. They named the phenomenon’ Cold Fusion. This, if harnessed, would solve the world’s energy crisis, the researchers promised. They sent their paper to Nature for publication, amidst widespread acclaim. The month was March.

The problem came when people tried to reproduce the results. Several labs involving a number of distinguished scientists initially reported some success, but then reported only failure. Renowned institutes like CalTech, Georgia Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University and Stanford University all tried and all failed. By May, cold fusion had been labelled pathological science’. By July and then in November, Nature, which had initially published the cold fusion papers, published papers refuting cold fusion. Nobel Laureate, Julian Schwinger was a notable supporter of cold fusion and sent his papers to Physical Review Letters (PRL) for publication, only to be repeatedly rejected. Insulted, he resigned from the American Physical Society (publishers of PRL).

People still carry on cold fusion experiments, but none have been reported to be conclusively in favour of the phenomenon. Most, however, look at it as the greatest hoax in physics history.

…And the glittering crown of disgrace goes to…

#1: The Piltdown Man

Protagonist: Probably Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist or, maybe, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest

Location: Piltdown, England

Time: December, 1912 to November, 1953

Given the great role that missing links’ play in the build-up of a complete fossil record for Darwin’s theory of evolution, there have always been an active interest in them. This has fuelled an active interest in their fraud as well.

The discovered skull

Charles Dawson, in 1912, discovered a skull, complete with teeth, of Eanthropus dawsoni -which would later come to be known as Piltdown Man’  - in Piltdown, England. Everything was right about it. The skull was that of an ape, but the teeth were that of a human a perfect transitional form to fit into Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Further, it was British, signifying that the ancestral location of modern humans was England, and not Africa. The discovery would spawn more than 500 publications. It kept both camps happy; evolutionists saw it fit perfectly and for someone, like De Chardin, it signified a new attempt at reconciliation of fossil evidence with the biblical story of divine creation.

The charade ended in November, 1953 with a new technology to date fossils called fluorine absorption dating coming to the fore. The technique is a relative dating method, giving the relative ages of two different rocks from the same region. When applied to the Piltdown Man, it conclusively pointed to the fact that the skull and the teeth were of widely different ages. While the teeth were very recent, the skull was a thousand or so years old.

Sketch of the Piltdown Man

A closer inspection confirmed the doubts that a few people had raised the fossil was fabricated with the teeth being attached to an ape-skull, in a rather hasty fashion. Iron salt stains were used to make the teeth appear old. Disgrace!

A series of whodunit followed, with various people being accused; prime accused was, of course, Dawson. Recent studies, however, implicate De Chardin, accused as he is of various other fraud fossil finds. The greatest embarrassment came from the fact that a huge number of evolutionists were fooled for 40 long years. The worst fallout of this hoax, now synonymous with fossil fraud, is that it has become a front for creationists for maligning the theory of evolution.

 

So there it is – our selection of the top ten hoaxes and frauds in science over the years. The choice and the ranking in the list have been made entirely by the author and any reader is free to disagree. The frauds mentioned were elaborate, ingenious and well documented. However they were found out for what they were frauds.   As a lab technician pointed out: In the end, nature is the checker. Let that be the last word.

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Author: Debjyoti Bardhan Google Profile for 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.

Debjyoti Bardhan has written and can be contacted at debjyoti@techie-buzz.com.

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