Tuesday, January 05, 2010

When Science Stumbles: Hoaxed: Fakes & Mistakes in the World of Science


Well, maybe Darwin was right, but the so-called Piltdown Man fossils "discovered" between 1908 and 1912 in an English gravel pit and celebrated across the world of the new science of anthropology were no proof of his theory. The skull and "tools" were indeed cobbled together and sneakily "aged" to appear ancient to bolster the reputation of one Charles Dawson, self-styled scientist, and the sensation-seeking newspaper reporters of England who were jealous of the glamorous finds of their colleagues in Germany and France. Piltdown Man turned out to be parts of two unrelated individuals only a few hundred years old and linked to none of man's earlier relatives on the human family tree. But, despite skeptics, because of the media blitz and wishful thinking on the part of scientists and the public, belief in the importance of this find hung around until advances in technology finally put Piltdown Man to rest in 1953.

But we moderns are not as easily fooled as those folks back in 1912, right? Well, maybe. But how about this more recent scientific tizzy?


News of the "discovery" of a unknown and primitive tribe in the Philippines, the Tasaday, supposedly living as our ancestors did tens of thousands of years ago, quickly spread through the scientific community and fascinated the entire world. National Geographic rushed its best crew to describe and photograph these people, clad in leaves and supposedly living in a paradise without even a word for "war" in their language. Scientific journals published observations of the Tasaday, and the public believed that earth's "flower children" had been found to show us the way to a kinder, gentler way of life.

It sounded good to a world still in the grip of the Cold War and beginning to wrestle with problems of population and environment in the "post-modern" age. But as anthropologists wiped the mist off their shades and applied modern linguistics to the Tasaday language, they began to see that it varied only slightly from that of a nearby tribe, suggesting that this group has split off only 200 years earlier. Primitive they were, but not exactly isolated from contact with humankind for eons!

And then there is the persistent "crop circle" hoax, carried out by two apparently bored middle-aged World War II vets in southern Englad from 1971 until 1991, when the merry pranksters finally 'fessed up that they had snookered the world's scientists with their simple technology--boards, stakes, ropes, and sometimes bar stools. By this time theories--fairies dancing, miniature whirlwinds, exotic fungus infestations, alien spacecraft landings--had proliferated around the world and persist even to this day, with some believers still insisting that Doug and Dave's supposed confession is part of a vast conspiracy by the government to conceal some kind of sinister truth.

These famous hoaxes and more described and debunked in Hoaxed!: Fakes and Mistakes in the World of Science (Kids Can Press, 2009) make for some fun and instructive reading. Pseudo-science still abounds, fueled not only by "old media" but now by easy access on the web for pranksters and sloppy science alike. The able editors of this catchy book provide a list of rational "tests" to apply to any such sensational story, and middle readers, who love bizarre stories and mysteries, will find this informative and funny nonfiction book no fake.

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