Back to the Desk main page.

From the Desk's Non-Fiction Division.

©2016 The Media Desk
http://themediadesk.com

A Look At:

the Piltdown Man and other scientific hoaxes

A Friend from the yaketys.com forum (link below) asked the Desk if the Piltdown Man Hoax had ever been solved.
      Which opened up a discussion, which started an investigation, which turned into ... well, this.
"He came ridin' in on the sunrise of a hot west Texas day
A fancy man in a painted wagon with some fancy things to say,
'Looks like you folks need some water, well water is my game
And for the small price of $100 I betcha I can make it rain.'

chorus "'Step back non-believers or the rain will never come.
Someone start that fire burning, somebody beat the drum,'
He said, 'Some may think I'm crazy for making all these claims,
But I swear before this day is over you folks are gonna see some rain.'

"They all just stood there staring trying to believe,
But there was one named Lizzy Cooper who said he was a lying cheat
She said, "You call yourself the Rainman, well you ought to be ashamed
Starting all these people dreaming, thinking you can make it rain.'"
Lizzie and the Rainman, song by O'Dell and Henley, as recorded by Tanya Tucker, MCA records, 1975,


      Don't worry, we'll connect the two. Eventually.

      If you just brush across the topic you'd think that all the big hoaxes in science were at the expense of anthropology or archaeology or some other "digging in the ground" science. After all the Cardiff Giant and the Fiji Mermaid, Johann Beringer's 'Fossils' or the Ica Stones of Peru, and the guy from our title, are all from that school, and most of them appear in lists that have headlines like "the 25 Biggest Hoaxes in Science".
      And they have a point. Those were massive hoaxes. Total frauds. And to this day, some of them are still cited as real in some publications and TV shows that don't do a lot of fact checking.
      We'll run through those, then take a sharp turn, and look at some hoaxes perpetuated on other branches of science, for some of the same reasons. And, in at least a couple of cases, find that what was first presented as a hoax, later proved to be real. ... ... Like organic superconductors and feathered dinosaurs!

      For those that don't know: The Cardiff Giant was a carved 'statue' planted in a field in the 1860s to be found later by an archaeologist who then claimed it was proof of Biblical Giants like Goliath, the fact that this giant was in New York State and David's 'friend' wasn't didn't appear to matter to anybody. The Fiji Mermaid was a folk art concoction made in the Far East that found its way to PT Barnum who exhibited as the real thing in the 1840s, it was the head and upper torso of a monkey joined to the tail section of a large fish, then aged to look "petrified", the original has been lost, but many images remain, and similar objects are still available in local bazaars in some places. It is worth noting that Mr. Barnum also had an interest in the giant, and it is well known that the only 'truth' that mattered to him was "profit".
      Baringer's Fossils from the 1720s and the much more recently famous Ica Stones have one thing in common even though Dr. Baringer 'found' his rocks in Germany and the Ica Stones were discovered thousands of miles away in Peru some two hundred years later. The vast majority of them were fakes. Produced by then still living people and passed off as ancient for fun and / or profit. With the Germans the rocks were carved to look like animal fossils, although some had had ancient lettering etched into them. In Peru, the stoned were fashioned to look like prehistoric pictographs made by humans. Just as Herr Baringer may have found a few actual fossils in his digs, various collectors may have found truly ancient relics in the Andes in the early Twentieth Century. However, subsequent 'finds' that were obviously, and later admittedly, hoaxed in both cases destroyed any value of those objects. For awhile, the Ica Stones were held up as an example of how highly advanced the Ancients in America were, perhaps even before the last Ice Age, now, they only come up in discussions like this.
      Stand by for much more current, and in some ways, more spectacular, example.....

Jump to 2002, and punt.
      The scene was the famous Bell Labs. High level research was being conducted into the 'next generation' of semiconductors to replace silicon chips which were predicted to reach their theoretical maximum performance soon. Work that had been done since at least the fifties, and hadn't really shown a lot of results. One of those working on the problem in 1997 was Jan Hendrik Schon. He soon reported a breakthrough using organic molecules and began publishing articles at a furious pace, for a time in the early 2000s he had an original research paper published about once a week in several of the leading scientific journals. He claimed 'single molecules' that functioned as transistors, and that he made an unusually pure aluminum oxide film with unique properties, and was throwing around the word 'superconductor' which got everybody very excited and interested in his efforts.
      He was a scientific celebrity and was awarded several prizes in physics and materials research, and there were even rumors that involved his name and the words 'Nobel Prize'.
      And that's when it all went south. Others tried to replicate his results, and noticed problems. Errors were pointed out in his calculations, some of the published papers used the same data for different conclusions, other graphs and charts were duplicated or simply wrong. In short, when tested, the wheels fell off Schon's painted wagon.
      His employer began an in house investigation while the scientific journals conducted their own reviews.
      And the world of physics and electrical engineering suddenly found itself red faced and publishing retractions.

      However, it is worth looking at the results that others in the field, who actually DID the work and produced the oxide film and made the molecules have said that he may have had some good ideas. There is something there. Unfortunately, Mr. Schon thought he could skip toiling away in the lab for twenty years to make it rain and just publish what he thought would be his results. Links below to more on the subject.

Enter: The Missing Link
      Which brings us to the Piltdown quarry in England in 1910. And the Tanya Tucker song from 1975. Yes, it does.

      English Gentlemen who were Amateur Scientists have always been a peculiarity of the British countryside. Some were eccentrics who, for example, ran around the Alps with a giant mercury thermometer trying to prove that water in a waterfall got warmer as it fell. Well, at least one gentleman did. And while James Prescott Joule's experiment wasn't exactly successful due to a number of factors, he did run into his friend William Thompson while on one of his trips and the two began to collaborate. It's fortunate they did. Mr. Thompson later became Lord Kelvin, and their combined work changed the scientific measurement of temperature, as well as contributing Joule's Law related to the heating of a wire by electricity.

      The down side of being an amateur British scientist was that sometimes ambition got the better of judgment.

      And Now Comes.... Charles Dawson (1864 - 1916), a lawyer and amateur geologist, who, while digging through the gravel pit near Lewes in Sussex, England, found the skull of what was called Eoanthropus dawsoni or Piltdown Man. Featured as a najor step in human evolution and held up as competition to other "cave men" from the continent and 'ape men' from Africa.
      Nobody questioned it. Everybody assumed that more of Mr. Piltdown's kinfolk would turn up sooner or later. Probably the next time somebody was digging a subway station in London not far from Big Ben.
      Entire life size dioramas of "Prehistoric Life In Early Britain" were created in museums to show how they lived, hunted, and just got along famously without interference from those outside savages.

      And so the skull sat for fifty years. While those who believed enjoyed the rain.

      In 1953, after a series of other discoveries rewrote the time line of early human history, Piltdown was stuck way out in left field, so the skull was pulled out of its display cabinet... Carefully examined... And then quietly put back in another cabinet somewhere in the sub basement. And ..... oh well.

      It was a straight up fraud. In Lizzie's words from our intro: somebody was a "lying cheat".

      The cranium of the was from a modern human skull who had met his Maker only a few hundred years before being drafted into his present job. The jaw was from an Orangutan, and The Tooth was probably from a Chimp. The whole mess had been chemically treated to appear ancient, and had had some mechanical alterations done to it as well.
      There was no doubt, it was a carefully constructed intentional hoax.

      As Mister Dawson had joined the former owner of the skull in the Hereafter long before the fraud came to light, we can never be sure that he was the originator of the hoax, or even if he was aware of it. No documentation of the matter has ever surfaced in his papers. Others, all long since deceased, have been named as suspects, with various amounts of evidence, much of it circumstantial, pointing their way as being parties to the party. The most likely being a then young volunteer at the museum who had access to bones, to chemicals and tools, and, supposedly, had reason to want to perpetuate a hoax. However, Mr. Hinton's involvement has never been proven so he remains innocent, and, he too, has since 'moved on.'
      As to why the "non-believers" didn't examine the thing more closely when it was originally presented, in the song when the "fancy man shows up in a painted wagon and starts making claims", who knows? Politics, national pride, shoddy science... they were probably all in play at some point.
      All in all, a lot of science books had to be rewritten, and several fur wearing and oh, so serious looking, prehistoric hunters in museum displays had to find another job in short order.

Aftermath

      The fallout of the revelation that one of the cornerstones of European Archaeology was a work of fiction had thunderous repercussions that are still being felt today long after the rainstorm had passed.
      (should we give up on song tie-ins?)
      For instance, the North American debate about whether or not the so called "Clovis Point People" were the first settlers of the continent would often cite contrary evidence as a "Piltdown Man". Finally, when sufficient material was unearthed to prove that not only were the Clovis People not the first humans to call this side of the planet home, they were actually rather late to stake their claim and set up their homestead. Other people had already been here for a long time, and had been doing just fine without fluted spear tips, thank you very much.
      For more about the Clovis vs Pre-Clovis Debate see the links below.

      And so it goes with other hoaxes.

      In the case of the infamous "dinosaur-bird" Archaeoraptor from 1999, even the vaunted National Geographic fell for a high profile hoax. It could be the case that the Lost World sequel to the dinosaur sized blockbuster Jurassic Park may have contributed to their willingness to accept the thing at face value and run the story. Only to end up later retracting it and doing the same soul searching other respected publications did before and, with the case of the Schon scandal that would surface in few years, later.

      And now we come to a twist in the dinosaur's tail. (was that a pun? Oh, well. Sorry.)

      As it turns out, there ARE fossils of critters that are somewhere in between reptiles and birds. And we hope the various outlets don't have to retract this story. Link below.
      But the earlier farce throws an instant skeptical light on the more recent discovery. And probably will for some time.

... "look yonder, there comes the rain"...

      So, let's take a look at them from up in the cheap seats, which is where this writer usually sits.

      Some of these hoaxes were expertly prepared and supported with what appeared to be reliable hard evidence, which was apparently vetted by experts. Many of them were published in leading academic journals after what was supposed to be a peer review to authenticate what was submitted.
      In a few cases, there was obviously profit motive behind the hoax, such as the Giant and the Mermaid. There was a move to cash in on them from very early in their history. With the Mermaid, it had had a price on its head from the moment it was 'discovered' by an unfortunate ship's master until it ended up in Barnum's exhibit hall.
      For others, from what can be told from this far out, as with Piltdown or Beringer's rocks, money was apparently not the driving force behind them. Perhaps personal ambition, or a wish to tarnish somebody else's image, or even to cast a publication or institution in a bad light.
      And, "Mr. Schon, stand here please," personal ambition goes a long way to explain a few.

      Or, as with our buddy from the gravel quarry in Sussex, we may never have a satisfactory explanation other than some of them were true believers, and to them, the rain did come, for awhile. And many of them, perhaps even Dawson himself, died never knowing that they'd been had for more than a hundred dollars. (oh, well, it was a good song)

      In the world of science, there is a way to deal with discoveries. Results are supposed to be verifiable by outsiders. Tests should be able to be duplicated in a similar environment, and yield similar results. Data should be clear, not given to subjective interpretation or rendered differently depending on one's personal angle.
      Science should be Science, with the Scientific Method. Objective. Concise. Even logical.
      Not grasping for fame or money, or even hysterically trying to cover themselves when they run a headline grabbing story that ends up grabbing different headlines when the... ... the 'organic compost impacts the windmill', as it were.

....yeah, well, what about.....

      And now hear this!

      The Desk did a whole article about scientific hoaxes, two thousand words worth, and didn't mention "Man Made Global Warming".
      No, it didn't.

And now.


Of general interest:
All outside sources will open in new window, all were working as of date of original posting of article.

For more about Tanya Tucker: http://www.biography.com

The forum mentioned above:
- http://yaketys.com/
It's worth a look!

Links and Sources mentioned on the primary topic:

The Museum of Hoaxes http://hoaxes.org/

A look at the Jan Hendrik Schon debacle from http://www.science20.com

Real Research and Development That Way: Atypical Superconductors and the Future http://www.superconductors.org/atypical.htm
-and-
"Development and Present Status of Organic Superconductors" http://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs-wm/40030.pdf

Piltdown Man, one article of many available:
https://www.britannica.com/topic/Piltdown-man

The Pre-Clovis and Clovis Debate http://thepreclovisandclovisdebate.weebly.com/

Evidence for Pre-Clovis Inhabitants of Americas Emerges from Sea Floor, 2014: http://www.ancient-origins.net

All that remains of the Archaeoraptor:
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/events/99/feather/archaeoraptor.html

Scholarly review: http://csip.cornell.edu/Curriculum_Resources/CEIRP/NGArtHlt.html

Amber Wings: http://news.nationalgeographic.com


A Link To Other Non-Fiction and Mystery Series Articles from TheMediaDesk.com at- http://themediadesk.com/nonfiction.htm Including:
"a day and a night, on a train" A Media Desk photoessay and commentary.

The Great Work gets The Desk's Mystery Series Treatment with the Alchemy artcle from 2013.

A short photoessay on the restoration of an historic theater: visiting the "Grand Old Lady", Danville's Fischer Theater.

"What is it about women and Essential Oils?" an 'oily' Mystery Series Article.


[NOTE: EveryBody and everything mentioned in this article is owned by other entities. No disparagement or disrespect is intended. No endorsement of the Desk of them, or by them of the Desk is to be inferred.
      The Desk is solely responsible for the analysis and conclusions hereby presented. If the reader has any issues with anything in the article they may contact the Desk through the usual channels.
thank you]

Back to the Desk's Main page
http://themediadesk.com