10 Scientific Frauds that Rocked the World.

1. The Cold Fusion Incident

Fusion power has been heralded as the solution to our future power needs. After all, it promises to provide a nearly limitless supply of energy with minimal environmental impact. The current problem, though, is that it takes a tremendous amount of energy to fuse together nuclei.

So, when Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced to a hungry scientific world that they'd discovered cold fusion in 1989 (a process that supposedly used much less energy), the duo were welcomed with splashy headlines.

Other scientists were dubious, and when Pons and Fleischmann withdrew their paper from Nature magazine and refused to answer questions, charges of fraud were made. Pons and Fleischmann never gave enough details of the experiment to allow others to replicate it, and more than 10 years later no one has been able to replicate their results.

There are still scientists who believe Pons and Fleischmann were on to something, but the premature claims of cold fusion cast such doubt on these two researchers that they were doomed to ignominy.

2. Scientist in on God's Prank

In the early 18th century Dr. Johann Beringer of the University of Würzburg devoted his research to the discovery of fossils that seemed to indicate prehistoric life. Beringer, however, believed that these fossils were "capricious fabrications of God," used to test man's faith. His belief seemed confirmed when at one site he discovered fossils of birds, beetles, moons, and stars. Little did he know that two mean-spirited colleagues had planted the fake fossils. Perhaps trying to get caught, they even planted tablets inscribed with the Hebrew and Arabic words for God. Beringer published a book, Lithographia Wirceburgensis, in 1726 describing his findings and his theory. But then he made another discovery: a similar buried tablet inscribed with his own name. He immediately began trying to buy back all the available copies of his book, but it was too late. Because of the hoax, his book became a bestseller.

Cardiff Giant being exhumed, October 1869

3. George and the Cardiff Giant

George Hull had no patience with fools, but he exhibited great patience for making a fool of others. After arguing with a clergyman who claimed that giants had walked the earth because the Bible said so, Hull proceeded to carve a 10-foot gypsum statue of a man. He then buried his creation on a neighboring New York farm. In 1869, a full year later, Hull hired some well diggers, who discovered his stone man on the job. Of course people gathered to see this oddity, and rumors began to spread that it was a fossilized human of gigantic proportions. Many saw it for the hoax it was, but when two Yale professors declared it genuine, the proof of giants on earth became set in stone. Eventually Hull had to admit it was a fake after he sued P.T. Barnum for exhibiting a copy of it. Barnum claimed his statue was just a hoax of a hoax and was found not guilty.

4. The Most Unnatural of Selections

In the mid-1800s pollution from factories in Britain was darkening trees by killing the lichen, and scientists also noted a decline in the ratio between lighter-colored peppered moths and darker varieties.

It was hypothesized that the lighter moths were easier to spot and thus were eaten by more birds. Here was evolution in action. Bernard Kettlewell sat in the woods and watched to see whether birds preferred the lighter version to darker, and he reported that indeed they were twice as likely to eat the lighter moths.

Three problems, though: (1) Kettlewell was responsible for nailing dead moths to the trees for the birds to feed on, (2) peppered moths rarely alight on tree trunks, and (3) birds don't normally feed on months moths that are on the side of trees. Even after scientists were informed of these inconsistencies, many still clung to the validity of the experiment, perhaps because they wanted to believe it as the canonical example of observed natural selection.

5. Sex and the Seedy

Alfred Kinsey's landmark studies of the 1950s, known as the Kinsey Reports, were the major emphasis on late-20th-century views of human sexuality. The incidence of homosexuality, bisexuality, adultery, and childhood sexual behavior were higher than previously thought, which helped lead to different views of adult and childhood sexual behavior. According to Judith Reisman, however, Kinsey's research was fraught with very bad scientific method and possibly fraud. He obtained much of his data by interviewing prisoners, his interviewing technique was biased, and he used reports from pedophiles to hypothesize about childhood sexual behavior. Kinsey's estimates on the extent of homosexual behavior (38.7% in males ages 36 - 40) have not been validated in subsequent studies. In contrast, a Batelle report found that 2.3% of men reported having sex with another man. Nonetheless, Kinsey's landmark study still remains one of the primary sources for current sexuality discussions.

6. Anything for Albert

Arthur Eddington was so convinced of the theory of general relativity that he altered his data to support it. Eddington set out to put Einstein to the test by carefully measuring how light was bent during a solar eclipse.

But apparently the examiner went soft. When the results were in, Eddington threw out 16 photographic plates that didn't support Einstein's theory. Even worse, he then published his research without those 16 plates and showed how Einstein's theory accurately predicted the resulting data. It was this experiment that helped launch the public acceptability of relativity. Strangely enough, the hoax still has legs. You can still find the experiment listed in current textbooks as "proof" of Einstein's theory.

7. Errors of a Graphic Nature

A more recent incident of fraudulent science concerns Jan Hendrik Schön, a physicist at Bell Laboratories. Considered brilliant, Schön was on the fast track in the field of nanoelectronics. His name was even mentioned for a possible Nobel Prize. But his rate of publication (40 a year) and his amazing results began to make some colleagues curious. Eventually Schön was caught falsifying data when he presented identical graphs in two different papers - and the graphs were supposed to be on different topics. Bell Labs themselves initiated an investigation and were rightfully horrified to find gross misconduct.

8. The Great Tasaday Hoax

One of the most startling anthropological discoveries of the 20th century was the discovery of a primitive, cave-dwelling society in the Philippines in 1971. The Tasadays, as they were called, were a find of enormous proportions because they lived a life undisturbed by hundreds of years of society. And to many an academic's delight, anthropologists could now directly observe how people lived in such societies. The Tasadays even used stone tools.

If you're thinking it's impossible that such an isolated group could exist in the Philippines as late as the 1970s, you're right. It turns out that their "discoverer," PANAMIN (Private Association National Minorities) secretary Manuel Elizalde Jr., paid local farmers to live in the caves, take off their clothes, and appear Stone Age. In return he gave them money and security from counterinsurgency and tribal fighting.

The fact that the Tasaday were a hoax was not confirmed until the fall of Marcos in 1983, invalidating, no doubt, many PhD dissertations that had been written in the interim.

9. Don't Worry about the EMF, but Please Don't Talk and Drive

Concerns about the dangers of living close to high-tension wires or of frequent use of cell phones have been hot topics for the past decade. Unfortunately, one of the studies that warned about the dangers of electromagnetic field (EMF) damage was a case of fraudulent science.

Robert P. Liburdy, a cell biologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was a leading researcher looking into the dangers of EMF. No study up to that point had shown any increase in risk due to electromagnetic field. Liburdy set out to change that, however, as his papers claimed that the fields could cause a disruption in calcium, which is important to cell function.

According to external reviewers, however, Liburdy left out, manipulated, and otherwise misrepresented the data to support the conclusions he was looking for. While the intense debate about the possible dangers of EMF will continue, it will do so without Liburdy's findings.

10 Further Proof That Scientific Education Is Essential

The Quadro Corporation of Harleyville, South Carolina, had an impressive client list: public schools, police agencies, the U.S. Customs office, and Inspector General's offices to name a few. The product they sold, the top of the line Quadro QRS 250G (also known as the Quadro Tracker, available for $1,000), boasted the ability to find drugs, weapons, or virtually anything worth looking for. The small plastic box supposedly contained frequency chips of an advanced sort not known to regular science. Driven by static electricity, the Quadro would resonate at exactly the same frequency as the searched-for item. When the FBI opened the box, however, they found nothing inside. Quadro threatened to sue Sandia Laboratories when Sandia suggested that the device was fraudulent, but eventually Quadro became the bigger company, and just closed shop.

From mental_floss' book Condensed Knowledge: A deliciously Irreverent Guide to Feeling Smart Again, published in Neatorama with permission.

[Update 3/15/07: Original article written by Curry Guinn, a researcher in artificial intelligence and adjunct assistant professor at Duke University.]

Be sure to visit mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog!

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Newest 5 Comments

This site is a fraud. It purports to educate, but contains false descriptions.

Of this list, the following are not frauds:

Peppered moths. Yes, some were pinned to trees to demonstrate the birds could see them better. This is required as part of the experiment. This is one of the best documented evolution systems known, and has been confirmed.

Eddington. Independent physicists looking at the data blind come to the same consensus conclusion as Eddington. And the conclusion on gravitational lensing has been reproduced many times.

Pons and Fleischman is not a deliberate fraud. They may have made a mistake, and they rushed to publish too soon, but their fraud was not deliberate in the least. A fraud must be intentional.

The Tasaday were not a simple fraud, but a complex situation as stated above.
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