Wednesday Wonders: Fooled by famous frauds and fakes

It’s April 1st, but given the state of the world at the moment, I would hope that everyone refrains from any kind of pranks or jokes today in honor of the occasion. Instead, let’s look at five times in the past that scientific types have passed off a fake as reality.

I’ll take it in (mostly) chronological order.

The Mechanical Turk

In 1769, Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungray, invited her trusted servant, Wolfgang von Kempelen, to a magic show. Von Kempelen knew his physics, mechanics, and hydraulics. The empress wanted to see what he’d make of a stage illusionist.

In short, he was not impressed, and said so in front of the court, claiming that he could create a better illusion. The empress accepted his offer and gave him six months off to try.

In 1770, he returned with his results: An automaton that played chess. It was in the form of a wooden figure seated behind a cabinet with three doors in front and a drawer in the bottom. In presenting it, von Kempelen would open the left door to show the complicated clockwork inside, then open a back door and shine a lantern through it to show that there was nothing else there.

When he opened the other two doors, it revealed an almost empty compartment with a velvet pillow in it. This he placed under the automaton’s left arm. The chess board and pieces came out of the drawer, and once a challenger stepped forward, von Kempelen turned a crank on the side to start it up, and the game was afoot.

Called the Mechanical Turk, it was good, and regularly defeated human opponents, including Benjamin Franklin.  and Napoleon Bonaparte — although Napoleon is reported to have tried to cheat, to which the Turk did not respond well.

Neither its creator nor second owner and promoter revealed its secrets during the machine’s lifetime, and it was destroyed by a fire in 1854. Although many people assumed that it was actually operated by a human and was not a machine, playing against it did inspire Charles Babbage to begin work on his difference engine, the mechanical precursor to the modern computer.

In the present day, a designer and builder of stage illusions built a replica of the Turk based on the original plans, and watching it in action is definitely uncanny.

Moon-bats and Martians!

This is actually a twofer. First, in August 1835, the New York Sun ran a six part series on discoveries made by the astronomer John Herschel on the Moon. The problem: The press flat out made it all up, reporting all kinds of fantastical creatures Herschel had allegedly seen and written about, including everything from unicorns to flying bat-people, all thanks to the marvel of the fabulous new telescope he had created. When Herschel found out about it, he was not pleased.

The flipside of this came sixty years later in 1895, when the astronomer Percival Lowell first published about the “canals of Mars,” which were believed to be channels of water that ran into the many oceans on the planet.

In reality, they were just an optical illusion created by the lack of power of telescopes of the time. This didn’t stop Lowell, though, and he went on in the early 19th century to write books that postulated the existence of life on Mars.

Of course, Lowell was not trying to perpetrate a fraud. He just had the habit of seeing what he wanted to see, so it was more self-delusion than anything else.

The Cardiff Giant

This would be Cardiff. The one in New York, not the capital of Wales. The year is 1869. The “giant” was a petrified 10-foot-tall man that had been dug up on a farm belonging to William C. “Stub” Newell. People came from all around to see it, and that did not stop when Newell started charging fifty cents a head to have a look. That’s the equivalent of about ten bucks today.

The statue was actually created by George Hull, who was a cousin of Newell’s. An atheist, Hull had gotten into an argument with a Methodist minister who said that everything in the Bible had to be taken literally. Since the Bible said that there had been giants in those days, Hull decided to give him one, and expose the gullibility of religious types at the same time.

Cardiff, after all, wasn’t very far from where Joseph Smith had first started the Mormon religion, and that sort of thing was not at all uncommon in the area during the so-called Second Great Awakening.

Although a huge hit with the public to the point that P.T. Barnum created his own fake giant, the Chicago Tribune eventually published an exposé with confessions from the stonemasons. That didn’t seem to make one bit of difference to the public, who still flocked to see the statues. Hull and his investors made a fortune off of the whole adventure.

Piltdown Man

Less innocuous was a hoax that actually sent a couple of generations of anthropologists and evolutionists down the wrong path in tracing the ancestry of humans. In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, claimed to have discovered the fossilized remains of a hitherto unknown human species in Piltdown, Sussex, England.

The key part was that while the skull had a human-like cranium, it had an ape-like mandible, or lower jaw. In other words, having traits of both species, it could easily have been the long-sought “missing link,” a transitional form that provides the evolutionary bridge between two species.

The first so-called missing link, Java Man, had been discovered twenty years prior to Dawson’s. Unlike Dawson’s Piltdown Man, Java Man, now known as homo erectus, has been accepted as a legitimate transitional form between ape and man.

Dawson’s downfall came after the discovery of more transitional forms and improved testing methods that authenticated many of these. When researchers finally turned their attention back to the original Piltdown Man fossils, they determined that the skull was only about 500 years old, the jaw, only a few decades. Both had been stained to simulate age.

In 1953, they published their findings, which were reported in Time magazine, but the damage had been done, setting back anthropological studies, because more recent, legitimate discoveries were doubted because they conflicted with the fake evidence.

It seems likely that Dawson was the sole hoaxer. What was his motive? Most likely, he wanted to be nominated to the archaeological Royal Society, but hadn’t yet because of a lack of significant findings.

In 1913, he was nominated because of Piltdown, proving yet again that it’s possible for a fraud to profit — if they’re white and connected.

Vaccines and autism

We’re still feeling the repercussions of this fraud, which was first perpetrated in 1998 by a researcher named Andrew Wakefield. This was when he published results of studies he carried out which, he said, showed an undeniable link between childhood vaccinations, particularly measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and autism.

In Wakefield’s world, “undeniable link” meant “cause and effect,” and a whole bunch of parents proceeded to lose their minds over the whole thing. We’re still dealing with the fallout from it today, with diseases like measles and whopping cough — which should have been eradicated — suddenly causing mini-epidemics.

Eventually, when they could not be replicated, it came out that Wakefield had flat-out falsified his results, and his papers and findings were withdrawn and repudiated by medical journals.

What was his motive for falsifying information without any regard for the lives he endangered? Oh, the usual motive. Money. He had failed to disclose that his studies “had been funded by lawyers who had been engaged by parents in lawsuits against vaccine-producing companies.”

But, as with Piltdown Man, we’re still seeing the effects and feeling the damage a generation later. This is why now, more than ever, we need to rely on actual scientific findings that have been replicated through peer review instead of rumors, myths, or memes.

Happy April 1st!

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