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!

Shoot the Moon

Previously, I covered a couple of big conspiracy theories, and why they are generally such an impossible idea. As noted there, it’s really hard for people to keep secrets, and the bigger a conspiracy, the faster it falls, which is why we happen to know about the real ones.

But people will see and believe what they want to, and so conspiracy theories exist. Here’s another famous one that just isn’t true.

We never landed on the Moon

While this one might seem like a modern conspiracy theory, it’s actually almost as old as the lunar landings, and was first promulgated by a man named Bill Kaysing, in his self-published 1976 book called We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle.

Of course, the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever featured its own “Moon landing was fake” gag in 1971, and the whole thing probably caught on because it was an era when trust in government was at its lowest, what with Vietnam, Kent State and, by mid-decade, Watergate all crashing down at once. Ironically, the last one was a true conspiracy that fell apart quickly.

More fuel was added to the fire by the 1976 film Capricorn One, which postulated a manned mission to Mars that was faked by the government to avoid losing face with the USSR because the mission just wasn’t ready. Of course, the same film also hung a lantern on the biggest problem with huge government conspiracies. In order to cover it up, the plan was to kill the “astronauts” before they left the soundstage, then announce that they had died in a tragic accident upon re-entry.

Despite it being a 70s film — an era when the hero did not always win — this one did pull victory over villainy as the plot is discovered and the astronauts eventually saved, popping up at the announcement of their own deaths Tom Sawyer style to reveal the whole plot. Hell, there were even three “dead” people entering their own funeral in both.

The film definitely used the main motive that Moon Hoaxers give for the landing being faked: We weren’t ready for it, but we had to make the Soviets think that we were, and it all began when President John F. Kennedy gave a speech to a joint session of Congress on the 146th day of the new decade of the 1960s, May 25, 1961. His goal was simple: To put a (hu)man on the Moon before the last day of the decade. His motives were obvious. The Russians were already ahead of us in the “space race,” having launched the first satellite, Sputnik, and putting the first man into space. They also put the first woman in space, beating us by exactly twenty years and two days.

If you’d like to see an incredible film that documents the prequel to this speech in the days from the first attempts to break the sound barrier to finally getting our own astronauts into orbit, check out the book and/or film versions of The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, which documents both the amazing and absurd involved in this process.

It also illuminates the true dilemma for the American space program. For a time, it looked like the USSR was getting ahead, and especially as Kennedy was assassinated and things got worse in Vietnam (which was a proxy hot war between the two sides in the Cold War) the idea of getting to the Moon first became a sort of goal for a moral victory.

Did you ever wonder why NASA’s command center for all lunar operations wound up in Houston? Look no further than Vice-President, then President, Lyndon Baines Johnson who, like JFK before him, preferred to be known by the initials LBJ… among other things. Johnson?

Did I mention that LBJ was from Texas, so that it was almost a slam-dunk that the Space Center would wind up there? As for why the launch center wound up in Cape Canaveral, Florida, there are two good reasons for it. One is that it allows for launches over a lot of open water, meaning that crashes or aborted take-offs won’t happen over land or populated areas. Second, it was (at the time) the part of the U.S. closest to the equator, and the equator is much friendlier to getting us into space.

And for everyone rightly pointing out that Hawaii is surrounded by a lot more water and is closer to the equator because it’s our southernmost state, you are absolutely correct, except that Hawaii hadn’t quite become a state yet at the time that Cape Canaveral begun operations. Note that Puerto Rico is also farther south than Florida and slightly farther south than Hawaii, but we didn’t put our launch site there either.

I’m guessing that “really freaking heavy equipment” and “transportation by ship over substantial distances” aren’t a great combo when doing a budget for a governmental program. That, and helping elected officials in territories — you know, the ones who don’t get to vote in Congress — really doesn’t bring back any benefit to Wasghington D.C.

Which really brings up another way to question the Moon Hoax conspiracy. If it was a fake, why go to all of the trouble of making sure the sites are in locations with political and scientific advantages? If it were just for show, they could have put the control center anywhere and put the launch site near D.C. or New York City or somewhere else flashy that would draw huge crowds to watch the rockets go up.

As for why people believe this theory, it’s simple. They don’t understand science or physics. There are a lot of misconceptions in everything the Hoaxers claim; way too many for this piece, so I’ll refer you to the brilliant 2001 takedown of a Fox documentary claiming that it was all true by the amazing “bad” Astronomer Phil Plait. (In fact, this particular article is the one that launched him into internet fame and success in the first place.)

But perhaps the most bizarre take on the whole Moon Landing Hoax is this: the shots on the Moon were created by none other than… Stanley Kubrick. This was another idea to fall out of the sadly challenged brain of Kaysing, but others ran with it. Someone even went so far in 2015 to fake a video they claimed was Kubrick confessing to it. Hey, easy to do after the person you ‘re besmirching has died, right?

Still, it gets even weirder, as some true believers claim that Kubrick stuffed The Shining with clues basically saying, “Hey… I confess. I faked the Moon Landing.” And yes, some people do believe it.

This theory at least achieved one good thing. It let a septuagenarian who’d actually been to the Moon (Buzz Aldrin) punch a Moon Landing denying asshole in the face and get away with it. To quote the linked article, “The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has declined to file charges.”

That’s the best possible outcome, really. If only Buzz had said, right before the punch, “Bang! Zoom! Straight to the Moon.”