Wednesday Wonders: Fooled by famous frauds and fakes

I think we’ve heard enough fake cries of “fake news” over things that are true, but here are five times in the past that people just made things up and pawned them off as real.

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, especially during COVID. 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.

Friday Free-for-All #78: Curse, bar, insect, correlation

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

How often do you curse?

All the fucking time.

What would your perfect bar look like?

It would be a little bit Magic Castle piano room, where Irma the ghost hangs out, and a bunch of connected theme rooms, probably representing different decades from the 1940s through now. The drinks here would be served for the mind via the visuals and atmosphere of the place.

The piano room might be the prologue to everything else, covering everything from the 1890s to the 1930s, and the layout would be somewhat of a labyrinth, creating a kind of internal pub crawl.

Oh… and there’d be no alcohol, but you could get any kind of smoothie, shake, juice, or other beverage you could think of — iced, frozen, warm, or hot.

Toss some celebrity comic impersonators in the appropriate decade rooms, or some acoustic tribute bands in others. and there would definitely be a rooftop patio with a 360 degree view of the city, and no loud music so that people could actually talk, although maybe there would be rooms with themed entertainment.

A lot of you are probably still boggling at the idea of a bar with no alcohol but it did say to describe my perfect bar, after all.

What animal or insect do you wish humans could eradicate?

Without question, the one that has killed the most humans: The mosquito. They carry a number of diseases, many of them fatal, they’re particularly hard to spot even as they’re biting you, and they like to go after certain people more than others in particular.

Note, though, that this doesn’t apply to all mosquitoes. Most of them leave humans alone. It’s just the females from 6% of species that drink our blood to nourish their eggs, and only half of those that carry the diseases that kill us.

The only purposes mosquitoes serve is as food for other animals, primarily fish, as well as pollinators, so we can’t get rid of all mosquitoes. But, as noted above, we don’t have to, and science has already figured out how to genetically modify one dangerous species, Aedes aegypti, so that female offspring do not survive to adulthood, so do not reproduce.

The altered genes in question are initially produced in laboratory-raised eggs, which are then released into the wild. After they hatch, the females die out, but the males go on to mate with available females, who bear female offspring with the self-limiting gene that also kills them before they can mature and reproduce.

It’s a brilliant strategy that does not kill off innocuous species, leaves plenty of fish-food and pollinators around, and cuts down on the ability of certain mosquitoes to infect and kill humans. Win-win.

What’s your best example of correlation not equaling causation?

This one is a no-brainer: All of the “vaccines cause autism” nonsense. The idea was created, pure and simple, by the now proven to be fraudulent “findings” of Andrew Wakefield, who faked his data, lied to people, and created a generation of scientifically illiterate parents who fell for exactly the fallacy mentioned above.

The “correlation equals causation” fallacy boils down to this. A person did Thing A. Not long after, Thing B happened. Therefore, Thing A caused Thing B.

It can be really tempting to think things like, “My daughter got her MMR vaccinations on Tuesday, and a week later, her doctor said she was on the spectrum,” or “They gave my grandmother a flu shot, and two days later she had a stroke and died.”

The problem here is that, to the uninformed, it can absolutely look like the former caused the latter. But let’s look at a couple more examples.

“Tuesday night, my husband forgot to take out the trash. On his way home from work on Thursday, a garbage truck hit his car, killing him.”

“My father decided that the fire insurance rider on his homeowner’s policy wasn’t worth it for the extra cost versus benefits, so he cancelled on Monday. The house burned down on Thursday.”

While there are plausible connections between the events in all cases — medical procedure, then medical problem; garbage fail, garbage truck; fire insurance, housefire — it should be obvious from the last two that what’s really at work here is coincidence and selective attention.

In the case of “vaccines cause autism,” though, there’s a lot more going on, and a big part of it is due to how we have changed the concept and diagnosis of autism and being on the spectrum over the years.

Statistics weren’t even tracked until 2000, and the definitions of autism have also changed since that time. Prior to the 21st century, only children at the most severe end of the spectrum were classified as autistic, although kids were getting vaccinated just as much, especially from the 1960s onward.

So what changed? Nothing about the vaccinations, really. It was everything about how autistic children were classified and, indeed, the creation of the idea of “on the spectrum,” which greatly expanded the number of kids who could be considered to fall into the criteria.

But, all of a sudden, it looked like every other kid was being diagnosed, and the diagnoses always happened right after the time they finished their first round of childhood vaccines. But the former was simply an artifact of statistical processes.

If you don’t diagnose condition A until after Thing B has happened, then it’s very easy to create this fake correlation equals causation idea in people’s minds, and that’s exactly what happened here.

“My kid just had their last round of vaccines, and now they tell me she’s on the spectrum. Of course they’re connected!”

Or not.

But this kind of scientific ignorance and total stupidity has led the dangerous anti-vax mindset we have now, and it’s going to do way more harm than good.

Wednesday Wonders: Fooled by famous frauds and fakes

I think we’ve heard enough fake cries of “fake news” over things that are true, but here are five times in the past that people just made things up and pawned them off as real.

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.

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