TCS Daily


The Relative Longevity of Science Frauds

By Sallie Baliunas - January 30, 2006 12:00 AM

The fabricated evidence on human stem cells published by Hwang Woo-suk and colleagues had a life shorter than two years as scientific fact. In contrast, the infamous hominid remains of Piltdown Man announced in 1912 stood as real for nearly 40 years.

Hwang Woo-suk et al.'s DNA evidence and photographs of human embryonic stem cells reportedly from a cloned blastocyst were "fabricated," according to an international investigating panel convened by Seoul National University. The investigation sprang from questions about the cells and DNA evidence posted anonymously at Korea's Biological Research Information Center. The SNU panel's independent testing of evidence led to the conclusion that data had been invented.

Hwang's claims are far from the first fabrications in science.  Nobel Physicist Richard Feynman made pertinent remarks on supposedly newly-found Maya documents that were publicized in the 1970s. They were quickly found to be fakes. Feynman had earlier translated (for fun, naturally) a section of a Maya astronomical almanac from the authentic Dresden Codex in which mathematical symbols denoted regularities of the sightings of the planet Venus. When the finding of a new Maya codex was announced, Feynman quickly saw it as a forgery. The arcane calculations for Venus were repeated from the Dresden Codex, and merely copied in a different style, that of the authentic Madrid Codex.

In other words, the forgery wasn't very clever. "Out of the hundred thousand books originally made [by Mayans]," notes Feynman, "we get another fragment, and it has the same thing on it as the other [very few] fragments. It was obviously, again, one of these put-together things which had nothing original in it."[i]

But clever forgery is partly why the Piltdown Man eluded detection for some 40 years, until technology and hypothesis-testing by scientists unequivocally disputed it.

The bombshell at the 1912 Geological Society of London of the earliest human-type fossil was set off by country solicitor and amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson (1864-1916) and Arthur Smith Woodward (1864-1944), Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum. They described the discovery of what seemed to be much of the cranium and part of the jaw of ancient human remains, found in a gravel pit near Piltdown, Sussex in England. Flints and animal bones in the layer led to the estimation that the skull was the oldest known human-ancestor remains, at an age of approximately one million years in modern terms. Subsequent finds at the quarry through 1915 and work by leading British scientists seemed to confirm this unique human artifact.

The remains were classified as Eoanthropus dawsoni (Dawson's Dawn Man). The large brain casing indicated modern brain capacity while the jaw and teeth indicated more ape-like dentition. Eoanthropus thus neatly fitted two popular ideas of the time, now known to be false:

First, the modern human line had evolved from ancestors that had first gained tremendous brain capacity, after which changes to the body (exemplified by Eoanthropus' more ape-like jaw and teeth) had followed.

Second, our brainy human forebears were from Britain.

Keep in mind that while Charles Darwin's research on evolution had helped in the latter half of the 19th century open the radical possibility of Homo sapiens developing from ancestral species over millions of years, just a few examples with poorly estimated ages were known, among them Neanderthal (currently known as 200,000 to 30,000 years old) and Java Man (now known as Homo erectus, dated approximately 700,000 years old) specimens.

Eoanthropus became a competitive paradigm in ideas about human origins. The problem is that Eoanthropus was a clever fraud. The piece of jaw and teeth are from an orangutan, and the cranium from that of a modern human scarcely several hundred years old. The anatomical clues were intentionally created to mislead: the hinge where the jaw would fit the skull was missing so that their mismatch would be less noticeable; the teeth had been smoothed down to seem more human-like, and the artifacts chemically stained to seem to have lain in the ground for ages.

Eoanthropus remained in play until 1953 when physical anthropologist Joseph Weiner began to work the hypothesis that Piltdown Man was fake, as it differed in kind from other accumulating hominid remains. Mid-20th century chemical testing by Weiner and colleagues finally revealed Piltdown Man was a fraud.

Nearly 90 years after the announcement of Piltdown Man, culprit and motives rest in anonymity, disturbed only by an industry of speculation. Of the many suspects, Jesuit priest and paleontologist Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was favored in heavy speculation by paleontologist Stephen J. Gould. Another bruit of suspicions is heaped on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), who, as a Scotsman was devoted to playing the properly Scottish national sport, and occasionally on the gorse-and-heather course at Piltdown, near the scene of the crime and some five miles from his home on the splendid Crowborough Beacon Gulf Club. Conan Doyle surely had better pastimes than salting amateur archaeology digs with bones chemically altered to feign antiquity.

Less salacious though more important than discovering Piltdown Man's forger and motives is that scientists unmasked the fake, despite the appealing idea of brainy Piltdown Man's place in early hominid evolution, by examining evidence and hypotheses.

The same process would have uncovered the Hwang affair, if doubts had not aired about the authenticity of some of the evidence. Given the high interest in the field of human stem cells, other researchers would have quickly found contrary results, leading in turn to reexamining Hwang's claims.

Of course there will be more and perhaps greater fabrications as the 21st century unfolds. The century is young, and science, after all, is practiced by humans -- among them, a few who invent data or forge artifacts.

Good reading

Introductions to Piltdown Man
http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/piltdown.html
http://home.tiac.net/~cri_a/piltdown/piltdown.html

http://www.clarku.edu/~piltdown/pp_map.html

J. Weiner and C. Stringer 2004 The Piltdown Forgery Oxford University Press, 2nd edition 248pp

Timeline for Hwang et al. investigation
www.nature.com/news/2005/051219/full/051219-3.html.
www.sciencemag.org/sciext/hwang2005/


[i] (pp. 285-290, in "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman" 1985).

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8 Comments

Surely You're joking, ...
Feynman's precocity never fails to astound:

“of the hundred thousand ...we get another...the same...as the other...obviously...one of these put-together things which had nothing original in it"

remains a cautionary encomium on scientific rhetoric in extremis ,whether in the climate change debate, here and elsewhere, or wherever those who covet their own hypotheses seek to sustain them in the absence of evidence.

Relative Longevity of Science Frauds
You should also mention the longevity of the Margaret Mead fraud, which apparently has still not been recognized in some academic departments of major universities.

Freemans a nut
Who was to gutless to print his book while Ms Mead was alive.

Send in the anthropologists
Bit of a toss up betwen Miss Meade, who was given to flunking her Columbia students if they voted for Goldwater, and Big Kahuna Freeman who considered her guilty of lese majeste in Samoa. Perhaps their collegues should mount an expedition to DC , to explore the savage agnatic relationships of the natives and try out their skull tongs on the denizens of K Street.

My understanding is t Feynmann's discreditation of the "new" Mayan codex has itself long been discredited. Feynmann had assumed (so the argument goes) that the probability that *two* Mayan documents, both selected at random, would contain the same information (in this case the motions of Venus) would be vanishingly small. In assuming this, he failed to account for the fact that Venus was of utmost importance to the Mayan religion, and a high proportion of Mayan documents would probably have been devoted to it. It would be analogous to selecting 2 books at random from 15th century Europe, and being surprised to find that both of them were Bibles.

Unfortunately everyone is still listening uncritically to Feynmann, saying "oh what a clever man" and assuming that since he was a genius he must have been right. He *was* a genius, and *did* learn the Mayan language very quickly, but he was *not* an expert in archeology.

Feynmann's Mayan codex is a relatively trivial case, but there is great danger here. A few years ago the distinguished paediatrician Sir Roy Meadow, acting as an expert witness in the British courts, sent several innocent mothers to jail for murdering their children (who in reality almost certainly died of SIDS) using a bogus statistical argument. Juries believed him because he was an eminent scientist - in his own field - and despite his lacking any proper expertise in statistics.

Luckily the Royal Statistical Society jumped immediately on the case and set the record straight, but it illustrates a grave danger. "Being clever" is no guarantee of "being right" - particularly in cases where clever people start pontificating on subjects outside their proper fields.

My understanding is t Feynmann's discreditation of the "new" Mayan codex has itself long been discredited. Feynmann had assumed (so the argument goes) that the probability that *two* Mayan documents, both selected at random, would contain the same information (in this case the motions of Venus) would be vanishingly small. In assuming this, he failed to account for the fact that Venus was of utmost importance to the Mayan religion, and a high proportion of Mayan documents would probably have been devoted to it. It would be analogous to selecting 2 books at random from 15th century Europe, and being surprised to find that both of them were Bibles.

Unfortunately everyone is still listening uncritically to Feynmann, saying "oh what a clever man" and assuming that since he was a genius he must have been right. He *was* a genius, and *did* learn the Mayan language very quickly, but he was *not* an expert in archeology.

Feynmann's Mayan codex is a relatively trivial case, but there is great danger here. A few years ago the distinguished paediatrician Sir Roy Meadow, acting as an expert witness in the British courts, sent several innocent mothers to jail for murdering their children (who in reality almost certainly died of SIDS) using a bogus statistical argument. Juries believed him because he was an eminent scientist - in his own field - and despite his lacking any proper expertise in statistics.

Luckily the Royal Statistical Society jumped immediately on the case and set the record straight, but it illustrates a grave danger. "Being clever" is no guarantee of "being right" - particularly in cases where clever people start pontificating on subjects outside their proper fields.

My understanding is t Feynmann's discreditation of the "new" Mayan codex has itself long been discredited. Feynmann had assumed (so the argument goes) that the probability that *two* Mayan documents, both selected at random, would contain the same information (in this case the motions of Venus) would be vanishingly small. In assuming this, he failed to account for the fact that Venus was of utmost importance to the Mayan religion, and a high proportion of Mayan documents would probably have been devoted to it. It would be analogous to selecting 2 books at random from 15th century Europe, and being surprised to find that both of them were Bibles.

Unfortunately everyone is still listening uncritically to Feynmann, saying "oh what a clever man" and assuming that since he was a genius he must have been right. He *was* a genius, and *did* learn the Mayan language very quickly, but he was *not* an expert in archeology.

Feynmann's Mayan codex is a relatively trivial case, but there is great danger here. A few years ago the distinguished paediatrician Sir Roy Meadow, acting as an expert witness in the British courts, sent several innocent mothers to jail for murdering their children (who in reality almost certainly died of SIDS) using a bogus statistical argument. Juries believed him because he was an eminent scientist - in his own field - and despite his lacking any proper expertise in statistics.

Luckily the Royal Statistical Society jumped immediately on the case and set the record straight, but it illustrates a grave danger. "Being clever" is no guarantee of "being right" - particularly in cases where clever people start pontificating on subjects outside their proper fields.

Moderator - Please delete my last 2 repeated messages. It kept telling me the system was unavailable - I retried twice and now it's posted all three copies :(

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