Everyone loves a good science fiction yarn–that is, a fictional story revolving around speculative, nonexistent science. But trying to pass off a fiction as real science is another thing; that’s called hoaxing, and it’s the gravest of sins in the scientific community, where the aim is to find out the truth about reality. As heinous as such trickery might be, it’s also possible to admire the chutzpah and creativity of the people who tried to deceive scientists everywhere for personal gain or purely as a joke.
Maybe the greatest force for good among science hoaxes, in a way, red mercury was a way to part foolish dictators and would-be terrorists from their money. Red mercuric iodide was described as a chemical compound of unknown provenance: at standard temperature and pressure it was a poisonous, water-soluble, odorless, and tasteless crimson powder that glowed yellow when heated. Its uses changed depending on the source, from being a critical component in nuclear fusion bombs to usable in paint for aircraft that would fool detection systems. Various sting operations saw attempted black-market purchases of red mercury—in reality just red food dye or similar—and although it’s not known how the hoax cropped up, it’s generally accepted to be part of an international law enforcement scheme to flush out nuclear smugglers.
The Sokal Affair
In 1996, NYU physics professor Alan Sokal was fed up with what he saw as listlessness, uncritical subjectivity and anti-intellectualism in the social sciences. He believed that people involved in cultural studies wouldn’t listen to real evidence and instead only published material that confirmed their political views. So he set up an elaborate prank wherein he wrote an actual academic paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” in which he purported to argue that gravitational fields are only a social construct, and submitted it to a leading cultural studies journal. The editors took the bait and the piece was published without having undergone peer review, and Sokal immediately revealed his absurd hoax. The revelation caused an uproar, with Sokal’s opponents arguing he was unethical to deceive the journal, and his supporters calling his action a blow in favor of scientific rigor.
Early 20th century British amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson was well-known in his day for a number of discoveries, but has since been exposed as merely a prolific forger. His most infamous hoax was his purported finding of the “missing link” between humans and our primate ancestors in a village in East Sussex. In 1912 Dawson presented the British Museum with fragments of a skull he claimed had been broken by careless workmen. Museum geological department head Arthur Smith Woodward accompanied Dawson back to the pit where he claimed to have found the skull, and Dawson produced more skull fragments and a jawbone. The discovery as lauded by the scientific community as a new species, Eoanthropus dawsoni, and convinced jingoistic British biologists that the earliest known hominid had been a Briton. However, later investigation showed the skull wasn’t one skull at all, but cobbled from parts as diverse as an orangutan’s teeth and a nameless medieval peasant’s cranium. Dawson never admitted to the hoax, and it’s unclear whether he was the only individual involved; his co-conspirators supposedly could have included Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle.
The Mechanical Turk
A venerable deception dating back to the 1770s, the cunningly designed “automaton” called the Mechanical Turk wasn’t confirmed to be a hoax until 50 years after its debut. The machine was designed by the aristocratic polymath Wolfgang von Kempelen for the viewing pleasure of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. He purported it to be an advance in robotics and computing so astounding that it could out-think a human being. The Turk took the form of a human torso dressed as an Ottoman nobleman atop a large box-shaped cabinet. It would sit at one side of a chessboard and play against a human opponent, actually grasping and moving the pieces itself, and most often win. Incredulous audiences believed von Kempelen had accomplished a miracle, or that the Turk was possessed by an evil spirit. So how did he create such a sophisticated artificial intelligence in the 18th century? Well, there was nothing artificial about it; the cabinet contained a cramped but very much alive and conscious human chess master who was von Kempelen’s accomplice, and who operated the machine like a complex puppet.
The Tasaday tribe
In 1971, Philippines cultural affairs official Manuel Elizalde claimed he’d found a group of people in the Mindanao jungle who were still living like Stone Agers. Elizade took it upon himself to lead small groups of foreign media personnel, including Associated Press and National Geographic Society journalists, to the territory of the tribe, called the Tasaday, for meetings. What they reported was extraordinary—the Tasaday had never had contact with outsiders and still hunted and gathered with Paleolithic technology. The Tasaday even made the cover of National Geographic the following year. But then came the holes in the story: No garbage in their supposed living sites, no signs of their dead who were supposedly buried under piles of leaves, and they looked suspiciously well-fed for a people who lived solely on forage. And how could they never had outside contact when a modern village was about three miles away from them. Anyone who raised questions about the authenticity of the Tasaday was promptly banned from the site, and when the Philippine government fell, Elizalde fled and all new reports of the Tasaday simply stopped. Years later, a supposed Tasaday tribesman revealed that he and his compatriots were just members of real local tribes, who were very much modern, whom Elizalde was paying to act like cavemen.
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