From the Piltdown man to anti-vaccinationists… What science’s worst hoaxes can teach us

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Photo: The Natural History Museum/Alamy

Alessandro Siani, a biologist at Portsmouth University, decided earlier this year to write about research on vaccine hesitancy for online academic network The Conversation. The consequences were unpleasant.

A screenshot of an excerpt of his article, taken out of context, was reposted online with a new caption: “You knew: why didn’t unvaccinated people do more to warn us?”

Later versions of this fake news claimed that Siani – a pro-vaccine proponent – now believes vaccines are deadly and that he is blaming anti-vaccinationists for not having changed his mind by then.

“I’ve received a lot of threats and insults and very violent messages from anti-vaccine people who thought I was blaming them for not standing up strong enough against vaccines,” he said.

Siani had been a victim of fake news, an experience he will share at a special open meeting on “Fake, Fake and Misinformation” at the Royal Society in London on Thursday.

Past scientific frauds are exposed and debates are held about the lessons that can be learned from past frauds.

“This is the first late-night public event the Royal Society has hosted since the start of the Covid pandemic and we want to look into what has happened during that time,” said Keith Moore, the Royal Society’s Chief Librarian and organizer of the Event.

“A lot of disinformation and fraudulent activity took place during the pandemic, so this is an appropriate time to reflect on how science is getting to the truth and how it is dealing with fake news.”

In Siani’s case, the untruths surrounding him were quickly exposed and he was exonerated – though not before going through some rather disturbing moments. “A lot of people have been trying to find out exactly who I am and where I live,” he said. “It’s not a comfortable feeling.”

In contrast, previous examples of fake news took much longer to be proven false. Britain’s greatest scientific fraud, Piltdown Man, took decades before his true nature was revealed – an extraordinary story outlined at the meeting by Natural History Museum paleontologist Professor Chris Stringer.

Unearthed in 1912 in a gravel pit at Piltdown, East Sussex, the skull fragments have been interpreted as the remains of a million-year-old ape-man, a person with a large brain but primitive jawbones and teeth. That’s exactly what British scientists were looking for, Stringer said.

“A century ago, French archaeologists had discovered Cro-Magnons, while the Germans had their Neanderthals. Britain had nothing – until Piltdown Man showed up.

“Then we had our own fossil rival – except, of course, that it was a fake composed of the brain of a modern human and the jawbone of an orangutan. It took scientists 40 years to prove this.

“At the time of its discovery there was great demand for Britain to have its own missing link, and many pundits who should have known better lowered their vigilance.

“It’s a lesson for all of us. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.”

As for the culprit, most scientists, including Stringer, now believe local archaeologist Charles Dawson — the man who first found the skull pieces — was responsible for falsifying the find. Desperate to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, he was listed as a possible candidate for election. The Piltdown skull would be his ticket to scientific fame, he hoped. However, he died in 1916, shortly after making his “discovery”.

However, Dawson would not have been the first con man or crook to be made a member of the Society if he had been successful.

“Indeed, it is surprising how many outstanding scientists and associates of the Royal Society have ended up in prison,” Moore said. “Something like that has a long history here.”

Examples date back to the founding of the Royal Society, although some have been imprisoned on less than nefarious grounds.

The German theologian Henry Oldenburg, its first secretary and one of the originators of the idea of ​​peer review, was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1667 during the Second Anglo-Dutch War as a suspected spy. Crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale was briefly imprisoned during World War II for her pacifist views.

But the strangest of all these characters was Rudolf Erich Raspe, who will be the focus of a talk by Moore at Thursday’s session.

Raspe, a German, was elected to society in the 18th century for his work on geology, but was eventually expelled for his “various frauds and gross infidelities”.

“Part of the problem was that scientists back then had no income other than private funds, and that sometimes led them down the path of temptation,” Moore said.

Raspe looked for other sources of income and over time turned to fiction. “He wrote the earliest known version of the Baron Munchausen stories, which have never been printed since, although he didn’t make any money from them himself,” Moore added.

The key point is that science can only work if it can be confident that the information presented to it is correct, Moore said.

“That is why the integrity of those around us was so important to society. In this way we have ensured that information and data come from a reliable source. And of course, it’s fun to tell people that there’s a long history of scientists fighting cheating and occasionally losing.

“It’s also important to understand these issues because now we have new issues related to the internet, deepfaking and things like that. People need to be careful about the sources of information they rely on. That has always been a problem.”

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