Although we like to think of scientific inquiry as being completely objective, unfortunately there have been times in the past that it has been biased by our human desires. Whether it is for fame, fortune, or simply to mislead, some people will occasionally go to great lengths to deceive the world. You’ll probably notice, however, that not all of these are malicious cases of deception. Some are in fact quite amusing and meant to be little more than practical jokes. Either way though, these are the 25 greatest scientific hoaxes in history.
After these strange circles started popping up in English wheat fields around the start of the 1970s, they led to all sorts of UFO and extra terrestrial theories. In 1991, however, the two pranksters came forward and revealed how they had made the circles using nothing more than rope, planks, and wire.
The Spaghetti Tree
In the mid 1950s the BBC showed a broadcast about a family harvesting spaghetti from a tree. Afterwards they recieved hundreds of inquiries as to how people could grow their own trees. Unfortunately for them, though, it was all an April Fools Day joke.
In probably one of the more financially lucrative schemes on this list, around 1970 Manuel Elizalde, Prime Minister of the Philippines came forth to the world claiming that he had discovered a stone age tribe called the Tasaday on the island of Mindanao. When scientists tried to get a closer look, however, he declared the island to be an off-limits land reserve. After being deposed about 15 years later several journalists finally visited the island only to find the Tasaday walking around in blue jeans and speaking a modern dialect. They explained that they had moved into caves under pressure from the minister. Elizalde, however, was long gone as he had already fled the country with millions of dollars from an account set up to help protect the Tasaday people.
Supposedly a remarkable horse capable of solving complex math problems, reading, and even understanding German, Hans would answer questions by tapping his hoof. Upon investigation, however, psychologists determined that Hans was in fact simply taking cues from the audience as well as his trainer. For example, the audience would start to gasp as he reached the correct number of hoof taps. So although Hans probably wasn’t a mathematical genious he still made for a pretty clever horse though.
Perpetual Motion Machine
For those of you who may not know, a perpetual motion machine is any mechanism that generates more energy than it uses. Of course, according to the laws of physics this is supposed to be impossible but obviously that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Or at least it hasn’t stopped people from trying to profit. So, in 1813 when Charles Redheffer showed up in New York with a machines that seemed to keep itself turning, thousands of people showed up. Eventually, however, skeptics bribed him into letting them take a closer look at the machine. Upon closer inspection they found a cat-gut belt drive leading through the wall and into an attic where it was powered by an old man turning a crank with one hand and eating a loaf of bread with the other.
The Great Moon Hoax
In 1835 several articles were published by the New York Sun claiming that Sir John Herschel had made some incredible discoveries in space using new telescopic methods. According to the article the surface of the moon was covered with lilac colored pyramids, herds of bison, and blue unicorns (we’re not even joking). Later it was found that the article was very obviously a hoax and even Herschel himself wasn’t aware of some of the claims being attributed to him.
Written by Horace Miner in the mid 90s, the focus of this paper was on a little known North American tribe that was obsessed with oral cleanliness. In spite of seeming genuine, it actually turned out to be a satire of other academic anthropological reports. Nacirema spelled backwards is “American” and the ritual he was describing was nothing more than brushing your teeth.
Jan Hendrik Schon
A German physicist, Schon briefly flirted with fame after a series of breakthroughs in semi-conductor research. Not long after his rise to scientific stardom, however, others began noticing anomilies in his data. It was soon determined that he had faked almost all of his experiments making it one of the largest hoaxes in the world of physics for the last 50 years.
The Lying Stones
It was 1726 when Johann Beringer discovered amazingly well-preserved fossils of lizards, birds, and spiders. After publishing several articles on the topic it was determined that his spiteful friends had hidden the artifacts there deliberality so as to tarnish Johan Beringer’s reputation. According to legend,
Beringer spent his entire fortune trying to buy back the books he had published.
The Sokal Affair
A hoax perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal, he submitted a nonsensical research paper filled with jargon to the Social Text, a journal published by Duke. His goal was to prove that the many journals of the day were nothing more than “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense.” In other words…politically correct pseudoscience. His paper was published and almost simulataneously Sokal came out in several other papers pointing to his hoax and making fools of the editors.
Originally being mentioned in National Geographic, the Archaeoraptor was what scientists claimed to be the link between birds and therapods in the fossil record. Although many archaeologists had their suspicions it wasn’t until later on that it was proven to be forgery.
The Upas Tree
In 1783 an account was published in the London Magazine about a tree in Indonesia so poisonous that it killed everything within 15 miles leaving the Earth bare and dotted with the skeletons of both man and beast. The truth is, however, that although the Upas tree really exists and it really does contain a powerful toxin, this story was blown way out of proportion.
The Secret of Immortality
In the 1700s Johann Cohausen wrote a paper on the prolongation of life claiming that it could be extended by taking an elixir produced in part from the breath of young women collected in bottles. He later came out clarifying that the work had in fact been a satire.
About 30 years ago a leaflet was circulated in Europe that listed a number of food additives as carcinogens. It caused a huge mass panic in many countries, primarily France, but eventually was exposed as a hoax.
Probably the most famous hoax in history, the Piltdown man, discovered in 1912, was supposed to be the fossilized remains of an early humanoid. It wasn’t until almost 50 years later that people discovered the elaborate hoax and determined that the skull was actually that of a human male while the jawbone was that of an orangutan.
David is the editor-in-chief of List25. He has a Masters degree in International Business from University of Florida. He loves to break dance, do flips, play guitar, and everything else that is fun. Follow him on Twitter @iamdpegg