25 Greatest Scientific Hoaxes In History

Posted by , Updated on October 5, 2015

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.
25

Crop Circles

cropcircles

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.

24

The Spaghetti Tree

spaghetti

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.

23

Tasaday Tribe

Tasaday Tribe

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.

22

Clever Hans

Clever Hans

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

21

Perpetual Motion Machine

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.


20

The Great Moon Hoax

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.

19

The Nacirema

The Nacirema

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.

18

Jan Hendrik Schon

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.

17

The Lying Stones

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.

16

The Sokal Affair

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.

15

Archaeoraptor

Archaeoraptor

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.

14

The Upas Tree

The Upas Tree

In 1783 an account was published in the London Magazine about a tree in Indonesia sopoisonous 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.

13

The Secret of Immortality

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.

12

Villejuif Leaflet

Villejuif Leaflet

About 30 years ago a leaflet was circulated in Europe that listed a number of food additivesas carcinogens. It caused a huge mass panic in many countries, primarily France, but eventually was exposed as a hoax.

11

Piltdown Man

Piltdown Man

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.

10

Fiji Mermaid

The Fiji Mermaid

A staple at the PT Barnum museum, this mummified mermaid (in spite of its fantasticle construction) was actually believed to be real by many people until it was proved to be nothing more than than the head and torso of a monkey attached to the tail of a fish.

9

Derbisol

Derbisol

So while its not really a hoax, it certainly is amusing. In order to determine whether high school students are telling the truth on drug questionnaires, test makers will often include fake drugs, the most famous of which is Derbisol. Interestingly enough, it seems as though up to 20% of participants have taken this fictitious drug.

8

Alien Autopsy

Alien Autopsy

In the early 90′s a short film of a supposed alien autopsy was aired on Fox Network after which several other news outlets picked up the story as well. It wasn’t until over 15 years later that the producer came forward to admit that it was fake. He still maintains, however, that it was based on real footage.

7

The Turk

The Turk

Constructed in 1770 this fake chess machine was made to look like a Turkish robot capable of beating even the best human players. After touring the world for almost a century and beating numerous chess masters, including none other than Benjamin Franklin, it was found that the robot was actually nothing more than a person in disguise.

6

Cardiff Giant

Cardiff Giant

As the of the most famous hoaxes in American history, the Cardiff Giant has allegedly been responsible for the coining of such popular phrases as “there’s a sucker born every minute”. To give you the backstory though, in the mid 1800s George Hull, a prominant atheist, had decided to play a prank on some of his Methodist acquaintances by having this huge giant buried in his cousin’s back yard, supposedly as a reference to the biblical passage concerning giants roaming the Earth. Not long aftewards, Hull had a well dug in the very same spot. Upon discovery of the giant so many people wanted to see it that several other replicas popped up around the country all claiming to be the real thing.

5

Discoveries of Shinichi Fujimura

Discoveries of Shinichi Fujimura

Despite being self taught, Shinichi was one of Japan’s leading archaeologists. In the early 1980s he started discovering artificts that progressively got older and older. Eventually he stumbled across something that was dated to 600,000 years which would have been the oldest sign of human habitation ever. Unfortunately for Shinichi, however, several journalists caught him planting the finds in the dirt before hand. After the photos of him doing so hit the press Shinichi met with some serious humiliation.

4

The Disappearing Blond Gene

The Disappearing Blonde Gene

In 2002 BBC aired a report about German scientists who discovered that blond hair would be extinct in the next couple centuries due to being a recessive trait. Barely a year later the New York Times published a report about how the findings had been faked but the study has still been cited over the last 10 years in various publications.

3

Bonsai Kitten

Bonsai Kitten

In 2000 a university student at MIT, under the alias of Dr. Michael Wong Chong, created this website with instructions on how to grow a kitten in a jar so that it assume the shape of the container, much like the bonsai plant. In spite of the fact that it was very obviously satirical in nature, after drawing international criticism from animal rights groups, MIT removed the website.

2

War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds

Possibly no hoax in history has been responsible for causing more widespread panic than the 1938 radio program voiced by Orson Welles. Although it wasn’t intended to scare people into believing the world was really under attack by Martians, because the program was delivered in a series of fictional news bulletins many people panicked and thought it was true. Some even claimed to see flashes in the distance and smell poison gas.

1

Dihydrogen Monoxide

Dihydrogen Monoxide

Oh my gosh…did you just drink that dihydrogen monoxide? Well, if you know anything at all about Chemistry then you shouldn’t be worried. It’s just H20. Apparently, however, most people are ignorant of chemical nomenclature and will immediately associate it with something extremely poisonous. So, in recent years when various emails have circulated highlighting various warnings associated with dihydrogen monoxide (fatal if inhaled, contributes to greenhouse effect, accelerates corrosion) they have managed to generate quite a scare in the general population.

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