Hoaxes - Science

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff
The Hoax Files: The Truth Isn't Out There
Science Experiments

by Christine Frantz

Cardiff Giant

In 1869, New York cigar maker George Hull had a block of gypsum carved in the likeness of a man over 10 feet tall. It was artificially aged, buried on the Cardiff, N.Y., farm of Hull's confederate, William Newell, and then arranged to be "discovered" by workmen. Its discovery was heralded as a great geological find of a huge petrified man, and proof of the Genesis verse: "There were giants on the earth in those days…" People flocked to see the giant for a mere 25 cent admission charge. P. T. Barnum wanted to buy the giant and when Hull refused, Barnum had a copy made and declared Hull's to be phony. Hull finally confessed his fraud and Barnum's fake of a fake ultimately drew more people than the original. The Cardiff Giant can be visited today in Cooperstown, N.Y., while Barnum's fake is in Farmington Hills, Mich.

Footnote: This was the incident that inspired "There's a sucker born every minute" but P. T. Barnum didn't say it. One of Hull's partners, David Hannum did—and Barnum appropriated it.

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Piltdown Man

In Piltdown, England during the period 1908-1915, Charles Dawson claimed to discover the fossil remains (skulls, teeth, jawbone) of what was called the missing link between man and ape. The hoax was not revealed until 1953 when modern testing methods showed that the skulls were only a few hundred years old. Piltdown Man was in fact a pasticcio of animal parts from all over the globe: the jawbone was that of an orangutan, and the teeth were elephant and hippopotamus. While Dawson is considered to be the main suspect in perpetrating the hoax, the list of suspects also includes the Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Chess Automaton

Garry Kasparov's 1997 defeat by IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer was the 20th century's most famous man versus machine chess match, but the first chess playing machine was invented by the Hungarian engineer Baron von Kempelen in 1769.drawing of chess playing machine His chess automaton featured a turbaned figure called "the Turk" attached to a cabinet with a chess board on top of it. Before a game, the innards of the cabinet were shown to the audience, exposing the gears that worked the Turk. The Turk even supposedly defeated Napoleon in 1809. During the 1820s and 1830s the automaton toured the United States where observers, including Edgar Allan Poe, determined that a tiny human chess master was hidden in the cabinet. The chess automaton survived until it was destroyed in a Philadelphia fire in the 1850s.

Shroud of Turin

The earliest sighting of this linen cloth was in the 14th century in France. The shroud was believed to have been the cloth wrapped around Jesus when he was placed in his tomb; when the cloth was removed, it bore the image of Christ on it. At the time, a bishop proclaimed it to be a scam, an artist confessed to painting the image on it, and Pope Clement VII officially declared the shroud a mere representation of Christ. All these proclamations were soon forgotten, however. Since then about 40 other such cloths have claimed to be this holy shroud, but the Turin linen is the only one with supposed bloodstains (suspiciously redder than dried blood) and the markings of a crucified man. In 1988 three independent laboratories in Oxford, Zurich, and Arizona conducted radiocarbon dating tests and concurred that the cloth originated around 1260-1390 A.D. Believers in the Shroud say the tests were skewed by fungi and microbes which had accumulated over the centuries.


Today we have Dolly the sheep and a bevy of Babes, but back in the 1970s cloning was pretty much the stuff of science fiction. In 1978, two years after Ira Levin published The Boys from Brazil, a novel about clones of Adolf Hitler, David Rorvik published In His Image: The Cloning of a Man, in which he claimed that he had assisted in the cloning of a millionaire. When a doctor cited in the book sued Rorvik, a British court called the book "a fraud and a hoax," but by then Rorvik had already earned a bundle from it.

Stem-Cell Research

Hwang Woo-suk, a South Korean scientist, suffered a stunning blow in 2006 when former colleagues and a group of young scientists made a series of disclosures that undermined the advances Hwang had claimed to have made in cloning and stem-cell research. Hwang had said that he cloned 11 human embryos and extracted stem cells from them that were genetically matched to specific people with various diseases. A former colleague, Dr. Roh Sung Il, said that, "Nine of the 11 stem-cell lines...didn't even exist."

Stone Agers

In 1971 Manuel Elizalde, Jr., Ferdinand Marcos's Cultural Minister, claimed to have found a tribe of cave-dwelling primitive people living in a Philippine rain forest. They used crude stone tools and subsisted by hunting and gathering. The media latched on to the fantastic story and the next year a National Geographic TV special aired. Access to the Tasaday was limited when martial law was declared in 1974, but with the overthrow of Marcos 12 years later, visitors found the Tasaday wearing modern clothing, using modern implements, no longer living in caves--and claiming that Elizalde had paid them to act more "primitive." Anthropologists generally agree that the Tasaday were a separate but not totally isolated group which had been exploited for political gain.

The Roswell Crash

Is Agent Mulder right? Are there Men In Black? Did a UFO crash in Roswell, N.M., in 1947? A good proportion of people think the latter happened—according to a 1997 Gallup poll, 80% of Americans have heard of the Roswell incident and 31% believe it's true. In 1947 a rancher found debris which he thought could be from a flying saucer. After a few days of investigation, it was declared to be from weather balloons and for several decades the incident was closed. About 30 years later a UFO researcher started interviewing hundreds of "witnesses" to the crash—witnesses who for some reason kept quiet for 3 decades, who occasionally changed their stories, and sometimes told outright lies. Rumors of a government cover-up and alien bodies abounded, including a Fox-TV special Alien Autopsy. Ironically, there probably was a government cover-up, with the debris most likely coming from the top-secret "Project Mogul," which used balloons for spying purposes.

A Perfectly Cromulent Particle

In one of a series of annual April Fools' articles, Discover magazine reported in 1996 that scientists Albert Manqué and Jean-Xavier Zweistein had found a new fundamental particle. This particle existed only for a few millionths of a second, but was the size of a bowling ball. This new particle, called the "bigon," was said to have been discovered when several laboratory computers exploded near an experiment with vacuum tubes. Subsequent experimenting with a video camera led to a photo of a computer monitor being shattered by an object looking rather like a bowling ball. "Bigons could be responsible for ball lightning, migraines, the unexplained failures of equipment and soufflés, the spontaneous human combustion—I don't know, maybe earthquakes even," Manqué went on to explain.

Balloon Boy Rivets Nation

In a startling case of "what were they thinking?," Richard and Mayumi Heene of Colorado tearfully reported to a local television station—and later police—on October 15, 2009, that their 6-year-old son, Falcon, was aboard a homemade Mylar balloon that was cruising as high as 7,000 feet in the sky. Richard Heene, an amateur inventor, meteorologist, and former television weatherman, built the vessel himself, calling it a "3D low-altitude vehicle." The media grabbed hold of the story and followed the balloon's progress with attention not seen since, well, the low-speed chase between O. J. Simpson and Los Angeles police on the San Diego Freeway in 1994. Rescuers, the Colorado Air National Guard, and authorities from several communities joined the pursuit of the balloon, and millions of television viewers were glued to their sets. Hours after taking flight, the balloon landed about 90 miles from the Heene home; it was empty. Authorities feared that Falcon had fallen out of the balloon, prompting another search and rescue operation. It turns out that Falcon never boarded the balloon. Instead, he was holed up in the attic above the family's garage. Investigators determined that Richard Heene had devised the hoax days in advance, hoping the media attention would bring the family publicity. That part of his plan was clearly successful. He probably didn't expect to face three felony charges, including conspiracy to commit a crime, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and attempting to influence a public servant.

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