Hoaxes Throughout History
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Science Hoaxes

Early modern naturalists used the term "Lusus Naturae" (Jokes of Nature) to describe any creature or object that defied classification. The concept represented the belief that Nature was an active, sentient force that enjoyed playing jokes on man by confounding his expectations and subverting his classification schemes — in other words, that Nature played hoaxes on man. One famous example of a Lusus Naturae was the "Vegetable Lamb." Believed to be a real creature, this was a lamb from whose belly grew a thick stem firmly rooted in the ground. Thus, it was part plant, part animal, but didn't belong wholly in either category. Inanimate objects, such as rocks and pieces of wood that displayed patterns resembling crosses or faces (what today we would call 'pareidolia') were also considered Lusus Naturae. The belief was that Nature had purposefully placed meaningful patterns in these objects as a kind of game, intending for men to find them. More…
Entomologists were fascinated when, shortly before his death, William Charlton presented them with a specimen of a rare, one-of-a-kind butterfly. Sixty years later, Linnaeus examined it and declared it to be a new species, although none other of its kind had ever been found. Thirty years after that, a Danish entomologist decided to examine it more closely, and it was only then discovered to be a common Brimstone butterfly with black spots painted on its wings. More…
The British Royal Society received a report detailing how women could become pregnant without a man, due to the presence of microscopic "floating animalcula" in the air. The author suggested this discovery might restore the honor of women who could not otherwise explain their pregnancies. The report was actually satirizing the "spermist" theory, which held that sperm were little men (homunculi) that, when placed inside women, grew into children. More…
The British Museum received a specimen of an Australian animal that appeared to be a combination of a duck and a mole. Naturalists there suspected it was a hoax. It was only when more specimens of the strange creature arrived in England that naturalists finally, grudgingly admitted it was real. Today we know the creature as the Duckbilled Platypus. It is one of the more famous instances of a hoax that proved not to be a hoax after all. More…
When workers found a human skull buried deep inside a California mine, scholars initially identified it as Pliocene age, making it the oldest known record of human existence in North America. But other scholars challenged its authenticity, sparking a debate that dragged on for years. Eventually the skull was determined to be a fake, but it isn't known who was responsible for it, though it's suspected the skull may have been planted by miners playing a practical joke. More…
in early February 1874, the Kansas City Times ran a story claiming that scientists had discovered that the transatlantic telegraph cables were acting like enormous electromagnets, pulling the earth into the sun. Calculations indicated that if the earth's current trajectory continued unchecked, Europe would become tropical in 12 years, and the entire earth would be uninhabitable soon after. Finally the planet would plunge into the sun. More…
This six-volume biographical encyclopedia, published between 1887 and 1889, was one of the first and most definitive works of its kind in America, containing information about thousands of people (some famous, some obscure) in American history. But thirty years after its publication, researchers discovered that a number of the people described in the work were fictitious. Over the years, more and more false entries have been found — to date over 200 of them. But due to the enormity of the work it's doubtful that all of the false information it contains will ever be identified. More…
In 1912 amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson unearthed a skull and jawbone from a gravel pit near Piltdown, England. The skull was unmistakably human, whereas the jaw appeared to be from an ape, but their proximity within the pit suggested they came from the same creature. The discovery was believed to be of great significance. The fossil was possibly the long-sought missing link between man and ape. For almost forty years the authenticity of the Piltdown fossil remained unquestioned. But in 1953 researchers at the British Museum took a closer look and realized the fossil was a fake. The skull belonged to a prehistoric human, but the jawbone... More…
In 1925, 24-year-old Margaret Mead traveled to Samoa where she stayed for nine months. On her return she wrote Coming of Age in Samoa, which was published in 1928. It portrayed Samoa as a gentle, easy-going society where teenagers grew up free of sexual hang-ups. Premarital sex was common. Rape was unheard of. Young people grew to adulthood without enduring the adolescent trauma typical in western countries. She used these findings to support her thesis that culture, not biology, determines human behavior and personality. The book became an anthropological classic, read by generations of college students. But In 1983 New Zealand... More…
During the 1920s, Austrian scientist Paul Kammerer designed an experiment involving a species called the Midwife Toad. He wanted to prove that Lamarckian inheritance was possible. When his experiment produced positive results, the scientitic community was stunned. That is, until researchers had a chance to examine his toads more closely. More…

The Sokal Hoax (May 1996)

An article titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of the cultural studies journal Social Text. Written in a typical academic style (slightly overbearing, verbose, and armored with a bristling flank of footnotes), it appeared to be an unlikely candidate for controversy. But on the day of its publication, Sokal revealed that it was actually intended as a parody, a fact which the editorial board of Social Text had failed to recognize. Sokal argued that the publication of his parody demonstrated "an apparent decline in the standards of rigor in certain precincts of the academic humanities." More…
In October 1999, the National Geographic Society held a press conference to announce it had found a 125-million-year-old fossil in China that appeared to be the long-sought missing link between dinosaurs and birds. The fossil bird, when living, would have been about the size of a large chicken, but had the long tail of a dinosaur. This mixture of dinosaur and bird is what made them believe they had found the dinosaur-bird missing link. But it was not to be. A few months later, Nat Geo admitted it had fallen for a fake. A forger had taken a stone slab containing a tail fossil and affixed it to a fossil of a bird, thereby producing the hybrid dinosaur-bird creature. More…
Shinichi Fujimura was one of Japan's leading archaeologists and was something of a celebrity because of his discovery of human settlements in Japan that appeared to be over 600,000 years old. So it caused an enormous scandal when the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper accused Fujimura of planting artifacts that he later claimed to find. But it had photos of Fujimura caught red-handed, burying artifacts at a site. Fujimura confessed to the crime, explaining, "I was tempted by the Devil. I don't know how I can apologise for what I did... I wanted to be known as the person who excavated the oldest stoneware in Japan." More…