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Real Discoveries Dismissed as Hoaxes
Status: Not Hoaxes
A few days ago the Financial Times ran a brief list of major technological breakthroughs that were either ignored or ridiculed. This raises an interesting issue: the danger of over-skepticism, or dismissing startling new discoveries as hoaxes simply because one refuses to believe that anything new or out-of-the-ordinary can be real. I can't find a link to the FT story, but here's a summary of their list:

The Wright Brothers' discovery of flight: "When two American bicycle repairmen claimed to have built the world's firstaircraft in 1903, they were dismissed as cranks. Newspapers refused to send reporters or photographers to witness any of the flights. More than two years later, Scientific American magazine was still insisting that the story was a hoax. By that time, the Wright brothers had completed a half-hour flight covering 24 miles."

Steam Turbine Propulsion: "The claim of Irish engineer Charles Parsons to have developed a radically new form of marine propulsion was scorned by the Admiralty, until his steam turbine vessel made an unauthorised appearance at the 1897 Spithead naval review going at 37 knots - faster than any other vessel in the fleet."

Atoms as a source of energy: "The idea that atoms could be a source of energy millions of times more potent than coal or oil was dismissed by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest Rutherford as "moonshine"."

Amorphous semiconductor materials: "During the 1950s, self-taught American physicist Stanford Ovshinsky found a way of creating materials lacking a regular crystal structure - an achievement dismissed as impossible by scientists. They are now standard components in devices ranging from flat-panel displays to solar cells."

Lasers: "While developing the technology behind the laser, American physicist Charles Townes was approached by two Nobel-Prize-winning colleagues who told him he was wasting his time and threatening their funding. Even after the first laser was built in 1960, it was described as "a solution looking for a problem"."

The Scanning Tunnelling Microscope: "The Scanning Tunnelling Microscope (STM), invented by scientists at IBM in Zurich in the early 1980s, now plays a key role in fields ranging from biology to nanotechnology. But many scientists remained deeply suspicious of the claims made for the STM until its inventors won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1986."

To this list I can add:

Photography: Marcus Aurelius Root, a 19th century American photographer, recorded that: "In 1839, and on the very day of the publication of Daguerre's discovery in the Philadelphia daily papers, Dr. Bird, then chemical professor in one of our medical schools, was asked, at a gathering of several scientific men, what he thought of this new method of copying objects with the sunbeam? The Doctor, in a lengthened reply, pronounced the whole report a fabrication--a new edition of the famed "moon-hoax"--such a performance being, in his view, an intrinsic improbability."

The Duckbilled Platypus. When George Shaw, keeper of the Department of Natural History at the British Museum, examined a specimen of a duckbilled platypus sent to him from Australia, he wrote that, "it is impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal, and to surmise that there might have been practised some arts of deception in its structure."

Of course, all these real discoveries that were regarded as hoaxes provide an endless source of encouragement to all the crackpots who are convinced that their devices for extracting infinite energy from magnets, or using water as a fuel, are similarly misunderstood.
Technology
Posted by The Curator on Thu Mar 16, 2006


There's no such thing as "over-skepticism". Skepticism is part of the scientific method. If something really is true, it WILL eventually be proved as such no matter how much some may not believe it. All it takes is the PROOF.

Occasionally, something may take longer to be accepted than it should but this is a small price to pay to keep the BS out. Because of that, you can rest assured if something is accepted by mainstream science it probably is true. However, skeptics reserve the right to withdraw that acceptance any time.

In the case of the Wright Brothers, why are we surprised it took a while? In 1903 there was no Internet or live news broadcasts to spread the word. Photographic equipment for proof was not as readily available as it is now. There were few experts on flight to educate the public that manned flight was possible and there weren't many people hanging around Kitty Hawk to witness history in the making. Finally, few people today doubt they did it so obviously the system works.
Posted by Captain Al  in  Vancouver Island, Canada  on  Thu Mar 16, 2006  at  03:26 PM
I'm STILL on the fence about the platypus.
Posted by Matt  on  Thu Mar 16, 2006  at  04:28 PM
"Of course, all these real discoveries that were regarded as hoaxes provide an endless source of encouragement to all the crackpots who are convinced that their devices for extracting infinite energy from magnets, or using water as a fuel, are similarly misunderstood."

Can you say Lifewave?
Posted by Razela  in  Chicago, IL  on  Thu Mar 16, 2006  at  05:52 PM
Excellent post, although I do agree with Captain Al on this one. I do think that Scientific American should have investigated the Wright Brothers before dismissing them, however.

Also, it seems to me that calling lazers "a solution looking for a problem" implies that it's a technology which has no current known applications, and isn't a claim that the technology is a hoax. I could be misreading it though.

(Aaaaand you've got some punctual errors with the Lazer entry. You should consider emailing me your posts in advance so I can proofread them, or letting me edit out the grammatical errors!)
Posted by Citizen Premier  in  spite of public outcry  on  Thu Mar 16, 2006  at  06:38 PM
Uh, CitPrem, you'd probably have better luck landing editing jobs if you quit spelling "laser" with a "Z."

However, it's true that lasers were around for a fairly long time before they were really put to practical uses. This is probably partly because the equipment to produce laser beams was rather cumbersome and expensive in the beginning.
Posted by Big Gary in Heavener, Oklahoma  in  Dallas, Texas, USA  on  Thu Mar 16, 2006  at  07:30 PM
To put it mildly, skepticism is bullshit. They will readily look at proof of meaningless claims like psychics or ghosts, but reject scientific advances or new philosophical ideas without thinking.
Posted by Francois Tremblay  in  Montreal, QC  on  Thu Mar 16, 2006  at  07:50 PM
Francois, who's "they"?
Posted by Captain Al  in  Vancouver Island, Canada  on  Thu Mar 16, 2006  at  11:53 PM
Oh, I think there's a danger of over-skepticism. Case in point: all those people who are convinced that the moon landing never happened.

And yes, skepticism is part of the scientific method. But Trust is a greater part of it. (Though less often remarked upon.)
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Fri Mar 17, 2006  at  01:23 AM
Lasers are... "a solution looking for a problem".

Quite true actually.

Lots of "problems" found though.
Posted by Peter  on  Fri Mar 17, 2006  at  02:28 PM
Ever seen a laser light show? Who needs a problem?
Posted by hcmomof4  on  Fri Mar 17, 2006  at  03:20 PM
Refrigerated food?

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/060317.html
Posted by Splarka  on  Sat Mar 18, 2006  at  03:37 AM
Francois Tremblay wrote:
"To put it mildly, skepticism is bullshit[...]"

You know, he has a point. Consider that his post is both sceptical and bullshit.
Posted by David B.  on  Sat Mar 18, 2006  at  11:10 AM
To quote the Gershwins,

"Ha, Ha, Ha, Who's got the last laugh now.?"
Posted by Andy  in  Brooklyn  on  Sat Mar 18, 2006  at  12:12 PM
I don't think that people who reject the moon landings are 'over-skeptical' - cynical, maybe, in that they assume that given the possibility of a government-funded hoax they'll opt to believe that, but not sceptical. To me, a sceptic is one who needs to see evidence of (especially) anything improbable to give it credence. Moon hoax believers merely suppose that because the moon footage could have been faked, it was faked - a misapplication of Ockam's razor as it assumes (against the evidence) that sustaining a massive hoax for decades is easily done. They belong to the same camp as the UFO believers, the anti-vaxers, all these types. How credulous do you have to be to believe that governments that leak secrets more readily than five-dollar paddling pools could sustain a colossal hoax like the moon landings for five minutes, let alone half a century?
Posted by outeast  on  Mon Mar 20, 2006  at  11:03 AM
Hmm. What are "anti-vaxers"?
People who are against vaccinations?

My favorite group in this category is all the people who still insist, despite a century of evidence that it's harmless, that putting flouride in drinking water is a secret plot to poison everybody.
Posted by Big Gary in Turkey, Texas  in  Dallas, Texas, USA  on  Wed Mar 22, 2006  at  06:30 PM
i am a college student... i want to ask what are recent discoveries in medicine regarding chemistrty.
_ hoping for your immediate response
Posted by hadjarah  in  philippnine  on  Thu Mar 08, 2007  at  01:54 PM
It was recently discovered that 100% of patients who have received drugs have either died, or will eventually die. Every one of these drugs was created/manufactured by chemists. It's an unfathomable discovery that will surely come as a severe blow to the chemistry lobby.
Posted by Charybdis  in  Hell  on  Thu Mar 08, 2007  at  02:16 PM
That was a good one Chary!
Posted by Razela  in  Chicago, IL  on  Thu Mar 08, 2007  at  03:50 PM
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