Monday, November 21, 2011


The greatest scientific hoax was the "Piltdown Man", "discovered" in a quarry in southern England in 1908.  It was the "Missing link" in the fossil record, a skull with the brain of a man but the jaw of an ape.

Of course, it was all fake.  It was assembled and hidden at the Piltdown site by person or persons unknown, but on this day in 1953 the British Museum formally announced that it was not genuine.

For fourty years, the scientific community had been taken in by a clever assembly of piece parts designed to play to current accepted scientific theory.  The parts never really fit together well, and the story didn't fit together very well either, but the scientific establishment welcomed Eoanthropus dawsoni with open arms.  Backed by the power of the consensus, Piltdown Man was "settled science" for four decades.

Scientists wanted to believe in it.  It fit the current theory, National pride made it agreeable to swallow, and so many scientists didn't look too closely at the data or demand too many consistencies.  It was comfortable.

And it was a fake.  Confirmation Bias comes from many places, but all examples - all of them, including the too eager acceptance of Anthropogenic (human-caused) Global Warming - have something in common.  People don't look too closely at the data, because it result is one they like.  Too close an examination of the data might raise questions, harshing their mellow.

Piltdown Man, rest in peace.  May we learn from you the need for eternal vigilance, against our own desires most of all.


Weer'd Beard said...

I think Global Warming kicked it's ass. We could argue that Piltdown was the greatest hoax of the 20th, and Global Warming the 21st....but I was being scared about the "Greenhouse Effect" back in the 80s...

Dave H said...

but I was being scared about the "Greenhouse Effect" back in the 80s...

In the 1970s they predicted we were heading for another ice age. I mentioned it to a classmate and she freaked out. She thought it meant, like, next year.

Weer'd Beard said...

Yeah they didn't teach us about the "Global Cooling" scare when I was in school...that would have really exposed the hoax!

Like the Piltdown Man, they WANT use to be killing the Earth.

To feel like that, I suspect their folks didn't hug them enough when they were little.

If you have small kids (And Borepatch "Small" is relevant...go grab those big lugs!) HUG YOUR KIDS!

SiGraybeard said...

Between confirmation bias and selection bias, you probably explain 75% of modern science.

The Czar of Muscovy said...

Hmmm. There is a big difference between a hoax and a fraud.

Piltdown Man was a hoax: just a bit of fun to expose the gullibility of the would-be scientists in the upper classes.

AGW is closer aligned to a fraud: a genuine crime, designed to part money from the foolish.