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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - November 2005   

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Title  Hoaxes, frauds, and the like

Developing a scientific culture is also a matter of training critical minds. The ability to judge things objectively is an essential one, as the news and the communication media are far from immune to falsehoods. Many of these come from researchers themselves, sometimes in the form of mischievous subversion designed to test the vigilance of their peers or the gullibility of the media and society at large, sometimes as actual fraud. And there is also a whole panoply of quackery. We take a look at some gems…

The Piltdown man hoax
The Piltdown man hoax
This famous, and now venerable, episode has gone down in the history of paleontology. In 1912, one Charles Dawson discovered, in a quarry in Piltdown (Sussex, UK), a cranium and a jawbone which were presented as being remains of a hominid forerunner of Homo sapiens. The discovery was identified as being the famous and much sought after “missing link” and was hailed in the media. In 1953, it was proved that the Piltdown man – which had in the meantime been superseded by later finds – was a hoax: the cranium, artificially ‘aged’, probably came from an Indian tribe in Patagonia, while the jawbone was that of an orang-utan that had lived 500 years before. It has never, however, been clarified whether the late Dawson had himself willingly committed a fraud, or whether his paleontological assistants – or some other, anonymous, practical joker – had played a trick on him…

The dangers of dihydrogen monoxide
This is a little gem of a hoax. The alarm was sounded by an e-mail that began to circulate in 1997, drawing attention to a website that appeared to have impeccable scientific credentials (it can still be found on the internet and has been translated into 15 languages – The monoxide in question – abbreviated to DHMO – is presented as a terrifying industrial chemical substance, responsible for unprecedented health ravages, polluting both world water resources and dairy products, and scandalously ignored by public authorities. The DMHO Research Division denounces this conspiracy and wages a campaign to mobilise public opinion. The only thing that you will not find on the site is the formula for DHMO – which is, indeed, H2O… The joke has not always been appreciated as such – in one district in the United States it led to a small-scale panic which somewhat annoyed the authorities. In the context of the Patriot Act, one official spoke of a reprehensible subversion of public order.

Cold fusion ravings
The cold fusion affair, which began in 1989, is not so easy to categorise from a scientific point of view as the frontiers between ingenuousness, fraud, and hypotheses for the future are still blurred. In 1989, the University of Utah (USA) announced that two researchers, Martin Fleishmann and Stanley Pons, had succeeded in producing, “cold”, a fusion of deuterium nuclei (hydrogen isotope), proven by a weak release of energy in what is commonly referred to as “heavy water”. This sensational news, immediately picked up by the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, was greeted with a shrug of the shoulders, tinged with scorn, by the international scientific community. Muddled and lacking elementary rigour, the Fleishmann-Pons experiments were dismissed as hare-brained. Undaunted by this ostracism, the two partners went into exile in France and rallied a handful of researchers enthralled with this quest for the Grail (renamed Condensed Matter Nuclear Science CMNS). Here and there, a few sponsors (including Toyota in Japan and the Stanford Research Institute) have provided limited funding for their dogged research. The CNMS crusaders organise an international conference every year (see Who knows: maybe one day in the 21st century their dreams will come true.

Faulty water memory
Faulty water memory
Water has certainly inspired quite a few fantasies. The dramatic episode of “water memory” began with an extraordinary item in Nature, which immediately found its way on to the front page of the French daily Le Monde, under the heading “Les fondements de la physique bouleversés” (Physics shaken to its foundations). The biologist and medical doctor Jacques Benvéniste claimed to have discovered the mechanism long sought after by the advocates of homeopathy, that is to say, the mysterious curative effect obtained by diluting substances in water to such an extent that not a single one of their molecules can be detected any longer. Benvéniste asserted that he could demonstrate this unexplained phenomenon by means of an experiment proving that the water used for dilution retains a ‘memory’ of the substance, even after the substance itself has disappeared. In return for publication in Nature, he accepted being subjected to a strange verification procedure organised by the prestigious journal in the presence of James Randi, a famous conjurer and ‘specialist’ in fraudulent scientific experiments. The result was a complete flop. Sadly for him, Benvéniste believed himself a victim of persecution and became caught up in a ‘Galileo syndrome’, turning to ever-more exotic and paranormal fantasies.
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