Top 10 Modern Scientific Hoaxes

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Lost tribes. Cosmic catastrophes. Fictitious species. If it sounds too incredible to be true, it often is. We’ve all heard of such classic cons as the Cardiff Giant or the Halley’s Comet scare of 1910, but modern-day hoaxes persist. What follows is a list of the top 10 hoaxes that have fooled journalists, the public, and yes, occasionally even the scientific community in recent years.

 

10. Archaeoraptor

A dinosaur fossil discovered in China in 1999 turned out to be glued together by a Chinese farmer.

Photo credit: Marek Szumlas/Shutterstock.com

In 1999, a fossilized skeleton emerged in China and was touted as the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. This created a stir in the paleontology community, until it was discovered during closer examination that the find was the composite of bones from two separate and known species glued together by a farmer. Several prestigious journals, including National Geographic, were initially taken in by the affair, before printing retractions.

 

9. Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus

The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus was a deliberate hoax.

Photo credit: Patrik Mezirka/Shutterstock.com

In 1998, a creature known as the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus made its debut online in a deliberate, high-profile prank. Since that time, the fictional cephalopod has highlighted the weakness of online academic skills, as students have consistently rated the site as “credible” and expressed a belief that the octopus is real. The whole affair does serve as a study on how the mythology of a species can be created out of thin air. One even wonders if the scientific community may be falling prey to yet another octopus tale with the recent reports of the giant kraken lair.

 

8. Comet Elenin

Comet Elenin did not hit Earth, as many predicted.

Photo credit: Sdecoret/Shutterstock.com

Nothing brings out the doomsayers like an inbound comet. Discovered in December 2010, a throng of Internet sites soon sprang up claiming that Comet Elenin would hit the Earth and that there was a conspiracy afoot to cover it up. Never mind that such a cover-up would be impossible with the technology available to the average backyard astronomer. Comet Elenin rounded the Sun and started to disintegrate in August 2011, leaving its fragments to pass us at a non-threatening distance of 21.7 million miles on Oct. 16, 2011.

 

7. The Bogdanov Affair

The Bogdanov brothers perpetrated a hoax involving the Big Bang theory.

Igor (left) and Grichka Bogdanov; Photo credit: Maksim

Controversy continues around the modern idea in physics of string theory; supporters cite its elegance, but its detractors point to its current lack of predictive evidence. This state of incongruence provided a backdrop for a pair of French physicists named Igor and Grichka Bogdanov to perpetrate what became known as the Bogdanov Affair in 2002. The brothers asserted that they had scientific evidence for what occurred during the Big Bang and the moments before cosmic inflation took hold. Unlike the cosmological model of the Big Bang, which is grounded in multiple firm lines of evidence, the brothers buried their idea amidst a wrapping of string theory and quantum jargon nonsense. Still, for a brief time their scientific paper caused a stir and even found its way past the gate keepers of several respectable journals, highlighting the tug of war between peer review and the mantra of “publish first.”

 

6. Time Traveler Arrested For Insider Trading

The time-traveling inside trader story originated in a tabloid.

Photo credit: Olly/Shuttertock.com

This one is a good study in Occam’s razor; in 2003, a story surfaced, apparently generated by the tabloid Weekly World News (that should be a red flag right there!) of a man arrested for insider trading. Not an unusual occurrence on Wall Street, but the man claimed to be a time traveler … from the year 2256. Although the whole premise sounds absurd, that didn’t stop online news agencies from picking up the story, where the lines between hoax and reality became blurred. As for this hoax within a hoax, the simplest explanation seems the most likely.

 

5. 2009 Latvian Meteorite

The Latvian Meteorite was quickly determined to be a hoax.

Photo credit: Michael D. Brown/Shutterstock.com

Rocks from space are pelting our world constantly, and whenever there’s a report of a fresh fall, meteorite hunters from around the world converge on the site. A similar claim emerged in 2009 concerning a crater near the small town of Mazsalaca in Latvia. Doubts of its authenticity, however, began to mount; fresh meteorite impacts exhibit telltale signs, not to mention that no pre-impact meteor trail was seen. Sudden subsidence sinkholes have been mistaken for impact craters, but in the case of the Latvian “meteorite” scientists quickly determined the crater had been manmade, with chemicals dumped in to confuse the experts.

 

4. Dihydrogen Monoxide

Dihydrogen monoxide does sound poisonous, but it's just another name for water.

Photo credit: Brian S./Shutterstock.com

Consumers often shy away from ingredients with ominous-sounding names, while self-appointed experts exhort us to avoid “chemicals” … such a goal, of course, is impossible. The fear of chemicals (known as chemophobia) and scientific illiteracy have been discussed for years. The sad nexus of both trends came to light in a parody project launched in 1990 by some California college students, calling for a ban on dihydrogen monoxide. That’s right, good ol’ H2O, otherwise known by the innocuous moniker “water” has been found to cause erosion, contribute to the greenhouse effect, and is harmful if swallowed in large quantities … who knew?

 

3. The Mars Email Hoax

Every year, an email circulates noting that Mars will appear bigger than the Moon.

Photo credit: Orla/Shutterstock.com

In August 2003, Mars had a close, perihelion opposition that saw the planet only 56 million kilometers distant, the closest it had been to the Earth in 60,000 years. Of course, the planet Mars comes nearly as close every opposition, which occurs on average every 26.5 months. This sparked a chain email that was widely circulated erroneously claiming that Mars would appear “larger than the full Moon.” Apparently, the email was so popular that it now makes its rounds every year, exclaiming that Mars is once again approaching. Just where does this viral email go to weather the lean winter months?

 

2. The Tale of the Tasaday

The Tasaday tribe turned out not to be as isolated and primitive as first reported.

Asmat headhunters, Indonesia; Photo credit: Uryadnikov Sergey/Shutterstock.com

In 1971, a media bombshell surfaced from the jungles of remote Mindanao, a southern Philippine island; a tribe known as the Tasaday had been discovered, purported to have only Stone Age technology and no contact with the modern world. The Tasaday were portrayed as gentle hunter-gathers serving as a glimpse into our ancient ancestry. Doubts, however, about the completeness of their isolation soon arose. It was later discovered that the Tasaday had a long history of trading with outsiders and researchers had become duplicitous in pulling off a hoax on the credulous media.

 

1. Cold Fusion

Part of the setup for the cold-fusion experiment.

Part of the setup for the cold-fusion experiment.

The very concept of fusion at room temperature has become synonymous with the term “red herring.” The idea is a tempting one; cold fusion would easily provide virtually limitless energy for years to come. Claims of its discovery came to a climax in March 1989 with the announcement by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons that cold fusion could be attained via electrolysis using a palladium rod submerged in deuterium, also known as “heavy water.” Though the paper outlining the Fleischmann-Pons experiment passed the initial peer review of the prestigious journal Nature and created a media frenzy, publication was ultimately rejected because the results of the team could not be duplicated. This also resulted in a fall from grace for the two scientists, and today, the whole affair serves as a cautionary tale for scientists thinking of making extreme claims. While cold fusion claims have proven to be bogus, traditional controlled “hot fusion” — always said to be 20 years away — may one day become a reality.

Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.

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