The Strange Case of Mr. Piltdown


A recent issue of Chemical & Engineering News (February 18, 2008) contains the story “A Massive Case of Fraud”.  The story is about an Indian chemistry who published some 70 papers between 2004 and 2007.  Unfortunately, the papers were either plagiarized from other journals or falsified from the beginning.  The evidence of fraud began when a reviewer noticed a similarity between a paper written by this chemist dealing with arsenic and a paper written by a Japanese chemist that dealt with chromium.  Further examination showed that the author of these papers did not have the instrumentation at his university necessary for the research that he was diligently describing.

There are those who are going to wonder how this could have been accomplished.  After all, science is supposed to be self-correcting and such errors should be caught.  But the academic world is a world like the non-academic world where success is measured more often by the number of papers published and not the quality of the papers published.  If an author wanted to submit several papers at a time, such as this author did, several are likely to slip through the cracks and get published.  Sooner or later, though, the fraud will be caught.

Sadly, the perpetrator will suffer only a limited punishment as he is a permanent employee of his university.

One of the hallmarks of science is that it is self-correcting.  It may take time but those who try to publish faulty or incorrect research generally don’t get it done.  It is sad to say that the number of cases of scientific fraud are increasing each year.  But this is not a failure of science but rather indicative of a society that demands results when results take time.  The process of science to self-correct itself will, in the end and if it can be experimentally verified, yield the correct answers.

The history of science is complete with stories of the self-correcting nature of science.

Shortly after Wilhelm Röntgen published his discovery of X-rays, René Blondlot announced the discovery of N-rays.  Röntgen used the term “X” because “X” has always been used to refer to the unknown (as we are so often reminded when working algebra problems).  Röntgen was German and, while this has nothing to do with his research, it has everything to do with Blondlot’s research.

The competition between France and Germany, especially in the late 19th century, was in every category, including science.  If a German is going to discover something, then so must a Frenchman.  Blondlot, for whatever reasons, felt that he had discovered an additional unknown ray and he named it after Nancy, his hometown and the home of the university where he worked (the University of Nancy).

Immediately following his announcement of these special rays, practically every physicist in France announced that they too had seen evidence of these rays.  Unfortunately, physicists in Britain and here in the United States could not repeat the process.  Ultimately, Robert Wood of Johns Hopkins University proved that there was no such thing as N-rays and that Blondlot had only been deceiving himself as to the existence of the rays (he saw the rays because he wanted to see the rays).

What this shows is that the science can correct itself, even when a scientist make error.  Other scientists will check the experimental evidence and ultimately get science back on track.  Those who think that science is infallible do not understand the processes of science.  Sadly, René Blondlot’s life was to end rather tragically.

The strange case of N-rays is more properly considered “bad” science as self-deception rather than fraud was involved.  But even when fraud is involved, science will catch the perpetrator. 

Now, what does this have to do with Mr. Piltdown?  And who is Mr. Piltdown anyway?

In 1913, a fossil was discovered in the archeological site in Piltdown, England.  It had the characteristics of both man and ape.  For British paleontologists, this was the ultimate discovery.  Much as French scientists rejoiced in the discovery of N-rays and the triumph of French scientists over German scientists, so too did the British scientific community rejoice in the fact that they too had a major archeological find to go along with the French and German discoveries.

It also suggested that there was such a thing as a “missing link” and for over forty years it was treated as such. 

However, two things happened.  As more and more fossil evidence was discovered, it appeared that the Piltdown man was an anomaly.  And then, in 1953, examination of the original fossil showed it to be the skull of a modern man and the jaw of an ape.  The Piltdown man was shown to be at worst a fraud and at best an immense practical joke.  The only problem was that no one can figure out who might have pulled it off.  Among those listed as primary suspects is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

There is still some question today as to who the perpetrator is and the real reason for making the faux fossil. 

That it took forty years to discover that this was a hoax is not a weakness of science.  It may have been discovered sooner if those who held the fossils had not refused for so many years to allow others to examine the original fossils.  Had others been allowed to do so, the hoax would have been discovered sooner.  See “Piltdown Man” for a more extensive explanation.

I took the opportunity of a fraud that occurred in my area to look at the processes of science again.  The Piltdown man and subsequent hoax is often used by creationists and advocates of intelligent design as an example of bad science and evidence against the theory of evolution. 

They try to convince people that scientists do this sort of thing all the time and that any discovery will similarly overturned at any time.  They ignore the fact that the Piltdown man was either a fraud or a hoax and that it was good science that showed it for what it truly was. 

They present the argument that such fraud should have been discovered back in 1913 when the fossils were first discovered.  Yes, many British paleontologists and archeologists accepted the notion that the Piltdown man would fit into the scheme of evolutionary development.  But nationalism cannot stop people from showing that particular evidence is not plausible.

The date of the fossil would have been determined at the time of discovery, if suitable means for determining the date were available.  The age of the fossils and the proof that they were actually relatively modern were determined when suitable means to do became available.

It is very interesting that creationists will say that the Piltdown man proves that science doesn’t work while scientists point out how it works. 

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3 thoughts on “The Strange Case of Mr. Piltdown

  1. Here goes!
    The post about science and how it can correct itself.

    I worked with Japanese post-docs in Pathology & Lab Medicine and remember how the students always strove to publish in journals that were well respected and peer-reviewed. The post-docs knew the difference between journals and what would be the choice publication for their article. There are journals and there are journals, so to speak. Some journals would require a fee that would guarantee publication. When anyone can pay for an article to be published, what does that tell you about the voracity of the journal? The big challenge was to find a new idea that had never been discovered before and have it published. It was very seldom that the post-doc was the principle investigator on the paper. That prize always went to the director of the lab. The post-docs always worked under the name of the boss, even though the idea and research was done by them. When the post-docs were ready to leave the lab and go out on their own, then they would land a job in another organization, drum up their own $$$$ for research, and finally publish in their own name.

  2. Pingback: A Brief History of Atomic Theory « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  3. Pingback: science that makes sense of our world…and the atomic theory « seeking spirit

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