From Piltdown Man to anti-vaxxers ... What science’s worst hoaxes can teach us

Covid disinformation prompts Royal Society to consider ways of countering forgeries and falsehoods

Alessandro Siani, a biologist based at Portsmouth University, chose to write about research on vaccine hesitancy in the online academic network the Conversation earlier this year. The consequences were unpleasant.

A screenshot of an out-of-context extract of his article was republished online with a new headline: “They knew: why did unvaccinated not do more to warn us?”

Later versions of this fake news story claimed Siani – a supporter of the use of vaccines – now believed inoculations were deadly and that he blamed anti-vaxxers for not changing his mind until then.

“I received a lot of threats and insults and very violent messages from anti-vaxxers who thought I was blaming them for not being strong enough in opposing vaccines,” he said.

Siani had become a victim of fake news, an experience that he will share at a special open meeting on “fakes, forgeries and misinformation” at the Royal Society in London on Thursday.

Past scientific frauds will be revealed and debates held on the lessons that can be learned from previous hoaxes.

A model of Piltdown Man
A model of Piltdown Man, who was allegedly found in East Sussex in 1912, but was proved to be an elaborate archaeological hoax decades later. Photograph: ND/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

“This is the first late-evening public event the Royal Society has held since the Covid pandemic began and we want to explore what happened during that time,” said Keith Moore, the Royal Society’s head librarian and organiser of the event.

“A great deal of disinformation and fraudulent activities went on during the pandemic so this is an appropriate time to think about how science gets at the truth and how it deals with fake news.”

In Siani’s case, the falsehoods linked to him were quickly revealed and he was exonerated – though not before he went through some fairly disturbing moments. “A lot of people tried to find out exactly who I was and where I lived,” he said. “That is not a pleasant feeling.”

By contrast, previous examples of fake news have taken much longer to be shown to be false. It took decades before the true nature of Britain’s greatest scientific fraud, Piltdown Man, was revealed. It’s an extraordinary story that will be outlined at the meeting by palaeontologist Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum.

The shards of skull that were unearthed in a gravel pit at Piltdown in East Sussex in 1912 were interpreted as being the remains of a million-year-old apeman, an individual who possessed a large brain but primitive jawbone and teeth. It was exactly what British scientists were seeking, said Stringer.

“A century ago, French archaeologists had discovered Cro-Magnons while the Germans had their Neanderthals. Britain had nothing – until Piltdown Man appeared.

“Then we had our own fossil rival – except, of course, it was a forgery made up of the braincase of a modern human being and the jawbone of an orangutan. It took scientists 40 years to prove this.

“At the time of its discovery, there was a huge demand for Britain to have its own missing link, and a lot of experts who should have known better lowered their guard.

“It is a lesson for all of us. When something seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be the real thing.”

As to the perpetrator, most scientists, Stringer included, now believe local archaeologist Charles Dawson – the man who had first found the pieces of skull – was responsible for fabricating the find. He was desperate to become a fellow of the Royal Society and was listed as a possible candidate for election. The Piltdown skull would be his ticket to scientific fame, he hoped. However, he died in 1916, not long after making his “discovery”.

Dawson, though, would not have been the first fraudster or crook to have been made a fellow of the society if he had succeeded.

“Indeed, it is surprising, when you start looking, how many eminent scientists and fellows of the Royal Society have ended up in jail,” said Moore. “There is a long history of this kind of thing here.”

Examples go back to the founding of the Royal Society, though some were imprisoned for less than nefarious reasons.

German theologian Henry Oldenburg, its first secretary and one of the originators of the idea of peer review was imprisoned in the Tower of London as a suspected spy in 1667 during the second Anglo-Dutch war. Crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale was briefly jailed for her pacifist views during the second world war.

But the strangest of all these characters was Rudolf Erich Raspe, who will be the focus of a talk by Moore at Thursday’s meeting.

Raspe, a German, was elected to the society in the 18th century for his work on geology but was eventually ejected for his “divers frauds and gross breaches of trust”.

“Part of the problem was that in those days, scientists had no income other than private means and that sometimes led them on to the path of temptation,” said Moore.

Raspe sought other sources of income and in due course turned to fiction. “He wrote the earliest known version of the stories of Baron Munchausen, which have never been out of print since, though he made no money from them himself,” added Moore.

The crucial point is that science can only operate if it can be sure that the information it is presented with is correct, said Moore.

“That is why the integrity of its fellows was so important to the society. It was our way of ensuring information and data were coming from a reliable source. And of course, it is fun to tell people there has been a long history of scientists fighting against fraud and occasionally losing out.

“It is also important to understand these issues because we now have new problems relating to the internet, deepfaking and that kind of stuff. People have to be careful about the sources of the information that they are relying on. That has always been a problem.”

Scientific rogues and fraudsters

John Heslop Harrison was a professor of botany and a Royal Society fellow who took rare grasses and sedges and secretly planted them on Rum in the Inner Hebrides. Later he mounted expeditions to the island where, with feigned surprise, he “discovered” his plants. His aim was to support the incorrect theory that some plants had survived the last Ice Age, even though buried under glaciers for millennia but was accused of fraud by other scientists in 1948.

Sir Cyril Burt was an English educational psychologist and geneticist whose studies on the inheritance of IQ played a major role in “establishing” the heritability of intelligence. Shortly after he died, his studies were discredited after evidence emerged that he had falsified research data, invented correlations in separated twins which did not exist, and made other fabrications.

Andrew Wakefield published a study in 1998 that falsely claimed there was a link between the MMR vaccine, used widely to protect children against measles, mumps and rubella, and autism. Subsequent publicity caused a sharp decline in vaccination uptake and an increase in measles outbreaks. The General Medical Council later found Wakefield had been dishonest in his research and had “failed in his duties as a responsible consultant”.

Hwang Woo-suk, a Korean researcher, was found - in 2005 - to have fabricated a series of experiments in stem cell research, a field in which he was once considered to be a world-leading pioneer. He was dismissed from his post at Seoul National University in 2006.


Robin McKie

The GuardianTramp

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