Science //

Conspirators in good company

Felicity Nelson spruiks the best science pranks in history

Research Scandal involving false claims

Do psychiatrists know a sane person when they see one? To find out David Rosenhan sent eight perfectly healthy undercover agents to psychiatric wards around America in 1973. The experiment proved a success. Even though the participants were instructed to behave normally throughout the experiment, not a single one was exposed as a fraud. All were diagnosed with schizophrenia in remission on their release and given medication for their condition. One hospital later requested that a number of pseudo-patients be sent to their institution so they could prove their competency. One-tenth of the patients were suspected sane over the course of a month even though Rosenhan had in fact sent no patients.

Society’s most trusted institutions and individuals are fooled by these sorts of pranks all the time. To paraphrase Henry Higgins, it seems a lot of silly people don’t know their own silly business. Hoaxes go way back… meet Mary Toft, a top 18th century British prankster. This crafty lady managed to convince a number of doctors, including the King’s surgeon, that she had given birth to rabbits (needless to say, several careers were ruined when the truth was revealed). Fast-forward to 1912 when Charles Dawson became the ultimate fraud artist by presenting the much-sought-after ‘missing link’ between the great apes and homo sapiens in the form of a carefully hand-crafted skull (apparently, he got the idea for this ‘Piltdown man’ after a brief encounter with the famous crime novelist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). Dawson was considered a hero of archaeology in his time and given several honorary university degrees. It was only in the 1950s that the skull, along with as many as 38 of his other important findings, were found to be forgeries.

Modern science is not immune to these sorts of scandals. In 2001, Jan Hendrik Schön published his groundbreaking work on semi-conductors in the prominent science journal, Nature, and was awarded three prizes, including the Outstanding Young Investigator Award. His findings, if they were true, would have revolutionised electronics but his data was completely fabricated and neither his co-authors, the editors of Nature nor the scientists who peer-reviewed his work noticed.

It’s not the only time that bogus science reports have slipped under the radar. A pair of mischievous French twins, Igor and Grichka Bogdanov, produced five papers about the early stages of the Big Bang, which have been described by string theorist, Jacques Distler, as “consisting of buzzwords from various fields of mathematical physics, string theory and quantum gravity, strung together into syntactically correct, but semantically meaningless prose”. The papers were published in Annals of Physics and Classical and Quantum Gravity. This isn’t the sort of thing that happens every day but when it does it damages the credibility of the science community.

“It shakes your faith in the system to hear that professionals can be so easily deceived. Peer-review is much less reliable than we would like to believe.”

Science has its weaknesses but I think it’s fair to say that it’s more exacting than the humanities. At least this is what Alan Sokal thought in the 1990s when he submitted a joke physics paper to The Social Text, an academic journal on postmodernism. The paper was titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” and pretended to earnestly consider the implications of postmodernist revelations on the laws of physics. The essence of the paper was the proposition that quantum gravity is actually a cultural construct. It was littered with cryptic jokes and filled with enough intimidating jargon to convince editors that the writer was a genuine expert. The editors did not bother to consult a physicist before sending this paper to print. Sokal scored quite a few points for scientists engaged in the Science Wars of this era.

Nowadays you don’t even need to write a nonsensical paper from scratch. Online generators can whip together a lot of jargon to create a passable essay on nearly any subject in seconds. They even provide bogus references. This is plagiarism at its best. (The Postmodern essay generator at is definitely worth a look.) Recently, a bunch of bored graduates at the University of Massachusetts invented a program, SCIgen, that creates computer science reports. Their results are so good that a randomly generated paper called “Toward the stimulation of E-commerce” was actually accepted by The International Conference on Computer Science and Software Engineering.

Compared to other human pursuits, such as the creative arts, science is pretty good at filtering out poor quality work; hoaxes are the exception to the rule. Scientists stick to formal procedures like spaghetti to a wall, but artists spend most of their time breaking down conventions. Sometimes the definition of art itself is completely lost. In the 1960s a couple of artists decided to demonstrate the absurd decline in standards by opening an exhibition of chimpanzee art under the name Pierre Brassau. The exhibition received the highest praise from art critics. One critic wrote that Brassau “is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer…Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness.”

We can laugh but there is a serious side; it shakes your faith in the system to hear that professionals can be so easily deceived. Peer-review is much less reliable than we would like to believe. We can learn a lesson from the British scientists in the 18th century who took the platypus sent over from Australia as a hoax. “A creature with webbed feet, a bill and fur?! Preposterous!” In the words of Mad-Eye Moody, as students and academics we need to be constantly vigilant!