15 of the Biggest Scientific Hoaxes

A corn field with designs marked into it

Markus Gann / Shutterstock

One of the reasons the scientific method is so powerful is its ability to correct itself. No matter how elaborate the illusion, how sophisticated the fake, or how genius the plot, science will eventually pick through the evidence and sniff out the deceit. But there are a few instances in history when hoaxers nearly pulled one off. To remind us to stay humble, here are 15 of the biggest scientific hoaxes ever concocted.

1
of 15

Piltdown Man

Wiki Commons/public domain.

"Piltdown Man" might be the most famous scientific hoax of all time. This skull, which was originally "found" by collector Charles Dawson, fooled most of the world's paleontologists into believing it represented a key missing link on the ape-human evolutionary chain. The hoax survived for 40 years before finally being revealed as a fraud in 1953. In fact, the skull turned out to be nothing more than a modern human cranium attached to the jawbone of an orangutan.

2
of 15

The Cardiff Giant

Photo via freethoughtpedia.com.

In October 1869, stunned workers digging a well in Cardiff, N.Y., uncovered a 10-foot petrified giant. Few scientists were fooled, but thousands of laypeople, particularly Christian fundamentalists and preachers, were convinced that the discovery was proof that giants once lived on Earth.

In fact, the figure was later revealed to have been planted by an atheist named George Hull, who was inspired to create the giant after an argument at a Methodist revival meeting about a biblical passage (Genesis 6:4) which was cited by his Christian rivals as evidence that giants once existed.

3
of 15

Crop circles

Elaborate crop circle in Switzerland. (Photo: Jabberocky/Wikimedia Commons)

When mysterious circles began appearing in England's wheat fields in the late 1970s, paranormal enthusiasts, UFO researchers and investigators of anomalies appeared out of nowhere with their own explanations about the circles' origins. Were they messages from aliens? Mystical vortices? Divine healing circles?

Many self-proclaimed experts became convinced that the patterns were too perfect and too intricate to have been designed by people. That was until 1991, when pranksters Doug Bower and Dave Chorley finally came clean and revealed how they had created the circles using planks, rope, hats and wire as their only tools.

4
of 15

Perpetual motion machine

Wiki Commons/public domain.

Charlatans and frauds purporting to have invented a perpetual motion machine — a machine that violates the laws of thermodynamics by generating enough energy to run forever on its own movements — have popped up throughout history. Perhaps none of these machines are as famous as Charles Redheffer's.

Redheffer's machine was so convincing that skeptics agreed to pay a hefty fee to prove him wrong. Sure enough, after removing a few wooden planks from the device, they found a belt which went through a wall where an old man was hiding — turning a crank with one hand and eating a loaf of bread with the other.

5
of 15

The Nacirema

bark/Flickr.

A paper written by Horace Miner and published in a 1956 edition of the journal American Anthropologist titled "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" focused on an obscure tribe of North Americans who were obsessed with oral cleanliness.

Although it read like a genuine anthropological study, it was in fact a satire of anthropological papers that describe "other" cultures. Nacirema, spelled backwards, is actually American. Miner was describing the American "ritual" of brushing our teeth.

To this day, the paper is used to fool students into reading about themselves as if they were being documented by a foreign anthropologist.

6
of 15

Clever Hans

Wiki Commons/public domain.

Clever Hans was a remarkable horse capable of complex intellectual tasks such as arithmetic, reading, spelling, telling time and even understanding the German language — or at least he had everyone believing that.

The horse would answer questions by tapping his hoof. For instance, if asked a question like: "What's two plus nine?", Hans would stamp his hoof 11 times. Amazingly, questions could be asked verbally or in written form. Hans was almost never wrong.

It was not until a formal investigation by a psychologist in 1907 that Hans was revealed to have been simply reacting to body language cues from his audience. When his audience gasped, anticipating Hans' arrival at the correct answer, he would stop tapping. Still, that's a pretty clever horse!

7
of 15

Beringer's fossils

Photo via archaeology.org.

In 1726, Johann Beringer was the victim of an elaborate hoax by his colleagues at the University of Würzburg, who wanted to teach him a lesson about arrogance. The fraudsters carved limestone into shapes of improbable fossils and planted them so that Beringer would find them.

Beringer was so convinced by the fossils' authenticity that he published a book, ignoring clues that they were forgeries by claiming the limestone may have been chiseled by the hand of God to test mankind's faith.

After the hoax was revealed, Beringer felt such shame that he supposedly impoverished himself trying to buy up all copies of his book.

8
of 15

Alien autopsy

Jeremy Burgin/Flickr.

In the 1990s, a short film surfaced that purported to be real footage of an alien autopsy performed on an extraterrestrial being that crash landed in Roswell, N.M., in 1947. The film was sold to television networks and broadcast around the world in as many as 32 countries. Fox television was the first to broadcast it in the U.S. in 1995.

It was not until 2006 that the film's producer, Ray Santilli, admitted that the film was not authentic, though he still contends it was based on real footage. The alien in the film was apparently made of casts containing sheep brains, raspberry jam and chicken entrails.

9
of 15

The disappearing blond gene

mikebaird/Flickr.

A story hit the airwaves in 2002 when BBC News reported that German scientists had discovered that blond hair would become extinct within the next 200 years because it is a recessive trait.

Later the same year, the New York Times, in attempting to corroborate the report, discovered that no such study had ever been performed. Despite the revelation, the study continued to be cited in publications for years, including as recently as 2006. (You have to wonder whether anyone would have cared if the threat had been to brunette hair instead.)

10
of 15

The Turk

Wiki Commons/GNU.

The Turk was a fake chess-playing machine constructed in 1770. The elaborate machine was designed to look like a Turkish-dressed robot that could defeat even the best human chess players.

The Turk toured the world for nearly 84 years, beating chess masters, including Benjamin Franklin, and impressing many people with its supposed artificial intelligence. In fact, all along the robot's body was occupied by a real person hidden inside.

11
of 15

'War of the Worlds'

Wiki Commons/pubic domain.

On Oct. 30, 1938, a radio program voiced by Orson Welles aired. It was presented as a series of news bulletins, reporting that the world was being attacked by Martian invaders.

Though the program was an adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel, "The War of the Worlds", the broadcast fooled many listeners into believing that it was a real alien invasion, causing panic and hysteria around the country. Some people even claimed to have witnessed flashes of lightning in the distance and to have smelled poison gas.

12
of 15

Fiji mermaid

Wiki Commons/public domain.

This incredible-looking creature was a P.T. Barnum museum staple, fooling hundreds of people into believing it was the mummified remains of a real mermaid. Despite its outrageous construction, many people believed it was genuine until it was revealed to be nothing more than the torso and head of a baby monkey attached to the tail of a fish.

13
of 15

Archaeoraptor

Wiki Commons.

Originally mentioned in National Geographic magazine, the Archaeoraptor was an extremely convincing fossil of a feathered dinosaur that researchers claimed was the missing link between birds and theropods.

Though many had suspicions about the fossil's authenticity from the beginning, it was not until after the article had been published that it was revealed to be a forgery constructed from rearranged pieces of real fossils from different species.

Unfortunately, the fraud and scandal surrounding Archaeoraptor led to public confusion about the many true discoveries of feathered dinosaurs — discoveries that genuinely prove an evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs.

14
of 15

The Tasaday tribe

Wiki Commons/CC License.

Claimed to have been a culture of people who had lived in isolation since the Stone Age, the Tasaday tribe made international headlines in the 1970s when they were "discovered" by Manuel Elizalde, Jr. In 1986, a proper investigation of the tribe revealed that the Tasaday traded with the local farmers, wore jeans and T-shirts and spoke a modern local dialect.

Pictures and film of the tribe acting like Stone Age people were staged, and tribe members were coaxed into the performance with offers of free cigarettes and clothing.

15
of 15

Japanese Paleolithic Hoax

Wiki Commons/public domain.

Amateur archaeologist Fujimura Shinichi stunned the world with his discoveries of lower and middle Paleolithic artifacts in Japan, a region most experts believed would be unlikely to harbor such finds. It turns out the experts were right.

Under great personal pressure to succeed in his field of study, Shinichi faked all of his discoveries. An expose published in 2000 revealed that Shinichi dug holes and hid archaeological items from other surveys to be discovered later. One important clue to the hoax was that Shinichi discovered some of the items more than once.