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reader comments: Piltdown hoax

25 Apr 2005

From the Piltdown page: "But to characterize scientists as arrogant buffoons making claims that often turn out to be false, and to make a caricature out of science because it is not infallible and does not arrive at absolutely certain claims, belies a grave misunderstanding of the nature of science. "

As a dedicated scientist and engineer, I do have to take issue here. I am afraid that one of the reasons that scientists often come over as arrogant buffoons is that, frequently, they are. I have lost track of the number of times I have endured listening to some buffoon tell me why something can't be done (i.e. "the physics don't support it"). The reasons are generally given as: 1) no one else has done it before, 2) who do you think you are to think you can do it, or 3) my degrees are from more prestigious universities than yours, and that makes me right. When they are subsequently proven wrong, they dismiss the data and follow through steps 1 to 3 again. If the nature of the dispute is a working piece of hardware, that objective third parties have verified works as claimed, they seek to shut the project down rather than face defeat. They do this until they retire.

Scientists are frequently arrogant to one another, and more often so to the general public.

Scientists are human, and cannot be relied on to think any more rationally than anyone else when their personal interests are involved. Science, however, seeks to institute a process that accounts for the biases - a process including peer review, along with independent observation and verification. It does not demand its individual practitioners be saints or even honest for the method to work. Trust, generally nor proffered an individual, is not a basis for acceptance of any claim. Science needs only that a sufficient number of the group be willing to face the facts for the entire group to be moved to cognizance.

Most notably, Piltdown Man was a hoax perpetrated on Science (whether from within or without), and the Scientific Method wielded by other scientists caught it. It was not caught by a team of religious leaders examining the evidence and finding the logical and factual holes. In the end, Science catches its own hoaxes, sometimes through the strength of existing knowledge, sometimes through the development of new knowledge, and it is the only method that does so. That Piltdown Man was exposed by scientists as a hoax is a vindication of science, not a condemnation of science.


James C. Kirk

I thought you might be interested to know who created Piltdown man. In my article on the subject in the spring issue of Pacific Discovery the magazine published by the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco I present new evidence that the man behind it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sounds to good to be true? Perhaps, but he did do it. And knowing that it was him, Piltdown man can be seen as a hoax--a huge practical joke--and not a case of scientific fraud committed by a scientist to advance his career.

In the article, I solve a puzzle left by Doyle in his novel The Lost World (published in 1912 right before Piltdown man's jaw turned up). The solution leaves little doubt that Doyle was behind it, a suggestion that was made in Science 83 by an anthropologist named John Winslow. Although he compiled a lot of circumstantial evidence against Doyle, he failed to notice the puzzle.

To appreciate the solution to the Piltdown mystery you have to be open to the possibility that the hoaxer could have hidden the clues in a young person's adventure novel, if you're not you won't get it. Also, I might mention that Doyle began The Lost World with these four lines that haven't made much sense until now:

I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who's half a man
Or the man who's half a boy

Robert Anderson
American Museum of Natural History, NYC

response: I would have thought Arthur Conan Doyle would be more likely to fall for such a hoax than to perpetrate it, given his credulity with respect to the fairy tales of little girls.

07 Jun 1996
The little poem that this reader offers up as proof [that Arthur Conan Doyle perpetuated the Piltdown Man hoax] is fine evidence that the human mind will see what it wants to see in almost anything.

In my opinion, that little poem is saying nothing more than this:

I have done my job as an author
If I can give but an hour's joy
To those children that dream of being adult
And to those adults with a child's heart

Or something to that effect. I'm sure you get the idea. Great Dictionary by the way! Keep up the good work!

Michael D.S. Heacock

Piltdown hoax


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