Channel Four has been running a series of programmes under the banner of “Science Scams” (more here) and I caught one recently on Johann Beringer. Wikipedia has a page on Beringer that explains the scam. Beringer was hoaxed by two colleagues, who carved shapes of various animals into limestone (and even had at least one of them accompanied by “the Hebrew name of God”) before planting them in an area Beringer visited to search for fossils. Beringer wanted to believe that these fossils were “stones of a peculiar sort, hidden by the Author of Nature for his own pleasure,” and was delighted to apparently find evidence that pointed towards this being true. Critics pointed out that the fossils had markings that looked suspiciously like chisel marks, but Beringer ignored the obvious conclusion to be drawn from this and, despite referring to these marks in his book, preferred to believe that these fossils were the work of God. Wikipedia tells of the consequences of this failure to properly evaluate the evidence:
Roderick and Eckart continued planting progressively more outrageous fakes, but eventually decided that the hoax was getting out of hand and tried to convince Beringer that the stones were a fraud without admitting that they were the hoaxers. Beringer rejected their attempt, writing of “two men, perhaps best described as a pair of antagonists who tried to discredit the stones.” Beringer brought Eckert and Roderick to court, to “save his honor.” Some of the court transcript still exists, and in the testimony the hoaxers make clear that they did indeed want to discredit Beringer, because, they said, “he was so arrogant and despised us all.” The scandal not only discredited Beringer, it ruined the reputations of Eckart and Roderick.
Despite the lesson to be learnt being a fairly obvious one, it is still (unfortunately) fairly common for people to deceive themselves and indulge in wishful thinking. They should pay heed to the words of RP Feynman: The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.
Another classic science scam covered by the series was the chess automaton of Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, who built what he claimed was a machine that could play chess against human opponents. It took around seventy years for the machine to be exposed as a scam, and that after it had been “resurrected” by a student named Johann Maelzel. Rather boringly, the machine was actually controlled by a chess champion hidden in the large wooden box from which the trunk of the machine was brought forth.
[Digg this post]