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Get the Science Right: That Butterfly Was Painted!

Get the Science Right: That Butterfly Was Painted!

A long history of science fraud

butterfly, hoax, science fraudThe statistics are as unsettling as the headlines; scientific misconduct (fraud, plagiarism, selective results) has apparently been increasing. But how unique and modern is this misbehavior?

Has it always been this bad?
Consider this quote: “There are very few persons who pursue science with true dignity; it is followed more as connected with objects of profit than those of fame.” It was made by Sir Humphrey Davy, and reproduced in an 1830 book by Charles Babbage, one of the fathers of the modern computer. Babbage wrote his book despairing of the state of British science at the time; he felt that science was controlled by the Royal Society, the Admiralty and the Board of Longitude, and few scientists received awards and paid positions within the Society. This, then, could lead to conflicts of interest.

Anybody in particular?
Yes. Babbage took umbrage at the career of Edward Sabine, who had made a number of discoveries during the 1818-1820 voyage to the Arctic. Babbage implied (well, actually said) that Sabine’s results with pendulum experiments at the North Pole were so in “remarkable agreement with each other … unexpected by those most conversant with the respective processes”. In other words, Babbage smelled something bad.

What about that butterfly?
In 1702, William Charlton, a butterfly collector in England, sent a specimen to an entomologist friend. Both the friend and famed biologist/taxonomist Carl Linnaeus got a chance to look it over, and were amazed. It looked similar to a common Brimstone butterfly, but its yellow wings were had black spots. In 1763, Linnaeus decided it was another species. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The black spots had been painted on, but nobody noticed that until a Danish examined the specimen (stored at the British Museum) more closely, in 1793. An attempt to grasp fame, or a practical joke? Nobody knows, and Charlton had sent in the specimen the year he died.

How can we be sure of some older hoaxes?
Sometimes we can’t. In the spirit of America’s Independence Day, we can look at the case of Ben Franklin and his famous “kite in a storm” experiment. Legend says that Franklin flew a kite in a thunderstorm that had a key attached to it, and thereby discovered that lightning is a form of electricity. The problem is that Franklin, a prolific writer, never reported on the experiment, was vague about when he conducted it, and probably knew full well that doing such a thing could probably kill him. Some say he was thumbing his nose at the Royal Society, who had refused to publish several of his writings about earlier research on electricity. Maybe he had a research assistant do it.

Are there more?
Heck, yeah. History is full of hoaxes, frauds and practical jokes, going back as long as we’ve been writing things down (at least). The need for fame, or to trod one somebody else’s fame, or just to play games with people’s heads seems as old as humanity itself. And since the frauds highlighted here more or less started with the rise of science in the Age of Enlightenment, it’s clear that scientists haven’t been immune from these apparently human needs.

Sources: Guardian, MuseumofHoaxes

Photo: Museum of Hoaxes

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