The Jilting of Athene


The Jilting of Athene

Dennis Rosen

New Scientist Septembr 5, 1968


[497] Dennis Rosen is reader in biophysics at Chelsea College of Science and Technology, University of London


Athene is the goddess of wisdom and of the arts and sciences. Although the great majority of scientists are true to the ethics of their profession and the spins of the goddess, a few are less scrupulous


In the vast number of books now available covering the history, practice and procedures of science, an index entry for Fraud will be sought in vain. Only rarely, and then not on account of Fraud, does Fraunhofer fail to succeed Franklin. Chapters are written on errors, but the subclassifications are of the type "Random (methods of dealing with)" or "Experimental (techniques for the reduction of)". Are errors, then, never deliberate and do scientists never cheat? It must be admitted that some of them sometimes do. This should occasion no surprise: scientists are members of society and in societies where duplicity often pays off, a scientist anxious for prestige or a bigger research grant or both may feel irresistibly tempted to make fanciful claims. A more serious matter, in my view, and one which occasions the writing of this article, is that rather few known cases of fraud are publicly exposed as such by those in a position to do so. As a result, it is possible to make a private collection of instances, most of which cannot be published because of the libel laws; and at the same time the cheat who makes a public confession assumes the stature of a Greek tragic hero.

In anatomizing scientific fraud it should be scarcely necessary to eliminate the scientific hoax from consideration. Indeed, hoaxes are welcome in providing rare relief from the tedium of most papers published in the learned journals. Probably even a layman would appreciate that the contraceptive agent suggested by Dr J. S. Greenstein, in the Christmas Day issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal of 1965, the polynitrosobenzene compound.
Polynitrosobenzene Compound

with each-NO-group guaranteeing exactly 24 hours of contraceptive efficacy, was offered as a joke. Unfortunately, most scientists are so professionally solemn that even some jokes have been taken literally.

Whereas hoaxes usually give themselves away by an excess of schoolboy humour, the most successful frauds evidently merge undetected into the jungle of scientific literature, camouflaged additionally by the possibility of a genuine mistake or even a half-excusable self-deception on the part of the author, to say nothing of the innocence and ignorance of the reader. Nevertheless, it is possible to make classifications of frauds. One such, starting at the most grandiose and working down, could put the manufacture of the sole acceptable piece of evidence in the first class, of a necessarily rare or improbable piece in the second class, and so on, reaching finally the minor manipulations of experimental data which any other scientist could check if he had the time and interest to do so.
Pilt Mandible

The Piltdown mandible. Reproduced by permission of the Director of the Natural History Museum


As an example of the first class and at the top end of the list, comes the case of the Piltdown skull, of which the first description was published in the Bulletin of the British Museum. This object, found in a Surrey gravel bed in 1911, was purported to be the fossil remains of a "missing link" in the evolution of ape-like primates into humans and was supposedly half a million years old. Its age was attested by fossil evidence of various animals found nearby and by the known age of the gravel bed in which it appeared; and its human quality by various stone implements found with it. For 40 years Piltdown man stood in the records of human evolution as a curious aberration of evolutionary development, increasingly so as discoveries of pre-human fossils accumulated from various parts of the world. Eventually, in 1953, Professors J. S. Weiner and W. Le Gros Clark of Oxford and Dr K P. Oakley of the Natural History Museum in London were able to show using sensitive techniques of chemical analysis, that the skull and the implements were forgeries. Their results, detailed in Professor Weiner's book The Piltdown Forgery, make it virtually certain that the fraud was deliberate and highly probable that the perpetrator was a Mr Charles Dawson, a well-known amateur paleontologist who assisted in the excavations at Piltdown and had ample opportunity to plant the material there. The so-called fossil was shown to have been part of a genuine fossilized human cranium, only about 50 000 years old, placed together with the jaw bone of a modern ape, probably an orang-utan, filed down and craftily stained so that its colour matched that of the other objects placed near it. The forger's chief mistake, it later appeared, was in the choice he made among the possible paths of human evolution; in particular he supposed that, as the early hominids separated from the apes, first the skull and later the jaw became distinctly human. When more and more evidence showed that the pattern of change was just the other way about, the Piltdown skull became first an embarrassment and then an extreme improbability. Yet although the conjectures which had to be introduced to account for Piltdown man held up for nearly half a century a clear understanding of human evolution, the fraud had some residual. advantages for science. Its nature forced the scientists concerned to make a particularly searching and critical evaluation of all the relevant evidence and its [498] exposure involved the development of theretofore unused methods of chemical analysis and dating techniques.

The Piltdown affair is a curiosity in the annals of modern science in that it rested on the appearance of a datum which could not independently be provided by other scientists. Only a few branches of science are exposed to deceptions of this kind. ....

Some scientists have been tempted to offer manufactured data of phenomena which are plausible but statistically improbable, yet which other workers ought in principle to be able to duplicate. A distinguished Viennese zoologist, P. Kammerer, anxious to sustain the Lamarckian thesis of acquired characteristics, described an abnormal toad, the offspring of parents which, originally land-living, had been forced to live and mate in water. In these conditions Kammerer claimed that the male developed nuptial pads, typical of aquatically mating amphibia, and that the same structure was found in the male progeny, an example of which he deposited in the Biological Research Institute of Vienna. When examination of the specimen by other workers revealed it to be the product of surgical grafting (Nature, vol. 118, p. 209) Kammerer shot himself and, in a suicide note, implicitly admitted the fraud, but blamed it on to an assistant. A touching letter by a colleague (Nature, vol. 118, p. 555) protests Kammerer's innocence and severely chides his inquisitors for driving him to death; but whether or not Kammerer himself was physically responsible for the surgical manufacture of a freak, there is no doubt that he bore all the responsibility for the publications connected with it and that he could and should have stopped them. . . .

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