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Forging a Head: The Upside of Scientific Hoaxes 201

An anonymous reader writes "In a very funny piece over at Science Careers (published by the journal Science), scientist-comedian Adam Ruben suggests that a lot of good can come from a well-intentioned hoax. 'Hoaxes have infiltrated science for centuries,' Ruben writes, 'from fake fossils (Piltdown Man, archaeoraptor, Calaveras skull) to fake medical conditions (cello scrotum, the disappearing blonde gene) to fake animals (Ompax spatuloides, Pacific Northwest tree octopus, Labradoodle).' In contrast to fraud, Ruben argues, such hoaxes do a great service to science by illustrating 'failures of our most important tool: our skepticism.'"
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Forging a Head: The Upside of Scientific Hoaxes

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  • Yes but (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mr100percent ( 57156 )

    While it's true that we need one of these every so often to remind us of the need for scientific rigor, it also does great damage to science for many. e.g. Climategate gave ammo for global warming deniers, piltdown man gave more credence to creationists, etc.

    • Re:Yes but (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Mindcontrolled ( 1388007 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @08:49AM (#35990084)
      Well, "Climategate" gave ammo for global warming deniers within their own echo chamber. The whole shit was made up from out-of-context quotes making up about 1 ppm of the stolen mails they scanned for it. Nothing a rational man would consider harmful. That's playing in a completely different league than the piltdown man, which was made up from beginning to end.
      • Climategate wasn't a hoax, it was a political ploy. The difference is, a hoax shows how far within the scientific community an idea can go without merit. That's a good internal check.
      • Not really. In fact, calling the opposition "bone heads" and loons and such only makes the proponents seem more fraudulent. Being dismissive of skeptics is a customary tool of con-man. If they want to be taken seriously, they should keep the gravitas in the phase of opposing view. Otherwise, they only lose credibility.
        • If there is a single sceptic amongst the deniers, and not another bonehead repeating talking points that have been debunked for years, well, yes, then I will take him serious. There is serious debate about the mechanisms and models of climate change amongst the scientists involved, you know. Ever had a glimpse into the literature? Just a tiny review article or two?
    • While it's true that we need one of these every so often to remind us of the need for scientific rigor

      Define "us". The scientifically literate are already skeptical. Joe sixpack is going to oscillate between believing everything he hears and believing nothing. While that might sound good to those who believe in shit like crowdsourcing & the gambler's fallacy, in reality it's about as good as a stopped clock.

    • Climategate has actually proven that the degree of certainty of their conclusions is overstated. It hasn't disproven the theory, of course. But that's not really the point. In fact, you can't credibly claim damage to debate if it's shown that the side which goes by the mantra "trust us" is possibly deluding itself. Let's be honest, if the same kinds of emails came out from quant department of an investment bank, everyone would be saying that this bank is a fraud. I think we can insist on the same degr
      • I think we can insist on the same degree of rigor from science which is supposed to effect public policy as we do from investment banks.

        Uh no. People in investment banks have an obvious motive to deviate from your standard and are in positions where they have to be trusted in a way that scientists do not.

        • Your statement about scientist in this case is completely untrue. They most certainly do have a vested interest in the conclusions since their funding is tied to the amount of public acceptance of their conclusions. And once again, since their conclusions directly effect public policy, even more specifically global energy policy, the amount scrutiny they have to receive is actually larger than the amount of scrutiny which banks have to receive. A bad decision by a quant in an investment bank could result
      • by Arlet ( 29997 )

        You don't have to trust scientists. You are free to become an expert on the subject, perform your own research, and publish the results.

        • Since this research is conducted with public funds, I would argue they have to publish collected data with all of their conclusions.

          At the moment such requirement does not exist. This is actually a problem not only in this particular discipline. It's a problem in all of scientific publications. This is one of the reasons I am skeptical of most academic research in applied science. I know (because I've seen it happen personally) that people on occasion collect data at great expense in academic setting a

          • by Arlet ( 29997 )

            If you don't trust the people, how would you know to trust their copy of the raw data ?

            As with any other science, the best way is to redo the whole thing from scratch. Use your own data and calculations. Go drill your own ice cores and trees and collect your own thermometer data.

            • You modularize the units which need re-testing. If you separate it into row data, analytics and conclusions, you can attempt verifying any one of those. It has multiple advantages. First, it reduces the cost of verifiability. At the moment someone who can understand the analytics but doesn't have the funds or expertise to reproduce the data can't make a fully informed judgement of validity. Just as someone who is an expert in experimentation isn't able to reproduce the experiments because their cost wo

  • Moon landings (Score:2, Interesting)

    The Moon landings is my favorite. A hoax demonstrating against something that really DID happen. How meta is that?

    Oh and the Creationist hoax, obv.
    • I meant the Chariots of the Gods guy DISPUTING them = the hoaxer, obv. Not the actual landings themselves.
      • That it is possible to live in a world where the mere concepts of such things are so alien that you find yourself drawn to say "how meta is that?" is simultaneously tragic and tantalizingly promising. I can only hope that our (rhetorical) children live in a world of such comparative innocence.
  • by c0lo ( 1497653 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @08:42AM (#35990038)

    In contrast to fraud, Ruben argues, such hoaxes do a great service to science by illustrating 'failures of our most important tool: our skepticism.'"

    But... was this peer-reviewed?

  • Fake Dogs?!? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Alcoholic Synonymous ( 990318 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @08:44AM (#35990052)


    Labradoodle's are fake? I bet all the Labradoodle owners would be shocked to learn their dogs are not real.

    Maybe the author should research before he declares what's real and what isn't. I mean, his bad science isn't actually helping here.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labradoodle [wikipedia.org]

  • by Fractal Dice ( 696349 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @10:08AM (#35990404) Journal
    Science is about focused skepticism, not general skepticism. It is very difficult to successfully peer review a paper that is deliberately attempting to decieve. Those usually need to wait until the experiments are repeated and fail to produce the expected results. Politics is a bitter, poisonous soup of lies and disingenuous spins where accurate models do not trump clever rhetoric and trolls will attempt to strike you down not in the search for truth, but just to see if they can do it. Science is hard enough to do without people deliberately attempting to set you up for failure.
    • by nbauman ( 624611 )

      When a scientist commits fraud and is discovered, he's discredited for life.

      When a politician commits fraud and is discovered, he just goes on like nothing happened. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,200499,00.html [foxnews.com] Hundreds of WMDs Found in Iraq

      • When a scientist commits fraud and is discovered, he's discredited for life.

        http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38127084/ns/us_news-environment/ [msn.com]
        Apparently not.

        • by Arlet ( 29997 )

          Apparently, there was no fraud.

          • OP picked a Fox News story contemporaneous with the beginning part of the Iraq war to point out something that it's now clear is false. Fox News doesn't have weapons inspectors, they, and all the other news sources, rely on what other people said to bring out the news. ABC and NBC had similar stories to this at the time, but OP picked Fox News to prove some kind of point, probably that Fox News was biased, and excusing President Bush for being wrong about something.
            Similarly, MSNBC didn't investigate the
  • by crunchygranola ( 1954152 ) on Sunday May 01, 2011 @10:45AM (#35990586)

    Fortunately the disappearance of the blonde gene in females cannot happen due to a interesting epigenetic phenomenon.

    As is well known, blondeness is fairly prevalent at birth in both males and females but fades as the individual matures, with most blondes turning brunette before the end of adolescence. But a remarkable phenomenon, evidently involving the modification of the blonde gene possibly through environmental effects, often occurs soon after whereupon the prevalence of blondeness starts to increase again. Most remarkable, individuals whose innate blondeness was never expressed as a child (they were always brunette), begin to express the blonde gene in early adulthood. For reasons that so far remain unexplained this phenomenon, though not avoiding males entirely, is almost entirely seen in females.

    It appears then that this epigenetic phenomenon will act to restore blondeness to the female population offsetting any long-term trends to the gene's underlying extinction.

    • I'm sorry, are you sure it's epigenetics and not hydrogen peroxide?

      • I thought about citing research data that exposure to the far more toxic cousin of dihydrogen monoxide produced by industrial economies - dihydrogen dioxide - might be the environmental factor causing this remarkable epigenetic phenomenon, but that seemed to be "gilding the lily" as they say.

  • I can't believe it wasn't in the list. I love the common house hippo.

  • Last time I checked there was a breed called Labradoodle.

Executive ability is deciding quickly and getting somebody else to do the work. -- John G. Pollard