Betrayers of the Truth

Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science 1982

William Broad & Nicholas Wade

[108] Self-deception is a problem of pervasive importance in science. The most rigorous training in objective observation is often a feeble defense against the desire to obtain a particular result. Time and again, an experimenter's expectation of what he will see has shaped the data he recorded, to the detriment of the truth. This unconscious shaping of results can come about in numerous subtle ways. Nor is it a phenomenon that affects only individuals. Sometimes a whole community of researchers falls prey to a common delusion, as in the extraordinary case of the French physicists and N-rays, or-some would add-American psychologists and ape sign language.

Expectancy leads to self-deception, and self-deception leads to the propensity to be deceived by others. The great scientific hoaxes, such as the Beringer case and the Piltdown man discussed in this chapter, demonstrate the extremes of gullibility to which some scientists may be led by their desire to believe. Indeed, professional magicians claim that scientists, because of their confidence in their own objectivity, are easier to deceive than other people.

[119] British national pride in the early years of the twentieth century suffered from a matter of serious disquiet. The Empire was at its height, the serenity of the Victorian era was still aglow, and to educated Englishmen it was almost self-evident that England had once been the cradle, as it was now the governess, of world civilization. How then to explain that striking evidence of early man–not just skeletal remains but Paleolithic cave paintings and tools as well–was coming to light in France and Germany but not in Britain? The dilemma was exacerbated in 1907 with the discovery near Heidelberg, Germany, of a massive, early human jawbone. It seemed depressing proof that the first man had been a German.

The discovery of the Piltdown man was made by Charles Dawson, a lawyer who maintained a quiet practice in the south of England and dabbled in geology. A tireless amateur collector of fossils, Dawson noticed a promising-looking gravel pit on Piltdown Common, near Lewes in Sussex. He asked a laborer digging there to bring him any flints he might find. Several years later, in 1908, the laborer brought him a fragment of bone that Dawson recognized as part of a thick human skull. Over the next three years further bits of the skull appeared.

In 1912 Dawson wrote to his old friend Arthur Smith Woodward, a world authority on fossil fishes at the geology department of the British Museum of Natural History, saying he had something that would top the German fossil found at Heidelberg. Woodward made several visits with Dawson to the Piltdown gravel pit. On one of these expeditions, Dawson's digging tool struck at the bottom of the pit and out flew part of a lower jaw. Close examination led Woodward and Dawson to believe that it belonged to the skull they had already reconstructed.

In great excitement, Smith Woodward took everything back to the British Museum, where be put the jaw and cranium together, filling in missing parts with modeling clay and his imagination. The result was truly remarkable. The assembled skull became the [120] ‘dawn man" of Piltdown. Kept secret until December 1912, it was unveiled before a full house at the Geological Society in

London, where it created a sensation. Some skeptics suggested that the human skull and apelike jaw did not belong together; others pointed out that two characteristically abraded molar teeth were not enough to prove the jaw was human. But these objections were ignored, and the find was accepted as a great and genuine discovery. 17

The talk in clubs and pubs could note with satisfaction the new proof that the earliest man was indeed British. The Piltdown skull was also of scientific interest because it seemed to be the "missing link," the transitional form between ape and man that was postulated by Darwin's still controversial theory of evolution. Subsequent excavations at the gravel pit were not disappointing. A whole series of new fossils emerged. The clinching evidence came from a pit a few miles away–the discovery a few years later of a second Piltdown man.

Yet some were troubled by the Piltdown finds, among them a young zoologist at the British Museum, Martin A. C. Hinton. After a visit to the site in 1913, Hinton concluded that the whole thing was a hoax. He decided to smoke out the tricksters by planting clearly fraudulent fossils and watching the reactions. He took an ape tooth from the collection at the museum and filed it down to match the model canine tooth that Smith Woodward had fashioned out of clay. Hinton had the obvious forgery placed in the pit by an accomplice and sat back to wait for it to be discovered and the entire Piltdown collection to be exposed.

The tooth was discovered, but nothing else went right with Hinton's plan. All involved with the "discovery" seemed delighted and soon notified the nation about the new find. Hinton was astonished that his scientific colleagues could be taken in by so transparent a fake, and he suffered the additional mortification of seeing Charles Dawson, whom he suspected to be the culprit, acquiring kudos for his handiwork. He decided to try again, only this time with something so outrageous that the whole country would laugh the discoverers to scorn.

In a box in the British Museum he found a leg bone from an extinct species of elephant. He proceeded to carve it into an extremely appropriate tool for the earliest Englishman–a Pleist[121]ocene cricket bat. He took the bat to Piltdown, buried it, and waited for the laughter.

It was a long wait. When the bat was unearthed, Smith Woodward was delighted. He pronounced it a supremely important example of the work of Paleolitbic man, for nothing like it had ever been found before. Smith Woodward and Dawson published a detailed, serious description of the artifact in a professional journal but stopped short of calling it an actual cricket bat, 18 Hinton was astonished that none of the scientists thought of trying to whittle a bit of bone, fossil or fresh, with a flint edge. If they had, they would have discovered it was impossible to imitate the cuts on the cricket bat. "The acceptance of this rubbish completely defeated the hoaxsters," notes a historian of the Piltdown episode. 19 "They just gave up, and abandoned all attempts to expose the whole business and get it demolished in laughter and ridicule." Perhaps Hinton and friends should have considered planting a bone on which the name Smith Woodward had been carved.

Piltdown man retained its scientific luster until the mid-1920's and the discovery of humanlike fossils in Africa. These indicated a very different pattern of human evolution to that suggested by the Piltdown skull. Instead of a human cranium with an apelike jaw, the African fossils were just the reverse–they had humanlike jaws with apelike skulls. Piltdown became first an anomaly, then an embarrassment. It slipped from sight until modern techniques of dating showed in the early 1950's that the skull and its famous jaw were fakes: an ape jaw, with filed-down molars, and a human skull had each been suitably stained to give the appearance of great age.

Circumstantial evidence pointed to the skulls discoverer, Dawson, as the culprit. But many have doubted that he could have been the instigator; although he was best placed to salt the gravel pit, he probably lacked access to the necessary fossil collections as well as the scientific expertise to assemble fossils of the right age for the Piltdown gravel. Indeed, the real mystery is not who did it but how a whole generation of scientists could have been taken in by so transparent a prank. The fakery was not expert. The tools were poorly carved and the teeth crudely filed. The evidences of artificial abrasion immediately sprang [122] to the eye. Indeed so obvious did they seem it may well be asked –"how was it that they had escaped notice before," remarked anthropologist Le Gros Clark. 20



  1. J. S. Weinere, The Piltdown Forgery (Oxford University Press, London, 1953.
  2. Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward, "On a Bone Implement from
  3. Piltdown," Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 71, 144-149, 1915.

  4. L. Harrison Matthews, "Piltdown Man: The Missing Links," New Scientist,
  5. a ten-part series, beginning April 30, 1981,pp. 280-282,

  6. Quoted in Stephen J. Gould, The Panda’s Thumb (W. W. Norton, New York, 1980), p. 112.