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Here's a case of a fake "viral" image that made its way into the scientific literature back in 1925, demonstrating that the phenomenon of strange, doctored images circulating around existed long before the internet, although the internet certainly boosted the phenomenon to new levels.

The 1925 case:

In the fourth edition of his book I Believe in God and in Evolution, published in 1925, William Keen included a short account of "Human Beings With Tails":

Human Beings With Tails
The literature as to tails in human beings is extensive. Cases have been reported from every continent, and, including the United States, from almost every important nation in the world.

Virchow and Sir Arthur Keith, the distinguished Curator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, London, than whom there can be no better authorities, and other well known writers, refer to cases of genuine tails. Some of them contain no bones, but others have rudimentary vertebrae, with complete joints between them. The microscope also shows in some cases sufficient muscular fibers to have made the tails capable of movement.

These tails are continuations of the lowest vertebrae. The 'coccyx,' the usual termination of the spine, is the representative in man of these occasionally well developed tails. All of us have potential tails. In early embryonic life of man there is a well developed tail which, however, soon shrivels, leaving only the coccyx.

It is a very significant fact that the anthropoid apes, gorilla, chimpanzee, etc., like man, have also lost their tails. The monkeys, much more distant from man have retained their tails.

Keen then provided a photograph that showed a person with a tail.

A caption offered this explanation:

Photograph of an Igorot in the Bontoc Province of the Philippine Islands. It was taken early in 1925 by Mr. John Freeman, (Dr. Keen's grandson), whose guide and interpreter persuaded the man to be photographed. The tail is about five inches long. It also shows in the shadow.

But soon after publication, Keen sent a rather embarrassed "Correction" to the Journal Science (Apr 2, 1926). After noting that he still believed there were cases of humans with tails, he wrote:

The correction I wish to make is as follows: In my book "I Believe in God and in Evolution," I have included in the fourth edition a photograph of an Igorot with a tail, which I vouched for as I understood that it had been photographed by my own grandson, Mr. John Freeman.

A few days ago within a few hours of each other, I received letters from Dr. Ales Hrdlieka, of the division of physical anthropology of the National Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, and Mrs. Ella F. Grove, who a year ago had been doing some work in the Philippines for the National Research Council. Both of these correspondents stated that the Bureau of Science in Manila had shown them the original of this photograph which showed that it was a fake photograph, the tail having been added to the original by a photographer, I suppose as a joke.

On communicating with my grandson I find that I misinterpreted his letter and that he did not photograph this Igorot.

My argument that human tails (of which I have shown there are very many undoubted instances) prove our animal ancestry is not in the least disproved by my having unfortunately used a photograph which further investigation has shown to be a fraud, for there are plenty of genuine tails.

My whole object is to state the truth, and when any statement I have made is proved to be wrong, I wish to be the very first person to disclose the error.

Dr. Hrdlieka adds "As to the occurrence of tails of course I am with you in every particular."

Apparently the Igorot people have long suffered from discrimination in the Philippines, which has included the claim that Igorots have tails. This photograph must have been one photographer's attempt to forge some evidence to back up this popular racist belief.
Categories: Photos/Videos, Science
Posted by Alex on Tue Nov 05, 2013
Comments (2)
From 1914 to 1934 the Smithsonian had on display an object that it described as the "oldest ear of corn" in the world. It was believed to be a piece of fossilized corn, several thousand years old, which had been acquired from a "collector of curios" in Cuzco, Peru.

The fossil corn wasn't considered to be just a curiosity. It was regarded as having real scientific importance because, as G.N. Collins noted in a 1919 article about it in the Journal of Heredity, it provided "the first tangible evidence of the geological existence of this important cultivated plant." ("A Fossil Ear of Maize," Jour. Heredity, April 1919).

It was also believed to be a previously unknown species of maize and was named Zea antiqua.

The "oldest ear of corn" is shown from different angles in the left column

It was important enough that in 1934 Roland W. Brown of the U.S. Geological Survey decided to have a closer look at it, which is when he realized that the "fossilized corn" wasn't corn at all. The object was made of clay, and it had a hollow section that contained three small, round oval pellets. It appeared to be a toy rattle.

Brown noted that, "The object is so clever a copy of an original ear of Peruvian maize that the maker must be credited with having been an artist of superior skill."

The good news was that the rattle did appear to be a genuine ancient artifact. But it was an artifact of archaeological, not biological, interest.

Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Fri Oct 18, 2013
Comments (1)
A report of a scientific hoax appears in the latest issue of Science. Researcher John Bohannon wrote a purposefully bad scientific paper — one with glaringly bad errors that any peer reviewer should be able to spot. He then submitted versions of that paper to 304 open-access journals, using aliases such as "Ocarrafoo M.L. Cobange," supposedly a biologist at the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara. The result: "More than half of the journals accepted the paper, failing to notice its fatal flaws."

Bohannon says this raises "questions about peer-review practices in much of the open-access world."

But defenders of the open-access system (such as here and here) point out that Bohannon didn't submit the article to any subscription-based journals, which makes it impossible to know whether his experiment shows something uniquely bad about the open-access system, or whether it reveals a problem endemic in peer review as a whole.

Bohannon's experiment recalls a similar one conducted by Douglas Peters and Stephen Ceci back in 1980, in which they took ten already published scientific articles, changed the name of the author and title of the article, and then resubmitted the articles to the same journal in which they had previously been published. The majority of editors rejected the articles without recognizing they had already been published in their own journal.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Sat Oct 05, 2013
Comments (1)
The most recent issue of the Romanian journal Metalurgia International contains an unusual article titled "Evaluation of Transformative Hermeneutic Heuristics for Processing Random Data."

If that title doesn't make much sense to you, neither will the rest of the article. But that's intentional on the part of the authors, who submitted a nonsense article to the journal, which obligingly published it — apparently without bothering to read it first. The intent of the hoaxers (three professors at the University of Belgrade) was to "draw attention to the hyperproduction of quasi-scientific works by Serbian professors that are published in the magazines of dubious quality" as the website In Serbia puts it.

The problem is that academic advancement in Serbia is tied to publication. So Serbian professors have been padding their CVs by publishing articles in bogus journals that will publish anything, for a fee. And that's the practice the hoaxers were trying to expose.

The hoax article gives several nods to Alan Sokal's similar academic spoof from 1996, citing Sokal both in the text of their article and in the footnotes. Also cited are academic heavyweights such as M. Jackson, R. Jeremy (Ron Jeremy), and A.S. Hole.

The author photos, which shows them in wigs and fake mustaches, is also a nice touch. [via Retraction Watch]

Categories: Education, Science
Posted by Alex on Tue Sep 24, 2013
Comments (1)
Came across this in a Guardian article about a new exhibit opening at the Victoria & Albert Museum:

V&A dissolves myths around pearls in major new show
The Guardian

[Marilyn] Monroe and [Elizabeth] Taylor are represented in a show devoted to pearls, opening at the V&A on Saturday.

Neither probably knew the grimmer truth of what they were wearing. "The pearls are formed around the larvae from a tapeworm coming from the excrement of other animals," said the show's co-curator, Hubert Bari. "The people marketing them prefer to say 'it is so fantastic: your necklace was made from a grain of sand'. It is better to speak about a grain of sand than to speak about a piece of shit from a stingray."

The grain of sand myth is so entrenched that the V&A has included a video showing precisely how pearls are formed – how tiny tapeworm larvae that live in the digestive systems of animals such as sharks and stingrays are excreted and then, very rarely, manage to get into water-filtering shellfish. Some get trapped between the shell and the outer epithelial tissue, and it is from this that the pearl emerges and the larvae dissolves.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Tue Sep 17, 2013
Comments (2)
Gina Perry has authored a new book about Stanley Milgram's famous obedience experiment (Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments) in which she argues that Milgram fudged his data and conclusions. Boing Boing reviews it.

Perry suggests the fudging happened in several ways:
  • First, although Milgram claimed his experiment always followed a set script, Perry reviewed the original audio tapes and found this wasn't the case. Instead, Milgram's experimenter "wheedled and nagged the subjects into turning up the shock dial."
  • Second, she argues that a substantial portion of the experimental subjects saw through Milgram's ruse and realized that they weren't actually shocking someone.
I'll have to read Perry's book to get her full argument, but it was my impression that her allegations aren't exactly new. Milgram's experiment met with a lot of skepticism from other researchers. But other researchers have conducted versions of his experiment and, for the most part, gotten similar results.

For instance, in Elephants on Acid I write about how many people suspected that Milgram's subjects saw through his ruse. Therefore, two researchers conducted a version of the experiment in which subjects were asked to shock a victim (a puppy) — and the puppy actually got shocked! ("Obedience to authority with an authentic victim" - PDF). In other words, they eliminated the ruse. And their results were similar to Milgram's. The majority of their subjects obeyed the command to shock the puppy.

I'm sure Perry must address this, but I don't know how. Looks like another book to add to the pile.
Categories: Psychology, Science
Posted by Alex on Thu Sep 12, 2013
Comments (0)
I found this photo in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society. It shows a Mr. O'Mahony (of Pipestone, Minnesota) proudly showing off a "mammoth hail stone" — size: 6" x 6" x 8" and weighing 5½ lbs.

A note attached to the photo reveals that the hailstone was a fake:

Mr. O'Mahony was the victim of a hoax. This large chunk of clear icebox ice was dropped through a skylight in a public building where it was found and assumed was fell from the sky during as a huge hail stone.

The instigator of the creative prank confessed many years later - after he grew up and became a prominent citizen in Pipestone County. Hail ice is milky colored and not clear.

If this hailstone had been real, its dimensions would have made it the largest ever recorded. But according to NOAA, the record goes to a stone discovered in South Dakota after a storm on July 23, 2010, measuring 8 inches in diameter and weighing nearly 2 pounds.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Tue Aug 27, 2013
Comments (0)
Gullibility sometimes increases as people grow old. For which reason, the elderly are victims of financial scams in disproportionately high numbers. New research, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, has now linked this age-related gullibility to deterioration of a specific area in the brain — the vmPFC (ventromedial prefrontal cortex).

The researchers showed a series of ads to 18 patients with damage to the vmPFC. Some of the ads were deceptive (and contained clues to that effect). For instance, one ad for a (fictitious) product named NatureCure described a 'natural' pain reliever that supposedly provided headache relief "without the side effects of over-the-counter pain relievers." But a disclaimer at the bottom of the ad noted, "This product can cause nausea in some consumers when taken regularly."

The patients with damage to the vmPFC proved twice as likely to believe the deceptive ads, compared to a control group of people who had damage to other parts of their brain and a group with no brain damage.

At the end of their article, the researchers point out an interesting implication of their study — that skepticism and doubt require far more mental work than belief:

This study adds to the growing evidence that belief and disbelief are not governed by balanced cognitive processes. Belief is first, easy, inexorable with comprehension of any cognition, and substantiated by representations in the post-rolandic cortex. Disbelief is retroactive, difficult, vulnerble to disruption, and mediated by the vmPFC. This asymmetry in the process of belief and doubt suggests that false doctrines in the 'marketplace of ideas' may not be as benign as is often assumed. Indeed, normal individuals are prone to misleading information, propaganda, fraud, and deception, especially in situations where their cognitive resources are depleted. In our theory, the more effortful process of disbelief (to items initially believed) is mediated by the vmPFC; which, in old age, tends to disproportionally lose structural integrity and associated functionality. Thus, we suggest that vulnerability to misleading information, outright deception, and fraud in older persons is the specific result of a deficit in the doubt process which is mediated by the vmPFC.

The article doesn't discuss the legal implications of the study, but I wonder if it might be helpful in cases where courts need to determine whether someone is no longer competent to manage their own affairs. For instance, middle-aged children often become worried about their elderly parents falling prey to scammers, and so they try to acquire guardianship over them. However, current legal tests of mental competence tend to focus on things such as arithmetic skills, not gullibility. So a test that could demonstrate deterioration of the vmPFC might have relevance in objectively assessing if guardianship is necessary.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Aug 20, 2012
Comments (1)
Bad news for hoaxers -- A new scientific study reports that lying less results in better health. (Links:,

The study hasn't been peer-reviewed/published yet, but preliminary results were reported at the 120th Convention of the American Psychological Association. The study tracked 110 people, half of whom were instructed to tell fewer lies for 10 weeks, and the other half received no special instructions about lying. At the end of 10 weeks, the non-liers reported significantly better health.

What I wonder is how the researchers could know that the no-lying group wasn't lying about lying less. The researchers said they gve the participants regular polygraph tests, but those tests aren't exactly reliable.

Also, ten weeks is a fairly short span of time. The apparent effect might disappear over one or two years.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Thu Aug 09, 2012
Comments (2)

image source: megafon
A study reported in the journal Laterality (Mar 2005) found that people are significantly better at detecting lies with their left ear than their right ear. The reason is that left-ear information is processed by the brain's right hemisphere, which apparently is better at detecting deception than the left hemisphere. (For instance, studies have shown that people with right-hemisphere damage have trouble detecting lies.)

In the ear study, 32 participants listened to 112 pre-recorded statements, using either their right or left ear, and then were asked to determine which statements were true or false. The results, from the study:

Participants were significantly more accurate when statements were played through the left ear (M = 61.33%, SE = 1.26) than the right ear (M = 56.41%, SE = 1.09). These data suggested a general right hemisphere advantage in deception detection...
We also examined the possibility that certain participants were over-responding. For example, if a participant gave all true responses, s/he would be correct for all the true statements and incorrect for all the false statements. To test this possibility, we examined individual participant responses. Two participants were identified as "over-responders" using an outlier analysis (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2001, p. 67). One of them provided significantly more "yes" responses and the other significantly more "no" responses (ps < .05). When the data were re-analysed, similar results were obtained. There was a significant main effect for Ear (p < .007) and Truth/Lie (p < .001), but no significant interactions. Therefore, the results were likely not a result of response bias...
In conclusion, there was a left ear advantage when detecting statement veracity. Participants were significantly more accurate in determining the truthfulness of a statement when hearing it through the left ear. These data support the hypothesis that the right hemisphere is involved in detecting deceit. Further, they extend the literature on the possibility of using ear advantage as a gauge of hemispheric involvement.

I'm not sure if this has any practical applications. Although I wonder if poker players might gain an advantage if they put an ear plug in their right ear, forcing themselves to listen to other players with their left ear.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Fri Aug 03, 2012
Comments (4)
Back in May, a Lancashire couple, Mick and Elaine Bell, found a human skull in a shallow section of the Burnley River while out walking their dogs.

They gave the skull to the police, who initially suspected that rain had washed it down from a nearby cemetery. But as forensic experts examined it, they grew puzzled. The features of the skull indicated the person had been a man who was either an Australian aboriginal or from a South Pacific Island. How had he ended up buried in Lancashire?

Elaine Bell with the skull

Carbon dating the skull produced no results. Initially the scientists thought this was because the bone was fossilized, but after subjecting it to chemical tests, they realized it was a fake, cast from a real skull.

The mystery deepened because it was a really good fake — much better than the kind that are typically commercially available — featuring details such as a fracture, incision marks indicating a pre-death operation, and signs of infection around the nose and mouth.

Currently, the police still don't know what substance the skull is made out of, nor how long it was in the river. Det. Supt. Charlie Haynes offers their best guess about what this thing is: "In the early 1800s skulls from Papau New Guinea were collectable - which ties in with the features of this skull. It may be a very accurate replica of a collectable."

The question is, why would someone have buried a very expensive fake skull? Perhaps it was buried back in the 19th Century by someone trying to perpetrate an archaeological hoax?

Links: Lancashire Telegraph, Burnley Express.
Categories: History, Science
Posted by Alex on Wed Jul 11, 2012
Comments (5)
I periodically receive emails from people who insist I need to add global warming to the site because it's the "biggest hoax in human history." I don't agree with that. Actually, I think global warming is something that definitely merits being worried about. However, I did just add a global warming hoax to the hoax archive, which might make the global-warming-is-a-hoax crowd happy. Except that this hoax occurred in 1874.

It's a story that appeared in U.S. newspapers in February 1874. The premise was that scientists had discovered the earth was getting hotter and hotter. Europe was predicted to be tropical in 12 years, and soon after that the planet would become too hot to support life. The cause of this warming wasn't carbon emissions, but rather the recent laying of transatlantic telegraph cables, which were supposedly acting like giant electromagnets, pulling the earth into the sun.

This was a very minor nineteenth-century hoax. It didn't generate much interest at the time because it was pretty far-fetched. But it's more interesting to us today because of its depiction of man-made global warming. In fact, I suspect it may be the earliest fictional portrayal of global warming caused by man's technology. At least, I can't find any earlier examples.

The full article about the hoax is in the hoax archive. I've redirected comments there to avoid having duplicate threads.

Categories: Death, Journalism, Science
Posted by Alex on Mon May 21, 2012
Comments (0)
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