Tuesday is the centennial of the grossest fraud of 20th-century science: Piltdown man. It is a case worth remembering.
On Dec. 18, 1912, amateur geologist Charles Dawson presented to the Geological Society of London a partial skull. It was purported to be a human ancestor 500,000 to 1 million years old, an age scientists now assign to Homo erectus. Dawson said he had found the fossils in a gravel pit near Piltdown Common, south of London.
Dawson had no scientific credentials, but his friend Arthur Smith Woodward did. Woodward was the keeper of the geological department at the British Museum. He had been at the dig and had seen the jawbone “fly out” of the ground under the blow of Dawson’s pick.
There was a problem with the jawbone. It was from an orangutan only a few hundred years old. It was fitted with two fossilized chimpanzee teeth, filed down to make them look more like human teeth. The cranium fragments were human, from the Middle Ages. All had been treated with an iron solution and acid to make them look older.
Scientists didn’t have many fossil skulls in 1912, but none of them looked like a human cranium with an ape jaw.
Several scientists, including one from the Smithsonian Institution, argued that the jaw and cranium did not match. It took 40 years for them to be proved right, and even longer for Dawson to be confirmed as the con man responsible.
Science is human. It is subject to error and, what’s more, malice. Unlike some other purported paths to truth, science has a way of detecting errors, but not an automatic way. Someone has to do it.
A century on, Piltdown man seems quaint, but fraud is not.
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