What’s the “greatest” scientific fraud of all time? (UPDATE: comments now closed)

There are some crimes for which disapproval of the crime and those who committed it is mingled with grudging admiration. Because the crime was extraordinarily clever, audacious, or otherwise impressive. Think of the fictional casino heist in Ocean’s Eleven. Or in the real world, think of Alves dos Reis.*

So, what’s the closest any scientific fraud has come to Ocean’s Eleven or Alves dos Reis? What’s the “greatest” scientific fraud of all time? Where “greatest” is in scare quotes because scientific frauds aren’t actually great–they’re bad! But I don’t think that condemning their badness is mutually exclusive with acknowledging that a few of them were clever, creative, audacious, etc.

A few opening bids:

  • Piltdown Man. Gonna be hard to top this one, I think. Charles Dawson (it almost certainly was him) faked actual fossils rather than, say, numbers in a spreadsheet. Although he didn’t fool everyone, he fooled enough people (including some of the leading paleontologists of the day) to appreciably influence research on human evolution. The fraud wasn’t definitively exposed until more than 40 years had passed. By way of comparison, think of the fake “Archaeoraptor” fossil from a few years ago–it only fooled a fossil collector and a few people associated with National Geographic, and was exposed within weeks.
  • Does the Mechanical Turk count as scientific? Or as a fraud? If so, I’d say it was extremely clever. Like a really good magic trick. And it went many years without being exposed.
  • Sticking with cases that may not even count as “scientific”: Elizabeth Holmes and her start-up company Theranos swindled $700 million from investors based on fraudulent claims about their blood-testing technology. The case has been the subject of multiple high-profile documentaries, a bestselling book, and now Jennifer Lawrence is going to play Elizabeth Holmes in a movie. I actually don’t know much about this case, and based on what little I know I confess I’m not that impressed. The huge amount of money Elizabeth Holmes was able to swindle seems to me to say more about the credulity of Silicon Valley venture capitalists than about Elizabeth Holmes’ skill, cleverness, creativity, or audacity (see also: Juicero, WeWork…). But I dunno, like I said I don’t know much about the Theranos case. Maybe I’m vastly underrating the amount of skill, creativity, cleverness, and audacity required to bilk Silicon Valley venture capitalists out of $700 million?
  • Hwang Woo-suk became hugely famous in the mid-oughts by faking the creation of human embryonic stem cells. But he only got away with it for a couple of years. And it’s not clear to me if there was anything particularly clever about the fraud itself. From what I’ve read, it sounds like pretty garden-variety cell biology fakery, distinguished only by the audacity of the choice of topic.
  • This list of opening bids is short because I’m not at all impressed by most recent scientific frauds. Many of them, including even very high-profile cases like the Schön case, just involve some combination of image manipulation and faking data in spreadsheets. Meh. That’s not even much work! Ok, some of them are pretty brazen. But personally I don’t have even grudging admiration for brazenness. Doing a brazen fraud–i.e. a fraud so obvious that you’re bound to get caught eventually–strikes me as weird and dumb, not audacious. It’s like if you were to walk into a bank, make a gun shape with your hand in your pocket, and ask the teller to give you a sack of cash.

Looking forward to your comments! (though anyone claiming that climate change is a conspiracy by climate scientists will be blocked…)

UPDATE: and now that we’ve had a couple of dueling comments about IQ research, I’m going to block further comments on this topic. It’s pointless and unproductive. /end update

UPDATE #2: comments now closed. I can’t be bothered to do any further moderation of shouting matches about IQ research or other political hot buttons. Take it elsewhere people. /end update #2.

*You definitely want to click that link if you’ve never heard of Alves dos Reis!

50 thoughts on “What’s the “greatest” scientific fraud of all time? (UPDATE: comments now closed)

  1. How about the Surgisphere debacle? That didn’t last long, but it was about the highest profile fraud I can think of.

      • I think that Wakefield’s Lancet study on autism relationship to vaccines deserves a spot in the list. Unfortunately this was not clever, and we are still paying the consequences. He is giving talks and making money. Others are dying of measles.

      • As discussed elsewhere in this comment thread, Wakefield’s definitely up there in terms of his fraud’s awful impact on public health. But AFAIK, the fraud itself wasn’t particularly clever or creative or anything.

  2. My friend Paolo Viscardi is a world expert on mermaids. Not real ones, of course, but the elaborate fakes that were produced by unscrupulous traders of artefacts which ended up in museums and private collections. Here’s an account of one notable example: https://www.theguardian.com/science/animal-magic/2014/apr/16/mermaid-stripped-naked.

    By coincidence I’m also friends with Chris Lavers, the expert on unicorns. That’s just the kind of company I keep.

    • Hmm. That’s an interesting one. On the one hand, eugenicists like Cyril Burt and Hans Eyesenk did falsify results so as to conform to what they “knew” to be “true”. On the other hand, other eugenicists never crossed that line AFAIK (note that I’m no expert on the history of eugenics). Eugenics was awful–it did far more damage to people’s lives than any of the frauds listed in the post did. But how much of that damage was due to fraud? Someone who knows more than me about the history of eugenics hopefully will chime in here.

  3. Mohamed El Naschi (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohamed_El_Naschie)

    He created a new journal, Chaos Solitons and Fractals, which he used it as his own personal blog. He published so many self-citing papers, that it not only increased the journal’s impact factor, he single-handedly boosted Alexandria University into the top 200 in the Times Higher Education Rankings.

    When he was exposed by journalists at Nature, he went on to sue them for libel. He lost, but only after representing himself in court.

    Not “great” by any means, but certainly audacious!

    (also, he had a spelling mistake in the title of his PhD!)

  4. Question: will we never see the likes of Piltdown Man again because it’s just much harder today to fool many scientists for a long period of time?

  5. How do we draw the line between fraud, and, umm – I can’t think of a gracious euphemism this morning – idiocy?

    I’m having a hard time thinking of the flat-earthers, Orgone energy, Gene Ray’s Time-Cube, 1000-mpg carburetors, etc, as “fraud”, but there certainly are a bewildering number of people who are adequately bewildered about the world around them, to believe that these are rational scientific ideas.

    Analyzing my own dichotomization of between those things and fraud, it seems I’m only labeling things “fraud” if it’s something that I personally could have bought into, otherwise it lands in the “they’re just nutters” pile. I’m not sure that’s a good definition.

      • I’m still having some difficulty with the dichot/trichotomization. Is it pseudoscience if the folks selling it actually believe an alternate reality, vs fraud if they know its false? If that’s the dividing line, then the 1000mpg carburetor, and perpetual-motion-machine folks would seem to fall on the side of fraud – they’re essentially modern versions of the Mechanical Turk.

        Are the “Bosnian Pyramids” pseudoscience, or fraud?

      • Interesting and tricky question. Scientists who commit what others (correctly) see as straight-up fraud sometimes don’t see themselves as committing fraud. They’re scientists who are *sure* they’re right, it’s just that the data are too noisy or imperfect to prove it. So when they manipulate the data in ways that others (correctly) see as fraudulent, they just see themselves as revealing the true signal that they’re sure is there in the data. So no, I don’t think the dividing line between pseudoscience and fraud is “do you sincerely believe your own claims?”

  6. I feel like Wansink’s Food and Brand Lab wins in my mind for “impact on society”, just because all sorts of ideas in the public consciousness (“you eat less if you use a smaller plate!”) stem from his fraudulent publications and relentless pursuit of publicity. I do think that public “knowledge” has been more significantly harmed by his fraud than any others I’m aware of.

    Raymond Hoser is right on that line between pseudoscience and fraud, and disrupted the development of herpetology in Brazil as a result. Mixed with his wildly aggressive attacks on individual scientists, I don’t know that it’s the same type of “great” as a Piltdown Man, but it certainly is notable for cost to society and individuals!

    • Hmm. If we’re ranking scientific frauds by their impact on society, Wansink might be up there. Though I’m not sure how far up there, just because so much non-fraudulent nutrition research is rubbish (for instance: according to nutrition research, everything we eat both causes and prevents cancer: https://www.vox.com/2015/3/23/8264355/research-study-hype). If Wansink had never existed, would public “knowledge” about nutrition really be all that different, or worse?

      I definitely wouldn’t put Wansink #1 in terms of “bad societal impact” though. I think Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent linkage between the MMR vaccine and autism did much more damage to public health than anything Brian Wansink did. And there are probably at least a few medical research frauds I’m forgetting that did more damage to public health than Wansink did.

      Hadn’t heard of Hoser, will be curious to read up on him, thanks for the pointer.

      • Somehow I completely forgot about Wakefield (wishful thinking, I guess). I think that one will be hard to beat.

  7. How about a handful of researchers (primarily one, Dr. Mark Hegsted) who were on the payroll of the sugar growers lobby convincing the entire world (and scientists and government nutrition guidelines) via scientific publications that fat was much worse for you than sugar for decades? https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/well/eat/how-the-sugar-industry-shifted-blame-to-fat.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0. As I understand it most of the fraud occurred at the review paper stage, rather than the primary research, but it was still in the scientific literature.

    • Not a case I know anything about–thanks for the tip–but certainly sounds like it must be right up there in terms of societal impact.

  8. You suggest you don’t know much about the Elizabeth Holmes story. Did you read the book you mention (“Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup”, by John Carreyrou)? It’s really pleasant and fascinating reading, and does provide a lot of information.
    And, as a Frenchman, I would mention the “memory of water” story from Jacques Benveniste around 1988, which is probably a case of self-delusion of a (formerly) sound scientist… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_memory. This “rsearch” is now continued by Luc Montagnier – probably a case os scientific senility…

    • Yes, I’m (just) old enough to remember (ha ha) the “memory of water” story. As you say, seems more like a case of self-delusion than fraud. Tabletop cold fusion would be another example of that. Though fraud and self-delusion can blend into one another. Robert Trivers’ The Folly of Fools argues that, to be really good at fooling others, you have to first fool yourself. You have to “get high on your own supply”, as it were.

  9. How about John Heslop Harrison, Professor of Botany at Newcastle University (UK) from 1927 – 1946?
    He had theorised that there were plants which had survived the Ice Age, despite being buried beneath glacial ice for millennia, potentially an astonishing botanical breakthrough. In fact, Harrison had secretly transplanted extant specimens from the Swiss Alps to the island of Rum in the Inner Hebrides.
    Later, taking research students to the Island on field trips, Heslop Harrison would triumphantly ‘discover’ the plants.
    His fraud was exposed by a Cambridge (UK) classicist and amateur botanist, John Raven, who had heard sinister academic mutterings of discontent; on a clandestine trip to Rum in 1948, he demonstrated some of Heslop Harrison’s plants had been dug in with a trowel and their colonisation patterns were obviously artificial.
    Trinity College, Cambridge, which had commissioned Raven’s expedition asked him to write a report disclosing his findings. When they received it, the College decided to bury it in their library, unannounced. It was rediscovered by chance by writer and filmmaker, Karl Sabbagh, in the nineties following the clue of a chance mention in Raven’s obituary.
    Ironically, Heslop Harrison’s son eventually became Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, London.
    1. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/1999/jul/25/robinmckie.theobserver
    2. Sabbagh, Karl. (1999). A Rum Affair. London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press. ISBN 0-7139-9277-8

  10. If you are measuring the fraud for the amount of work and not by the impact, the story of the Cardiff Giant is probably the winner. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardiff_Giant
    The wikipedia entry has all the details of the story, but this one entitles to buy a block of stone in secret, get someone to sculpt it, bury it on the ground for almost a year, get someone else to dig in the place to find it and then explode the incredulity of those who will pay to visit it. Bonus points for someone else who did a fake of the fake afterwards.

  11. It’s Piltdown for the lead, head and shoulders. Or head and jawbone. It was audacious, targeted his scientific peers, and it stood the test of time for a long time. Has to be the winner. The Cardiff Giant was pretty darn good, but he was targeting religious proselytizers, not scientists. Now being from the arid land of jackalopes, I was particularly cheered by the reports of the elusive Northwest tree octopus. My own efforts in this regard enjoyed a day of private glory after I left giant ‘barefoot’ footprints during the night in the snow around the cabins of my 6th grader and her classmates during their annual winter field camp, with some oversized, plastic Frodo shoes. I am forever hopeful that Maskull Lasserre will take his animal tracks shoes into production.

    • Yeah, I’m with you on Piltdown Man vs. Cardiff Giant.

      +1000 Internet Points for bringing the Northwest tree octopus into my life. 🙂

      Your footprint hoax reminds me a bit of the time back in elementary school when my friend Mark and I convinced a classmate that naugahyde was made from naugas. Naugas being cute, hamster-like animals that were being slaughtered by the millions for their hides. Er, hydes.

      Perhaps we need a post on fake species. The Northwest tree octopus, jackalope, and nauga could be joined by the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, and the sidehill gouger (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sidehill_gouger)

  12. I think it’s the tobacco issue. It was such an intricately woven scientific fraud that it has served as “How To” manual for others wishing to mass market junk science to physicians and courts for profitable denial of causation of injury. There is an entire library dedicated to this fraud. https://www.library.ucsf.edu/archives/tobacco/

  13. In terms of negative impact on public health, the Vioxx case is up there. Davies discusses it in his book. Briefly, drug company Merck deliberately ignored/downplayed strong and mounting evidence that Vioxx caused heart attacks. In the 5 years Vioxx was on sale, it apparently caused something like 80,000 heart attacks, half of them fatal.

    The Vioxx case is interesting in that it’s not entirely clear whether the senior scientists involved understood the heart attack risks, or whether they were so excited by the thought of having discovered a new wonder drug that they were blinded to the heart attack risks.

    • Re: your first two, my god. Fraudulent studies of surgery are really bad.

      Richard Meinertzhagen looks to have been quite a character! Stealing bird specimens from the Natural History Museum and resubmitting them as your own discoveries definitely stands out among scientific frauds for creativity and audacity. He also seems to be unusual in that he was a fraud in other areas of life as well–he wasn’t just a fraudulent ornithologist.

  14. Have you considered Hans Eysenck and the recent retraction of 14 papers and the flagging as “unsafe” of a further 61? These are for his very controversial linking of personality to health outcomes.

    “The results reported by Eysenck and Grossarth-Maticek were implausible and incompatible with modern clinical science and the understanding of disease processes.”

    “An editorial by David F. Marks gives reasons to be highly suspicious about much of this research and the datasets underlying many of these papers. Eysenck also had ties to the tobacco industry.”
    There was significant harm caused because Eysenck argued that it was not cigarettes that caused cancer but the personality of the smoker. He also argued that personality was the important factor in other serious diseases and could be prevented by psychological therapy.

    In February, Anthony Pelosi published a paper in the Journal of Health Psychology calling the Eysenck case “one of the worst scientific scandals of all time,” accompanied by an editorial from David Marks calling for an inquiry by King’s and the British Psychological Society.

    Some of it was cited heavily by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s controversial book The Bell Curve.


    • The Bell Curve is controversial because of the fake news that it is about race and IQ. The first sentence of its preface states “This book is about differences in intellectual capacity among people and groups and what those differences mean for America’s future”.
      Eysenck’s name appears in only one sentence of TBC’s text, ironically in the context of vicious ad hominem attacks on anyone brave (or foolish) enough to enter this field: “The experiences in the 1970s of people like Arthur Jensen, Hans Eysenck, and Richard Herrnstein himself taught them that the consequences of being visible can be extremely punishing”. Eysenck has one reference in the 57-page TBC bibliography, an article on raising IQ with vitamin supplements. Is this topic now taboo? I could not find G-M’s name in the book.
      In my opinion the most serious and common scientific scandal of all is to cite something that one has not read. I realise that it is now accepted for the US president to engage in free-floating untruths, but scientists should set a better example.
      I also suspect that the above assertion that HE had argued that cigarettes did not cause cancer was another convenient untruth. I have not been able to check primary sources, but see this from Sarah Bailey’s hostile article in The Guardian Oct 11 2019: “In 1991, he published a book called Smoking, Personality and Stress, re-issued as recently as 2012, in which he claims that “while smoking is a risk factor for cancer and CHD (coronary heart disease), its effects have been exaggerated””.

  15. If one searches Dr. Eysenck’s name in the UCSF Big Tobacco Legacy Library, they will see that there are over 4000 results. Many have links to documents showing how his advice as an expert has been used for decades to help Big Tobacco sell doubt that cigarettes cause injury — to avoid liability for causation in court. His work is just a small piece of the puzzle, that when viewed as a whole, exposes how numerous medical and scientific experts have committed and/or contributed to scientific fraud while being involved in racketeering. The court’s Big Tobacco RICO finding was over 1700 pages long. Several of these experts took skills they honed when selling doubt for Big Tobacco and profited by applying them to sell doubt of causation for many environmental exposures (asbestos, formaldehyde, mold, etc.) The reason I know much about this subject and strongly believe the Big Tobacco issue is the greatest scientific fraud of all time, is because I’ve researched how some of the Big Tobacco scientists went on to cause shear Hell for thousands of people by selling scientific fraud/doubt of causation in the mold issue, beginning circa 2000. I’ve done contact tracing for the spread of scientific fraud in environmental medicine, policies and toxic torts for 15 years. Big Tobacco was the original super spreader. (I’m a medical journal published author on the subject of how a premiere U.S. medical association(s) became entangled in selling scientific fraud in the mold issue with old Tobacco scientists, et.al: LaDou J, Teitelbaum DT, Egilman DS, Frank AL, Kramer SN, Huff J. American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM): a professional association in service to industry. Int J Occup Environ Health. 2007 Oct-Dec;13(4):404-26. doi: 10.1179/oeh.2007.13.4.404. PMID: 18085054).

Comments are closed.