The intellectual process of developing theories and hypotheses based on observations and experiments and checking those hypotheses with further experiments and observations that we refer to as science has proven itself to be the best tool human beings have ever developed for understanding and making use of the world around us. This process is not an easy one, however. Not only is it a lot of work to conduct the necessary experiments and interpret the results, but the process demands a rigorous honesty that does not come easily to anyone. Most people are less interested in discovering the truth than in being proven right, and there is always a tendency to consider only the evidence that confirms existing ideas and ignore the evidence against them. As Dr. Richard Feynmann put it in his lecture about cargo cult science:
It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.
In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.
The problem is that this level of integrity is almost contrary to human nature. There is a great temptation to cheat, particularly when the rewards of fame and fortune are present.
One of the most famous instances of scientific cheating is Piltdown Man. Piltdown Man was a hypothetical “missing link” between human and ape discovered by an amatuer paleontologist Charles Dawson at the Piltdown gravel quarry in 1912. Dawson stated that workmen at the quarry had discovered skull fragments which they had given to him. Dawson had been able to reconstruct the skull with these fragments and other pieces that he had found at Piltdown. The resulting skull had a roughly human cranium, although only two thirds the size of a modern human brain, but an ape-like jaw with large canines. Clearly this was the remains of a creature caught midway in the transition between human and ape, the missing link of the chain of evolution.
At first, there was some skepticism about Dawson’s find. The canines seemed too large for the jaw and the whole thing seemed to be just a little too neat a combination of human and ape. Then, Dawson found another skull about two miles away. It might be possible for a human skull and ape jaw to have somehow been put together once and fossilized . Surely that couldn’t happen twice. Piltdown Man was accepted as a legitimate ancestor to homo sapiens.
At the time of Piltdown Man’s discovery, relatively little was known about the details of how humans evolved from their apelike ancestors. Over the years, more early human fossils were discovered and much more was learned about how humans became human. As the missing pieces were fitted together, it became increasingly obvious that Piltdown Man didn’t fit in. Paleontologists began to suspect that Piltdown Man was either an aberration, perhaps a mutation of some sort, of a hoax. In 1953, the question was definitely settled. Piltdown was shown to be a hoax. Piltdown Man was actually a rather crude forgery. The skull was that of a medieval man with a small head. The jaw was from an orangutan and the canines were the teeth of a chimpanzee.
The only remaining question was whether Charles Dawson was the forger or whether he was merely an innocent dupe. Dawson was the obvious suspect, but there were others associated with the discovery of Piltdown Man, who might have been able to perpetrate such a hoax, notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, and the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Recent research, however, has indicated that Charles Dawson was indeed the forger. He actually had something of a history of perpetrating such hoaxes and was well known for his skill at making unexpected archaeological finds, invariably later discovered to be forgeries.
Why did it take so long to expose Piltdown Man? The forgery was not very sophisticated and the discoverer had a reputation for not being particularly honest. To be fair, a space of forty years between the discovery and the exposure is not an unreasonable amount of time considering how much was discovered about human development in that time. Still, one might have expected more skepticism to be shown, especially considering how important the find seemed to be at the time. It seems as if everyone involved in the research involving Piltdown Man showed a disregard for the sort of scientific integrity that Dr. Feynman was talking about. For years no one seemed to want to consider the increasing evidence that Piltdown Man wasn’t real.
I think that was the problem. Piltdown Man was exactly what most paleontologists were expecting. At the time of his discovery, the general consensus was that human beings developed large brains first, while retaining a more apelike physiology such as a large jaw and lack of bipedalism. Only later, they believed did humans began to walk erect and to develop a flatter, more human face. It was also generally believed that human beings developed somewhere in Eurasia, Perhaps even in Germany, where Neanderthal Man had been discovered not long before, or in England. There was a certain amount of nationalistic pride in being the area where humanity began. It is not that surprising, then, that British paleontologists were the least likely to be skeptical about Piltdown Man.
In any event, these assumptions that Piltdown Man seemed to confirm have proven to be wrong. Primitive humans, such as the Australopithecus (Lucy) began to walk erect on two feet long before developing larger brains, and the human race arose in Africa, almost the opposite of what was generally believed. I wonder how much these widely held but wrong assumptions held back the science of paleontology.
I also wonder how many other Piltdown Mans there are out there that are holding back the progress of science. I don’t mean hoaxes or forgeries necessarily, though that is a greater problem is science than many realized, but ideas and theories that are held to be settled science but aren’t. I wonder how much that everyone “knows” to be true and so not worth questioning, are not true, and how long it will take before anyone thinks to question it.
- Character of the week: Teilhard de Chardin (paulocoelhoblog.com)