The Piltdown Man Hoax

Evidence is the most important component of a scientific study. Any hypothesis may be made, however without evidence it does not qualify as science. The quality of the evidence is also a determinate factor in a studies classification as scientific or pseudoscientific. In the case of the Piltdown Man hoax there are several examples of pseudoscientific conduct independent of the fabrication of evidence. In 1913 Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward published a paper detailing a discovery of fossils at Piltdown, England thought to be a missing link between ape and man (Woodward and Dawson 1913).

The study was accepted by mainstream science until it was proven a hoax 40 years after its publication. This relatively long period of acceptance may have been the consequence of multiple instances of misuse of scientific evidence by several individuals. The most obvious misuse of evidence was its fabrication (Oakley, Weiner 1954). Indeed, its implications were novel and were in conflict with other evidence.

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Perhaps rating its level of ethicality is inappropriate; however the significance of the evidence to science was immense- it forced the rewriting of the story of human evolution (Feder 1990). Although the identity of the forger has not been substantiated, there is evidence of foul play, as opposed to inadvertency, as shall be discussed further on. If we were to overlook the fact that Dawson is a suspect and believe that he indeed was unaware of foul play, he nevertheless applied a flawed scientific method tantamount to misuse of evidence.

Together with Woodward he reconstructed the fossils to produce an unlikely result (Dawson and Woodward 1913). If it were to be more critically scrutinised, they may have reached the more accurate conclusion that many contemporaries reached – that the skull and mandible belonged to two different species (Feder 1990). It may be argued that it was Dawson’s inexperience that was at fault, however, the same cannot be said about Woodward who had 30 years of experience as a palaeontologist prior to find (The Royal Society – archive).

Based on views expressed by Woodward in the years leading up to the findings regarding evolution and extinction (Woodward 1898), there appears to have been a bias influencing his incorrect interpretation of the evidence (Drawhorn 1994). In line with his views was that Neanderthal and Pithecanthropus were evolutionary dead-ends indicated by their nuchal cresting (Woodward 1898, Drawhorn 1994). Therefore, in order for modern man to exist there must have been an equally ancient yet smooth-browed rival species from which we evolved.

Woodward’s reconstruction of the cranium was incorrect, giving it a smaller cranial capacity to that of modern human (Keith 1913), though much larger than Java man (Feder 1990). Belonging in reality to a modern human, he gave it more realistic characteristics that would be expected of a “missing link”; Ipswich Man’s rejection as not ancient was facilitated by its similarity to modern man (Keith 1914). This error in reconstruction is a prime example of a predetermined conclusion for which evidence is cherry picked.

Despite its mainstream acceptance, the findings in question, from the outset, were in fact challenged. However, it was only until much later, with the publication of definitive scientific evidence published by Kenneth Page Oakley and Joseph Weiner that marked the official end to the mainstream acceptance of Dawson and Woodward’s findings. Their paper concluded that the Piltdown Man was a hoax with the evidence obtained by applying a sound scientific method.

In documented, reproducible experiments the authors show the inconsistencies in the amount of fluorine present in the bones, confirmed by inconsistencies in the presence of nitrogen. To support this evidence they additionally presented evidence of fowl play in the filed teeth and staining (Oakley, Weiner 1954). The relative amount of evidence is also relevant in comparing the quality of the science, albeit on a superficial level. Oakley and Weiner, as previously mentioned, were not the first to present evidence against the findings.

The longevity of the hoax’s acceptance, despite the opposition, is a wonder. Perhaps it was the lack of technology that only became available close to its exposure that may be the cause of 40 years of public deception. Whatever the case, the power of bias and lack of scrutiny had a major influence on the results and their subsequent acceptance. This misuse of science with its implications of large scale deception must not be overshadowed nor justified by lack of technology. Any misuse of evidence in science is damaging; science is cumalitive and even a minor error effects future science.

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