In 1912 a shocking discovery was announced to the world by paleontologist Arthur Woodward and amateur antiquarian and archaeologist Charles Dawson. They reported that they had discovered a new hominid species of early man in PIltdown, England which they concluded was over 1 myr. They even named the new species “Eoanthropus dawsoni” after Charles Dawson himself.
The men wasted no time claiming that this discovery was one of the most important in the history of science and they tagged it as the “missing link” between man and ape. For decades Piltdown Man would be read about and studied by students of paleontology without question. The media would periodically remind the world what a significant and important discovery Piltdown Man was and even museum exhibitions presented Piltdown Man as a real human ancestor. But there was one big problem, however, and that was that Piltdown Man was a HOAX!!
Clues that Piltdown Man was a hoax should have been caught from the very beginning as soon after its discovery access to the original remains in England was cut off and as a result other scientists were denied the opportunity to examine the fossil remains of Piltdown Man for themselves. Thus, the claim that this was a “missing link” could not be independently verified.
Unfortunately, when Piltdown Man was discovered everyone got caught up in the hype over it being a “missing link” between man and ape. In reality it was a combination of a skull from an orangutan and other bones and not human or ancient at all! We see the same phenomena happening in science today. A discovery is reported and everyone gets caught up in the hype. And in the midst of this hype the discoverers increasingly refuse to share their evidence so other researchers can verify or replicate their claims. They become very “protective” of their evidence and very selfish about sharing it and this is not good science.
The Piltdown HOAX should remind us of the dangers of getting caught up in hype and in not being able to verify the finds or evidence of our peers. This is why the “Open Science Movement” is important. It calls for transparency in every step of the scientific process so that one’s peers can see the evidence for themselves, replicate it, and come to their own conclusions. Historically, this has always been the most major tenet of the scientific process and it certainly should continue to be such.
During the Piltdown snow-job even respected scientists were fooled but some were not fooled at all such as Reginald Smith who was he curator of the British Museum. He was skeptical about the find and the claim from the beginning. He and others immediately noted that the find was sensationalized and that requests for examination of the evidence were routinely denied by the discoverers. This, of course, raised suspicion but the hype was so intense nobody paid any attention to such suspicions.
The end result was that Piltdown Man’s discovery created an almost complete lack of transparency in the scientific process. The world and other researchers were simply asked to accept the conclusions of the discoverers without independent verification. This same problem is happening today! Many discoveries being made lack transparency and once again we are being asked to just simply accept the conclusions of the discoverers without independent verification! This is not science in the classical sense. This is JUNK and paves the way for a multitude of possible hoaxes!
Piltdown man was eventually discredited and exposed as a hoax but it took decades. Had more researchers been able to see the “fossil finds” for themselves this hoax would have been exposed sooner but that wasn’t the case. Instead, the wool was pulled over the world’s eyes for decades as the scientific principle of independent verification and replication were thrown out the door in favor of HYPE. This is what happens when research is not shared. There are those researchers, amateur AND professional alike, who will go to ANY lengths to make a name for themselves and gain their 5 minutes of fame!
Piltdown should remind us of the inherent dangers of drawing conclusions based on limited and emerging information for both the public and for scientists. When research is not shared and fantastic claims are made getting to the truth is often difficult and time-consuming. Without access to the evidence of a find we cannot possibly verify a claim. As scientists and researchers we need accurate and reliable information and we need to be able to review the evidence for ourselves and come to our own conclusions. When information and evidence is forbidden and locked away the risk of a hoax or just plain misinformation is greatly enhanced.
Original materials, data, and preliminary findings SHOULD be made to our peers for their review. Conclusions should not be instant but should be made over the course of time, sometimes a long time. For example, recently some studies have come out 10 or more years after a discovery and I hear many people asking, “Why did it take so long?” The answer is because the researchers were taking their time examining the evidence and formulating their theories instead of jumping to conclusions and wading in the hype pool.
A great example of this fail in science today is the discovery of the Hobbit, Homo floresiensis, in Indonesia in 2003. When found researchers suggested it MAY be an ancient human ancestor and that suggestion was all it took to set off a media frenzy around the world! Scientist around the world started looking for related finds and they began accessing the claims of the finders of the Hobbit. Discoveries are still being made centering around the Hobbit so the “jury is still out” on this one for the most part. But, the media will have none of this long process as they’ve already blasted the Hobbit as an ancient human ancestor no matter what. And, ironically, this is just a replay of what we saw with the infamous Piltdown Man!