Science - Elemental, my dear Watson

23rd November 2012 at 00:00
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle forgot his scientific rigour

If someone showed you a photograph of fairies, would you believe it? Computers can do some wonderful things, like creating a magical world where it really looks like fairies could exist. Generally we know what's real, but in 1917 two young girls managed to trick Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - creator of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes - into thinking that fairies really did live at the bottom of their garden.

Conan Doyle (pictured right) was a scientist, a medical doctor by training. Much of his writing employed aspects of his scientific training. And yet he was hoodwinked.

The photographs (see above) were taken by cousins Elsie and Frances Griffiths by a stream that ran along the bottom of their garden in Cottingley, near Bradford. The girls said they went there only to see the fairies. One day Elsie borrowed her father's camera and took the first of a series of fairy photographs. Elsie's father, Arthur, dismissed the photos as fakes made using cardboard cut-outs. But Elsie's mother believed them. Eventually, Conan Doyle, who had been commissioned to write about fairies for a magazine, heard of the pictures and thought they would be the perfect way to back his story with evidence. But many years later, in the mid-1980s, Elsie and Frances confessed that they were faked using cardboard cut-outs.

Conan Doyle's belief in the pictures wasn't his only brush with magic and trickery. He was a good friend to Houdini and became convinced that he had supernatural powers, even when the magician insisted he didn't. This led the two men to fall out. Some scientists also believe that Conan Doyle was involved in the Piltdown Man hoax - a claim that the missing link between humans and apes had been found.

Examining why seemingly very clever people can be deceived is quite difficult, but a useful discussion in a science class. Much of what we take for granted now - mobile phones, space travel, organ transplants - would have been seen as fantasy in 1917. Yet fantastical notions have come true, so why not fairies? The nature of evidence and what questions Conan Doyle should have been asking about Elsie and Frances' photographs would make for an interesting class discussion.

In science, it is important not to let your beliefs get in the way of examining evidence. Conan Doyle was a spiritualist. He probably believed in the fairy photos because he wanted to. One motive he may have had for publishing them was to see if the general public would accept fairies as being real. If they did, it was only a short step to getting people to believe that the dead could be contacted and that ghosts could exist. Conan Doyle abandoned a scientific way of working - and that was his undoing. In his eagerness to see spiritualism accepted, he forgot his scientific training.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex's School of Education and Social Work


Students turn detectives in clairemcgurk's lesson that highlights how dependent science investigations are on evidence.


Try Cyberphysics' interactive PowerPoint to help students develop learning skills - great for improving their write-ups. bit.lyScienceSkills.

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