Science - Elemental, my dear Watson

30th November 2012 at 00:00

What it's all about

If someone showed you a photograph of fairies, would you believe it? 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, writes James Williams.

Conan Doyle 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 were taken by cousins Elsie and Frances Griffiths by a stream that ran along the bottom of their garden in Cottingley, near Bradford. One day Elsie borrowed her father's camera and took the first of a series of fairy photographs.

Elsie's father dismissed the photos as fakes, but her 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 they were faked using cardboard cut-outs.

The nature of evidence and what questions Conan Doyle, a keen spiritualist, should have been asking about Elsie and Frances' photographs would make an interesting class discussion. He probably believed the photographs because he wanted to.

In science, it is important not to let your beliefs get in the way of examining evidence. In his eagerness to see spiritualism accepted, Conan Doyle forgot his scientific training.

What else?

Students turn detectives in clairemcgurk's lesson on how science investigations depend on evidence. bit.lyHowScienceWorks.

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