See the error of their ways

27th September 1996 at 01:00
From alchemy to the Hitler Diaries, hoaxers are always trying it on. James Williams says it's time to deal with science fiction Are all scientists truthful? That's an interesting question to pose to your next science class. Usually the answer is yes, scientists do not lie. They do not need to.

Pupils see little benefit in a scientist lying either to their peers or the public, yet there have been some fascinating hoaxes that could liven up your lessons, pose some interesting moral dilemmas and illustrate the need to deal with errors in pupils' scientific investigations, without resorting to falsification.

Probably the earliest scientific hoax was based on the premise that base metal could be turned to gold - alchemy. Initially, alchemists made brassy, yellow alloys, passing them off as gold. Alchemists were the first chemists and many processes were developed by them, such as distillation, a process of evaporation and condensation separating two liquids of differing boiling points; sublimation, where a solid vaporises without going through a liquid phase and calcination, heating materials at a high temperature for a long time.

One alchemist trick was to put gold in a false-bottomed, lead crucible and cover it with wax. Some powder (usually sulphur) was added, and it was heated. The wax would melt and, magically, gold would appear. The powder could then be sold at inflated prices. Today, we would scoff at anyone trying to convince us that base metal can be turned into gold. Yet scientific hoaxes still occur.

One famous example is that of the Piltdown Man, an early 20th-century concoction of a hominid that fooled the scientific establishment for nearly 40 years. Piltdown Man was an embarrassment to science and is an example of how science should be used to establish truth, with no discovery so precious that it cannot be examined first-hand, which was how the Piltdown fraud persisted so long.

A misuse of science to champion a cause and add weight to a lie occurred in the case of the development of the QWERTY keyboard.

Christopher Latham Sholes devised the keyboard after producing the first commercial typewriter in 1873, with a keyboard in alphabetical order. Because the keys got stuck when the levers were hit, he asked his brother-in-law, a mathematician, to design a layout that prevented jamming, separating the most used letters to create a delay in the levers striking the paper.

The hoax came in how it was marketed. Sholes did not want to let on that the keys could jam and so stated that the layout had been scientifically determined as the fastest way to type. A lie, but, it helped to sell many typewriters and persists today. Nobody questioned this lie because it was "scientific".

What motivates scientific fraudsters is not purely greed for money. Many seek the academic acclaim and the reward of being first. One of the greatest scientific scams in this country this century aided the setting up of a three-tier education system, based on the work of Sir Cyril Burt (1883-1971).

Burt's work on intelligence in identical twins earned him academic accolades. In the Forties the then government introduced the 11-plus to measure intelligence and decide the fate of many pupils: fit for grammar schools or not?

But in the mid-Seventies, it was revealed that Burt's collaborators, Margaret Howard and J Conway, did not exist and were pseudonyms for Burt. His data was flawed and he had lied about his findings.

However, fixing data is common in school science. Pupils often discover error in investigations. Yet few know how to deal with it, and teachers are not good at teaching them that while error is acceptable, falsification is not. Most of us have probably "fixed" the odd experiment to ensure that, when used in class, it works.

The problem lies in what is acceptable and what is not. Dealing with error is difficult in class. When asked to find the temperature of boiling water by reading a thermometer, pupils who are taught that water boils at 100 LESS THAN C often give that answer, regardless of what the thermometer says.

Experience shows that boiling temperature can range from 95 to 100+ LESS THAN C, depending on the purity of the water and the accuracy of the equipment. What we often cannot deal with in science is an acceptable margin of error and how that can be explained.

Science is viewed as one of the few subjects that can give a right and wrong answer. The pressure to come up with a correct answer can be too great to battle against, yet in the real world there is often no right and wrong. Where science can offer hope is in its ability to be objective.

Many hoaxes have been exposed as a result of good science. One of the most controversial was the dating of the Shroud of Turin. Radiocarbon dating provided evidence that it was manufactured in the l3th century. In the mid-Eighties, science was also responsible for exposing the Hitler Diary fraud, which cost newspapers, including The Sunday Times, dearly.

Even in the case of DNA or genetic fingerprinting some argue that such evidence is not foolproof. A margin for error is so small, say its developers, that the chances of being wrong are in the league of millions to one. Many people, however, are not comfortable dealing with probability and margins of error. They want certainty and cannot accept that science may be uncertain, no matter to what degree.

On the news, we are told that the chances of catching BSE from eating infected beef are millions to one, if at all. Yet a National Lottery advert declares that, even at 14 million-to-one, "It could be you". How objectively do we assess and react to these statements of probability?

As scientists, we should develop a curriculum that teaches not only the fact of science but how to cope with error, uncertainty and probability. That must begin by looking truthfully at results and developing strategies to deal with them honestly. It must move on to look at the critical appraisal of scientific evidence that seems contradictory.

By looking at some successful hoaxes, we may develop critical analysis in our pupils who will not accept on face value a set of facts because someone somewhere says it is scientifically proven. The point is, are we training good scientists or future hoaxers and data manipulators?

James Williams is head of science at The Beacon School, Banstead, Surrey

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