Sometimes, science gets to have a little fun with the general public and when it does, it can have hilarious results. Here are some of the funniest scientific hoaxes that made a whole lot of people feel stupid.
April Fools Day existed long before it became the worst day on the internet. In 1957, a 3-minute broadcast aired on the BBC program called Panorama. The broadcast showed a woman in Switzerland harvesting spaghetti from a tree. Despite its obvious fake look, spaghetti wasn’t well known in the UK, so many didn’t have any idea where it came from to begin with.
Many called in for advice after the short broadcast only to have their stomachs and pride hurt. CNN reported, decades later, that it was the greatest hoax ever put on by a reputable news source.
There was a large spark of interest in animal intelligence early on in the twentieth century after Charles Darwin’s writings. Math teacher and amateur horse trainer Wilhelm von Osten claimed to have taught his horse, Hans, to add, subtract, multiply, divide, fractions, tell time, track the calendar, differentiate tones in music, read, spell, and understand German. Yeah, Hans predated Mr. Ed, but much like the talking horse from TV it was all a ruse.
Osten toured Hans all over, never charging the public, showing off Hans, who could answer questions that were asked both orally and in writing. He was even reported about in 1904 by The New York Times. After that major publicity, a team was put together to debunk Hans. They learned that if the question-asker, namely Osten, didn’t know the answer to the question, Hans more than likely would get it wrong (versus if Osten knew the answer). As you might have guessed, Hans was tapping his hoof to the tune of human cues. But it was fun while it lasted.
On October 16, 1869, a petrified corpse of a 10-foot-tall man was discovered while workers dug a well behind the farm of William C. Newell in Cardiff, New York. This discovery propelled the media and residents to believe there had a been a group of real giants that roamed the area. After the “discovery”, Newell set up a tent and charged 25 cents for people to come gawk at the petrified giant. He increased his price days later and went on to make good money for awhile until PT Barnum of circus fame cashed in by creating his own Cardiff Giant. Of course, it would eventually be outed that everything was a hoax.
Tobacconist, George Hull, was an atheist and after getting into an argument with a Methodist revival meeting about whether or not giants really had existed before humans, he concocted a plan. Hull hired a group of men to carve out a 10-foot-tall block of gypsum and had the block shipped to Chicago where he had Edward Burghardt to carve a likeness of a man out of it. He then had the sculpture sent to his cousin, William C. Newell who had the faux giant buried. They wouldn’t orchestrate the digging of a well until a year later.