PILTDOWN Man was hailed as one of the biggest discoveries of the 20th century – the missing link between ape and human. But 40 years later, Piltdown Man was discovered to be a hoax. Since then, scientific fraud has become more common, not less. Two years ago, a claim by Hwang Woo-suk, Korea's most respected scientist, to have extracted stem cells from cloned human embryos turned out to be a lie.
Now comes news that John Heslop-Harrison, one of Britain's most eminent botanists when he died in 1967, deliberately planted rare specimens on Rum 60 years ago in order to "prove" that the Hebrides had escaped the
last ice age.
Why do they do it? Perhaps in a desperate attempt to keep their place on the academic ladder. Some – possibly this was the case with John Heslop-Harrison – are so sure their theories are correct that they are willing to doctor the evidence to prove the point. Besides, the risks are low, as the truth rarely emerges until the fraudster is dead. And the penalties are modest – Hwang Woo-suk was dismissed from his post, but not prosecuted. Yet scientific fraud can cause harm. The British psychologist Cyril Burt was responsible for the IQ testing that determined the 11-plus selection for millions of British children. It was later proved Burt had invented his research work. By that measure, a few foreign flowers on Rum seem innocent.