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April 1, 2014

For April Fools' Day: A sampling of scientific hoaxes over the centuries

Speaking of jokes, in honor of April Fools' Day, Discovery magazine's Jonathon Keats briefly recounts some scientific hoaxes perpetrated over the centuries. His catalogue of cons includes "Aristotle's Masterpiece," a 17th-century mishmash of bogus medical texts and sex advice that remained in publication for 200 years. Then there's the Chinese fossil that duped National Geographic 15 years ago: the supposed "archeoraptor" turned out to be rearranged parts of fossils, with the tail of a dinosaur linked to the body of an extinct bird. He also recalls how in 2013 Science magazine staffers submitted a fake research paper, complete with numerous errors, to 304 open-access journals, and that it was accepted by 157 of them.

Keats also says the Abominable Snowman story may turn out not to be a complete hoax: Last year, British geneticist Bryan Sykes said he had matched DNA from alleged Yeti hair to an ancient Scandinavian bear.

And Keats relays Discovery's own foray into the hoax business: In 1995, the magazine ran an April Fools' story about a creature called the Hotheaded Naked Ice Borer - a molelike animal that melted tunnels through ice with its head. The piece resulted in a torrent of hate mail - more response than the magazine had ever gotten for an article. Almost two decades later, he writes, "We still receive the occasional angry note."

        

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