Sometimes they're a crank. Sometimes they're a frauds. Sometimes they're a bit of both. Here's our list of seven of the most fascinating cases of those operating at the far, far edges of "science." Put on an old episode of Coast to Coast AM and join us, won't you?
The 1966 issues of our dearly departed competitor, Popular Electronics, sometimes expounded on the mystery of Wallace Minto. Minto pushed forth his idea of hydronics, a supposed technology to communicate through water. Minto also proposed plasmonics, another self-declared communications breakthrough regarding seemingly unpowered message transmission.
"Minto is seemingly a scientist determined to profit from his discoveries," Popular Electronics wrote in March 1966. "He and his staff will talk about this new wave and
its characteristic behavior, but they don't say a word beyond that."
Somehow, neither hydronics nor plasmonics revolutionized the world of communication. In fact, seemingly the only survivor of his multitude of inventions is the Minto Wheel, which is popular in free energy circles but has been disproven by and most of the rest of the scientific community.
Psuedoscience, thy name is Wilhelm Reich. With theories rooted in Freud, Reich claimed that there was an unseen energy in the air called "orgone." The mystical material was claimed to be a sexual energy in the air, collectible by the orgone energy accumulator.
Ultimately, Reich's claims of collecting orgone energy ran afoul of the FDA, taking umbrage to some of his claims, ranging from libido aid to imbuing weather control onto the user. Courts ordered his literature and machines destroyed, and Reich eventually died in jail under charges of contempt of court. In his later years, Reich was also known fora fervent obsession with UFOs. (For more on Reich and radionics,read our feature "Spooky Action at a Distance: The Strange Science of Radionics.")
In modern times, perhaps no fraudster has done so much damage as Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield published a 1998 paper with an audacious claim: that the MMR vaccine could be linked to autism. The claims led to an anti-vaccination movement that has led to thousands of children contracting once-nearly-extinct diseases like measles, polio, and other easily preventable ailments.
Wakefield's results were never able to be reproduced in the lab, which began to cast them into doubt. Upon further investigation, it was found that Wakefield, a surgeon, had been paid 400,000 British pounds by a group of attorneys to prove that the vaccine was harmful. Later determinations called Wakefield's research an "," but the anti-vaxxer movement is still going strong. Just check this to see what other diseases Wakefield has put on a comeback tour.
Plenty of people have tried to disprove Darwin since The Origin of Species was published. Kammerer went a step further and tried to publish falsified results in what's become known as the "midwife toads" experiments. What Kammerer wanted to prove was that traits inherited during a parent's life time could be passed to a child.
This was a pre-Darwinian scientific idea called Lamarckianism. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was no fraud himself, but rather, a product of his time. However, were Lamarck's theories to be true, it would mean that, say, a father who loses his thumb in life could pass that along to a child.
Darwin's theories are much different, based on the idea that advantageous mutations will propagate within a species or environmental niche. A giraffe's neck is long not because of changes in its life, but because the long necked members of the species were better able to survive.
Kammerer heated the water midwife toads lived in, hoping to draw out certain traits the mothers could only gain in life to be passed along to the children. Specifically, it was the appearance of black pads on the feet of the toads purported to be for traction that indicated the tadpoles had picked up this late-in-life adaptation from their mothers. Instead, though, many alleged the real culprit was much more mundane: india ink had been placed on the pads of their feet.
Some of his results are still argued today, at least from afar, with at least one researcher asking the question of whether he'd , a process by which gene expressions can be altered by some external events. But epigenetics simply regulates already existing traits from on to off, or vice versa—it doesn't create new traits whole cloth.
Lawrence Berkeley Labs thought they had something remarkable on their hands: elements 116 and 118, previously undiscovered in the lab. Both pushed the outer boundaries of atomic physics, creating the heaviest elements ever discovered.
Instead, what they had was a scientist named Victor Ninov. Ninov had worked in physics for some time, creating complicated computer programs that helped his labs suss out the small details from data to find illusory materials that last only fractions of a second. But that acumen, and the fact that only he knew how to handle the data, meant that Ninov could falsify the data at Berkeley, and make the bold claim.
As the detailed, it all began to unravel after the 1999 discovery when other labs tried to reproduce the data. The specific decay chains, in which an element sheds protons and neutrons to become a lighter element, could not be reproduced, and further investigation revealed why: the data wasn't real. Ninov was fired. Berkeley Labs was later able to synthesize an atom of element 118, this time for real.
Kevin Trudeau is many things. "Full of crap" and "" are just two of those things. A modern day snake oil salesman, Trudeau purported to have cures for cancer, evidence that AIDS was a hoax, and hormonic weight loss solutions. At best, it was snake oil. At worst, it was malicious fraud.
Trudeau, alongside a series of natural cures for a variety of ailments, gave readers a conspiratorial outlook. Major drug companies conspired to keep the cures for diseases from the public. His methods could not only cure cancer, but provide you a photographic memory. Trudeau had the natural cures to provide you relief ... just pick up his books or herbal supplements to find out how.
Trudeau ran afoul of the Federal Trade Commission and other agencies for decades, before finally being sent to prison in 2014 for airing informercials against court orders.
There's a long history of fraudulence in anthropology and human origins. Just witness the Piltdown Man, the Nebraska Man, or any number of other faked hominid species that have come and gone in the last few centuries. There are also claims of human evolution which seek to prove that some racial characteristics are less "evolved" than others, trying to add a scientific basis to racism.
In other words the field is fraught, and has its share of hoaxsters. Shinichi Fujimura became a cause celebre of nationalist Japanese people with his discoveries of paleolithic objects. His discoveries pushed back further and further, "proving" Japanese occupation first into 40,000 years ago, then to 600,000 years ago—long before Homo sapien was believed to have left Africa.
There was just one problem: Fujimara was planting the pottery and other objects at the supposed archaelogical "sites," and passing them off as true discoveries. The fraud was exposed when Japanese media, suspicious of his claims, found him planting evidence on the sites.