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Scientists and Scoundrels
A Book of Hoaxes
University of Nebraska Press ($16.95)
by Kristin Livdahl
Robert Silverberg is probably best known for his science fiction but he has published a large amount of nonfiction—over ninety books—on wide ranging subjects from sex and science to history and biography. Originally published in 1965, Scientists and Scoundrels is a compendium of tales about scientific frauds from the early 18th to mid 20th-centuries. The hoaxes range from the well-known Kensington Runestone and Dr. Cook’s race to reach the North Pole, to less well-known frauds involving rockets, men on the moon, and fossil hunters.
Silverberg provides an intriguing view of the conditions that allowed the frauds to exist by placing the stories in their contemporary contexts and exploring the motivations of the perpetrators. These motives vary; some were in it for profit, some for fame, a few for revenge, and some were led astray by their devotion to a favorite theory. Several of the stories are both entertaining and tragic; while a few of the hoaxers profited from their work, most ended with reputations and careers ruined. Two in particular, Dr. Albert Cox and Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, made important and legitimate discoveries that were completely overshadowed by their frauds. Perhaps the most intriguing and enigmatic figure in the book is the explorer Dr. Frederick Albert Cook, who started as a hero and ended in disgrace.
While there are fleeting reminders of the book’s pre-moon landing publication date, the message of Scientists and Scoundrels continues to be relevant. Silverberg reminds us that:
The task of science is to distinguish between the real and the unreal, between fact and fantasy. The hoaxers, through their mischief, have done what they could to blur these distinctions. But the very fact that men do enjoy creating hoaxes teaches us all to be on our guard. We cannot accept statements at face value. We must check, and test, and examine, for things are seldom what they seem.
But hoaxes would have no life if people, at least on some level, didn’t want to believe these stories and thus be deceived. We have numerous examples of modern fraud—take recent cases involving cold fusion, cloning, and weapons of mass destruction. As Silverberg put it, “if, reading about such characters as Mesmer and Koch and Keely, you feel a trifle uneasy about some of the things you read in the daily paper, so be it.”
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008