Note: For the purpose of categorization, scientific fraud is considered to be different than scientific hoaxes. Scientific fraud implies a criminal intent. Scientific hoaxes, on the other hand, have a satirical or humorous intent. Some cases do not fit well into either category, so it is worth checking the listings for individual disciplines for a fuller listing of scientific deceptions.
Shortly before his death in 1702, butterfly collector William Charlton (1642-1702) sent a specimen to esteemed London entomologist James Petiver. Petiver thought it was quite remarkable. He wrote, "It exactly resembles our English Brimstone Butterfly (R. Rhamni), were it not for those black spots and apparent blue moons on the lower wings. This is the only one I have seen."
Carl Linnaeus had a chance to examine the rare butterfly in 1763 and declared it to be a new species that he named Papilio ecclipsis. He included it in the 12th edition (1767) of his Systema Naturae.
But thirty years later, in 1793, the Danish entomologist John Christian Fabricius examined it more closely and realized it was a fake. The black spots had been painted on the wings. The rare butterfly, the only one of its kind ever seen, was nothing more than a common Brimstone ( Gonepteryx rhamni ).
When Dr. E.W. Gray, keeper of National Curiosities at the British Museum where the specimen was stored, heard of the deception, he is said to have become so enraged that he "indignantly stamped the specimen to pieces". The lepidopterist William Jones carefully created two replica specimens that are now preserved as "The Charlton Brimstones".
It is unclear whether this is an example of scientific fraud (i.e. Was Charlton hoping he would be credited with the discovery of a new species?), or if it was intended as a mere practical joke.
On October 19, 1752, the Pennsylvania Gazette published a brief description of an experiment recently conducted by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, the article said, had flown a kite in a thunderstorm, causing electricity to be conducted down the line of the kite and electrifying a key tied to it. This demonstrated that lightning, as many had speculated, was a form of electricity.
Franklin's electric kite became the most famous experiment of the eighteenth century, helping to make Franklin famous throughout Europe and America. And yet, some historians argue that it probably never happened.
They point to a curious lack of details about the experiment. It is not known exactly when the experiment occurred. Sometime in June, 1752 was the closest Franklin ever came to an exact date. Nor did Franklin ever write a formal report about it. The only witness to the event was Franklin's son, who never said a word about it. Finally, such an experiment would have been extremely dangerous, possibly fatal, as Franklin knew.
Historian Tom Tucker suggests that Franklin originally proposed the idea for the experiment as a joke. Frustrated because the British Royal Society had been ignoring his letters to them about his earlier electrical research, he might have proposed the deadly experiment as a subtle joke. It was his way of saying, Go fly a kite in a storm! But when his suggestion reached France, where people took it seriously, Franklin decided to play along and claimed he really had conducted the experiment.
Tucker's theory remains controversial. Other historians argue that Franklin would never have risked being exposed as a liar by the scientific community.