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Scientific, medical hoaxes capture public eye

By Bob LaMendola and Nancy McVicar
Health Writers

January 7, 2003

If the Raelian babies turn out not to be clones, it would be the latest in a long tradition of medicine and science hoaxes.

From the Piltdown man, to a Chicago physicist cloning himself, to bananas carrying flesh-eating bacteria, outlandish medicine and science claims have proven irresistible to the public and the news media for centuries.

The number of phony claims has jumped because of the Internet, said people who track hoaxes. Previously, hoaxsters had to get on the news to gain wide attention, but now they can build a Web site and send out a bunch of e-mails.

"Science and medicine lend themselves to hoaxes," said Alex Boese of San Diego, author of the book The Museum of Hoaxes and creator of a Web site of the same name. "It must have something to do with man's mastery over nature. It all plays into the fears of what kind of power man is unleashing.

"People make an outrageous claim to get attention. That seems to be happening here with Raelians. What better way to get attention for your religion than have this birth at the holidays?"

Cloning around

Clonaid, a tiny company founded by the Raelians, called a press conference in Hollywood on Dec. 27 to say a clone they called "Eve" had been born. Clonaid claimed last week that a second clone was born to a Dutch lesbian couple. Raelians believe that humans were cloned from extraterrestrials, and the sect has as its main aim spreading its faith.

The company offered no proof of the clonings, and widespread skepticism by scientists was heightened last week when Clonaid said it might renege on its promise to let independent experts test whether Eve and her mother have identical DNA. As a result, former ABC medical reporter Michael Guillen, chosen by Clonaid to oversee the DNA test, said in a statement on Monday that he had suspended his effort.

Clonaid said the parents fear the baby could be taken away as a result of lawsuits such as one filed in Broward County to give custody to the state.

"What are they afraid of unless they are fakes?" said James Randi of Plantation, a professional debunker of the paranormal and pseudo-science. "It's a very simple test: a swab to take a saliva sample. It takes two minutes."

Publicity is the only goal, he said. Hoax or not, a percentage of the population will believe the Raelians. A few might join or give money.

"They not only want to believe, they need to believe," said Randi, founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation in Fort Lauderdale. "This business of creating a myth out of nothing is not as hard as you might think. They are naïve and gullible."

How gullible? A performance artist from Plantation made up his own cult in 1988 just to see if people would buy it, and he attracted tens of thousands of followers within weeks.

Jose Alvarez told media outlets in Australia that he was "channeling" a 2,000-year-old spirit he called Carlos who wanted to share mystical secrets with the world.

"I had no credentials whatsoever as a spiritual leader in any sense. To my surprise, I filled the Sydney Opera House without any questioning," Alvarez said. "These kind of far-fetched ideas will always be appealing to people -- that we have been chosen, that somebody's coming to tell us something. How magical, how incredible, how mystical. You have no idea how easy it is."

He later went on TV to tell the public that it was all an experiment. He has since repeated his hoax in other countries, including a televised performance before 100,000 people in China, each time setting the record straight afterward.

Just kidding

Science and medicine tall tales have made headlines again and again:

A respected former medical journalist, David Rorvik, wrote a book in 1978 claiming that his lab team had cloned an unnamed millionaire on an unnamed Pacific island. A judge ruled it a hoax in 1981 after he failed to produce evidence.

Chicago physicist Richard Seed, a Harvard University Ph.D., made world news in 1998 by saying he would clone a human, later choosing himself. Nothing came of it.

The "Piltdown man" found in an English gravel pit in 1911 shook science for 40 years. The skeleton supposedly showed that men with enlarged craniums were around for eons, knocking the theory of evolution. The find was debunked in 1953 as merely an old skull with an orangutan jaw.

Two Utah scientists announced in 1989 they had captured the secret of the sun's energy in a test tube at room temperature. Thousands of scientists tried to duplicate "cold fusion," and Utah gave a $5 million grant to study it. After two years, their data were shown to be fudged or misinterpreted.

Health hoaxes on the Internet have become so common that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains an online list to refute them. One rumor said Costa Rican bananas carried a flesh-eating bacteria called necrotizing fasciitis. The CDC says it's not possible for the bacteria to spread through food.

Capturing attention

Despite all the debunking, people continue to love outrageous claims, even if widely blasted by mainstream scientists.

"People are always looking for new discoveries, answering riddles that have puzzled us for centuries," said Al Teich, director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Nothing captures public attention like a bizarre birth, such as a cloning or a two-headed animal, hoax author Boese said.

"This goes way back to the Middle Ages. It's like, `What have they come up with now?' It's the cultural symbolism of what they have done, like, `Oh, the weird times we live in,'" Boese said.

Scientists said claims like the Raelian clonings could taint public opinion against bona fide research attempting to clone stem cells that could cure disease.

Some researchers said the media should have ignored the Raelians until there was biological proof, until the cloning work had been reviewed by other scientists and published in a scientific journal, which is the normal process.

"It's not news," said Joseph Heitman, director of the genetics program at Duke University. "It can't be a scientific hoax. There's no science."

But the cloning story was impossible for the media to ignore, said Robert Steele, a media ethics expert at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. Even if the claim proves fake, cloning is a legitimate issue with implications for science, religion and morality that deserve a public airing, Steele said.

For the most part, he found the media coverage balanced with healthy skepticism.

Bob LaMendola can be reached at or 954-356-4526.

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