In 1944 a fake article was submitted and published as a scientific paper. In the context of How Science Works, can a hoax have educational value?

In Short
  • To settle an argument, chemists submitted a hoax paper to the Analyst;
  • The paper was written so well that it was accepted, but why? 

There is a rumour that in 1944, an argument developed on the editorial board of the journal Analyst. Two disaffected members responded by delivering a 'sting' in the form of a hoax article1 that purported to measure the toxicity of laevorotatory ice crystals! Once discovered the article was not indexed but thanks to the internet it is now easily accessed on RSC Resource and it raises some interesting questions. The article is reproduced below and the reader is encouraged to peruse it before continuing with this commentary. 

A large iceberg

Source: Thinkstock

The article is packed with palpable nonsense but written in a convincing style that the mind accustomed to trust reputable scientific journals readily accepts. The puns are somewhat more arcane and only a few can be deciphered today. The article is a sting and so the author's name is 'Beeman' and the first citation is to Moussewitz (mouse-wits is a pejorative term for the other members of the board). There is something for everyone; metallurgists will be surprised by the 12.6 per cent gallium in the aluminium ice container (the gall of these people!) and hydrogen probably would have been evolved when the container was filled.2 Yet the refractive index given is reasonable and ice does develop a Moh's hardness of 6 at about -70 ?C so the reader is disoriented by the juxtaposition of the possibly true and the false. But when dissolved at 10-50 per cent in alcoholic solution (one always focuses on the solute content!) and injected into animals, the laevorotatory ice crystals produce the most awful symptoms! Even more horrific is the autopsy finding: 

'microscopical examination shows numerous sharp pointed ice crystals sticking out of the cerebral cortex' 

It costs the reader a lot of intellectual energy to keep their scientific radar switched on and so one continues into the article unconcerned. Provided the style of writing flows in the way we expect of scientific literature, there is no reason to be alarmed, something the authors may have anticipated. One can imagine the authors sitting in a bar, pen and paper in front of them worrying: 'What if no one notices?' Possibly because of this concern, the article progressively develops into a crescendo of incredulity and the second paragraph begins:  

'In human expts. 1 litre of commercial brandy was ingested in 3 hr. in 60 ml doses with a 2.5 cm cube of ice.' But fortunately the 'acute symptoms of poisoning disappeared within 24 hr, apparently owing to the melting of the laevo crystals.' 

It was certainly reassuring to learn that: 

'Relief was afforded by cold milk and by aspirin (0.3g every 30 minutes).' 

All these observations went straight through the publication process! 

A shrewd editor would have on file an article just like this that would be sent as a test to new referees so that the editor could be confident in the skills of his/her reviewers. However, publishing is now under such pressure, and good reviewers so hard to find, that there is no time for such a test. But could the whole escapade be repeated today? While the war may have allowed these conspirators to not worry for their reputations as today's scientists might, there have recently been more serious scientific hoaxes such as the purported discovery of molecular organic transistors in 2000 that resulted in top journals NaturePhysical Review  and Science  withdrawing over 20 scientific papers.3 Today, many editorial teams have screening processes in place for malpractice such as plagiarism and invention and the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has been set up to support editors of peer reviewed journals. However, as the pressure for academics to publish their work grows, it is likely that the incidence of malpractice will grow also.   

Although both types of hoax violate truth, this deliberately humorous hoax seems to be on a different level to serious scientific deception. The ice abstract is more akin to testing the system, checking our intellectual radar in a similar way that an airline or bank might employ security consultants to deliberately challenge security and access. Indeed a similar 'testing of the system' occurred in 1996 when physicist Alan Sokal published an article 'liberally salted with nonsense' in a cultural studies journal called Social Text.4 This was followed up by much needed introspection.5,6

So does the toxic ice hoax have educational value? In earlier years, this author had the idea to begin a lecture quite normally and then slowly change to an Alice in Wonderland delivery of nonsense. Would anyone notice? How nonsensical would it have to get? What would be the educational consequences?   

Today, the consequences might be a formal complaint; 'I didn't pay £3000 per academic year to be the butt of your jokes!' But for some students, there might occur an awakening: 'I have always believed everything the teachers said and everything that is in the textbooks but this has made me wonder...' Lecturers and students imperceptibly and unconsciously adopt precisely defined roles: teacher dispenses truths and student trusts, accepts and memorises these truths for the exam paper. At no point does the student experience the deliberate dispensation of falsehood - indeed there is a certain violence in the idea of a teacher dispensing untruths - and therefore the student has no reason to acquire discrimination skills and judgement. It could even be argued that some young people hold to a type of epistemological relativism in which something is true if a good spin has been put upon it but false if it is not presented well. The medium might not be the message but it might be the arbiter  of the message. Thus laevorotatory ice both exists and is toxic if the article is well written!  It is true that students get multiple choice questions and so they have the chance to choose between true and false, but is this is the same? In driving tests, the examiner tells the candidate before asking them to do a controlled stop, but the child who steps out from between parked cars does not issue this warning. By analogy, in real life we stumble upon the boundary between true and false without warning.   

The appearance in the formal school syllabus of critical thinking takes us some way towards remediation of the lack of judgement skills but it is implicit in Bloom's taxonomy7 that these skills should be subject-embedded. Bloom sets out six levels at which education can be delivered: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis    and evaluation. The first deals with memory and recall, and if we attach value judgements is supposed to represent the 'lowest' level of learning. Evaluation represents the 'highest' level and includes the ability to discern between true and false: this is the level where judgement sits. It is, however, a matter of opinion how far Bloom's ideas have penetrated the higher education sector and some might argue that the answer is not far enough. 

Melting ice cubes

Source: Thinkstock

Some lecturers start their lecture course with something like "Everything you read in the textbooks about this is wrong" to try and break the spell that 'imparted truths' hold over students. It doesn't work and the students just think their lecturer is somewhat batty. One teaching event where this author began to see judgement between true and false at work was a mock trial organised with five problem based learning groups, each conducting laboratory work on a forensic science challenge. The groups had to distinguish between various pieces of evidence that were woven into an elaborate storyline with their lecturer standing accused. The best performance was from the fibres group who presented their evidence impeccably. The group presented microscope images of two different fibres in pairs, starting with the lower magnification and working upwards. The audience held its breath because both fibres looked the same, had this group forgotten which side it was working for? Finally, the last and highest magnification scanning electron microscope images appeared. The images showed the wool worsted fibres' scales and the smooth surfaces of the synthetic fibres. 'Clearly the fibres are from different sources' explained the student witness laconically before stepping down from the stand. They had done, in Mahatma Gandhi's words, 'an experiment with truth'.   

This article on the toxicity of ice delivers another warning for us and speaks to the contempt with which the 'experimental details' sections of scientific papers are held by some journal editors. Experimental details are often either dumped at the end of a paper or stored separately as supplementary information, but lack of discernment in reading the experimental method is what makes the ice toxic in our example. This is particularly the case in the experimental design of controls - the toxic ice is dissolved in alcohol but the control is dissolved in water 

History has poked fun at us all and given the last laugh to "J. Beeman". His article, far from being lost in a dusty un-indexed tome has been given authenticity in the electronic age. The article has been assigned a DOI, a 'digital object identifier' and so this hoax can be found under DOI:10.1039/AN9446900097. May it always serve successive generations as a reminder of that universal truth: all is not as it seems! 

Julian Evans is Professor of Materials in the Chemistry Department at University College London

Toxicological Significance of Laevorotatory Ice Crystals

J. Beeman (Bull., Bureau Chemical Investigation, New York State Police, Dec. 1943, 8, &S)

The author, who is Director of the Oregon State Police Laboratory, has studied the characteristics of acute ice poisoning. Moussewitz (Arch. Pchy. u. Norm., 1933, 199, 276) bombarded snow crystals with the isoclonic cyclotron, using wavelengths in the mega spectral region, and noticed irregularities in the extinction angles of ice crystals when their tips were irradiated with therma particles. Illidsen (Szuenska, Norska and Finska Hellegund, 1939, 27, 645) noticed similar effects when the crystals were infiltrated with methyl chloro-fluoride vapour and expressed his results in a mathematical formula, but the great forensic importance of these findings has so far escaped notice. In the author's expts. tap water was analysed with a mass spectrometer to fix rigidly the concns. of beryllium at not more than 0-0067pg per litre, since otherwise therma particles are absorbed and irregular results are obtained. The tap water was run into aluminium alloy trays to form 2-5-cm cubes and frozen for 6 hr. in a commercial refrigerator. The trays had the following composition: Al, 65-4; Mg, 18.7; Ca, 0-0029; Fc, 5.67; Ga, 12.6%. The resulting crystals were a mixture in equal parts of slowly melting monoclinic rhombs and hexagonal plates. Examination of the mixed crystals (nD, 1.333) in polarised light showed that the monoclinic needle-like crystals were laevorotatory and the hexagonal plates dextrorotatory. They could be separated by treatment with ethyl alcohol, which dissolved only the laevorotatory crystals and, on evaporating the soln. 99.8% pure crystals were obtained. The acicular laevorotatory ice crystal is a bi-axial positive rhomb with an extinction angle of 46"; n,, 1.345; in.p., -3" C.; hardness, +6;, 0-9996. In alcoholic soln. (10 to 50%) the laevorotatory ice forms an alcohol-crystal complex, whilst the dextrorotatory ice melts innocuously. Quantitative toxicity studies showed that laevorotatory ice had a toxic index of +3.45 and the dextrorotatory ice an index of - 3.45; ordinary ice, when melted, is thus a racemic mixture of the two in equal proportions, and the two compounds completely neutralise each other. Animals given parenteral injections of the laevorotatory crystals (10 mg,/kilo) developed gastritis, diarrhoea, foul breath, rapid pulse and bulging eyes and were extremely irritable. At autopsy, the tissues appeared normal, but microscopical examination showed numerous sharp-pointed laevorotatory ice crystals sticking out of the cerebral cortex, making contact with the calcarium. 

In human expts. 1 litre of commercial brandy was ingested in 3 hr. in 60-ml doses with a 2.5-cm cube of ice prepared and treated as described above. In addition to the usual alcoholic intoxication (in some cases extreme) the symptoms observed in the animal expts. were also noted after ca. 10 hr.; besides frequent eructation, conjunctivitis, sensations of heaviness in the cranial cavity and jabbing pains in the frontal region. Nervous irritation, not relieved by thiamin, was extreme, loss of memory was noted and psychic functions were atypical. In the acutely poisoned subject, the sight and odor of an alcoholic beverage produced reflex nausea; in some cases the subject developed a split personality; the average duration of this type of malady was 12 hr. to 7 days. The acute symptoms spontaneously disappeared within 24 hr., apparently owing to the melting of the laevo crystals. Relief was afforded by cold milk and by aspirin (0.3g every 30min.). In a control group of subjects 1 litre of water was given in 60 ml doses with the same amount of ordinary ice as before. No symptoms developed.