20 Things You Didn't Know About... Hoaxes

April Fools' Day started with Julius Caesar, and 19 other things you didn't know about hoaxes. But be careful: don't believe everything you read...

By Jonathon Keats|Tuesday, April 01, 2014
Reno Martin/ Shutterstock

1. Marco Polo’s famous 13th-century account of Asia is an encyclopedia of hoaxes, describing unicorns and a solid gold palace.

2. The claim that Polo introduced noodles to Europe is also a hoax — though more plausible than the first televised April Fool’s prank: In 1957 the BBC showed spaghetti being harvested from trees. Many viewers inquired where to buy a spaghetti plant.

3. Another hoax: that the April Fool’s tradition began with Renaissance calendar reform, when the new year was moved from April to January, and those ignorant of the switch were mocked. Small problem: The old Julian calendar started in January, too.

4. The real originator was Julius Caesar, who reserved April 1 to ridicule political enemies. They assassinated him on the Ides of March to avoid the annual ignominy.

5. Et tu, readers? In 1995, Discover ran an April Fool’s story about the fictional hotheaded naked ice borer, provoking a record amount of hate mail. Nineteen years later, we still receive the occasional angry note warning us not to try that kind of funny business ever again.

6. At least we never took a page from Aristotle’s Masterpiece, a hodgepodge of classical medical texts and folklore falsely attributed to the great thinker. The manual hoaxed women into believing their children would be deformed if they even pondered adultery.

7. The first hoax you ever perpetrated was as a fetus, when you tricked your mother into giving you more food by releasing vast quantities of hormones that her body believed were her own.

8. And children only get more devious after they’re born — if they’re smart. In lab experiments, the frequency with which toddlers lie correlates with their intelligence.

9. Some 37 percent of American voters believe global warming is a hoax.

10. You can predict whether people think climate science is a hoax based on whether they believe in conspiracy theories, according to a 2012 University of Western Australia study. Conspiracy theorists dismiss many scientific findings, such as the connection between HIV and AIDS.

11. And people duped by one conspiracy hoax fall for many, even if contradictory. University of Kent research shows that people who believe most fervently that Princess Diana faked her own death are the ones who most strongly believe she was murdered. People don’t fall for individual conspiracies so much as conspiracy as a concept.

12. More than 80 percent of the marine fossils in Chinese museums involve fakery, according to Chinese paleontologist Li Chun.

13. National Geographic was duped by one Chinese chimera, announcing the discovery of “a true missing link” between dinosaurs and birds in 1999. Further research showed that “Archaeoraptor” was the tail of a dino glued to the body of an extinct bird.

14. Even more audaciously, Piltdown Man was heralded as the missing link between apes and Homo sapiens in 1912. The cranium came from a modern human linked to the jaw of an orangutan.

15. The platypus was originally deemed a hoax by British zoologists. The strange juxtaposition of bill and fur reminded scientists of fraudulent mermaids.

16. Yeti may be as real as the platypus, though. Last year, Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes sequenced DNA from alleged yeti hair samples and got a perfect match to an ancient Scandinavian polar bear. The species may still survive in the high Himalayas.

17. A lack of DNA hasn’t hurt Clonaid, the company that in 2002 claimed to have cloned the first human baby but refused to provide genetic evidence. Clonaid — closely tied to the Raelian sect, which believes aliens created humans and cloning is the gateway to immortality — is still in business.

18. In 2010 researchers from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detected the first direct evidence of gravitational waves — crucial proof of relativity. After thousands of hours of verification, they learned that the signal was a “blind injection,” an authorized prank by colleagues to check their work.

19. Another blind injection: Science submitted a spoof research paper about a cancer cure to 304 open-access journals in 2013. Despite numerous intentional errors, 157 journals accepted it for publication.

20. So don’t believe everything you read. One of these 20 items is a hoax. We couldn’t resist.

Did you spot the hoax? Tell us in the comments below! 


This reconstruction of Piltdown Man's skull was made in 1950, three years before the "fossil" was proved a fraud. Oops. 

The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
Comment on this article