Can you do "science" about the past based on hoaxed evidence? A reasonable person (especially one who actually does science) would of course answer "no." If you have bad data that you know are bad data, you throw them out. To do otherwise would be . . . what? Stupid? Self-defeating? You can fill in the blank for yourself.
Here are a couple of examples.
I wrote this post about the Helenwood Devil in March (and then this follow-up post and this one a few days later). The so-called Helenwood Devil was a "horned giant" from Tennessee that was "discovered" in 1921. It turned out to be a clay statue that was sculpted in an abandoned coal mine by Cruis Sexton prior to being toured around and exhibited as a curiosity. You can judge the quality of Sexton's handiwork for yourself by looking at the photo.
I found accounts of the Helenwood Devil as a legitimate "horned giant" on two sites: The Rundown Live and The Greater Ancestors World Museum (GAWM). Kristan Harris corrected his story, but the GAWM chose not to. Chris Lesley commented on on this post last night:
"The first logical fallacy committed here is called a "strawman". I don't judge the articles, the GAWM website is there for Giant Hunters as an exhaustive resource, even though there is about 500 yet to be loaded to the site. I have compared the Helenwood devil with the plaster apeman skull called "Peking Man" which still exists in evolutionary examples. Are we to assume that you as an evolutionist who criticize others beliefs, hold to a different standard. I suggest you look into "Peking Man" and lets see how that level of criticism stands. So I am to assume that plaster skulls are acceptable when they fit your beliefs. The next problem is that you have brought the label "runt-hunter" on yourself. You pick out the easiest target and generalize all the articles as such. This is like trying to prove real apples do not exist by showing the public one "plastic apple." I let the public decide which ones are plastic, I am not arguing for the authenticity of the Helenwood Devil, I remain neutral my scientific model is not only safe but its superior to the lesser belief of Common-Ancestry". So you say this one (Helenwood Devil) is fake, . . .great! I am not threatened in any way. It will remain, instead of controlling what people think, as academia does, I suggest that each person judge for themselves in each case and ignore fallacious arguments such as cherry-picking, runt-hunting, double standards and Strawman attacks that misrepresent the motives of others. . thanks."
So there you have it. According to Lesley, the Helenwood Devil, despite being made of clay in 1921, persists as a possible piece of evidence that Creation Science should consider. I guess we should each make up our own minds about what a clay statue from the Roaring Twenties has to do with creation or evolution.
There are several other interesting things in Lesley's post.
First, he's mentioned "Peking Man" before, but I wasn't sure exactly what he was getting at. I checked around and it turns out that it is a popular contention among creationists that the plaster casts of the Homo erectus fossil material from Zhoukoudian are not accurate because they were made by evolutionists with an agenda (the originals were lost during World War II). You might be able to get a little traction with that argument if the Zhoukoudian skulls were the only remains of Homo erectus that we have to look at, but they're not. Not even close (there are many from across Asia and Africa).
Lesley is familiar with a "straw man" argument because he is making one about "Peking Man." Why not go after all the fossils of Homo erectus that are not plaster casts?
If there was a purported Homo erectus that was built out of clay in an abandoned coal mine, I think I'd want to throw it out of the analysis and try to focus on cases that may actually have something to do with reality. But maybe that's just me. I'm not even sure our understanding of Homo erectus would change that much at this point if we just threw out the Zhoukoudian material. This is because a robust understanding of the past, generally, doesn't depend on any single data point: we can throw out the ones that are suspect and still arrive at a plausible interpretation that can be evaluated in the light of new evidence. And we're much better off doing that than holding on to unreliable data and incorporating it into an analysis.
Finally, Lesley accuses me of "cherry-picking" and "runt-hunting" because I single out and examine cases that are not credible. It should go without saying, but it probably won't so I'll say it: that's what scientists do. We actually try to find and throw out bad data.
So far, I have yet to meet a case for a "giant" that I think is strong. And I haven't just looked at the "bad" ones (if they're so bad, why are we even talking about them anyway?) -- I've looked at many that are put forward as "strong cases." I've looked at the case for "three rows of teeth" from Amelia Island that Lesley himself challenged me to look at. I've looked at the case for the "eyewitness account" that Jim Vieira and Fritz Zimmerman published on. I've looked at many others that have been the subject of articles, blog posts, television programs, etc. Where are all the good cases that I'm missing? Are there any that are not "runts" besides the large skeletons reported by the Smithsonian (the institution accused of covering everything up)?
Back to the Helenwood Devil: if you're really just "putting it out there" so that people can decide, why not at least include the picture of the actual Helenwood Devil (and a link to the story) rather than an unsourced, unrelated image of horned skull that is probably also a sculpture?
Keeping the Helenwood Devil in the mix is almost as clear a marker of silliness as you could put on yourself.
Which brings us to the second example.
It appears to me that the non-existence of a mechanism for detecting and throwing out fakery is an important component of the "fringe" game in eastern North America. In my last post about the continued silliness of Hutton Pulitzer, I discussed the strange misconception of science among "fringe" theorists that seems to omit any possibility of proving your ideas wrong. That misconception, whether intentional or not, is coupled with an embrace of just about every fraudulent "artifact" that has ever come down the pipe: Newark Holy Stones? Bat Creek Stone? Kinderhook Plates? Soper Frauds? The reluctance or inability to critically examine individual pieces of evidence means that everything counts as evidence: good, bad, real, fake . . . throw it all in the pot, stir it up, jabber about it, try to sell books, etc.
In this post from July I wrote about the allegedly fake copper artifacts that Pulitzer includes in his video of "Copper Culture Artifacts." They're still there, and the video is still there. Fake artifacts? Someone who was really interested in answers and analysis would have removed artifacts that could be fake. So either Pulitzer doesn't care, or he has decided they're genuine. I don't know which it is. If I had to bet, I'd go with Curtain Number 1.
According to internet chatter, his books about treasure hunting are just as meticulously researched as his informational videos about archaeology.
Pulitzer's embrace of the fake went up a notch with his attempt at a defense of the Burrows Cave artifacts. If you don't know anything about Burrows Cave (and the connections between Russ Burrows, Frank Joseph, and Ancient American), please read some of Richard Flavin's posts that I linked to on my Burrows Cave page. There is perhaps no faster way to identify yourself as someone who is not interested in critical thought than by rushing to the defense of Burrows Cave.
Keep up the good work, guys!