Evolution-creation controversies contribute their fair share of popular misinformation that spreads all the faster with the help of modern communications. Perhaps the best examples are the Darwin "deathbed conversion" story of Darwin's expressing regret for publishing his ideas on evolution (see review of "The Darwin Legend" by Kevin Padian in NCSE Reports 1996; 16(1):3, 8) and the "Mantracks" claims that fossilized human and dinosaur footprints are found side by side in Glenrose, Texas (see "The Paluxy River Footprint Mystery — Solved", a special edition of Creation/Evolution nr 25; 1985). Even though leading "creation-science" advocates have disavowed these claims, they're still in circulation, making their way from outdated library books to websites, public lectures, and letters to newspaper editors.
Now several members of NCSE have added another legend, this time from the "evolution side". It all began on April 1, 1998, when Mark Boslough e-mailed to several friends a satirical "press release" reporting an Alabama legislator's sponsorship of a bill requiring schools in the state to teach that pi=3. Dave Thomas, NCSE member and also president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR), posted the piece on Talk.Origins , the Internet newsgroup whose participants discuss and debate evolution and "creation science." The story was filled with amusing references to key individuals and events in the struggle to have evolution included in New Mexico's science curriculum. (For example, "Alabama legislator Leonard Lee Lawson" was modeled after NM state senator Leonard Lee Rawson, who argued against evolution by brandishing a stuffed monkey which he declared was "not my uncle".) It also contained several clues that it was in fact a joke, such as a web address of "April/fool/html". Late on the day the spoof was first posted, an explanation was also posted to the same newsgroup.
By then, however, the legend was out of the bag. After 2 weeks had passed, Thomas was able to find hundreds of internet postings of the story, some of them reporting it as a genuine press release — all the easier to believe since the wire service name had mutated.
When 1999 rolled around, the original pranksters decided to try it again, but better. They topped their 1998 performance on April 1, 1999, when they launched www.darwindisproved.com. Complete with photographs of what appeared to be partially unearthed, fossilized bones of a dinosaur swallowing a hominid, the site unfolded a tale of excitement and intrigue. In broken English, "Stefan", a graduate student at the University of Heidelberg, describes coming to New Mexico to work with his American mentor, Prof Heinschvagel (resemblance to "hornswoggle" fully intended). And then...
We found a fossil of a hominid, being eaten by an allosaurus dinosaur. Look at the picture1/4. The dinosaur is apparently trying to eat the cave-man, and then both became killed in some event. Perhaps the allosaurus choked on his food.
Intrigue? Did I mention skullduggery? That's right! A cover-up!
Of course, it is the impossible in Darwin's theory for hominids to have been lived 140 million years ago.... All the evidence of this incredible find has been taken away. Except for a few photos which I managed to keep.... [O]ne of the guards came and made me give him all of the film. He said it would be very bad if I did not cooperate... I was so scared and worried that I forgot about the roll that had the 8 shots. When we returned to Albuquerque, I remembered and hid the films till I returned home. Now my friend has been putting them on the internet so everyone can learn what has happened, and how they are covering it all up.
...They told us not to discuss it with anyone, and that no one would believe us, and that our geology careers would be ruined, but mostly that other scientists would rush to publish it first if word of this find was exposed.... It is all being covered up because the scientists think their [sic] going to lose their jobs if everyone learns evolution wasn't true after all. Only I can tell the story. I can not reveal my true name, but my wonderful American friend is helping me to reveal the Truth to the whole World.
Other photos on the site included "graduate students" ("conspirators" David E Thomas, Kim Johnson, and their children) making casts of the "fossil" and a car labeled "New Mexico State Resources" (same initials as "New Mexicans for Science and Reason", of which Thomas is President.)
The site recorded over 1000 hits in the month before a full explanation was posted, ending with the comment: "Disclaimer: This website was created for the sole purpose of fooling any person who might fall for it."
The "darwindisproved" site drew a lot of email and inspired much speculation. David Thomas reports that, while some of his skeptical email was from creationists, it was only evolutionists who succeeded in tracking down the pranksters. (NCSE member Paul Heinrich traced the domain name to Kim Johnson, and NCSE member Skip Evans contacted Johnson asking for details.) Johnson noted that while many people identified the site as a hoax or — more correctly — as a spoof, they didn't always give the "right" reasons. For example, some commented that the site didn't look like part of the Morrison Formation (where the photos were in fact taken), or that black fossils are improbable (while many fossils in the Morrison formation are dark gray or black).
And yes... somebody bit. Thomas has reported that he received email from well-known creationists who demanded more evidence. But there was one who couldn't wait before (in RNCSE editor Anj Petto's words) taking the bait "hoax, line, and sinker". NCSE members who attended an anti-evolution lecture on May 7 at Philadelphia's Calgary Chapel report that "Dr Dino" (aka Kent Hovind) urged the audience to see the "evidence against evolution" at www.darwindisproved.com.