Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Birds, ancestors, and intellectual honesty

Last week I was messing about with a genealogical search engine called RootsWeb.  RootsWeb indexes, and allows you to search, the submitted databases of thousands of genealogical researchers, and can be a valuable tool for finding out bits and pieces of information that other folks have uncovered.

It's also a fine way to perpetuate error.  When I was using it last week, for example, I came across a database in which a researcher had identified one of the early residents of Louisiana as having been born four years before his father was.

Now, having done genealogical research for years, I can tell you that this kind of mistake is easier to make than it would seem.  Genealogical software allows you to link up people quickly and easily, and while some (mine, for example) has features which give you an error message if you try to link two people who can't possibly be parent and child (or husband and wife), not all of them do.  So, my point is, not all errors of this type are careless research; many are probably just the genealogical equivalent of a typo.

In any case, the point of all this is that the RootsWeb server allows you to place an electronic post-it on others' databases, asking questions, giving additional information, or whatever.  So I posted, "How can this be _____'s father when he was born four years before his father was?"

The following day, I got a very snarky email from the owner of the database.  The gist of it was that I was finding fault with research that she had identified on her site as "tentative," and it ended with, "... you should have read my website notes before you posted your rude commentary, which clearly wasn't intended to be helpful."

Now, leaving aside the presumptuousness of thinking you can discern a total stranger's motives from a single sentence on a post-it, I find this attitude baffling.  I felt like writing back, "you 'tentatively' thought a person could be born prior to his father?  Are you ignorant of biology, or just generally stupid?"  But of course, I didn't; I sent a quick note apologizing, saying I hadn't meant to offend.  But really; why would any researcher object to having an obvious, simple error pointed out?

I ran afoul of the same attitude years ago, with a cousin of mine who wanted our mutual great-grandmother's family (the Iams family) to be descended from royalty.  He proposed a scheme for descending them from the kings of Scotland, which (upon delving into it a little) I found to be impossible.  In this case, I was a little more tactful right from the get-go, sensing that he was pretty happy to have royal blood - I sent him a letter gently breaking the news to him, and providing photocopies of the records I'd found that disproved his cherished hypothesis.

He never spoke to me again.

It's all about intellectual honesty, really.  I have had some theories of mine run headlong into the stone wall of factual evidence, and it's not pretty when that happens.  It's hard to go in, and where you had answers, put back in those blank-looking question marks.  But otherwise, what's the point?  Why would you engage in a pastime like this if you're satisfied with perpetuating falsehoods?

I have another hobby in which intellectual honesty plays a part, and that's birdwatching.  I'm what some birdwatchers derisively call a "twitcher" or a "lister;" I keep track of my sightings and actively search for birds I've never seen.  Now, anyone who's ever watched wildlife will know that the word "seen" isn't as clear-cut as you'd think.

A good example was the first time I "saw" a Ruffed Grouse, a bird which had eluded me for years.  I heard it first -- anyone who knows the fauna of the American Northeast will attest that this is generally the case, the call of a Ruffed Grouse carries for miles but the birds themselves are remarkably elusive.  Anyway, I'd been trying for nearly an hour to get a glimpse of the bird I heard calling, and suddenly there was a flurry of wings and a brownish blur took off through the trees and disappeared.

So, the dilemma: should I count it?   I knew what it was; I heard it, and was sure that this was the same bird I'd heard.  But by the rules I'd set for the game, that wasn't good enough -- to count it, I actually had to see it well enough to recognize it.  It was another year before I saw a Ruffed Grouse well enough to tick it off my list.

But I've met birders who don't have the same standards -- if they see a speck flying away, and someone else in the group is sure it's a particular species, they'll count it.  My question is, how is that honest record-keeping?

I know these are both just hobbies, and that I'm getting all serious about something that is just lighthearted recreation, but I still think the question is a valid one.  I find myself wondering about this when I read about intellectual dishonesty in other, far more serious venues -- when politicians will lie, or be selective with the truth, to achieve their political ends; when scientific researchers will falsify or ignore data to create an appearance of support of their favored theories. 

Just last week, a story broke about allegations that Dr. Dipak Das, whose research was responsible for the widespread contention that drinking red wine increases longevity and improves general health, had engaged in fraud.  His papers, which had appeared in peer-reviewed journals, and whose findings became part of the conventional wisdom on health and nutrition, were found to have 145 instances of "fabrication and falsification of data."  Das has, over the years, been the recipient of millions of dollars of federal grant money; the University of Connecticut just announced that they were returning to the government the last two grants, totaling $890,000.

Das, of course, has been "unavailable for comment."  But it is clear that these allegations are valid, and it is highly probable that his career is over.

What would possess someone to do such a thing?  How could someone, steeped in the honesty-at-all-costs tradition of the scientific method, not at least realize that sooner or later, he was bound to get caught?

I wonder if people like Das start small, like my genealogical acquaintances, and the cheating birders; if once you've become anesthetized to the effects of lying about small things, it becomes increasingly easy to lie about large ones.  It may seem silly, but it's the same thing; the only difference is scale.  We have a favorite theory, an outcome we really desire to be true, and we tell ourselves that it won't matter if we stretch the truth. 

And like anything, it becomes easier the more we practice.


  1. I like your attitude. But it seems to me when your theory is disproven, you don't have to go back to a total question mark. You can write "Not the king of Scotland" in that space. But write small...

  2. If you have patience and humility, consider yourself lucky. Those traits are the in-roads to objectivity. Not everyone was fortunate enough to be taught to WANT to have either.

    It can be so difficult to deal with individuals who, through a sense of self-entitlement, or insecurity, infer disrespect when none is given. Unfortunately, these personality types often get what they are seeking, when people apologize when they have, in fact, committed no transgression. This manufactured situation only serves to reinforce the notion that they had a reason to feel transgressed. (Damn right you better apologize!) *sigh*

    Like the post you made about your discombobulated neighbor... dealing with "strong personality types" (idiots?) can be arduous.

    I have witnessed a change in society. A complaining employee used to get "put in their place." (Quit bitching and work!) Now, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. A person cuts you off in traffic and then flips you off... as you, having done nothing at all, just shake your head in amazement. Instead of admitting fault, people nowadays just project an aggressive, "don't notice my faults or I'll lose my composure and make a scene" mentality... and how disgusting it is that this behavior not only works, people spend their entire lives in this modality with the rest of the banal citizens rolling out the red carpet, time and again for these ingrates, just to keep the peace.
    It most certainly doesn't help when musical artists, actors, and the like, exonerate this behavior rather specifically.

    Am I the only one that thinks that our society, in the past 30 or so years, has begun to resemble all of the negative hallmarks that were present at the fall of the Roman Empire?

  3. So true... and I think that, of all of the ugly personality traits, "entitlement" has to be amongst the ugliest. Nothing else can make a person so generally unlikeable.