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.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

A prehistoric hoax

One of the hazards of becoming more aware of how biased and (sometimes) duplicitous popular media can be is that you finally, de facto, stop believing everything you read and hear.

It's called, of course, being a "cynic," and it's just as lazy as being gullible.  However, because the credulous are often derided as silly or ignorant, cynics sometimes feel that they must therefore be highly intelligent, and that disbelieving everything means that you're too smart to be "taken in."

In reality, cynicism is an excuse, a justification for having stopped thinking.  "The media always lies" isn't any closer to the truth than "I know it's true because I read about it online;" nor is there anything particularly smart about saying "everything you eat causes cancer" or "all of the science we're being told now could be wrong."  All it does is give you an automatic reason not to read (or not to watch your diet or not to learn science), and in the end, all of those are simply statements of willful ignorance.

Take, for example, the site Clues Forum, which has as its tagline, "Exposing Media Fakery."  In particular, consider the thread that was started quite some time ago, but which continues to circulate, lo up unto this very day... entitled "The (Non-religious) Dinosaur Hoax Question."

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Rauantiques, Psittacosaurus Dinosaur Fossil Skeleton, CC BY-SA 4.0]

And yes, it means what you think it means.  And yes, the "Question" should simply be answered "No."  But let's look a little more deeply at what they're saying... because I think it reveals something rather insidious.

Take a look at how it starts:
Dinosaurs have, in recent years, become a media subject rivaling the space program in popularity and eliciting similar levels of public adoration towards its researchers and scientists. The science of dinosaurs and other prehistoric life is also directly linked to other controversial scientific topics such as evolution, fuel production, climate and even the space program (i.e., what allegedly killed them).
So right from the outset, we've jumped straight into the Motive Fallacy -- the idea that a particular individual's motive for saying something has any bearing on that statement's truth value.  Those scientists, the author says, have motives for our believing in dinosaurs.  Then we're told, at least in vague, hand-waving terms, what those motives are: supporting controversial ideas so people will look up to them, and getting us worried about the climate and the potential for cataclysmic asteroid strikes so they can get funding.  Therefore: they must be lying.  We're never told, outright, that's there's any real evidence the scientists are lying, but the seed is planted, right there in the first paragraph.

Then more reason for doubt is thrown our way when we're told that (*gasp*) scientists make mistakes.  A dinosaur skeleton found in New Jersey, and now on display at the New Jersey State Museum, was reconstructed with a skull based on an iguana, since the actual skull could not be found.  The article, though, uses the word "fake," as if the museum owners and the scientists were deliberately trying to pull the wool over people's eyes.  The truth is that they were simply interpolating the missing pieces -- something that is routinely done by paleontologists.  But the author claims it was more nefarious than that, and that those wily characters gave away the game by admitting what they were up to, right beneath a photograph of the skeleton:
Above is the full-size Hadrosaurus mount currently on display at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton.  The posture is now recognized as incorrect.  At the same time the skeleton is fitted with the wrong skull of another type of duck-bill dinosaur.  Signs at the exhibit acknowledge that both the mounted skeleton as well as nearby illustrated depictions of what the living animal looked like are both wrong.  Both are slated for correction at some unspecified future date.
So yet another hole punched in our confidence, with the revelation that (*horrors*) there are things scientists don't know.  Instead of looking at that as a future line of inquiry, this article gives you the impression that such holes in our knowledge are an indication that everything is suspect.

Last, we're told that it's likely the paleontologists are creating the fossils themselves, because fossils are just "rock in rock," leaving it a complete guessing game as to where the matrix rock ends and the fossil begins.  So for their own secret, evil reasons, paleontologists spend days and weeks out in the field, living in primitive and inhospitable conditions, grinding rocks into the shape of bones so as to hoodwink us all:
But, in our hoax-filled world of fake science, doesn't this rock-in-rock situation make it rather easy for creative interpretations of what the animal really looked like?  And, once a particular animal is “approved” by the gods of the scientific community, wouldn't all subsequent representations of that same animal have to conform with that standard?
By the time you've read this far, you're so far sunk in the mire of paranoia that you would probably begin to doubt that gravity exists.  Those Evil, Evil Scientists!  They're lying to us about everything!

Of course, what we're seeing here is the phenomenon I started with; substituting lazy gullibility with lazy disbelief.  All the writer would have to do is sign up for a paleontology class, or (better yet) go on a fossil dig, to find out how the science is really done.

But I've found that people like this will seldom take any of those steps.  Once you suspect everyone, there's no one to lean on but yourself -- and (by extension) on your own ignorance.  At that point, you're stuck.  So actually, there is a difference between gullibility and cynicism.

Gullibility is curable.


One of my favorite people is the indefatigable British science historian James Burke.  First gaining fame from his immensely entertaining book and television series Connections, in which he showed the links between various historical events that (seen as a whole) play out like a centuries-long game of telephone, he went on to wow his fans with The Day the Universe Changed and a terrifyingly prescient analysis of where global climate change was headed, filmed in 1989, called After the Warming.

One of my favorites of his is the brilliant book The Pinball Effect.  It's dedicated to the role of chaos in scientific discovery, and shows the interconnections between twenty different threads of inquiry.  He's posted page-number links at various points in his book that you can jump to, where the different threads cross -- so if you like, you can read this as a scientific Choose Your Own Adventure, leaping from one point in the web to another, in the process truly gaining a sense of how interconnected and complex the history of science has been.

However you choose to approach it -- in a straight line, or following a pinball course through the book -- it's a fantastic read.  So pick up a copy of this week's Skeptophilia book of the week.  You won't be able to put it down.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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