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.

Saturday, August 22, 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 might finally, de facto, stop believing everything you read and hear.

It's called 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 "everything you eat causes cancer" or "all of the science we're being told now could be wrong."  It give you an automatic reason not to read (or not to watch your diet or not to learn science), and in the end, is simply a statement 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 several years ago, but which continues to circulate, lo up unto this very day... entitled "The (Non-religious) Dinosaur Hoax Question."

Muttaburrasaurus skeleton (Queensland Museum)  [Image is in the Public Domain]

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 a motive for our believing in dinosaurs.  Supporting controversial ideas for their own nefarious reasons.  Getting us worried about the climate and the potential for cataclysmic asteroid strikes.  Therefore: they must be lying.  We're never told, outright, why the scientists would lie about such things, but the seed is planted, right there in the first paragraph.

Then, we're thrown more reason for doubt 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, instead of interpolating the missing pieces -- something that is routinely done by paleontologists.  And those wily characters even 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.
Because that's what clever conspirators these scientists are.  Covering up the fact that they're giving out erroneous information on dinosaurs by... um... admitting they had some erroneous information about dinosaurs.

But according to Clues Forum, this is 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 that 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 I should correct a statement I made earlier.  There is a difference between gullibility and cynicism.

Gullibility is far easier to cure.


Fan of true crime stories?  This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is for you.

In The Poisoner's Handbook:Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum, you'll find out about how forensic science got off the ground -- through the efforts of two scientists, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, who took on the corruption-ridden law enforcement offices of Tammany Hall in order to stop people from literally getting away with murder.

In a book that reads more like a crime thriller than it does history, Blum takes us along with Norris and Gettler as they turned crime detection into a true science, resulting in hundreds of people being brought to justice for what would otherwise have been unsolved murders.  In Blum's hands, it's a fast, brilliant read -- if you're a fan of CSI, Forensics Files, and Bones, get a copy of The Poisoner's Handbook, 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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