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.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Greta of the Yukon

If you needed more evidence of how little it takes to get the woo-woos leaping about making excited squeaking noises, look no further than this photograph, which they're saying proves that Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg is a time traveler.

Okay, I'll admit there's a resemblance.  For reference, here's a photograph of the real Greta Thunberg:

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons European Parliament, Greta Thunberg urges MEPs to show climate leadership (49618310531) (cropped), CC BY 2.0]

The first image is real enough; it's not a clever fake.  It's a photograph of children working at a Canadian placer gold mine, and was taken in 1898.  The original photograph resides in the archives of the University of Washington, and carries the description, "three children operating rocker at a gold mine on Dominion Creek, Yukon Territory."

This is not the first time this sort of thing has happened.  Previous iterations include an 1870 photograph proving that Nicolas Cage is an undead vampire, and a self-portrait by nineteenth-century French painter Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel showing that he's the same person as Keanu Reeves.  What's simultaneously hilarious and maddening about this last claim is that okay, the painting looks a little like Reeves, but later photographs of Boutet de Monvel (which you can see at the link provided) look nothing like him at all.  Which you'd think would make the woo-woos laugh sheepishly and say, "Okay, I guess we were wrong.  What a bunch of goobers we are."  But that never happens.  I'll bet some of them think Reeves realized people were catching on to his undead-ness and arranged for pics to be taken of some other guy that then were labeled with Boutet de Monvel's name.

Because there's no claim so ridiculous that you can't change it so as to make it even more ridiculous.

Lest you think I'm exaggerating how loony these claims get, back to the non-Thunberg photo, which has generated two explanations, if I can dignify them by that term:

  1. Thunberg was a child in late nineteenth-century northern Canada, was forced to work in a gold mine, and was so appalled by the environmental destruction caused by mining that she either time-traveled into the future or else figured out how to achieve immortality and eternal youth (sources differ on which), and is now bringing that first-hand knowledge to us so we can potentially do something about it.
  2. Thunberg actually is a twenty-first-century Swedish person, but has figured out how to travel in time so she can go back and sabotage mining operations and save the present from the devastation done by industry in the past.  She got caught at her game by a photographer back in 1898.

What strikes me about both of these, besides the fact that to believe either one you'd have to have a pound and a half of lukewarm cream-of-wheat where most of us have a brain, is that if either of these is Thunberg's strategy, it's not working.  If she's a poor mining kid from 1898 and has come into the future to warn us, mostly what's happening is that government leaders and corporate CEOs are sticking their fingers in their ears and saying "la la la la la la la not listening," while they proceed to continue doing every damnfool destructive thing they've always done, only harder.  If, on the other hand, today's Thunberg is going back into the past to throw a spanner into the works of the mining corporations, it had zero effect, because if you'll look carefully at the history of mining for the last 120 years, you will not find lines like, "Between 1900 and 1950, thirty-seven different mining operations all over North America were shut down permanently, because a mysterious teenage girl with a long braid snuck in and dynamited the entrance to the mining shafts, then disappeared without trace."  

So okay, the girl looks a little like Thunberg.  I'll grant you that.  But the claim that she is Thunberg makes me want to weep softly while banging my forehead on my desk.  It seems like the woo-woos have espoused some kind of anti-Ockham's-Razor; given a variety of explanations for the same phenomenon, let's pick the one that is the most ridiculous and requires a metric fuckton of ad hoc assumptions.  

I'll just end by stating that if I'm wrong, and Thunberg is an immortal time-traveler, I wish she'd stop wasting her time in the hopeless task of trying to convince the money-grubbing anti-science world leaders we need to stop burning fossil fuels, and go back in time with blueprints for high-efficiency solar cell technology.  Give 'em to Nikola Tesla.  I bet he'd know what to do with them.


I have often been amazed and appalled at how the same evidence, the same occurrences, or the same situation can lead two equally-intelligent people to entirely different conclusions.  How often have you heard about people committing similar crimes and getting wildly different sentences, or identical symptoms in two different patients resulting in completely different diagnoses or treatments?

In Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, authors Daniel Kahneman (whose wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow was a previous Skeptophilia book-of-the-week), Olivier Sibony, and Cass Sunstein analyze the cause of this "noise" in human decision-making, and -- more importantly -- discuss how we can avoid its pitfalls.  Anything we can to to detect and expunge biases is a step in the right direction; even if the majority of us aren't judges or doctors, most of us are voters, and our decisions can make an enormous difference.  Those choices are critical, and it's incumbent upon us all to make them in the most clear-headed, evidence-based fashion we can manage.

Kahneman, Sibony, and Sunstein have written a book that should be required reading for anyone entering a voting booth -- and should also be a part of every high school curriculum in the world.  Read it.  It'll open your eyes to the obstacles we have to logical clarity, and show you the path to avoiding them.

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

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