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, June 19, 2024


I think a lot of people -- and I'm very much including myself in this -- sleepwalk through a lot of our lives.

We focus on what's right in front of us, often skewed by what we expected to see or hear.  That inattentional blindness is what makes eyewitness testimony so fundamentally flawed; combine the fact that most of the time, we aren't even seeing what's around us, with the plasticity of human memory and it's a wonder eyewitness accounts are even admissible in a court of law.

I still remember the first time I was shown the most stunning example of inattentional blindness I've ever run across, in a college psychology class.  The video was set in a hotel lobby, where a young man was seated behind a table draped with a cloth.  He had a clipboard, and politely asked each passerby if they'd mind taking a brief survey.  When someone said yes, he handed them the clipboard, simultaneously "accidentally" dropping the pen on the floor behind the table.  He smiled, said, "Sorry," and ducked down to get the pen...

... but the young man who came back up was a totally different person.  They looked nothing alike.  One was blond, the other brunette; one had facial hair, the other didn't; and so on.

Virtually no one noticed the switch.  When asked afterwards, most of the test subjects said they'd had no idea there was another man hiding under the table who took the first man's place when the pen was dropped.  A couple of them said, "I thought I was just remembering wrong."

It's one of the things that has to change when you start doing science.  In science, the key is not only to see, but actually to see what you're seeing.

Take, for example, the strange little plant called false mermaid weed (Floerkea proserpinacoides).  It's in the family Limnantheaceae, which contains only eight species, seven of which are mostly found in wet meadows in California and Oregon.  False mermaid weed, though, is thought to live in many shaded woodland habitats in North America, but is such an unassuming little thing that honestly, we're not sure what its range is.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons cassi saari, Floerkea proserpinacoides flowering, CC BY-SA 4.0]

It's an annual (only lives a single season) and a spring ephemeral (only has above-ground visible parts in the spring), so that added to its tiny size makes it extremely difficult to spot.  It had been recorded in Vermont in 1916 by botanist Nellie Flynn, who during her lifetime described, collected, and sketched over twenty-two thousand different species of plants.  But since Flynn spotted it, no one has seen false mermaid weed in Vermont.

And not from lack of trying.  Botanists are trained to recognize plant species in the regions they study, and Vermont has been thoroughly surveyed.  But for over a hundred years, no one saw this tiny woodland plant in the state of Vermont.

Until botanist Grace Glynn rediscovered it last month.

"I sort of did a double-take and rubbed my eyes and couldn't believe I was seeing this plant," Glynn said.  "Most people thought it had been extirpated because of extreme flooding, invasive species and human development.  Its rediscovery is a sign that good stewardship by landowners and conservation organizations really can make a difference."

You have to wonder how many people walked right by this little plant without realizing its significance.  I'm sure I would have; I'm fair-to-middling at recognizing plants, but there's no reason this one would have struck me as anything special.  It was a combination of extensive training and an exceptionally good eye that allowed Grace Glynn to find it.

Unlike most of us, she actually saw what she was seeing.

"It was just amazing to touch this plant and to think, 'Oh, Nellie Flynn was probably the last person to ever touch this species in Vermont back in 1916,'" Glynn said.  "And I always think about how there are just these threads through history that kind of tie you to other botanists, and it just adds depth and richness, I think, to an already rich story."

The world is full of ephemera that we walk past every day and miss, caught up in our day-to-day struggles and locked in the bubble of our perception.  Most of us aren't trained scientists like Grace Glynn, but we all can work toward opening our eyes to what surrounds us.

Who knows what wonders we might end up seeing?


1 comment:

  1. Eyewitness testimony is, in many cases, untrustworthy. But It is possible to make it extremely untrustworthy; just ask a potential trial witness to pick a perpetrator out of a picture lineup. If he selects a closest match, then his memory of the perpetrator will have all of the characteristics of the picture; because every act of recall is also an act of modification of the recalled memory.