I love science and technology, I really do. Modern science has given me maple frosted Wheaties for breakfast. Thanks to the Internet and email, I can send memes to my friends on a daily basis. State-of-the-art manufacturing processes have produced green, plant-like objects that I don’t have to water and therefore can’t kill through neglect.
There are days however, when I can understand why people get frustrated with science. Science is a process, wherein our understanding of something changes over time as new evidence is discovered, analyzed, and interpreted. Because scientists are humans, and prone to the same failings as the rest of us, it can be a messy, and sometimes even political and emotional process. And because it can take a while to reach a consensus on a topic, it doesn’t provide the absolute certainty a lot of people crave.
For example, consider a slew of apparently feathered dinosaur fossils discovered in the 1990s. The paleontologists who found them said the fossils provided evidence that modern birds can probably trace their origins to theropods, a ‘clade’ of dinosaurs characterized by being three-toed, among other things.
This does not mean that Tweety Bird is just a small Tyrannosaurus Rex (although that idea would go a long way in explaining a certain Alfred Hitchcock film), but it does mean that Tweety may be able to count Rex as a distant ancestor. Look out, puddy tat!
It seems pretty clear there is some relationship between modern birds and dinos (have a look at the ostrich or cassowary), but… both feathers and fur are still flying about this theory, with dissenters pointing at certain microraptor fossils and suggesting that, actually, dinosaurs descended from birds.
Some of the arguments about this have been personal and downright bitter. Fortunately, since these are scientists, the arguments have not degenerated into something like this:
SCI-GUY 1: Do not.
SCI-GUY 2: Do too!
Rather, they are far more mature and of course, scientific:
SCI-GAL 1: Do not to infinity!
SCI-GAL 2: Do too to infinity plus one with glucose on it!
Why is the debate so hot? Scientists can be just as stubborn as the next guy when it comes to defending their own theories, especially when research grants and the possibility of tenure are involved.
Who should Joe Public believe? The jury is still out.
It doesn’t also help that these days, anyone with a computer and a connection to YouTube considers themselves an expert. This just adds to the uncertainty, especially for people not well-versed in the subject at hand.
Wannabe Egyptologists insist, for example, that the pyramids are evidence that … aliens visited us once. The thinking is that we humans couldn’t possibly have built those ourselves back then. The truth is far more prosaic:
MAHOMET: I have an idea! Let’s spend the next thirty years of our life under the blazing sun, carving thousand pound blocks out of solid rock, dragging them across the desert and piling them several stories high — all for the glory of Pharaoh Khufu!
YASSIR: But Pharaoh Khufu was a dork! And he’s dead!
MAHOMET: This is the desert! What else have you got to do? Also, the dude over there who, um, gave me this idea has a whip and a bad temper.
YASSIR: Good point. I’ll go get my chisel.
Stonehenge is another mystery that seems to generate a lot of strange theories. I can see why. Current thinking suggests that ancient Celts dragged dozens of huge rocks over hilly countryside, and stood them on end . . . to create what are essentially giant stone calendars. Researchers base this theory on the fact that the stones seem to align with star patterns, and the fact that light hits the stones ‘just so’ on solstice days, which were important in ancient times. It’s certainly the simplest explanation, and excavations near the stones support this theory.
This brings to mind several questions, however: A) why didn’t the Celts just use pocket calendars like everyone else? B) How many times did they have to realign the huge rocks when they realized they got it wrong? C) Depending on the answer to B, what is the ancient Celtic equivalent to doh! and @#$%^!?
Calendar theory doesn’t completely explain why there are hundreds of similar structures around the world, so amateur historians have a field day with competing theories. Mine are: Either our ancestors were really stupid and didn’t realize that scratching notches on the cave wall would have been easier, or they were really bored. If the latter, perhaps television isn’t such a bad invention after all.
And remember crop circles? They were those nifty looking patterns of bent-over plants in English wheat fields. Theories abounded until two older gentleman claimed they’d made the patterns with a board and a bit of rope. The scientific community sniffed “told you so” and the topic dropped out of mainstream consideration. But since the idea that two men managed to go snucking all over England, in the dark, squashing valuable crops without getting caught, seems just as unlikely as other proposals, “alternatives” still linger.
And boy, some of those other theories were pretty dippy. Crop circles were attributed to everything from UFOs, to mass hedgehog mating dances (although, considering the behaviour of some guys I’ve seen in bars, that might not be far off).
I’m not sure why mundane theories about the pyramids, Stonehenge, and crop circles meet with such resistance. After all, we have modern evidence of people building all sorts of crazy, elaborate structures out of … toilet paper tubes, elastic bands, and Popsicle sticks. Perhaps it’s because these theories aren’t exciting. Perhaps we should have called the two blokes with the board ‘cereal killers’ to make that explanation more titillating?
In any case, my advice regarding science is this: Be patient with the scientific process. Don’t expect absolute certainty, and don’t be surprised if there are a few professionals who don’t agree with the current consensus — there will always be disagreements.
Definitely ‘do your research,’ but please, please use legitimate science publications that have been around for a long time, and not some random blog like Bob’s House of Suspect Supplements. And definitely do not use YouTube. Heck, my teenagers can produce slick YouTube videos; anyone can.
Continue to trust the process. If we’re lucky, scientific insights will help us prevent another pandemic, reverse climate change, and eventually lead to the next high point in human civilization: the creation of maple frosted Wheaties with marshmallows.
Image Credit: Gamma 124 on Wikimedia Commons