Devil’s tower, a laccolithic butte in Wyoming, is the stump of an ancient silicon tree. This amazing fact was sent to me by a reader complete with YouTube link for proof. If only I would watch the video with an open mind, I would learn the error of my scientific ways.
The video itself follows a common pattern, where an amazing claim is made, and the evidence presented is simply that two things look similar. Since an intrusion of magma through Earth’s crust looks somewhat similar to a tree stump, it must be a giant tree stump. It is the same method used by those who claim the Earth is flat, deny global warming and evolution, or espouse young Earth creationism, the electric universe, the doomsday planet Nibiru, that vaccines cause autism, and even that our solar system moves in a helical vortex. Their arguments are buttressed by claims that science is closed-minded, arrogant and dogmatic, or simply covering up the truth to protect their jobs.
It’s tempting to laugh these ideas off. After all, fringe ideas have always been proposed throughout history. But the difference is that with the rise of YouTube and social media this ideas spread faster and can become more ingrained in the minds of followers. The “Devil’s tower is a tree stump” video has more than half a million views, and is posted by someone with nearly three quarter of a million subscribers. That’s more than subscribe to the Sixty Symbols video series, for example. I can almost guarantee that in response to this post supporters of some of the pseudoscience I listed above will send me long diatribes about how their model shouldn’t be lumped in with the others. As wrong as these ideas are, they have staunch supporters willing to defend them. Not only do supporters of pseudoscience defend their ideas, but they vote and drive political conversations. Our society is shaped in part by these ideas, whether we like it or not. So it’s important to push back against these claims.
That might sound like I’m saying people are stupid, and that they need to be told what to think by intelligent and knowledgeable scientists like me. I’m not. Being wrong about a particular concept doesn’t make you stupid, and being open to new ideas even when they sound crazy at first is part of the curiosity science tries to foster. The problem isn’t stupidity or ignorance, it’s a failure of critical thought. And it’s not just a problem with pseudoscience advocates. Most modern scientific discoveries are promoted through press releases and media packets, many of which don’t even link to the actual research. They use exactly the same approach as the video above, where a few pretty pictures are used to support a wild scientific claim without linking to any actual evidence. A press release made without citing research is just as pseudoscientific as a YouTube video making unsubstantiated claims. We’re all capable of being intellectually lazy.
The good news is that critical analysis and intellectual discourse can be encouraged and promoted. The same tools that are used to promote pseudoscientific ideas can be used to raise the bar on scientific discussion. But making that change depends upon those of us who want to see a richer and more thoughtful exploration of knowledge. It’s easy to point fingers at the fringe and declare how poorly they behave. It’s more difficult to look at ourselves with a critical eye. That means calling out press releases and popular news stories that don’t cite actual research. It means taking the time to present ideas clearly as well as the evidence behind them. And it means having the patience to engage in discussions with those of opposing ideas, even though sometimes it will feel like feeding the trolls. If we want to promote knowledge and critical thought, as lovers and promoters of scientific ideals we have to encourage it ourselves.
If we don’t do this, then we are simply peddling ignorance in the name of knowledge.