Don’t Worry, Science Is Still Right

by Michael Dhar

Ready for his portrait.

Scientists across the planet mopped the flop sweat from their brows yesterday and gave each other a series of weary, dorkily off-target high fives.

“It’s OK,” they croaked to one another through parched and bleeding lips, their eyes red from exhaustion and worry. “Everything we believe has NOT been upended. Turns out people didn’t ride around dinosaurs for fun.”

It was possible that the firmaments of geological, astronomical and paleontological science might have been overturned, had not a hero cadre of scientists figured out that a rock-art painting wasn’t of a pterodactyl.

Scientists can now continue to open their books of equations and careful observations, instead of burning them and only reading the one true Book — that is, until the next challenge to all of scientific observation arises. Creationists, however, will have to keep looking for solid evidence. And/or just keep insisting that they’re right. We’ll see which route they choose.

This latest reprieve for science came in the Black Dragon Canyon of Utah, where rock-art drawings by the Fremont peoples had long received what we’ll call “slightly different” interpretations from scientists and creationists. Scientists saw a grouping of several figures, including both people and animals — a reasonable interpretation of the drawings of an agrarian people who lived from about A.D. 1 to 1100. Creationists saw a pterodactyl, which science says lived in the Jurassic period some 150 million years ago, or a pterosaur, which existed as early as 228 million years ago.

Both sides accepted what science had to say about the age of the rock paintings and the Fremont culture. Creationists merely suggested that a depiction of a dinosaur-era flying reptile proved that all of geology and paleontology were wrong about the age of dinosaur bones and the Earth itself.

So both sides had points.

However, recently, scientists made some additional points using little electronic devices — specifically, a portable X-ray fluorescence device and something called a DStretch: with this machine, the scientists could upload a photo of the paintings to a computer, and then use a program to reveal the original pigments, even when time (and some previous researchers’ activities) had obscured them.

The result? The painting, scientists said, portrays separate figures: a couple of people, a sheep, a dog and a snake-like thing. All those individuals had been mistakenly joined together by “chalking” work and, apparently, the capacity for the human eye to see images that aren’t really there. No pterosaur. No pterodactyl. No smoking gun revelation that humans and dinosaurs (and dinosaur-era reptiles, to be precise) co-existed, as a literal interpretation of the Bible would suggest they did.

All snark and satire aside, I really do wonder what proponents of the pterosaur interpretation thought (and still think) it would prove. You’d have to assume that the same scientific method that accurately dated the Fremont people failed epically, hilariously in its estimation of the majority of Earth’s geologic and biological history.

And the evidence to overthrow all that science? People drew a picture that looks like a thing. Even if they had drawn a pterosaur-like creature, a more parsimonious explanation might be that they drew an eagle really badly. (Take a look at how European explorers originally drew African animals.) Or that they had vivid imaginations. As one of the scientists explained, the Fremont people could easily have portrayed mythological creatures, as most civilizations do.

The central absurdity here is that creationists, a group who’s beliefs about reality are based on a text they take on faith, are looking to bolster those beliefs with evidence — evidence that will supplant the entire enterprise of science, the most evidence-based activity, one could argue, in human history. An enterprise whose evidence they will disregard when it violates their faith.

So, if all it takes is faith, if faith is the trump card, why look for evidence? It could betray a subconscious acknowledgement that their method has been roundly defeated, and long ago. Or simply an immature notion of what evidence means: not the testimony of reality, both ugly and beautiful, but a weapon to be selectively activated — something to cherry pick.

The scientists who released the new study apparently had a civil discussion with their creationist counterparts. “We were all very polite to each other,” the archaeologist Paul Bahn said.  

The creationist, however, was not convinced.

He said, ‘No no, no, I’ve had this checked out with infrared, and the whole thing is one single painting. It’s a very detailed painting of a pterodactyl,'” Bahn told Live Science.

His evidence, he insisted, was better.

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