10 Million Year Old Ape Found in Ethiopia

Not alive. I just wanted to clarify that first.

But the fossil remains of what is being dubbed Chororapithecus abyssinicus by the Ethiopian-Japanese team that discovered the ancient ape “represents the earliest recognised primate directly related to modern-day gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.”

Found were a single canine and eight molars which show that Chororapithecus was either an early ancestor to the gorilla or an independent branch of ape with the same adaptations. While he admits this is an exciting discovery, Peter Andrews, a paleontologist at the British Natural History Museum, was skeptical enough about characteristics of the teeth to indicate it may be hasty to name a new species ancestral to gorillas. Andrews noted that if it is, indeed, a new species, the ape-human split must be pushed back on the evolutionary timeline.

The point at which a humans and chimpanzees had a common ancestor is generally held to be at around 7-8 million years ago.

“Chororapithecus indicates that a reconsideration of this assumption is needed,” the researchers [who discovered Chororapithecus] said. “In fact, if the orang line was present in Africa prior (to the) first migration of Miocene (some 23-25 million years ago) apes from Africa to Eurasia, then the human-orang split could have easily have been as old as 20 million years ago.”

More on this story can be found at this Reuters article: Researchers find prehistoric ape fossils.

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Defining Pseudoskepticism

One of the points about my blog that I’ve tried hard to adhere to is being skeptical of pseudo-archaeology1 and even of other claims made in the name of science or medicine2. To date, I have at least 37 posts which I’ve given the label “skeptical3” including Pseudo-skepticism and Pseudo-Journalism about Global Warming and Pseudoskepticism from the “Junkman.4” In these two posts, I use the term “pseudoskepticism” as I refer to individuals whom I perceived as pretending to be skeptical about the topic of global warming. Both of the pseudoskeptics featured in these posts were presenting biased and fallacious arguments regarding global warming as a means of meeting the needs of a separate agenda.

The first pseudoskeptic I discussed was a journalist who writes for a blog and syndicates a right-wing conservative column to print and online media. This writer presented a skeptical position on the then recent documentary by Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, but failed to provide any logical reason or critical analysis to inform his pretended skepticism. In searching for a way to describe his position and the illogical arguments he presented via email with me after I commented on his critical article, I ended up with the only term I could think of that best summarized this writer’s position: pseudoskepticism.

The second pseudoskeptic I wrote about was the “junk science” author, Steven Milloy, who writes articles and books that give the appearance of presenting a skeptical viewpoint also about global warming (among other topics ranging from cigarette smoking to pollution). Even Bob Park, author of Voodoo Science and the weekly newsletter What’s New characterizes Milloy as a pretender and a pseudoskeptic that actually seeks only to further the agendas of industries like that of tobacco and oil.

The interesting thing is, when I decided to use the term “pseudoskeptic” to describe these gentlemen and their less-than-genuine positions, I googled the word to see what had been already written about it, thinking I could use comparisons to other pseudoskeptics or see if others had been similarly critical of Milloy. I harbored no delusions that I’d just coined the term and assumed that it was the logical way to refer to a “fake skeptic,” someone who wants to be seen as skeptical but really doesn’t take the time to give fair evaluation to all data or is willing to revise their position on the things they are skeptical about with the introduction of actual evidence.

I’ve been a long time skeptic and avid reader of journals like Skeptical Inquirer, Skeptic, and, more recently, Free Inquiry. I listen to podcasts like The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and Skepticality on a regular basis. I participate actively in various internet communities and blogs (often under a pseudonym) giving the skeptical voice to topics ranging from religion to ESP to UFOs to archaeology. I’ve a pretty good and fair understanding of what it means to be a skeptic. And, as a skeptic, I find the easiest way to argue a position that includes extraordinary claims of the supernatural, the paranormal, or some aspect of pseudoscience is to demand evidence to support the claim and to show counter evidence of why more parsimonious explanations are both more probable and plausible.

Like most bloggers, I like to look at my stats from time to time to see where readers are coming from and, today, I noticed that there was a hit from a Wikipedia Talk page. Specifically, Talk: Pseudoskepticism where I found a discussion that was far more informative than the actual Wikipedia entry for Pseudoskepticism. I had previously read this entry when I was writing the first global warming post above, but I hadn’t read the Talk page until today. The problem I had with the Wiki entry was that it seemed to favor the pejorative description of “pseudoskeptic” that gets tossed around by woo-woos and cranks that are being criticized by skeptics. Rather than admit that their claims are without merit, they accuse those who dare to be skeptical of not being “open-minded,” not “thinking out of the box,” or as being “pseudoskeptics.” Apparently, they’re good skeptics as long as they don’t question the woo-woo’s beliefs, but pseudoskeptical if they criticize the mystery-monger and significance-junkie.

The Wiki entry begins by quoting the late Marcello Truzzi, a professor of sociology and founding member of CSICOP (now CSI) who later fell into disfavor of the group due to his apparent bias to the pseudoscientific and paranormal. The quote by Truzzi and the characteristics of a pseudoskepticism listed are useful and Truzzi is attributed as the first to coin the term “pseudoskepticism.”

Still, it’s the Talk page that I found some of the more interesting discussions on pseudoskepticism. There is definitely a camp that favors pseudoscience and woo that seeks to slant the Wiki entry to refer to something akin to militant debunkers. But there is also discussion that favors the definition I’ve used in this blog: “fake-skeptics.” One of the discussion threads on this page is about how science should be “agnostic” and scientists shouldn’t have opinions until all data are in:

IMHO, that “neither disbelieve or believe it” thing is a myth used by Truzzi and others to define their own point of view (the neutral one) as the only one allowed in science. This trick allows them to use ad hominem arguments against CSICOP and others whose point of view they don’t like, and I really wonder why skeptics let them do it. […]I think that scientists should be allowed to believe whatever they want. If a scientist makes a mistake because of his bias, other scientists with other biases can correct him. That’s what the scientific method is all about. But your model, where every scientist has to think in a certain restricted way, is a poor environment for the exchange of ideas because all scientists think the same. The diversity is missing. Your scientists are closer to robots than real people.

The discussion thread that linked to my “Junkman” article above was with regard to colloquial and “mechanistic, literal” usages of pseudoskepticism that varied from Truzzi’s own definition. My article was linked to by one editor and commented on by a second, though only as a point to show that there were uses of the term that may be beyond Truzzi’s. The responding editor rightly pointed out that my article only included the word pseudoskepticism in the title and not within the article itself. I left it up to the reader to infer what I meant in the title by “pseudoskeptic.” I must say that I agree with much of Truzzi’s definition, particularly the characteristics listed by the Wiki entry. However, I find some difficulty with how one might apply these characteristics to a critic in order to define them as pseudoskeptic or not. Does a single characteristic suffice? Must there be 6 out of 11 (as with diagnosing someone with ADHD)? Do some characteristics have more weight than others?

Here’s the list:

  1. The tendency to deny, rather than doubt
  2. Double standards in the application of criticism
  3. The making of judgments without full inquiry
  4. Tendency to discredit, rather than investigate
  5. Use of ridicule or ad hominem attacks in lieu of arguments
  6. Pejorative labeling of proponents as ‘promoters’, ‘pseudoscientists’ or practitioners of ‘pathological science.’
  7. Presenting insufficient evidence or proof
  8. Assuming criticism requires no burden of proof
  9. Making unsubstantiated counter-claims
  10. Counter-claims based on plausibility rather than empirical evidence
  11. Suggesting that unconvincing evidence is grounds for dismissing it

These could all be good habits for the skeptic to avoid, particularly when debating promoters and practitioners of pseudosciences like creationism, intelligent design, psychics, and Bosnian pyramidiots. But in that single sentence I violated the fifth and sixth of Truzzi’s characteristics. For the individual who is even slightly educated in biology or geology, would he then be a pseudoskeptic if he should criticize creationists without demonstrating proof of evolution? Would I be a pseudoskeptic if I remark that it’s far more plausible that the bright light in the sunset sky with a contrail is jet than it is an alien spacecraft leaving “chemtrails?” By Truzzi’s strict definition, I’m a pseudoskeptic if I say that a video of man bending a spoon he produced from his own pocket is unconvincing of his telekinetic powers.

Sorry Wikipedia guys. I like Truzzi’s characteristics… they’re good guidelines for how to avoid creating fallacious positions when debating mystery-mongers and significance-junkies, but the definition of pseudoskeptic is someone who is a fake skeptic. That someone pretends to be skeptical about an issue when he or she actually harbors credulous opinions or has a preconceived conclusion about a topic for which actual skeptics would be apt to criticize. QED.

Related Posts and Links:

  1. Blog Labels: Forbidden Archaeology; Pseudoarchaeology
  2. The Pseudoscience of an “Infomercial” Conman; Review: Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures, Part 1; Review: Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures, Part 2; Yet Another Kevin Trudeau Con; Kevin Trudeau: Pseudo-Advocate for the Consumer
  3. Blog Label: Skeptical
  4. Pseudo-skepticism and Pseudo-Journalism about Global Warming; Pseudoskepticism from the “Junkman.

Forbidden Archaeology? The Nampa Image Hoax


XIn a recent issue of Atlantis Rising, the ragazine that appeals to the significance-junkie, the mystery-monger, and skeptics like me who are fascinated with the first two, Michael Cremo’s latest column “Forbidden Archaeology” highlights a figurine of dubious origin. The article in question is “the mystery of the Nampa image,” Atlantis Rising, no. 64, July/August 2007.

According to Cremo, the figurine (dubbed the Nampa Image) was recovered by workers who were drilling a water-well in Nampa, Idaho in 1889. The figurine, about an inch and a half long and made of baked clay was reported to have been recovered by the sand pump from a depth of 300+ feet. Cremo’s account of the “artifact’s” discovery is both credulous and inconsistent. Cremo is critical of Michael Brass, who wrote in his book, The Antiquity of Man: Artifactual, Fossil and Gene Records Explored, that it would have been destroyed by the drilling equipment upon retrieval as it was brought up to the surface. Cremo’s response to Brass is that a tube was used after drilling through the lava layer to pump out the sand but, previously, he mentions that the figurine was brought up with a “core sample.”

This is a small quibble to be sure, but it is relevant since if it were brought up in a core sample, the figurine would be stable and not bumped about. In the tube of sand pump, it would be subject to the laws of physics and knocked around at least enough to pulverize the fragile clay figurine. At the very least, the abrasive effect of the sand in the pump would have rounded it to the point of being unrecognizable to even the most gullible.

The crux of Cremo’s claim with the figurine is that since it was found in a geologic stratum that was of the Plio-Pleistocene, at a depth of 300 feet, the culture that created it must have been in the region about 2 million years ago. As usual, Cremo is credulous to the point of ignoring any parsimonious or realistic explanation, which makes him the utter laughing stock of real archaeology. Unfortunately, the lay-public, eager for stories of mystery and intrigue, get only a portion of the story when they read his perspective. Cremo says in the article, “scientists will go to great lengths to make up some story in order to explain it away,” and is critical of more parsimonious and possible explanations as “powers of the imagination!” and as “speculative tales.” The irony is deep.

What Cremo misses in his account of the “Nampa image,” the little, fragile clay figurine common to the local Native Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is the voices of reason with regard to the find. More likely, he was aware of them, but cherry-picked which criticisms he would be willing to be counter-critical of. He does make short work of one suggestion that the figurine may have found its way at the stratum naturally through a rock fissure or natural geological process. I agree, the explanation is far from realistic, not to mention the same problem of fragility is encountered as the clay figure makes its way to a depth of 300 feet through a rock crevice or fissure as yet undiscovered or exemplified elsewhere in the Glenn’s Ferry formation.

However, there were many criticisms of the object itself, which was heralded by one George Fredrick Wright, an amateur geologist that began as a Christian Darwinist then later turned to active fundamentalist (and was even an author of some of the essays called The Fundamentals, which started and defined this now obnoxious movement of Christianity). There’s an added irony that Cremo, an ancient-Earth Vedic creationist is using a young-Earth Christian creationist to make his point of an exaggerated antiquity of man. Cremo cites Wright’s book, Origin and Antiquity of Man, but makes no mention of Wrights contemporaries who were critical and nearly unanimously dismissive of his work. Indeed, actual geologists and anthropologists of the period remarked that Wright was pseudoscientific:

Dr. Wright’s last example is the feeblest of all-the Nampa image, a “beautifully formed clay image of a female,” said to have been brought up from a depth of 320 feet (!) in the holing of an artesian well, at Nampa, Idaho. It is sad to destroy illusions; but when this same image with its story was laid before a well known government geologist, and he at once recognized it as a clay toy manufactured by the neighboring Pocatello Indians, the person displaying it replied with engaging frankness, “Well, now, don’t give me away!” (Brinton 1892).

And that “well known government geologist?” This was J. W. Powell, who wrote in Popular Science Monthly (1893):

In the fall of 1889 the writer visited Boise City, in Idaho. While stopping at a hotel some gentlemen called on him to show him a figurine which they said they had found in sinking an artesian well in the neighborhood at a depth, if I remember rightly, of more than three hundred feet. The figurine is a little image of a man or woman done in clay and baked. It is not more than an inch and a half in length, and is slender and delicate, more delicate than an ordinary clay pipestem, and altogether exceedingly fragile.

Hold the figurine at the height of your eye and let it fall on the hearth at your feet, and it would be shivered into fragments. It was claimed that this figurine had been brought up from the bottom of an artesian well while the men were working, or about the time that they were working at the well, and that as it came out it was discovered.

When this story was told the writer [Powell], he simply jested with those who claimed to have found it. He had known the Indians that live in the neighborhood, had seen their children play with just such figurines, and had no doubt that the little image had lately belonged to some Indian child, and said the same. While stopping at the hotel different persons spoke about it, and it was always passed off as a jest; and various comments were made about it by various people, some of them claiming that it had given them much sport, and that a good many ” tenderfeet” had looked at it and believed it to be genuine; and they seemed rather pleased that I had detected the hoax. When I returned to Washington I related the jest at a dinner table, and afterward it passed out of my mind. In reading Prof. Wright’s second book I had many surprises, but none of them greater than when I discovered that this figurine had fallen into his hands, and that he had actually published it as evidence of the great antiquity of man in the valley of the Snake River.

Consider the circumstances. A fragile toy is buried in the sands and gravels and boulders of a torrential stream. Three hundred feet of materials are accumulated over it from the floods of thousands of years. Then volcanoes burst forth and pour floods of lava over all; and under more than three hundred feet of sands, gravels, clays, and volcanic rocks the fragile figurine remains for centuries, under such magical conditions that the very color of the burning is preserved. Then well-diggers, with a pump drill, hammer and abrade the rocks, and bore a six-inch hole down to this figurine without destroying it, and with a sand-pump bring it to the surface, to be caught by the well-digger; and Prof. Wright believes the story of the figurine, and places it on record in his book!

And Michael Cremo places it on record in his book! It’s a lengthy quote, but the full context of the account is important. Cremo also cited F.F. Jewett (1890) who described having done “experiments” on the clay that led him to the conclusions that it “must be of considerable age.” What experiments, specifically, aren’t mentioned. But he goes on to declare that “the accumulation of iron upon the grains of sand” can’t be accounted for “except by supposing to have been the result of slow decomposition of substances containing iron.” Perhaps this was the prevailing scientific assessment of the 19th century, but what, precisely, is Cremo’s excuse for failing to recognize that iron oxidation occurs on clay when intentionally fired this way. A process well-known to archaeology and should be understood even for a pseudo-archaeologist.

The “Nampa image” is a hoax. Pure and simple. It was presented at a time in which hoaxes were popular and people liked the notoriety. A contemporary of this little figurine is the Cardiff Giant, which was just being exposed for its fraudulent nature at around the time the worker in Nampa, ID claimed to find a modern clay doll in the sediments of a time when people simply didn’t live in North America, much less make fired clay dolls.

References

Brinton, D.G. (1892). Man and the Glacial Period, a book review. Science, 20 (508), 249.

Cremo, Michael (2007). The mystery of the Nampa image. Atlantis Rising, no. 64, July/Aug.

Jewett, F.F. (1890). Report to the Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History, vol 24, 448.

Powell, J.W. (1893). Are there evidences of man in the glacial gravels? Popular Science Monthly, vol. XLIII, 324