Listener Feedback: Natural History
Who doesn't love the wonders of our natural world? Nobody, that's who. And fortunately, it offers plenty of opportunities for learning. Not only does our natural world present a nearly limitless encyclopedia of observable facts, it also gives us plenty of mysteries to ponder. So today we're going to our listener feedback mailbag to answer some questions sent in by listeners pertaining to Skeptoid episodes having to do with our natural world, which are always among my favorites.
A New Old Tree
My episode on the biggest, the oldest, and the baddest living things on the planet drew lots of feedback of the "What about this or that creature?" variety. It turned out to be really hard to categorize things. Just as an example, when we ask what's the oldest living thing, do we include plants and animals and other things? Do we include clonal organisms? Do we have different categories for single-celled and multiple-celled creatures? I broke it down as best as I could to squeeze all three big, old, and bad categories into an episode, but it would have been impossible to do a truly comprehensive breakdown.
One of the sad stories of old trees is when a researcher trying to date a tree with a coring bit got the bit stuck, and had to have the forest service cut the tree down to retrieve the expensive bit. He was later horrified to count the rings and see that he'd just killed the oldest tree ever recorded. However, Ron from Mountain View, CA brought a piece of good news that I hadn't heard:
The Tasmanian Tiger
In my episode on whether the thylacine, aka the Tasmanian tiger, still exists on that Australian island, a number of listeners noted that much of Tasmania is so densely forested that it's impossible to do a real survey. Here's one such note from Hemlock in Australia:
Thus, it might be a like a crashed plane in a jungle so dense that it will literally never be found. But a couple of other listeners answered this better than I could, so I'll let them respond. Zeph from Sonoma County said:
Rob in Colombo, Sri Lanka added:
One episode that surprised me with the amount of controversial feedback that it generated was the one examining the predicted nuclear winter that would follow a nuclear war. Later research indicates that the short-term effects on climate would almost certainly not be as dire as originally calculated, and that it would probably be more like a nuclear autumn. But as I quoted Freeman Dyson at the end of the article, this is a very difficult point to make without sounding like you're in favor of nuclear war. Jon from Tokyo said:
The Alpha Geek from Long Island said:
Febo from Manchester said:
So, evidently, it's my turn to be all superior and condescending now. Freeman Dyson was right, it's a subject you can't talk about without being made out to be the bad guy. But I still say the fundamental tenet of scientific skepticism should apply here too: If you want to be able to make the right decisions, you have to know the way the world really works. I think you'd have to be pretty thick to conclude that the best way to prepare for a nuclear war is to prepare for the wrong scenario. We have limited resources, and we have to know how best to allocate them. For example, if it turns out that crops are not likely to be affected as much as we initially feared, maybe we can instead focus on stockpiling other commodities like uncontaminated water. I don't know what all of these resources and commodities are going to be, but I do know that mischaracterizing the nature of an impending disaster will not lead to the most effective preparations.
Skepticism and the Yonaguni Monument
The Yonaguni Monument is the name given to a natural underwater rock formation off of Japan that some people insist is a manmade city. An anonmyous listener wrote:
This is a common response that we all receive when we offer a science-based perspective of something perceived to be a mystery. No, neither I nor anyone else should be granted credibility based on who we are or what perspective we tend to embrace; rather, our statements should be individually evaluated based on their content. I make no assertion that Yonaguni is a natural formation because I came to that conclusion. But I can tell you how I came to that conclusion. Just like every other piece of ocean floor, the area around this particular Japanese island has its own type of geology. What's been called the Yonaguni Monument fits in very well with its surrounding geology and offers no reason to doubt that it's simply more of the same. As Joseph from London pointed out:
Beyond the anthropological and archaeological evidence that tells us that it's a virtual certainty nobody was living there at the time Yonaguni was last above sea level, we simply have a lack of any evidence that it's manmade. It matches its surrounding geography, even though it has some impressive individual features — just like how the Swiss Alps have the Matterhorn. We've no reason to suspect that's manmade either.
Anecdotes and the Bell Island Boom
The Bell Island Boom was a lightning superbolt that struck Bell Island, Newfoundland, in 1978, damaging a farmhouse and the electrical grid, and creating a terrific noise. Though the cause was quickly identified by atmospheric researchers, the explanation that has persisted in pop culture was that it was some kind of secret weapon test. Investigators asked lots of people lots of questions and got mountains of information, much of which probably had nothing to do with the actual event. Colin from Frederick, MD said:
I will gladly explain anecdotal evidence. It simply refers to evidence that's not testable. The fact that we can't verify the boy's report of a hovering orb, or see a picture of what he reported, doesn't mean we think he's lying; it only means we have nothing that we can examine and learn from. Either way, there's nothing connecting his story to the event. Similarly, the reports from the few people who said they heard a high-pitched tone simply didn't tell us anything. There's no implication that any of these people were lying. One possibility is that all of their reports were unerring, literal accounts of what happened. Another is that some people were mistaken or heard sounds unrelated to the event. Possibly some of them were exhibiting the "bandwagon effect" and just wanted to be a part of the action. No matter how much we wish we could, we have no way to test anecdotes, and so they're simply not useful in helping us prove what happened. They can suggest directions for research, but in none of these cases was anything found that could have produced high pitched noises or floating orbs.
The Natural World Is Awesome Enough
In conclusion, I'd like to echo what Murray from Saskatchewan said on the Yonaguni Monument episode, as it aptly represents my view as well:
Appreciate the natural world for what it is, don't make up nonsense about it to satisfy the need for meaning. Features on our Earth do not need to have mysterious origins in order to be meaningful. That meaning doesn't have to be metaphysical or alien or anything else; it can simply be enjoyed for its majesty, its drama, its tranquility, or whatever it is you get out of it. Overlooking what's actually there in search of something that isn't is to miss the whole point of the study of our beautiful blue world.
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