This morning I read an essay on Pharyngula by the popular blogger and prominent atheist PZ Myers. Someone sent him photos of a funny shaped rock and asked him for his interpretation. This reminded me of an episode that occurred to me some years ago.
First off, some background. Some years ago I interacted online with a man named Anton Wroblewski. At the time we were both interested in elements of the Bigfoot issue. Dr. Wroblewski is perhaps best known as the individual who analyzed the Skookum body impression as that of an elk. As you can see by his CV, he has a PhD in geology as well as masters in stratigraphy and vertebrate paleontology.
I finally met Dr. Wroblewski in March of 2010 when he visited Seattle.
It’s great to know people with genuine expertise, as you can ask them questions! Some years back I had been walking along Alki Beach here in Seattle. I started noticing funny shaped rocks, or perhaps teeth, in the sand. I picked a few up. Since my educational background is a BS in pharmacy, I really didn’t know what I was looking at. Were they rocks? Were they fossils? Were they eroded teeth? Why did they have little pits? I’ve always been a curious person so I decided to follow up on what I found. I sent Anton a photograph of the specimens. He thought they were intriguing, but wouldn’t speculate further without examining them. I packaged up the strange samples and sent them off. He examined them and suggested they were not fossilized shark teeth as I had fantasized, but simply funny looking eroded rocks. Well, no harm no foul.
I was appalled to see how differently PZ Myers chose to react to someone who sent him photos of a strange rock sample:
“He also sent me these photos in much higher resolution. Why? Because he’s an ignorant nudnik. These things look nothing like the brain of any creature that has ever existed, unless maybe it’s the lopsided lumpy non-functional excrescence found inside the crania of creationists.”
I’m sure that a celebrity such as Myers is often the target of cranks that send all sorts of things. Yet how do we know that this individual was an “ignorant nudnik” or a legitimately curious person?
It’s doubly disturbing to consider that Myers is an instructor at the university level. Does he behave like this to his students? There is already an enormous social pressure in classrooms against asking questions. No one wants to look foolish by asking a “dumb” question. You can see this social pressure in action when people add meta-data to their questions with the preface “this may be a dumb question but…”
There are excellent resources on the Internet for those without personal access to PhDs. One that comes to mind is AskMeFi or Ask Metafilter. One of the things that keeps a resource like that functioning is close moderation. Personal attacks like asserting the questioner is an “ignorant nudkik” are not tolerated. I’ve used AskMeFi to help me gather information about such strange things as “Mountain Marbles.” For those who are particularly wary of publicity, it’s possible to ask questions anonymously.
While it’s perfectly reasonable to dismiss those questions that are not asked in good faith, it’s unfortunate to see mockery and dismissal used by someone like Myers who should know better. Of all people, Myers should be well aware of how much pain and misery in the world is caused by ignorance. Inherent in asking a question, ANY question, is the admission of ignorance. When the very act of admission of ignorance is mocked, as Myers is doing, it creates a chilling effect for those who might wish to learn.
While out exercising today, it occurred to me the individual who sent the photos may have not specifically ASKED Myers what the rocks were. Upon carefully re-reading the post, it appears that the individual concluded that the inorganic sample was “mineralized brain.” Heck, I can relate, I thought I might have found “fossilized shark teeth.” Without specific clarification, we can’t know what exactly the individual claimed.