Friday, July 28, 2017

Dinosaur Trackways on the Blank Slate of the Mind

The last couple of days, I have had the privilege of working, again, with Glen Kuban down in the bed of the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas (Dinosaur Valley State Park). Usually we work alone, or with a couple of other people, but this time there was a little crowd. A BBC film crew brought their cameras and even a photographic drone to get video footage of the dinosaur trackways, which I have written about numerous times previously in this blog, for example here). They also came to interview Glen, who has worked on these tracks (and knows each footprint by name) for 37 years, and he will not get some worldwide recognition for the work he has done. Congratulations, Glen! You deserve it.

Watch for the BBC video when it comes out. It will be called Rediscovering T Rex. The trackways in the park are not T. rex, but there are very few verified footprints of T. rex. But in the Paluxy river bed you can see long trackways of Acrocanthosaurus, which was similar to T. rex in many ways. The BBC does not yet have an American distributor for this video, so far only Canada and France, but I’ll bet that within a year or so you can find the video on Amazon or your local library.

I have posted a YouTube video of Glen and the film crew, if you want to experience what it was like to be there.

We were at the trackway site that was made infamous in the 1970s-era creationist movie Footprints in Stone, where creationists claimed that human footprints overlapped dinosaur footprints, thus proving, they claimed, that the entire evolutionary timetable of Earth history was wrong. The evidence of human footprints in 110-million-year-old mud (now limestone) was skimpy and some of it faked. Most creationists, even those who have not publicly disavowed the “manprints of the Paluxy,” pretty much ignore them. The son of the producer of the creationist movie, when he discovered that his father had misled his viewers about these footprints, destroyed all remaining copies of the movie. There was no discussion of this uniquely American controversy with the BBC crew, even though they knew about it, because it is such a dead issue even among creationists; certainly European viewers would wonder why anyone took so much as two breaths to talk about the supposed man-prints.

But there are still passionate creationists, mostly in the Glen Rose vicinity, who believe that the supposed man-tracks are real and that they prove that not only are all evolutionary scientists wrong, but even most creationists. They are a crazy little cult. They still have a museum right near the state park, although it appears to be on the skids and is now only open two days a week. I have posted essays in this blog about the Mantrack cult in the past (for example here). The state park personnel who were with Glen, me, and the BBC crew told me that this little cult has so effectively spread the hoax that lots of visitors still ask them how to find the man-tracks. It gets pretty intense sometimes, and rather than to create a confrontation, the park personnel sometimes have to simply walk away or busy themselves with some other park visitor.

We sort of expected that some members of this cult would come and try to disrupt the BBC filming. This did not happen, however, perhaps because there were a half dozen park employees on the scene. This track site is hard to find but the cult members, some of whom own adjacent land, can get there. They act as if they also own the river bed, and have in the past tried to keep Glen from studying the tracks. Actually, the river bed belongs to the state of Texas.

But one of the cult members came by, claiming that he was taking photographs for the City of Glen Rose. I very much doubt that the city government actually sent him, however. They might have posted some of his photos in the past, but he was acting in no official capacity. Of course, this man, whose name I forgot, and just as well, started going through his little speech about how belief in the man-tracks took less faith than belief in what he called “strict evolution.” Glen had told me beforehand almost verbatim what this little speech would be. It is as if the cult members are programmed to give their little speeches, and they will not respond to anything you say. They act as if they are brainwashed.

But that was not actually the precipitating event. The man started by saying that a cold front was coming through this weekend, and that it would only be about 92 degrees instead of the normal 97 degrees. This, he claimed, disproved the entire science of global warming. As I am one of the climate scientists that Donald Trump hates and Emmanuel Macron loves, I had to point out that this was an invalid conclusion. Global warming does not mean that temperatures never decrease; it means that they increase more, and more often, than they decrease. Well, this was all the cue he needed to self-identify as a right-wing extremist (or words to that effect; I did not yet so label him) and launch into his speech.

This man went on to comment on the fact that paleontologists have stopped using the genus name Paluxysaurus and started using Sauroposeidon instead. This shows, said the man, that scientists are wrong about this and, why not, everything else also. But changing names of organisms reflects the ongoing process of coming to better understand the evolutionary history of the organisms. And, of course, science advances because scientists make mistakes and then learn from them, something that religious cults almost by definition cannot do. Cults believe themselves to be directly inspired by God, and to admit one mistake totally undermines their reason for being.

I wish to make two points from this. First, the religious fundamentalists are now attacking all of science and education on two fronts. Formerly, they focused all their attention on evolution. Now, they also consider climate scientists to be servants of Satan. This is why scientific and educational organizations, all the way from national and international organizations such as the AAAS and NCSE to local ones such as the Oklahoma Academy ofScience and Oklahomans for Excellencein Science Education, of both of which organizations I am a past president, disseminate as much information about climate science as about evolutionary science.

The second point explains the title of this essay. The lumpy limestone of Dinosaur Valley State Park has proven to be one of the most creative blank slates upon which a religious cult can write its own version of the history of the universe. The dinosaur footprints are real enough. The supposed man-tracks are incomplete dinosaur footprints. On some of these prints, the dinosaur toes have eroded away. On others, the creationists have deliberately ignored the dinosaur toe prints. Early creationists film footage and notes show clearly that they knew the dinosaur toe marks were present. In a few infamous instances, creationists have even carved human toes on the dinosaur prints, or carved entire fake human footprints in the limestone. Rather than getting insights from the evidence in the limestone, they have used the limestone as a blank notebook on which to write their own version of reality, a version not even shared by most creationists.

It is unclear whether these cult members are dangerous. Of the hundreds of videos I have posted on my Darwin Youtube channel, the only ones on which rabidly angry comments have been posted were those in which I showed Glen Kuban at work in the Paluxy riverbed. A couple of times I have wondered whether to report these creationists to the FBI, but their comments were just short of personal threat. Of course, there were atheist comments also, which insulted the creationists. The creationist comments did not threaten the atheist commentators, Glen, or myself with any violence; they merely hoped that God would rain down fire and brimstone from the sky to destroy us and our children, that’s all. The blank pages of limestone on which this cult writes its version of reality includes at least the hope that everyone who disagrees with them will be destroyed.

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