Scientific skepticism

And scientists wonder why we’re every bit as skeptical as everything they report as “the current scientific consensus”. This is a fairly typical “scientific” rebuttal to a science news report that happens to be outside of the current mainstream of accepted thought:

Let’s start with a quick talk about aliens. In an infinite universe, it seems foolhardy— even arrogant— to completely dismiss the idea of extraterrestrial life. There are so many galaxies, so many planets, so many suns; across the neverending expanse of space, one suspects that there must be another group of intelligent beings somewhere.

But suspect is the key word there. We have no credible evidence for the existence of alien civilizations. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And claiming that the Paracas skulls are possibly alien is certainly extraordinary. So let’s look at the evidence— does it measure up?

Well, the short answer is no. First, consider the source: the preliminary results of genetic testing were announced by Brien Foerster, who is the assistant director of the Paracas History Museum.

That’s a pretty impressive title, and I’ll admit that it threw me. That title implies formal archaeological, curatorial, or history credentials, maybe a body of peer-reviewed research projects. That title implies that he has serious academic credibility, and that we should listen to his announcements about his areas of expertise.

None of this is true. Some pretty basic Google research turns up some facts about Foerster that cast his announcement in an entirely different light.

First, his academic credentials: by cobbling information together from the webpage of his company Hidden Inca Tours and his official Facebook page, it appears that he has a Bachelor of Science from the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, Canada. Foerster doesn’t offer any further information about his educational background, including his exact field of undergraduate study. I was unable to find any evidence of an advanced degree.

Foerster’s company, Hidden Inca Tours, is a travel agency that specializes in taking travelers on paranormal tours around the world, but focuses on Peru and the surrounding region. Foerster has also written a number of books on archaeology, including one called “The Enigma of Cranial Deformation: Elongated Skulls of the Ancients,” which he wrote with David Hatcher Childress. Vanderbilt University archaeologist Charles E. Orser once called Childress “one of the most flagrant violators of basic archaeological reasoning.”

So what about his role as assistant director at the Paracas History Museum? How did a paranormal tour operator get that job?

Well, first, the Paracas History Museum is a private museum. It’s owned by one Juan Navarro, who is also its director. Navarro is also listed on the Hidden Inca Tours webpage as a member of “Our Team of Experts.” I was unable to find any mention of academic credentials earned by Navarro, either.

My preoccupation with academic credentials is not meant to downplay the immense wisdom and experience possessed by many people who do not have undergraduate or post-grad degrees. Being smart does not require a college degree. Heck, it doesn’t require any kind of education at all; it’s an innate quality.

However, scientific expertise is not an innate quality. It is something that is gained through years of study and research, both of which are usually completed in an institution that awards successful students degrees upon graduation.

To be fair, I don’t have any special academic credentials that make me an expert in archaeology or genetics. But I’m not arguing that the data is flawed— we haven’t seen the full data, and I’m not qualified to speak on that— but I am arguing that a number of features of the announcement should warn us not to take Foerster’s announcement at face value.

That brings us to the strange nature of the announcement. Foerster announced the results personally, via internet, rather than through a scientifically reputable source.

There are a number of problems with the way he announced the preliminary results. Speaking to, science promoter and skeptic Sharon Hill said “This is an unconventional way of making ‘groundbreaking’ claims.”

Hill added “It’s not supported by a university, but by private funding. The initial findings were released in this unprofessional way (via Facebook, websites and an Internet radio interview) obviously because Foerster and the other researchers think this is very exciting news.”

Exciting news is one thing, but scientific credibility is another. “[S]cience doesn’t work by social media,” said Hill. “Peer review is a critical part of science and the Paracas skulls proponents have taken a shortcut that completely undermines their credibility. Appealing to the public’s interest in this cultural practice we see as bizarre — skull deformation —instead of publishing the data for peer-review examination is not going to be acceptable to the scientific community.”

There’s also the matter of the testing itself. According to Foerster, the geneticist who discovered the allegedly never-before-seen DNA, wants to remain anonymous. If that’s not a red flag for the credibility of your research, I don’t know what is.

The final nail in this story’s coffin, for me, was the revelation that Foerster had appeared on the popular History Channel program “Ancient Aliens” multiple times. In yesterday’s article, I said that the scientific and archaeological communities generally regard “Ancient Aliens” as inaccurate.

Now let’s consider the various bases for why we are supposed to dismiss the announced findings of genetic anomalies in the highly unusual Paracas skulls, which reportedly do not fit within the parameters of human skull variations.

  1. We have no credible evidence for the existence of alien civilizations? That’s a stupid statement, considering these skulls may be such evidence. There is no credible evidence for anything the first time it is discovered.
  2. The Carl Sagan quote is stupid and incorrect, for reasons that a) should be obvious and b) have been covered previously. It’s cheap sciencistic rhetoric.
  3. The title doesn’t imply anything. As for the lack of credentials, well, given the amount of known fraud and statistical error being committed by impeccably credentialed scientists, that is hardly a disqualifier.
  4. Guilt-by-association. I wrote a book with Bruce Bethke, but that doesn’t make me one of the world’s experts on supercomputers.
  5. (laughs) The writer has no credentials either. By her own logic, should we not dismiss everything she is saying? In any event, her preoccupation with academic credentials is not exactly hard to explain; she is a woman. That’s why women now so outnumber men in the university enrollments.
  6. The fact that Foerster elected to bypass the gatekeepers says literally nothing about whether the reported news is accurate or not.
  7. The geneticist’s preference to remain anonymous is not a red flag but rather an indication of the corrupt nature of science and science journalism. He knew his credibility would be attacked and adroitly avoided it by permitting the evidence to stand on its own.
  8. An appearance on a television show that is generally regarded as inaccurate by the very communities whose consensus and competence is being challenged by these reports says absolutely nothing about whether they are true or not.

Now, none of this means that Foerster is not a con artist and the reports of the genetic anomalies in the skulls are not fiction. But the correct response is for other geneticists to test the samples and either confirm or contradict the report; that is scientody. This sort of blanket assertion isn’t founded in science, it’s not even based on good logic.