Thursday, May 29, 2008

Pterodactyl Attack!

Pterodactyls* are pretty cool, that much is certain. They're also extinct, and have been since the great extinction at the end of the Cretaceous. I'm pretty sure that much is also certain. But, of course, there are a few weirdos floating around out there who are foaming at the mouth to prove that pterodactyls are alive and well and coming to your hometown. Bizarre even by cryptozoologist standards, the two biggest mushrooms growing out of the steaming pseudoscientific turd that is living dinosaur theory are David Hatcher Childress and Philip O'Donnell. Better put some gloves on - this one's going to get messy.

Rodan, a modern super-pterosaur

Childress is an archaeologist in much the same way that I'm a professional wrestler - We've both seen real ones on TV and thought "Gee whiz, that'd be cool". The only difference is that I don't go around telling people I'm a pro wrestler, but Childress, who has (at most) a single complete year of college under his belt, tries to pass himself off as an archaeologist. This goon has found a home among paranormal TV shows like Sightings, where they rarely present the fact that he's basically just a guy off the street. He's big into Erich von Däniken-flavored alternative history, wherein aliens have been interfering with life on Earth since the beginning of time, Atlantis was the place to be before it sank into the ocean, and the ancient Egyptians hung out in the Grand Canyon.

He enjoys a lot of support among "esoterics", which is to say ding dongs who, to paraphrase Aristotle, cannot entertain a thought without accepting it. Any version of history that seems cooler than actual history appeals to them. They're also prone to making loud arguments from incredulity** that are dripping with implicit racism. "How else but through intervention by the spacemen," they collectively ask, "could all those primitive brown people have built pyramids and temples and worked out functional calendars?" Childress also owns his own publishing house, the Adventures Unlimited Press, which he uses to peddle his enormous horde of books. His literary output largely consists of tales about his various adventures uncovering, singlehandedly, ancient secrets of anthropology that have eluded, well, the entirety of the world's actual trained anthropologists and archaeologists.

Linked here is one of Childress' pterodactyl articles, in which he argues, among other things, that El Chupacabras is actually a live pterosaur. His other arguments consist of reminding us that folks in medieval times had legends about dragons and wyverns and whatnot, and thus (obviously) such things (or a kind-of-but-not-quite equivalent) must've existed at the time. Following that sort of logic would lead me to lock my doors at night to keep Jason Vorhees at bay while downing cup after cup of coffee stay awake so Freddy Krueger doesn't get me in my dreams.

Childress also appeals to a mysterious old photo of cowboys with a dead pterodactyl. This photo is extra amazing because no one has ever seen it. People just hear about it and then...remember it. Spooky. There is not, so far as anyone can tell, even a single actual copy of the thing in existence, and yet Childress paints it as powerful evidence. Childress cites John Keel (Yeah, the Mothman Prophecies guy.) as his source that vouches for the authenticity of the photo. The quest for the magic photo is complicated by a handful of fakes (showing Civil War guys instead of cowboys) that got floated around the internet a few years ago as part of a viral marketing campaign for a now-defunct TV show called "Freaky Links".***

Pterosaur photo from the Freaky Links viral website.

Philip O'Donnell is the author of Dinosaurs: Dead or Alive? He's also known online as "Living Dinosaur Man for Christ", which should give you a bit of a sense of foreboding. Oh, did I mention that when he wrote his book he was 14 year-old home-schooled kid? He makes a weird argument (Which, judging by the favorable reviews on Amazon, people are buying into.) that the existence of living dinosaurs today would disprove evolutionary theory (He never really says how.) and show that the earth is really only...wait for it...6,000 years old.

His basic premise is that (his non-existent understanding of) evolution predicts that dinosaurs cannot exist today, and thus the existence of a living dinosaur would disprove evolution. Keeping in mind that some well-adapted creatures, such as alligators, have experienced only minimal changes in body plans over the eons, there's no specific aspect of actual evolutionary theory that precludes the modern existence of dinosaurs. They were simply ill-equipped to deal with the situation created during the K-T extinction event (thought by many to have been precipitated by a large scale impact event) and were out-competed by proto-mammals and other creatures who were better adapted to the new environment. While evolutionary theory could be used to make basic predictions about what species might or might survive X change vs. Y change, it would not predict, ceteris paribus, that dinosaurs would go extinct and that mammals would thrive in a stable environment.

Pterosaur photo that appeared on the Freaky Links TV show.

O'Donnell, who also believes in the existence of dragons, lists as evidence on his website a pile of "Champ" lake monster photos, some pieces of art depicting dragons, an Ica Stone, and some photographs of skulls which he claims show anatomically modern humans in the Jurassic geological layer. Since he and his friends write the captions for their pictures themselves and offer no citation, it's not easy to track down where they even come from. He also has an "Answering the Skeptics" page that consists of, and I'm not kidding, a machine gun list of two sentence descriptions of dinosaur encounters with, as usual, no citation.

One of O'Donnell's most annoying habits is that of assuming his own conclusion. For example, the lack of dinosaur fossils after the late cretaceous means squat because the geological column is an evil evolutionist lie. How do we know? Because the earth is 6,000 years old and thus the geological column isn't real! How do we know? Because the old earth is an evil evolutionist lie! How do we know? We just do! Wait...what? He also likes to try and quote mine Alan Feduccia, the paleornithologist at UNC, as saying that there is no evidence that birds evolved from a prior form of creature.**** Feduccia is unusual among paleornithologists because he doesn't think that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs, but that isn't because he doesn't think they evolved. He instead thinks that birds and theropods share a common ancestor further back in the timeline, but his arguments are unambiguously pro-evolution.

A common argument shared by both our friends is "Hey, coelacanths exist, and science thought they were extinct! Thus it is just as likely that pterodactyls still exist." Yep, there are two species of coelacanth prowling the oceans today, with the total number of individuals thought to be less than 500. They dwell at depths of up to 2,300 feet, and their eyes are so sensitive to light that they won't even rise to a catchable depth on nights when the moon is full. Yet they've still been captured, dozens of them. On the other hand, O'Donnell and Childress would have us believe that pterosaurs with wingspans of up to 45 feet are living in Texas and Mexico, attacking humans and animals alike, and have yet to be physically documented. They're shooting themselves in the foot by bringing up the coelacanth, because if a creature so elusive as that has been conclusively documented then there's no excuse for brazen, farm-raiding dinosaurs to remain unconfirmed.

As I've stated on here many times in the past, cryptozoologists are a strange lot, but even they tend to give loons like Childress and O'Donnell a wide berth. The idea of living dinosaurs in America pushes the conspiracy-mongering and wishful thinking that are endemic to cryptozoology to the point of self-satire.

*"Pterodactyl" is a generic term, and the creatures it is used to describe are more properly termed "pterosaurs". On the other hand, pterodactyl is a cooler sounding word. Pterosaurs, by the way, and not technically dinosaurs.
**Which, when you thinking about it, is pretty remarkable coming from folks who tout extraterrestrial visitors as the source of much of earth's technology.
*** used to be the site for the show, so sometimes you'll see old forum posts that refer to it. Just keep in mind that the TV show ended in 2001, and is now a porno site.
**** The section on his site in which this occurs is actually quoted wholesale (with credit given) from Creation Ministries International shill John Sarfati's book Refuting Evolution, so O'Donnell can be forgiven- it's unlikely that he's ever actually read a word of Feduccia's work that hasn't been through Sarfati's grinder. Sarfati, by the way, is a chemist, not a biologist.


Garret said...

Weirdos like this are a fun lot. I used to spend hours listening to podcasted "coast to coast am" wackos and their matter of factly stated extreme claims. In fact, I remember more than one show on this very subject!
I read Chariots of the gods years ago- Its worth a good laugh also.
Thanks Skippy!

Skippy the Skeptic said...

There's a book out there called "Cult of the Alien Gods" by a guy named Jason Colavito that apparently makes the claim that Von Daniken and some of the of the other alternative history buffs either borrowed heavily or stole wholesale from the ideas laid out in H.P. Lovecraft's old science fiction and horror stories.

He has an article in the pseudohistory section of called "Charioteer of the Gods" that lays out his basic argument.

Phillip ODonnell said...

Hello Skippy the Skeptic,
This is Phillip O'Donnell (author of Dinosaurs: Dead or Alive?) . Could we do a phone debate and record it? You can put on your blog if you want.
Let me know what you think,


Skippy the Skeptic said...

How about we submit a debate proposal to the Internet Infidels Database? I suspect we could provide an overall higher quality exchange that way.


Phillip ODonnell said...

Hello Skippy,
I don't have the time to do a written debate. Phone debates are much better, because both of us are on the spot to answer questions, one at a time. I will defend anything I have written in my book even regarding living dinosaurs presenting problems for evolution.


Skippy the Skeptic said...

I'm much more interested in doing a public a forum debate than a private phone debate. That way neither one of us could be tempted to post "highlights", since the debate will be available in its entirety and forever on IIDB. If you ever change your mind, get in touch with me on here or go to IIDB and send a private message to one of the debate mods, either diana or Alcyonian.

Also, please pardon my earlier typo. It's the Internet Infidels Discussion Board, not the Internet Infidels Database. In any event, I think a nice debate with just the two of us would be very interesting. We could even set up the rules to allow for several days to compose each "round" if that would better accommodate your schedule.

Callis the Critic said...

I know one of these guys (Phillip O'Donnell; never heard of Childress). As a matter of fact, I used to have phone discussions with him, but without questioning his beliefs. However, I recently broke my silence and challenged him to an online debate. I got the same response you did, Skippy. I had already told him "no more phone discussions," but, unfortunatly, he continued to insist on a phone debate. So it looks as if I won't be able to debate him either.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

I've not heard a peep out of him since I told him that I'd only debate online. Kind of tedious, really.

Callis the Critic said...

Also, I have sent him countless arguments by e-mail (ones that he hasn't addressed), including the fact that we can see stars millions of lightyears away (which automatically refutes the main YEC belief. However, he never argued against them, he never responded, he just ignored them. He says that he will defend anything he has written, but hasn't proven it.

Young Earth creationists have a habit of ignoring scientific evidence and making things up as they go along.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

I'm surprised he didn't give you the whole "Well, God created light that was already en route to Earth so it would -look- like we have an old universe" spiel. That argument pops up a lot, weird as it is.

John Jensen said...

Both sides of the Evolution-Gradualism vs Creationism argument consist of way too much myth and magic, and not nearly enough good old fashioned rational logic.

For example, more than 37 'blind' 14c tests have been performed in the last 2-8 years on larger non fossilized dinosaur bones across the globe, returning dates between 15K and 42K ybp. Dr. Mary Schweitzer has documented 'elastic collagen and hemoglobin elements' in a T-Rex hind limb, suggesting those elements are no more 65 million years old, than the opposite young earth creationists claim that the Earth is 6K years old. Both positions are ludicrous based on extant evidence when interpreted logically.

The list is endless that demonstrates both sides, AND the newest entry into Theological interpretations, the 'Ancient Alien' crowd are basically more interested in maintaining their myth and magic, than they are looking at the data in a logical way.

All three are wrong as often as they are right.

There is a fourth alternative, one that says Rationalism and Logic can and should be applied when assessing any group of related facts. And ALL facts are related. For example, the facts of giant flora and fauna in the geologic column is indisputable. The overlying logic is to assess the conditions that allow for biological gigantism on a global scale, rather than argue the merits of each single piece of evidence.

If biological gigantism is a fact, and it demonstrably is; then the most rational and logical conclusion is that 'G' force or commonly called 'Gravity' is not a fixed law as postulated by Newton, but is in fact a variable, or to use the latest term, 'Attenuated'. An heavily attenuated 'gravity' or 'less dense' G force, or as defined by some, 'The Electrostatic Field', would account for ranges of gigantism to dwarf or pygmy status in ALL flora and fauna.

IF the above logic is TRUE, then Newton and Einstein were both the charlatan that Tesla said they were. In any case, based on evidence, it seems logical to question Gravity as a 'Fixed Law', and even to question whether it in fact exists at all. Both questions are entirely rational based on the quantity of evidence supporting variable or attenuated G force.
As a last comment, I don't mind at all opposing views. I DO mind inflammatory terminology in rebuttal. Anyone with an opposing view to yours in NOT necessarily a 'Weirdo' or 'Psuedo' anything. Your version of Science is no more (or less) credible than another or different viewpoint.

John Jensen