Friday August 29, 2014

The dinosaurian anatomy of a hoax


I knew it wasn’t true the instant I read the headline: “British scientists clone dinosaur.” It was a link a friend sent me on Facebook presumably because they knew I would get a great laugh out of it.

We’ve come a long way with cloning. The seminal moment was the birth of the sheep “Dolly” on July 5, 1996. It was a monumental accomplishment to clone a relatively large mammal, but one that used a live donor. Today, cloning has become routine in scientific research, but even reproducing relatively recently extinct animals such as the Tasmanian Tiger (early 20th century) and Wooly Mammoth (2650 BC) is still theoretical at best.

Dinosaurs died out (or rather began to evolve into birds) 65 million years ago. Enough said.

I needn’t have gone beyond the headline, but I had to read the article and what a treasure trove of debunking evidence it turned out to contain.

In the first place, it was from a website called News Hound. I had never heard of it. Not that that is definitive evidence, I obviously don’t know every website in the world, but it is unusual and suspicious that if there was a shred of truth that it would not be a known source.

The laughs came quickly. Apparently the “scientists” at John Moore University in Liverpool had extracted DNA from Apatosaurus (what we used to call Brontosaurus that lived 154 to a 150 million years ago) fossils and injected it into an Ostrich womb.

Ok, Apatosaurus was four-legged and one of the largest land vertebrates that ever existed weighing in at 30 to 35 tonnes. Ostriches are big birds, but two-legged and weigh up to 345 pounds. Oh yeah, and they don’t have wombs.

I loved the way they added in a bit of controversy too, saying animal rights and religious groups were decrying the accomplishment.

Another of the so-called “researchers” supposedly said “Within 10 years we could repopulate the world with dinosaurs.”

Wow. Even if enough viable dinosaur DNA existed (it doesn’t), even if you could find modern surrogates (you can’t), a legitimate scientist saying repopulating the world in 10,000 years, much less 10, is ridiculously implausible.

Then there was the picture. An odd-looking critter for sure, but looked a little too familiar. Turns out it was a joey (baby kangaroo).

Too much fun and I could have left it at that.

Well, no, I couldn’t.

A quick Google search led me to a whole bunch of sites where the story had been republished (none legitimate science sites). That’s usually a bad sign.

The one that caught my eye was the Weekly World News, which immediately put me in mind of a great scene from my favourite Mike Myers movie, So I Married and Axe Murderer. Charlie Mackenzie (Myers’ character) is talking to his mom about a story she read about a woman who is roaming the country axe murdering her husbands.

Charlie Mackenzie: Hey Mom, I find it interesting that you refer to the Weekly World News as, “The paper.” The paper contains facts.

May Mackenzie: This paper contains facts. And this paper has the eighth highest circulation in the whole wide world. Right? Plenty of facts. “Pregnant man gives birth.” That’s a fact.

The Weekly World News had republished the dinosaur cloning story verbatim except it had changed the British scientists angle to scientists at a university in Florida, a nod to its American audience, no doubt.

I could have left it at that, but I didn’t. I checked, one of my favourite debunking sites to see if they had it yet. They didn’t appear to, so I alerted them of it.

While I love this kind of stuff for its comedic value, it worries me how many people out there actually believe it. We are a gullible species.



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