Amoeba’s Lorica: Pyramid Schemes

Bosnian "pyramid" with "energy beam"A little while ago, a professional colleague gave a Facebook high-five to some of his colleagues, who had just scored major crowdsource funding for a sizable scientific project. Those who have said “Isn’t this wonderful?” in the hearing of Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba have perhaps not gotten the kind of response that they were expecting, but …

Since you, dear reader, are more likely to be internet savvy than YFNA is, you probably know all about crowdsourcing already. For my fellow Luddites, I suggest Wikipedia’s article on the subject. The Twitter version is, you make a pitch on the internet and get lots of folk to donate to your cause. Another way to think about it, especially for folk of a certain age: Jerry Lewis Telethon Lite. Or, pledge week on US National Public Radio. Except, on the Web.

Crowdsourcing has been an important part of the money-raising landscape in the arts and humanities (not to mention the multitude of “good causes”) for some time now. Its use as a fund-raising tool in the sciences is relatively recent, but, hey Amoeba! It’s money! What part of “money” don’t you like? Especially now that “budget sequestration” has taken hold in these Untied States, which means YFNA’s favorite institution of mental illness public higher education is – yet again – trying to figure out how to deal with a 10% cut in the Federal funds that keep the place open.

Well, dude, this is what YFNA doesn’t like about “crowdsource” money. I did look into it, and discovered, almost immediately, that the original crowdsourcers were complaining about just how crowded the territory had become. Crowded enough so that folk were spending major time – and, ironically, money – to put together a pitch that might be glamorous enough to compete for the available dollars.

Not “logical” enough.

Not “documented” enough.

Not “rigorous” enough.

Glamorous enough! Suave talking. Cool graphics. Don’t tell them what they need to know. Say what’ll grab their attention and swing their emotions, so they’ll whip out their magic plastic for you.

In other words: advertising! The more data-free, the better. Because cool sells. Facts don’t. Just ask anyone who’s trying to present the facts about human-induced global climate change. Or Darwinian evolution of “species”, whatever they are. (Another time.)

Over in the southern European nation of Bosnia, there’s a fellow who’s been trying to sell pyramids to his crowd. (Were you wondering, dear reader, when YFNA was going to get around to talking about the pyramids?) Doing a pretty good job of it, too, by all accounts. His glamorous presentations, initially financed, YFNA guesses, by his career as a Texas oilman, have convinced his nation’s leaders, and a good chunk of the citizenry, that a cluster of roughly triangular peaks in the Bosnian countryside are actually the largest man-made pyramids in existence on dry land, constructed by an otherwise-unknown supercivilization some 10,000 years ago.

That the Bosnian countryside was under a mile-thick sheet of glacial ice 10,000 years ago does not dissuade this person from his opinion, nor does his lack of formal training in archaeology or, so far as YFNA can tell, any other science. I suppose that someone who has published an argument, from his interpretation of hieroglyphs, that the Mayans descended into Mexico from the Pleiades star cluster, via Atlantis, can imagine that an ancient Bosnian civilization, for which there is no other evidence, would be creative and technologically savvy enough to build massive pyramidal structures under, or through, a glacier. And that that civilization would somehow be desperate enough, in a world otherwise devoid of human civilizations, to contemplate doing so, rather than simply moving to the place where they could grow the food that they needed, and would have had to import to their glacial home over long and treacherous distances.

Scientists, by nature and training, do all they can to think through things like this. They get a cool idea, and the first thing they ask is “What’s wrong with it?” Only if they fail to show that their idea is wrong do they run with it, and even then, only with the realization that someone else might, correctly, show them to be in error.

Yeah, this means that scientists tend not to be the life of the party. Consider the words they have to deal with on a daily basis (fail, wrong, error) in order to get their work done. This is, um, not the “eliminate the negative” that advertising demands. But the work does get done, and if it survives this incessant fail testing, it tends to be pretty substantial.

Only to be slammed on a thousand thousand comment boxes and chatlines and Facebook pages, telling those weasely, self-serving, stick-in-the-mud science types to sit down, shut up, and get out of the way of the cool!

In Bosnia, the serious science types have been shafted of funding for their work, and those who dare speak out have been declared unpatriotic and have been harassed, threatened, even kicked off public transportation. Bosnians evidently prefer their glamorous falsehood to solid, testable, but pedestrian truths. And are prepared to put those who don’t celebrate their preferences to the sword.

Sorry, Dr. Randy Olson, but YFNA has no intention of being anything else but “such a scientist”. Sooner or later, the “engaging stories”, the glamorous stories, become more important than the underlying truths. If indeed they don’t themselves become the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Or else. You have heard of Michael Crichton, a former scientist who found his glamorous stories more profitable than the truths he was originally trained to investigate?

And besides. Haven’t We had enough yet of pyramid schemes and their consequences?

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One Response to Amoeba’s Lorica: Pyramid Schemes

  1. quilly says:

    This is why the TV is off at our house. Too little reality.

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