Are You Sure That Was Fake News? Lessons from a Duck-Billed Platypus

Sometimes it makes a difference what you believe.

Wild platypus in a creek in Tasmania. (Photo: Creative Commons)

No question about it, the duck-billed platypus is one strange creature. About the size of a pet cat, this weird furry mammal lays eggs like a reptile, has a snout like a duck’s bill, a flat tail like a beaver, webbed feet like a goose, and walks with legs out to the sides like a lizard. In addition, the male platypus has a venomous spike on its ankles which enables is to kill in self-defense.

No European had ever seen such a critter until 1797 when British explorers made their first sighting on the banks of a lake near the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, Australia. The first record of the duck-billed platypus can be found in Lieutenant-Colonel David Collins’ “Account of the English Colony in New South Wales” in which he catalogues a whole host of strange creatures unique to the land Down Under. In great detail he described this most unusual new specimen.

The response in England was less than enthusiastic, though they can’t be faulted entirely. This was a creature too bizarre to be believed. The scientists back home decided it had to be a hoax.

For much of my life I have been somewhat harsh in my judgment of these scientists. Their bumbling doubts and disbelief seem somewhat comical from our modern vantage point. But put yourself in their shoes. Not all of the treasures British sailors brought home from overseas were authentic.

Chinese opportunists, for example, took mummified monkeys, cut their bodies in half at the waist and sewed them to the back ends of fish, selling them to these Brit sailors as “mermaids.” They were very clever. (Nowadays we do this kind of thing using Photoshop(R) and some folks are still fooled.)

So those scientists can’t be blamed for being somewhat skeptical. Ultimately, the whole thing is a matter of trust. I have no record here of what their thinking was. They may have believed the explorers were playing them for dupes. Hence, they distrusted this strange evidence of a creature unlike all others. Or, it may be they felt the explorers were good men who themselves had been duped.

Applications

A healthy skepticism is not necessarily a bad thing. But at some point, keeping a closed mind to new ideas has its own risks and consequences. One of these risks is that we never learn anything new. Another is that we fail to believe something that’s true. “Don’t confuse me with the facts!”

LESSON ONE

Let’s remember that some things are strange because they really are fake. I am thinking of those hybrid monkey-fish “fake mermaids.” Like P.T Barnum, the folks who made them not only made a profit, but got a laugh at the expense of those gullible goofballs who bought into it.

LESSON TWO

Just because it doesn’t fit your preconceived notions of reality doesn’t means it’s fake. People on the cutting edge of science have frequently taken their share of knocks for making assertions that “science” has “proven” can’t be. Copernicus comes to mind. In our own time there were scientists who said we’d never be able to escape the gravitational pull of the earth, and that a human would never survive passing through the Van Allen Belts in our atmosphere.

What’s your take on all this? Have you ever had to change your thinking about something which at first seemed like you should toss it in the trash? If yes, thanks for leaving a comment.

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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