Joint 56th Annual North-Central/ 71st Annual Southeastern Section Meeting - 2022

Paper No. 41-3
Presentation Time: 2:00 PM


BRANDT, Danita, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Michigan State University, 288 Farm Lane, 207 Natural Science Building, East Lansing, MI 48824-1115

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould invoked the “imposition of strong hope” (IoSH) to explain how misinterpretations are propagated and persist even in the face of obvious contradictions. Gould referred to the ”discovery” of Piltdown Man, which, if genuine, would have rewritten the story of human origins, but which, 40 years later, was revealed to be a hoax. Astrobiology is also rife with examples of erroneous interpretations built on IoSH, perhaps most famously, Percival Lowell’s mistranslation of “cannali” for “canals” and the conclusion that an advanced culture built these features on Mars. In addition to IoSH, Astrobiology shares with Paleontology the phenomenon that a single, unique specimen could overturn preexisting paradigms on the origin and evolution of life. In Paleontology, for example, Archaeopteryx shattered the distinction between birds and dinosaurs. In Astrobiology, distinctive structures initially described as nanobacteria in Mars meteorite ALH 84001 would have provided the first evidence that we are not alone in the universe. IoSH is integral to the human drive to discovery and the potential power of even a single specimen or sample fuels the essential public and political support for missions looking for life elsewhere in the universe. IoSH also fuels the imagination of individuals outside Paleontology and Astrobiology. Just as someone who finds an odd-shaped rock and concludes it is a dinosaur heart (even from Mesozoic-less Michigan strata), anyone with access to an internet connection can find “evidence” of complex life on Mars. These contacts are potential “teachable moments” but require time and energy to provide and maintain up-to-date resources that point the non-specialist toward the science that explains their “discoveries”. Piltdown Man persisted for 40 years in part because museum practices for handling specimens prevented effective examination and hypothesis testing. Astrobiologists and Paleontologists must continually work to identify disciplinary standards and practices that might be obstructing the path to progress, and then take steps to improve transparency and communication, thereby nurturing confidence in, and support of, our research.