You generally want to encourage young people to engage with science, but sometimes that means telling them that their ideas are bad. Take this Canadian boy who was in all the news, for instance: he was claiming to have discovered a method for finding Mayan ruins by basically using Google maps, aligning a star map with the terrestrial map and claiming to find that the Mayans built everything according to the layout of the constellations.
I was suspicious for a couple of reasons.
It made no sense. Yes, religion/astrology can persuade people to do foolish things, but you can’t claim that all the cities in the Yucatan peninsula were mapped out by lining them up with constellations. People also do things, like the massive resource investment involved in putting up a city made of stone, for pragmatic reasons.
The stars represent a random pattern of dots — and a pretty dense one, at that. Settlements in Mexico were also densely sprinkled about. This sounds like classic pareidolia, fitting noise to an expected pattern.
I have a little more respect for anthropology/archaeology than to think you can do it effectively in your armchair in Quebec without ever putting your butt on the ground at the study site.
Then the news reported that using his star hypothesis and satellite imagery, he had found a new ‘lost city’. That sounds like good science — hypothesis testing and all that.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t found a city. He’d found an abandoned cornfield, which, in a densely populated part of the world like that, isn’t at all unusual. His search criteria were so loose and poorly informed that he’s pretty much guaranteed to find a match somewhere near any random spot on the map, which means he’s ‘testing’ a hypothesis with a procedure guaranteed to generate false positives everywhere.
The sad part is that science has some standards for rigor, and everyone is going to tell this teenager that his method doesn’t work. Meanwhile, pseudoscientists have no standards at all, and will be telling this teenager that he’s brilliant and clever and is making a true contribution to their pseudohistory. He’s going to be denied by one and tempted by the other. Which one will he follow?
I’ll be curious to see if he gets mentioned at the Paradigm Symposium this weekend. This is exactly the kind of baloney they love…but then, the kid was smart enough to not say anything about alien astronauts, so maybe it won’t be on their radar.