Oct 21 2008

That is so not a brain!

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Comments: 34

I learned of this bit of creationist pseudoscience through Pharyngula, and since it deals with an alleged human brain I had to comment. Larry and Debbie Skelf believe (apparently) that they have a petrified human brain. In a press release they state:

The bizarre rock, owned by Larry and Debbie Skelf, was just a sentimental token until about two years ago when research began on it.
“It was given to my mother, Eddie Mae Hodge, by uncle Luther Hodge, in Tullahoma Tennessee, forty years ago. Since mom passed away in 1986, I just called it my pretty brain rock. Since then, we often used it as part of different ornamentations” Debbie states.

The rock, now certified to be a petrified human brain, is no longer a table ornament. It has been examined by many leading U.S. scientists, including acclaimed Neuro Anatomy
Professor Dr. Suzanne Vincent, Oral Roberts University.

Where to begin?  Go to their dedicated website, and you will find a classic example of not just pseudoscience, but what Richard Feynman calls “cargo cult science.” The term “cargo cult” refers generally to the phenomenon of a native pre-technological tribe or community coming into contact with a non-native technological society, and then using rituals and magical thinking to control the cargo spirits or gods.

This derives originally from the people of New Guinea who observed planes dropping supply cargo during World War II. They were later found to have built control towers and runways out of bamboo and grass, hoping to summon the sky spirits to drop their magical cargo.

The bamboo mock ups of a landing strip has the same relationship to actual aviation as creationism has to genuine science. It has the outward superficial form, but lacks the actual mechanics or any understanding of how it works. While reading the petrified human brain website you have the distinct impression that these people are as likely (or less likely) to do real science as the New Guinea natives were to summon cargo planes to drop them cargo.

You have the love the jargon they throw around – clearly designed to obfuscate and impress, rather than inform. For example:

No data available for purpose of disclosure at this time.
Entire specimen mineral, not rock, bio chemical sedimentary propagated by chemical sediments resulting from the precipitation of ions in water , forming silicate crystals. This was further precipitated by the action of an organ of a formerly living creature. Typical lithification fossilization process.

The first line refers to the fact that they have no idea where the rock came from. If it were a petrified human brain it would be reasonable to expect that it was associated with a human skull, or at least some other human remains.  We would also like to date the strata, see if it was geologically undisturbed, what other fossil animals it contains – you know, all that sciency stuff.

A “fossil” that was kept as a memento for forty years without any idea of where it came from is of dubious scientific value, even if it is a real fossil.

The second sentence is just geological babble, probably lifted without comprehension from a website or textbook. No evidence is offered to justify the mineral classification of the specimen. Also, the analysis contains the conclusion (again, without any justification or evidence) that it is a “typical” lithification process from living tissue. Yet, the site also states that “Fact is, nobody knows for sure how any natural fossil was created.” – so then what is a “typical lithification process” if nobody knows?

The site then descends from the ridiculous to the bizarre. I don’t want to reproduce the pictures without permission, so just visit the site (first link above) and look at the picture in the upper right corner of the page. That, it is claimed, is a scan through the middle of the specimen. The claim is made that this has a remarkable similarity to a human brain with “all the parts in the right place.” Compare that to the CT scan of an actual human brain below – it looks nothing like a human brain. There are no sulci or gyri, there are no ventricles, there are no midline structures – there is nothing that can be clearly related to a specific piece of brain anatomy.

I guess the holes in middle left of the piece (in the shape of a frown) they would claim are the occipital horns of the lateral ventricles (fluid filled spaces inside the brain), but their shape is all wrong, and these holes exist entirely in the left “hemisphere” of this rock, rather than symetrically in both hemispheres. The two halves of the rock themselves are very asymetrical.

Look at the outside of the rock here.  This is just a lumpy rock that happens to have a cleavage roughly down the middle, without anything that resembles a brain. The human brain doesn’t just have squiggles (gyri), it has a very specific pattern of gyri that can be identified and named and are organized into different lobes. No real anatomy is apparent.

Farther down they label parts of a section through the spinal cord – but they are just hallucinating, as surely as Percival Lowell hallucinated canals on Mars.  It’s truly laughable.

I would say that they should have had some real scientists take a look at the rock before embarrassing themselves with a website, but apparently they did. Unfortunately, they chose a bunch of creationists who were blinded by their enthusiasm. Dr. Shipley is quoted as saying:

“More anatomy, I spent several years in medicine before obtaining my Doctorate in Theology. When I reviewed the x-rays of the rock and different brains, I chose incorrectly which was which!”

Well, Dr. Shipley, then you are an idiot.

But Skelf, who obviously hand-picked his “experts” to give a predetermined opinion, now declares that his rock is “confirmed” as a fossilized brain.  He challenges:

Unless they can disprove these medical experts, then they must rely on them biologically and on petrology as to the viability of the correct minerology for this to be a fossil.

No, I don’t have to rely upon your panel of biased incompetents. The rock shows no specific anatomical features of a brain, nor any features that would confirm it is a fossil of any kind. It’s a rock.

What’s the point of all this? Here’s a clue:

Fact is, nobody knows for sure how any natural fossil was created.
Nobody knows for sure how long it takes.
Nobody has ever witnessed it.
We can only confirm or deny on sheer speculation.

You also have to love this:

Since the largest part of geology is theory which by definition is
unprovable and not disprovable, the theories of how this, or
coprolites, came into being are also not provable or disprovable.

Really – by definition theories are not disprovable? Actually, by definition a scientific theory must be disprovable, it must be something upon which evidence and reason can act.  Clearly Skelf thinks that science is all about “sheer speculation” – and that no one really knows how fossils form, therefore all those fossils scientists keep digging up could be from a young Earth.

The entire purpose of this fossil brain charade is to attempt to drag real paleontology down to speculation and unfalsifiable “theory.” Therefore, this half-baked nonsense about a human brain fossil is just as good as anything the scientists have to say.

Skelf and his phony experts are attempting to build a bamboo runway and tower of pseudoscience, and then use them to wave the cargo planes of science over to their primitive island. Or at least they wish to distract the planes off course so that the public will not get their cargo.

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