Ignorance Peddling In The Age Of YouTube

In Pseudoscience by Brian Koberlein12 Comments

Devil’s tower, a laccolithic butte in Wyoming, is the stump of an ancient silicon tree. This amazing fact was sent to me by a reader complete with YouTube link for proof. If only I would watch the video with an open mind, I would learn the error of my scientific ways. 

The video itself follows a common pattern, where an amazing claim is made, and the evidence presented is simply that two things look similar. Since an intrusion of magma through Earth’s crust looks somewhat similar to a tree stump, it must be a giant tree stump. It is the same method used by those who claim the Earth is flatdeny global warming and evolution, or espouse young Earth creationism, the electric universe, the doomsday planet Nibiru, that vaccines cause autism, and even that our solar system moves in a helical vortex. Their arguments are buttressed by claims that science is closed-minded, arrogant and dogmatic, or simply covering up the truth to protect their jobs.

It’s tempting to laugh these ideas off. After all, fringe ideas have always been proposed throughout history. But the difference is that with the rise of YouTube and social media this ideas spread faster and can become more ingrained in the minds of followers. The “Devil’s tower is a tree stump” video has more than half a million views, and is posted by someone with nearly three quarter of a million subscribers. That’s more than subscribe to the Sixty Symbols video series, for example. I can almost guarantee that in response to this post supporters of some of the pseudoscience I listed above will send me long diatribes about how their model shouldn’t be lumped in with the others. As wrong as these ideas are, they have staunch supporters willing to defend them. Not only do supporters of pseudoscience defend their ideas, but they vote and drive political conversations. Our society is shaped in part by these ideas, whether we like it or not. So it’s important to push back against these claims.

enemy_squareThat might sound like I’m saying people are stupid, and that they need to be told what to think by intelligent and knowledgeable scientists like me. I’m not. Being wrong about a particular concept doesn’t make you stupid, and being open to new ideas even when they sound crazy at first is part of the curiosity science tries to foster. The problem isn’t stupidity or ignorance, it’s a failure of critical thought. And it’s not just a problem with pseudoscience advocates. Most modern scientific discoveries are promoted through press releases and media packets, many of which don’t even link to the actual research. They use exactly the same approach as the video above, where a few pretty pictures are used to support a wild scientific claim without linking to any actual evidence. A press release made without citing research is just as pseudoscientific as a YouTube video making unsubstantiated claims. We’re all capable of being intellectually lazy.

The good news is that critical analysis and intellectual discourse can be encouraged and promoted. The same tools that are used to promote pseudoscientific ideas can be used to raise the bar on scientific discussion. But making that change depends upon those of us who want to see a richer and more thoughtful exploration of knowledge. It’s easy to point fingers at the fringe and declare how poorly they behave. It’s more difficult to look at ourselves with a critical eye. That means calling out press releases and popular news stories that don’t cite actual research. It means taking the time to present ideas clearly as well as the evidence behind them. And it means having the patience to engage in discussions with those of opposing ideas, even though sometimes it will feel like feeding the trolls. If we want to promote knowledge and critical thought, as lovers and promoters of scientific ideals we have to encourage it ourselves.

If we don’t do this, then we are simply peddling ignorance in the name of knowledge.


  1. Oh boy. I’m just as intrigued to click on the video as I am apalled at this video existing at all.
    I’ll take a risky decision and I’ll just continue with my life trying to forget this whole issue even existed 😛

  2. Wow. I’m trying to imagine the size of the chainsaw that would have had to have been used to cut down a tree the size of Devil’s Tower. According to the NPS (https://www.nps.gov/deto/faqs.htm), the top is about 200 by 400 feet. That means you would need a chainsaw with a bar about 100 feet long, even if you were using a bore-cut technique. That’s more than twenty times the length of the largest regularly-available professional chainsaw bars (https://www.stihlusa.com/products/chain-saws/professional-saws/ms880r/).

    Seriously, though. The Internet age just makes it easier for snake-oil salesmen like Ralph Smart to find those daily-born suckers and easily part them from their money.

    Makes me want to start a side business to retire on…

  3. Clearly the same aliens who engineered the great pyramids used their mega-lasers to lop off the Devil’s Tower tree. Or maybe it was Thor and his lightning-controlling hammer; a stump that size does kind of sound like Yggdrasil, after all. (Though I don’t recall that it was supposed to get cut down.)

  4. If you visit the center at Devil’s Tower, one of the indian legends is given to explain Devil’s Tower. It only requires a giant tree and a giant bear. Maybe a giant Indian princess!

  5. Kudos. I admit I was and still can be such a character. However, as you claimed, there was/is hope. ?

  6. Good article. You show great restraint. Critical thinking should be taught in every grade 1-12 instead of passing a state test and being turned loose on the world. With almost everyone constantly playing with their mobile devices 24/7 and living in sheer fantasy it’s getting to the point that if one of these people see something long and “slithery” in their yard they become scared stupider quickly grab a hoe, shovel or axe and in a frenzy begin chopping the “snake” to pieces. Then when they feel safe and start picking up the “remains” they finally see that it is a garden hose.

  7. You would think that as technology advances so does the general understanding of science but it seems the reverse is true.

    Most people know bigger all about science and the education system isn’t helping.

    1. Author

      I don’t think it’s the education system as much as it is an unwillingness of folks to become educated. The resources are out there, but they aren’t used much. I think a better education system and a robust fourth estate would help, but people have to take ownership of their own learning.

  8. Well, Bible reports giants in the earth in earlier times, and evidences of them all over, so maybe they had giant trees too. I’ve wondered how those dinosaurs could be so large, but maybe the air was thicker then, more oxygen, promoting giantism. Who would have believed in the giant California redwoods if in Europe prior to discovery? There’s other petrified wood out West, and as I recall, it’s makeup chemically is similar to the rocks of Devil’s Tower.

    1. Author

      No, the chemical makeup of Devil’s Tower is not remotely similar to that of petrified wood. It’s pretty easy for geologists to tell the difference. You might want to turn off YouTube for a while.

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