By the modern-pterosaur expert Jonathan Whitcomb
What a controversy this old photograph seems to be stirring up! I’m talking about the photo with six soldiers standing over what appears to be a recently shot Pteranodon, what many Americans would call “pterodactyl.”
The proclaimed-genuine photograph “Ptp” has an apparent Pteranodon
Don’t confuse this photo with the Haxan Films Freakylinks TV-show hoax photo, which had apparent Civil War reenactors. It’s an obvious imitation of the older Ptp, but the fake photo had men who were only dressed to look like Civil War soldiers.
It’s not surprising that I (Jonathan Whitcomb) and the physicist Clifford Paiva should take the heat in this controversy, for we may have been the only persons in the United States who have proclaimed openly, after deeply analyzing it, that Ptp is genuine, and that this photo has an obvious image of a recently-living pterosaur, yes a modern “pterodactyl,” although this particular animal appears to have been recently shot dead.
This is a tendency to interpret information or experience in a way that confirms one’s preexisting opinions. It’s related to belief perseverance, but there’s a difference. Let’s look at some examples.
Example of C. B.
Americans, and other Westerners, have been indoctrinated for generations, trained in the 19th century idea of universal extinctions of basic types of life, in particular dinosaurs and pterosaurs. When Americans see something in Ptp that looks unusual to them, like in the way one or more soldiers are standing or in the way one soldier’s shoe is on the beak of the apparent animal, they allow that to turn them away in disbelief, thinking that they have found evidence that the animal itself is a hoax of some kind. That is confirmation bias.
Example of Belief Perseverance
A few years ago, a cryptozoologist (we’ll call him AD) offered his interpretation of the identity of a flying creature that was seen by a man in the Philippines. The eyewitness report included the statement that the man, who had seen the animal, later went to some fishermen who told him of their own experiences with the animal.
AD came to the conclusion that the sighting was of a fish jumping out of the water. I then informed AD that he had only seen part of the report. The other part of the testimony, the part that AD had not yet read, was that the creature seen by the original eyewitness was seen flying over a city, not over water.
Yet AD continued to proclaim his belief that it was a fish jumping out of water, because the part of the report that he had first read included a reference to the eyewitness going to fishermen to get more information. That is belief perseverance.
Over a period of years, some people have seen hoax photos with Civil War soldiers or apparent soldiers, and they’re standing near what looks like a dead pterosaur or a dead dinosaur. Those who have seen one or more of those fake photos will assume, when they see Ptp, that it must also be a hoax. They have already concluded that any photo that shows anything like that must be fake. When they read that Paiva and I proclaim that Ptp has a genuine image of a real pterosaur, and that we have evidence for it, they might hold onto their original opinion, even after seeing the evidence. That is belief perseverance.
Can Believers in Extant Pterosaurs Have a Bias?
Theoretically, my associates and I certainly have the capacity to fall into confirmation bias or belief perseverance. Since about 2004, however, I have seen much less of this kind of problem with supporters of living-pterosaur investigations than our critics would imagine.
I don’t know if the Ptp photograph was from Vicksburg in 1864; that appears to be just an online rumor. But Clifford Paiva and I have examined evidence that it was recorded before about the year 1870, according to the photographic practice of using props to keep people motionless.
Two similar photos exist, both showing a similar scene, although the newer one is a known hoax, created for the Freakylinks television series that was on the Fox Network from 2000-2001. [but the older photograph appears to have a genuine animal in it, although the Pteranodon interpretation is controversial]
But what could I do about that old photo, as a young man; what could I do but wonder? As a teenager, I had occasional daydreams of exploring a remote jungle, searching for creatures not yet discovered by the Western world. But I came to think of those daydreams as idle distractions.
When in human history has one person always been wrong? And when one pearl is found in the mud of an old oyster bed, expect another.
That does not prove that the older (Ptp) photograph is genuine or that the producers of Freakylinks (Haxan Films) were involved in a conspiracy, as some persons may have suggested. But some persons have declared that they remember the Ptp photo in a book around the 1960’s. That was many years before Photoshop was developed.