Fiction versus fact

By Sean Willett

This story appeared as an illustrative feature. To enjoy it in its full glory, please visit our pdf version of this issue. This story appears on pages 13 to 15.

When you think of a velociraptor, what image comes to mind? You’re probably envisioning a powerful, man-sized reptilian creature, built like a small tyrannosaur. This is the image of the velociraptor you have seen your entire life, in movies, television and books– and it is completely wrong.

Velociraptor mongoliensis was about the size of a dog, its stiff tail taking up half of its body length. It most likely used its sickle-like talons to pin down small prey in the sands of the Mongolian desert. The velociraptor’s appearance was likely quite striking, as it was coated in downy feathers, with larger true feathers on its arms. These feathers had only been a hypothesis (albeit a widely accepted one) until quill nubs were found on a well-preserved fossil in 2007, proving their existence.

This small, avian desert-dweller is radically different from what most people think of when they picture a velociraptor. Why is that? It would be easy to place all of the blame solely on Jurassic Park for introducing these misconceptions, but that does not explain why we have refused to correct the movie’s mistakes decades after its release.

Despite no grounding in scientific fact, the fictitious version of the velociraptor has thrived in the media. Even in books and television meant for children and intended to be educational, this dinosaur is continually presented as something it was not. Popular culture has a tendency to propagate misconceptions, resulting in many urban legends as viewers struggle to parse fact from fiction.

Due in part to this common urban legend phenomenon, 41 per cent of American adults believe that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, according to the California Academy of Sciences. Dinosaurs are the victims of many misconceptions, but they are not the only ones. Media often bend or completely disregard the properties of objects in space, blurring the lines of where imagination and scientific fact lie. For example, when depicting the removal of an astronaut’s helmet in the vacuum of space, sometimes the astronaut’s head explodes and sometimes the astronaut only suffocates. Evolution is also a topic that suffers from inaccurate representation in media, leading to false notions– the idea that humans evolved from monkeys. In reality, humans and monkeys evolved from a shared ancestor and each adapted to fill a certain niche.

The lack of respect and attention paid to science in popular culture is upsetting, yet it is far from being the only thing responsible for the velociraptor’s plight. Media tend to only survive through giving people what they want. The art we consume is a reflection of ourselves, and it is clear that this disregard of science and refusal to let go of misconceptions is a fairly widespread attitude.

A recent example of this general unwillingness to accept change was the reaction to Pluto’s reclassification. When the International Astronomical Union redefined what it means to be a planet in 2006, Pluto only met the criteria to be considered a dwarf planet. Due to its small size and location within the Kuiper belt, it has not cleared the path of its orbit, making it one of the five dwarf planets.

Public reaction to Pluto’s change was unprecedented. The decision to reclassify Pluto was viewed by the public as an attempt by scientists to ‘take Pluto away.’ People wrote songs in Pluto’s honour and signed numerous petitions to try to reinstate it as a planet. Most people did not even know why it was being reclassified, and most people did not care. All that mattered was that Pluto was no longer what they thought it was.

But why did that matter?

Before Pluto’s news broke, the amount an average person thought about Pluto was likely not significant. The former planet was rarely discussed, and was commonly ignored by popular culture and media. Yet people refused to accept that what they once thought was fact had changed. This is because we are continually fed these baseless scientific misconceptions, though if media did show established scientific facts, we would likely reject the true representation anyway. We deny even the smallest of changes, clinging to an unchanging, immutable fantasy world.

If we as a society are unable to let go of these small misconceptions, how will we ever let go of the big ones? There have been many false claims throughout history that used to be supported by science– women being inferior to men, certain races being superior to others and homosexuality being unnatural.

All of these claims have been invalidated hundreds of times, yet the attitudes associated with them continue to plague our culture. Sexism, racism and homophobia are still rampant around the world, and there seems to be no end to these problems in sight. They permeate our society, normalizing the oppression and violence that happens all around us.

Our world would be a better place to live if we all rejected these attitudes, for all they do is hold humanity back. Yet we cling to them as if our existence depended on their survival, as if our world would collapse around us if they were removed.

We will never be able to truly advance as a species if we cannot let go of these dated ideas. Until we can abandon the little lies, we won’t be able to leave behind the big ones.

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