humor, Outdoors, Travel

Making Stuff Up

Somewhere between my second and third Caicos Sunset Rum Punch   a bird of prey swooped low over the beach. His talons clutched a sizable fish. Had his catch been listed on Da Conch Shackmenu, it would have set us back about $30. 

“What was that?” I asked Mike.

“Amazing,” he answered.

Hawk? Eagle? The birder in me hoped for a species indigenous to the Turk & Caicos Islands that I hadn’t seen before. 

Locals set up a makeshift market selling conch shells, conch shell jewelry, and T-shirts imprinted with conch shells. 

Since they spent many hours on the beach, I was confident they’d have the answer to my question.

I was wrong.

Our conversation went something like this:

Me: Did you see that bird that flew by? The one holding the big fish?

Local Conch Souvenir Seller 1:  Yes, he comes by everyday.

Me: What kind of bird is it?

LCSS1: A pelican.

Me: The one that had a fish in his talons?

LCSS1: Yes, it was a pelican. (She sought support from Local Conch Souvenir Seller 2.)

LCSS2: Yes, a pelican. Want to buy a conch shell?

For an instant I believed that I hadseen a rare Turks & Caicos taloned pelican. Then I chalked it up to people making stuff up rather than admitting they didn’t know.

Why do people make things up when they don’t know the answer?

Rather than making stuff up, I Googled it. If it’s on the Internet it HAS to be true!

Steven Sloman, an expert of cognitive science at Brown University said that humans are “biased to preserve our sense of rightness”. He calls making stuff up when you don’t know the answer, the “illusion of explanatory depthand we do this because we overestimate our understanding of almost everything. The social groups around us influence our opinions. So if I hung out with LCSS1 and LCSS2, I’d convince myself that it indeed was a rare Turks & Caicos taloned pelican (instead of an osprey as I later found out).

Professor Sloman goes on to say that about 70% of the population like to think as little as possible or not at all, and the other 30% would rather continue to justify their beliefs than look at facts. 

Sound like anyone you know?

It happened again during a snorkeling excursion. Vaughn, a master diver, gathered a handful of sand dollars and a few multicolored shells. I had gathered Floridian whelks and scallops and turkey wings, but wasn’t familiar with the colorful bivalve he shared. 

Since he spent many hours in the ocean, I was confident that he’d have an answer to my question.

I was wrong.

Our conversation went something like this:

Me: I know the sand dollars, but I haven’t seen this bivalve before.

Master Diver Vaughn: They’re common around here.

Me: What kind are they?

MDV: (Hesitating) They’re rainbow shells.

Me: (Jaded by the rare Turks & Caicos taloned pelican incident) You could be making that up and I wouldn’t know.

MDV: I am making it up. I don’t know what it is.

In about three minutes I found the “rainbow shell” online and identified it as a Sunrise Tellin. 

The third “illusion of explanatory depth” I encountered at the Turks & Caicos National Museum. An historic flag on display bore an emblem picturing a salt-raker on the beach with two white heaps of salt in the background and a ship bobbing in the sea awaiting the salt cargo. (Collecting salt had been an early industry of this tropical island.) The British flag designer was given a sketch of the scene. Not knowing anything about the Caicos, but apparently something about Eskimos, he added doors to the white mounds and turned them into igloos. I guess he figured that’s where the salt-rakers took air-conditioned breaks. 

The tropical flag of Turks & Caicos bore igloos for 99 years before it was changed.

I won’t judge the flag designer too harshly, though, because this occurred in 1870 and he couldn’t Google it. 

4 thoughts on “Making Stuff Up”

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