Strawberry Salamanders and Two-Headed Rhinos
Someone near and dear to me was concerned about the Brazilian strawberry salamander April Fool's Day prank that I pulled. She pointed it out that it would undermine my credibility for people who didn't immediately realize that it was a joke. It would be the same mistake as when I posted a photo of a two-headed rhino that I saw in Africa. Those who had been taken in, and then discovered that it wasn't real, would likely forever be suspicious of things that I say.
Personally, I don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing.
One of the things that I've been trying to teach over the last twenty years is that you should be careful about suspending your critical thinking and blindly trusting other people. They could be pranking you. They could be trying to take advantage of you. Or they could be genuinely good and highly intelligent people who are mistaken. And nobody is immune from error. If people come away from reading my work and say, "Rabbi Dr. Slifkin has really shown how other people are mistaken about things - he's the guy to totally trust!" then I have failed at this. I can also be wrong about things! (But not about the shafan being the hyrax.)
Now, there are people who take this lesson the wrong way. They say, "Aha! So there is no reason for me to blindly trust scientists on vaccines!" Since I saw this reaction from more than one person, I think it's important to explain the mistake.
Is it theoretically conceivable that scientists are wrong about the vaccine? Sure. However, when it comes to specialized matters of hard science, which are not influenced by religious or political worldview, and you have an absolutely overwhelming majority of specialists who have reached a certain conclusion, then it is overwhelmingly likely that they are correct. And certainly they are way, way more likely to be correct than a non-specialist relying on some weird cranks on the Internet.
And what about the shafan being the hyrax? Indeed, when I started becoming accepted as an authority on Biblical natural history, I was initially a little unsettled. After all, I knew that my conclusions were based on considerable knowledge, experience and sound reasoning, but how do other people know that? It was slightly alarming that people were accepting what I said, when for all they knew I could have been an eccentric errant figure (like a certain Mexican polemicist) who can spout off all kinds of facts but be utterly wrong in how they are selected and put together.
Eventually it was pointed out to me that while some people may rely on what I say without understanding why I am credible, others will recognize that I am part of a wider circle of scholars of scholarship in general and Biblical natural history in particular, who all endorse my methodology and conclusions. In addition, people can recognize that I present detailed and sound arguments for everyone to analyze, and that I have shown myself ready to publicly acknowledge mistakes. And so, while I certainly can (and have) been wrong about things, it is very reasonable for people to generally rely on what I say.
But still. If I write about, or even present photos of, Brazilian strawberry salamanders, or two-headed rhinos, be suspicious!
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