What good is being a skeptic, unless you’re willing to poop a few parties?
Being an old school naturalist brings me lots of “What is this thing?” photos. Many are photographs of backyard bugs, plants, or snakes. I also come across forwarded creature clickbait by the boatload on social media. Look! Over there! It’s a [insert creature or object], photographed in [insert location].
Sometimes these photos are truly unbelievable, such as blurry photos of timeworn cryptozoological classics like Bigfoot and Nessie. Others are photos of actual, documented living species, tagged with locations outside the known range. Those kinds of images, of a real animal but with some other associated doubtful claim, are not as easy to dismiss on their face.
Today I’d like to teach you one of the most effective, but underused, tricks in the skeptic’s toolbox: Reverse image search. The next time someone sends you an image accompanied by an extraordinary claim, try this tool out.
There are a number of reverse image search tools on the Internet. Maybe the most accessible and easy to use is Google’s. Let’s get started, using a fantastic claim that circulated earlier this year: A photo of a “rare Carolina panther.” The photo appeared on Facebook on February 14, 2020, on the page, “Charleston Municipality — in Kiawah Island,” and credited a photographer by name.
The page in question is satirical, and the story is of course now roundly debunked on the original post, but at the time many people forwarded the link and photo as final proof of a common claim — that “black panthers” roam the swamps of South Carolina, and other US states east of the Mississippi River.
First, a side note about biology: the common name “panther” can refer to large cats of several different species, including leopards (Africa and Asia), jaguars (Central and South America), and cougars (or mountain lions, or pumas, or several other common names, from North and South America). The cougar, Puma concolor, was wiped out in most of eastern North America by European settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries, except for a small remnant population in south Florida, which came to be known as the “Florida panther.”
Interestingly, individual P. concolor adults have been dispersing eastward from western North American populations for some time now, and really have been documented by officially verified camera traps, as far east as central Tennessee. The day may come when they arrive back in the Carolinas. But if they do, none of them will be black; read on…
Although there are black (or melanistic, to use the technical term) individuals of several spotted cats around the world, including leopard, jaguar, and many small spotted wild cats, a melanistic Puma concolor has never been documented. Anywhere. Period. If you’d like to dig deeper, read this post to learn why claims of “black panthers” in the United States should instantly ring your skeptical alarm bells.
Knowing this background should make anyone skeptical of “panther” reports, of any color, in South Carolina. But what about that convincing photo? That proves it, right?
When you want to check such fantastic claims, save a copy of the image in question somewhere on your computer’s hard drive. If you’re using a smart phone, save it to your images.
Next, if using a desk- or laptop browser to access Google Images, click on the small camera icon to the right, then click “upload an image,” and browse to your saved image. On a phone, open the Google App and click the little bracketed icon for Google Lens on the right side of the search box; then click the “image” icon at the top, and navigate to your saved photo.
The search results reveal this exact same “black panther” image on many different web sites, the majority of which indicate that the photo was taken in India, which confirms that it is a photo of a melanistic leopard (Panthera pardus). The same photo appears as part of a montage on this Twitter site.
Of course, the image was immediately shared by many as personal vindication of their own “black panther” stories from the United States.
Now let’s give our newly honed image search a go with a bit more advanced technique. Someone recently asked me about the creature in this animated GIF (click the link to see the animation).
What on Earth, right? Wow, that sure looks real. On one level, it’s not entirely ludicrous. There are some very large deep sea crustaceans called giant isopods, that reach lengths of 30 centimeters (about a foot) or more. You can read about them here.
So, even though at first look, it isn’t entirely preposterous, biologists with even a basic familiarity with crustaceans would be instantly skeptical of this wriggling “arthropod,” especially after seeing its head.
To solve this mystery involves a few more steps with an image search. First, you have to capture a still image of the animation; timing is critical. You’ll have to use a screen capture program or app (e.g. Mac Screenshot) to bound and capture the image. Save or export it in a common graphics format, such as jpeg. Here’s my capture:
The rest is straightforward; upload it to Google’s image search.
It’s obviously not a sea turtle, as suggested with “possible related search.” But scrolling down to “visually similar images,” we see several nearly exact matches, and a list of pages that include matching images.
This is where some additional work may be required. You may have to browse several pages before finding the correct explanation. As it turns out, the fourth link down leads to a Reddit page with the exact image, and the “best” match from that archive is a link that explains exactly what this creature is: an animatronic creation called a “Skinmite,” made specifically for the movie Pacific Rim.
And in fact, if you were perceptive enough to look closely at the URL leading to the original GIF, you would have seen the words “Testing an Animatronic Bug”! Often, though, image links don’t give away that kind of information, or they aren’t visible if embedded in another post.
So now you can try out your new reverse image search skills, the next time your crazy uncle sends you an image of something that someone’s cousin’s friend saw in a cornfield somewhere — or so they swear! Or the cousin’s friend swore it!
Now, let me digress with a few final thoughts. Some things, like the examples I’ve given here, are relatively easy to debunk. But others are not as easy. The level of sophistication behind fake images, and even “deep fake” videos, is becoming quite astonishing, in an alarming way.
Another question some of you may no doubt be asking is this: Why bother debunking these things? After all, if people want to believe that something fantastic like Carolina black panthers, or lizard men, or creepy Skinmites really exists, let them enjoy it! What’s the harm? They’re not bothering anyone, and after all, they’re only fooling themselves. And thinking about weird creatures is a lot of fun!
I’ve thought about this question many times over the course of teaching an honors class in skepticism and critical thinking. Let’s take the current proliferation of conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic as a contemporary, relevant case.
In a recent survey, 44% of the respondents from one of the United States’ two major political parties believe that Bill Gates plans to use an eventual SARS-CoV-2 vaccine to implant microchips into the recipients, in order to track their movements. Try to guess which party first, if you don’t already know (here’s the answer).
Forty-four percent represents millions of people, if the poll gives a representative sample.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Joseph Uscinski and Adam Enders close with the following thoughts about the proliferation of COVID-19 conspiracy theories:
Under this framework, the structure of COVID-19 conspiracy theories — how widespread they are, where they come from, and what they might mean — is completely predictable. The key difference in the case of the coronavirus is the stakes. We have little reason to be concerned [emphasis added], for example, about the one in three Americans who thinks aliens have secretly made contact with humans. And at no point was our society in danger because nearly 80 percent of Americans once thought the Warren Commission got the details of John F. Kennedy’s assassination wrong. But the consequences of blaming the coronavirus’s emergence on the wrong source, or of doubting its seriousness, could be life-threatening on a massive scale. People who believe that the virus is a bioweapon may be more likely to engage in hoarding and other self-centered behaviors. And if the one in three Americans who believes that the effects of COVID-19 have been exaggerated choose to forgo crucial health practices, such as social distancing, frequent hand-washing, and wearing a mask, then the disease could spread faster and farther than otherwise, and could cost many thousands of lives.
I often hear similar thoughts. What’s the harm, if someone believes they’ve been abducted by aliens? Or that magnet therapy relieves their arthritis? Or that homeopathic medications treat disease? Or that astrology provides sound guidance for daily decisions? Once again, the implicit answer is that by holding such beliefs, people are potentially fooling only themselves.
My answer is always the same. I think Uscinski and Enders got it completely wrong in their closing paragraph.
Overly-credulous citizens, and fallacious thinking, are symptoms of a larger underlying disorder. It’s not the specific beliefs that are dangerous, necessarily, but the way of thinking. When a crisis finally does arrive, a society that cannot think its way out of a wet paper bag is at grave risk.
The best thing we can do to inoculate ourselves from fakery of every kind is to maintain skeptical habits of mind. If something sounds too good, or too fantastic, to be true, it probably is. If something sounds good only because it matches our own closely held beliefs or values, we should challenge it all the harder. Check sources and acknowledge expertise. Cultivate doubt, and keep an open mind — just not so open that your brains fall out, as the famous skeptics aphorism goes.