Fantastic beasts and how to fake them
Fakery. Confabulation. Malingering. Denial. Lies.
The English language has around 112 words to express deception in one form or another. We've all done it. Most likely as children where we would quickly be scolded for such mistruths. Even then, as young children, we usually recognized the risk of being caught in a lie. So, what makes a person, who should otherwise be perceived as 'reputable', create fabrications at a global scale?
Over the past few days I have been reading the unfolding drama behind the night parrot. Essentially, the night parrot is a small, nocturnal parrot native to Australia. It was believed to be extinct for many years. Then there were a couple of dead birds and a trickle of unconfirmed sightings. People had hope that a larger population still existed in central Australia. In 2013 a bird was 'sighted' by someone of reputation. Someone who worked with birds and conservation. Someone who should know what they were doing. Five years later, that 'evidence' has been called into question, very publicly.
I certainly don't know the truth of the matter. I hope, for the sake of the species, that the reports are real. But, I must admit, it doesn't look good when the person in question has been the subject of scrutiny before. It's bad news all round. Whether the evidence is real or not, my question is this... what would make someone fabricate such an elaborate story? Delusions of grandeur perhaps? Love of the species maybe?
According to Mares and Turvey (2018) there are two reasons for telling a lie: 1) the deceptive person believes there is a significant gain associated with telling the lie, or 2) the deceptive person is incapable of discerning the truth. So, which one is it for the night parrot?
It is certainly accurate that reports of thought-to-be-extinct or mythological creatures generate the old '15 minutes of fame'. People have been searching for Bigfoot and Nessie for years! People have also been conducting elaborate and expensive searches for the Tasmanian tiger too. Fake sightings are not new. I'm quite sure, in some cases at least, that these 'sightings' are fabricated purely for the attention and potential profits to be made from selling their 'tell-all' story.
What about those other stories though? I'm sure you can remember a time (probably as a child) when you hoped against hope that you would actually see a dragon or a unicorn. I'm certain there are some 'observations' that fall in this category too. The human mind is an amazing organ that can convince itself of something when given the right cues. When you really want to see something, that shadow, that crumpling of leaves, they can all become unequivocal evidence under the right mindset.
"We are never so easily deceived as when we imagine we are deceiving others."
- Francois de la Rochefoucauld
There is a third possibility though. It could fall under both reasons for telling a lie. Deliberate, purposeful deception. Perhaps this story was originally contrived out of love and desperation? As anyone who has worked with threatened species can attest, it can be a heartbreaking and thankless job. Trying to make a difference with limited budget and an ever-growing list of even-cuter-than-the-last species on the brink is tough. It's possible the night parrot story came about from just such a combination. Wanting to gain more attention for this species over the others. Wanting recognition. Wanting more public support and funding. Unfortunately, all of that usually comes after a big news story.
The saddest thing about the night parrot saga... it has done more harm than good. Even if the speculation surrounding the evidence is unfounded, the damage has been done. Every time a threatened species is 'found' you can be sure that there will be someone out there with a seed of doubt in their mind. This is going to result in 'new' finds being subject to even more testing. It provides fuel for arguments against conservation - 1) why should we conserve this area/stop development, it's probably fake, or 2) there's new populations being found all the time, it's not that rare. What little money and attention were gained after the re-discovery of the night parrot, they are not worth bringing future finds and conservation efforts into disrepute. No matter how much you love a species, no matter how much you want to save it, no matter how much 'fame' you might get for your efforts, it is never going to be worth fabrication. History has shown us that you will be caught - just look at those Nessie pictures.