Images That Lie

The other day, an acquaintance of mine on Facebook posted this astonishing video:

In it, a young elephant is seen painting a self-portrait — a stylish line drawing of an elephant. It holds a paintbrush delicately in its trunk and slowly creates an image with precise, artful strokes.

Although this video is real, it is not the whole story. The whole story is disturbing.

My first thought was that this might be a visual effect: footage of an elephant with a computer-generated trunk, but that’s not the case. This is really happening in places such as Thailand, where elephants paint portraits for tourists, who then buy the paintings for a few hundred dollars apiece.

Quirky stories like this get shared on social media every day, and it is certainly a fascinating video. So what’s the harm?

The harm is twofold. First, you’re looking at what is very likely an abused animal.

According to One Green Planet, elephants endure months of physical abuse just to learn how to hold a paintbrush and draw a straight line. Elephants don’t paint in the wild, and they don’t learn to paint (or sign their names in English!) as an expression of innate creativity. To get them to perform such tricks, baby elephants are starved, shackled, and beaten, until their spirit is completely broken. Only once young elephants have undergone this process, can they be taught to paint.

Elephant Crushing
Elephant Crushing

The elephants are able to paint only one picture, which they are made to do over and over. One elephant paints a self-portrait; another paints a flower; a third paints a tree, and so on. It is little different from trained dancing bears in a circus (a practice that is now illegal in most countries).

What most bothered me about this video was not just the cruelty on display, but the context in which it appeared, which brings me to the second harm caused by this video.

People post false and misleading stuff to Facebook without fact-checking with depressing regularity. Most of the time, they do it because the stories confirm a suspicion or preconception that they already hold. Psychologists call it confirmation bias. A story that already confirms an existing idea is less likely to be looked at critically.

So I asked myself: What kind of mindset does a person need in order to look at a video of an elephant painting a portrait, and conclude, “Yep, that’s reasonable!”

The person who posted this video on Facebook (who shall remain nameless) certainly loves and celebrates the natural world, something that is clear from their selection of shared articles on display. But this person’s Facebook wall is also chock full of stuff that can be described only as “woo woo.” This includes incredible claims such as the following:

  • Water is alive, and can die if treated poorly. Saying nice words to a glass of water changes its molecular structure in positive ways.
  • Your heart has an aura, has an intelligence, and communicates with other people’s hearts using a magnetic field.
  • Essential oils such as lavender and peppermint naturally vibrate at FM radio frequencies, which somehow encourages our immune systems to become more resistant to viruses.
  • Nuclear-powered cars that run on thorium are being suppressed by Big Oil.
  • And sadly and predictably, anti-vaccine propaganda.

I think I see a pattern here: Stories like these indicate a belief in secret knowledge, hidden knowledge, and ancient knowledge. They feed into a belief that the natural world is properly understood only by a few who are tuned into it, and especially not by scientists or skeptics.

This style of thinking is, needless to say, false. And it produces the horrific result of a person who evidently worships nature rejoicing in a video of an abused animal.

Images lie, and even images of real things can lie. Skepticism is a vital tool for a world drowning in fake news. The late Carl Sagan was fond of saying that keeping an open mind is a virtue – but not so open that your brain falls out.

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