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15 February 2002

Groupthink: the Search for Archaeoraptor as a Metaphoric Tale

missing the link between "freedom fighters" and "terrorists"

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The Archaeoraptor fossil hoax provides interesting learnings of how the best and the brightest can be lured into false conclusions through improper handling of evidence. It concerns the purported discovery of a bird-like dinosaur -- a much sought "missing link". The story of this particular hoax has many elements that are instructive for those exploring the controversial boundaries between "freedom fighters" and "terrorists", notably in the light of the evidence collected by the intelligence agencies against networks such as al-Qaida and those claimed to be supporting them.

In the case of the fossil, the question to be asked is why the scientific community is so quick to embrace flawed evidence? And why would such a highly reputable institution as the National Geographic Society fall short in its efforts to verify such an amazing discovery? For creationists such as Charles Colson, the answer is that: "They're desperate. You see, the lack of any evidence for transitional forms is one of Darwinism's dirty little secrets, and some scientists would do just about anything to keep it a secret--even to the point of fabricating evidence" [more]

But the larger question is why this same pattern of thinking may be reflected in the approach to evidence regarding the relationship between terrorists and the historical figures in every country that -- after independence -- are presented as heroic freedom fighters. There are many ironies to the pattern between the two stories.


On 15 October 1999, at a press conference in Washington D.C., the National Geographic Society announced the discovery and interpretation of the newest fossil called Archaeoraptor liaoningensis (meaning "ancient bird of prey from Liaoning"). The press conference coincided with the November 1999 issue of National Geographic magazine and its article "Feathers for T. rex? New birdlike fossils are missing links in dinosaur evolution." According to National Geographic, Archaeopter ". . . is a true missing link in the complex chain that connects dinosaurs to birds. It seems to capture the paleontological `moment' when dinosaurs were becoming birds." According to their press release, the anatomy of Archaeoraptor proves a feathered theropod dinosaur was capable of flight. It was "perhaps the best evidence since Archaeopteryx that birds did, in fact, evolve from certain types of carnivorous dinosaurs".

Much to the embarrassment of all concerned, several lines of evidence subsequently revealed Archaeoraptor to be a forgery in which bones of a primitive bird and a non-flying dromaeosaurid dinosaur had been deliberately combined.

The fossil reportedly came from Early Cretaceous beds of China that have produced other spectacular fossils transitional between birds and extinct non-avian dinosaurs. Chinese paleontologist Xu Xing, a doctoral student at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (Beijing) subsequently contended that Archaeoraptor is a combination of two fossils: one of the body and head of a birdlike creature and the other of the tail of a dinosaur. Xing said he had found another fossil, in a private collection in China, that was the mirror image of the supposed tail of the Archaeoraptor. He stated:

After observing a new feathered dromaeosaur specimen in a private collection and comparing it with the fossil known as Archaeoraptor [pages 100-101], I have concluded that Archaeoraptor is a composite. The tail portions of the two fossils are identical, but other elements of the new specimen are very different from Archaeoraptor, in fact more closely resembling Sinornithosaurus. Though I do not want to believe it, Archaeoraptor appears to be composed of a dromaeosaur tail and a bird body.'

National Geographic magazine published a note in its March 2000 issue saying that CT scans of the fossil appear to confirm Xing's observations and "revealed anomalies in the fossil's reconstruction."The magazine said details "will be published as soon as the studies are completed."

The discovery that it was a hoax resulted in a barrage of comment from the creationist community. With the publication of "Feathers for T. rex?" by Christopher P. Sloan in its November 1999 issue, National Geographic was considered to have reached an all-time low for engaging in sensationalistic, unsubstantiated, tabloid journalism.

Common elements

It is useful to explore the parallels, in the treatment of the evidence, between the approach to the fossil and the approach to terrorism. [A more extensive review of distortion in the handling of evidence is presented in]:

Prestigious institution: The hoax centres on the investigations instigated by the National Geographic Society as the "world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization". In the case of the investigation of terrorism, it centres on the prestigious Central Intelligence Agency and its associated bodies.

Use of top specialists: The National Geographic Society charged the "top American specialists in the field" -- from the world's superpower -- with verifying the facts using the most rigorous methodology. In 150 years it had never been associated with misrepresentation of facts to the public. According to President George Bush, the CIA deployed every possible specialist resource to review the evidence concerning terrorism following the 11th September attacks.

Use of best high-tech: The fossil was studied, using high-resolution X-ray CT analysis, at the University of Texas -- uniquely equipped with the best technology in the world for this purpose [more]. The investigation into terrorism was conducted using an amazing array of high tech communications and surveillance equipment, including the full resources of Echelon and the renowned computers of the National Security Agency.

Deadline: The National Geographical Society needed answers fast -- for a publication deadline. The American intelligence community needed answers fast to respond to public anxiety concerning government action on terrorism.

Blame shifting: Once the hoax was exposed all those involved shifted into high gear in terms of behind the scenes finger pointing and blame shifting. In the case of 11th September, and the much discussed failure of the intelligence community, a similar pattern was evident.

Groupthink: The announcement of the "missing link" by one of the most prestigious, widely-known, and highly-respected American institutions, resulted in unquestioning acceptance of the evidence as presented. Some critics, such as creationists, have wondered how open the academic community would have been to their comments once the announcement had been made. Similarly, in the follow-up to the 11th September attacks, every pronouncement by the CIA or the FBI has been treated as factual -- despite a succession of embarrassments, notably regarding the identities of a number of the suiciding highjackers subsequently found to be elsewhere and alive.

Inappropriate questions: Clearly those specialists seeking to confirm the validity of the fossil discovery locked themselves into a pattern of asking the wrong questions -- and were delighted with the answers that they received as a result. In the case of the investigation of the 11th September attacks, a whole array of answers has been provided which have been questioned in various ways by non-Americans. As with the Oklahoma bombing, the anthrax attack is proving to be of quite different origin than was suggested by initial answers to preferred questions about it.

"Distant whistleblowing": Surprisingly it was not the "top American specialists in the field", but a distant doctoral student in what might be rated by them as a low-tech Third World country, who raised doubts regarding the authenticity of the fossil and showed it to be a fake. And in the case of chains of evidence regarding terrorist networks and links, notably in relation to Iraq's support, it was in Third World countries that questions were asked about the quality of the evidence regarding such links -- views later echoed by some in European countries.

Necessary field work: Establishing that the fossil was fraudulent required investigative work "in the field" and "on the ground" in the area from which the fossil was supposed to derive. This was undertaken by a non-American sensitive to the socio-economic conditions of the peasants that provided many similar fossils. Understanding the nature of "terrorists" might also be assumed to require work "in the field" in those areas that engender views distinct from the American worldview. It was made clear that the American intelligence community had few people capable of speaking the language of the culture engendering "terrorists" and was therefore ill-equipped to visit their communities and understand the conditions under which they lived.

Financial rewards: The National Geographic's publishing deadline was tied to the urgencies of its revenue generation process. This curtailed the research and inhibited follow-up of any contra-indications. The peasants locating such fossils were intimately involved in fossil "assembly" because of the higher financial rewards for "complete" rather than "incomplete" fossils. Many of the Chinese fossil birds on the commercial market have some "reconstruction" to make them more saleable. The illegal yet highly profitable market of Chinese bird fossils has enticed the local farmers into creating marketable fossils, real or not. In contrast, the intelligence services seeking "evidence" for terrorism made very extensive, and urgent, use of financial rewards to those providing any form of information (although the $25 million offered for Osama bin Laden does not seem to have been sufficient). It might be asked to what degree such rewards biased the nature of any "fruitful" information they were offered by those desiring to benefit from them.

Reconstructive technology: Those who derive benefit, whether academic or financial, from fossil forgery now have access to a range of technologies, including adhesives and fake rock, that make it difficult to spot forgeries without the use of X-rays. Similarly the technologies available to intelligence agencies, seeking to fabricate evidence in support of their own interpretations, have now become extremely sophisticated.

"Glue": The different pieces of the fossil were glued together to present the alluring evidence for a bird-dinosaur. How is it that the best specialists did not detect the problematic nature of the joints in their extremely detailed examination of the fossil -- using the best methodologies and equipment in the world? In presenting a coherent case for the nature of the terrorist threat, how is it that the intelligence specialists of the world's superpower remain inattentive to the nature of the "adhesive" holding the facts together -- as repeatedly pointed out by critics in other countries?

Inconsistencies: The pieces of the composite fossil forgery subsequently revealed structural inconsistencies that had been ignored in the initial enthusiasm about its significance. The coherence of the terrorist hypothesis attached to al-Qaida has justified a massive war effort -- despite inconsistences in the nature of the pattern of evidence sustaining that coherence, and on which a Senate committee has subsequently been asked to report.

Deception: In justifying their "honest mistake", those who had been deceived by the fossil claimed that it had clearly been constructed by someone who was both highly intelligent and competent -- and well-informed about anatomy. The intelligence services have claimed that those behind the 11th September attacks were also highly intelligent, both as planners and in their understanding of the "anatomy" of large buildings and their vulnerabilities to massive destruction. But, as specialists in deception themselves, it might also be asked whether the counter-intelligence services are fully aware of the level of deception to which they may have been exposed in their evaluation of the pattern of facts and chains of evidence.

Misunderstanding composites: imposing a desired pattern on the evidence

The clues, partly detected by the Chinese palaeontologist, and subsequently so obvious to others, included the following:

The question is whether those locked into groupthink would have asked the questions Xu Xing asked, as a doctoral student, and reached the conclusions he reached -- or whether they would have only seen what they so desperately wanted to see.

In the current focus on terrorism, the most fundamental unasked question is how to handle the complex conceptual interface between "terrorist" and "freedom fighter". What is the nature of the junction between these two value-charged categories? For Americans the question is highly sensitive because of their systematic pattern of denial (repeatedly analyzed by Noam Chomsky) regarding their own admitted official involvement in "terrorism", notably in Latin America in the 1980's. Whose freedom were they fighting for? How should such categories be applied to the earlier relationship between the American pioneers and the Indians into whose territories they encroached?

It is interesting to see the dinosaur part of the fossil as a metaphor of all the retrograde qualities carried by the notion of "terrorist". The rapacious dinosaurs could certainly be considered as the ultimate "terrorists" of their period. Evolutionists would like to see them as having evolved into birds -- the ultimate symbol of freedom in the modern world, as epitomized by the dove. The transition from any pre-revolutionary perception of a "terrorist" to a post-revolutionary (if successful !) perception of a heroic "freedom fighter" is extremely difficult to handle within any discipline or mode of discourse. There are however many concrete examples in each country that has gone through this independence process -- as perhaps best epitomized by Nelson Mandela. Precisely what defines terrorism is not always a matter of universal agreement. In the words of a much-quoted observation: One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Acknowledged terrorists are even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize -- as are some, notably in the USA, that are accused of supporting terrorism.

For the western world at this time, there is therefore a major problem with handling any composite "terrorist/freedom fighter". Although evolutionists welcome "transition forms" such as Archaeoraptor, the corresponding term most used by those familiar with any "terrorist/freedom fighter" is "ambiguity". A particular individual may indeed engage in actions which could be most easily characterized as "terrorist" -- or others more easily considered characteristic of "freedom fighter". Indeed this ambiguity may even be present in the psychology of a successful "freedom fighter". Many American movies have focused on the ambiguity in dangerous convicted criminals conscripted into dangerous military action in heroic service of their country.

But now that countries have all achieved their independence, in the western world at least, the notion of "freedom fighter" is an unwelcome one in free societies bedevilled by urban and other forms of violence. It is fine to have national heroes in the past who might today be labelled as "freedom fighters". But in fact the heroic figures from the past are not labelled in this way -- just as "terrorist" is not used to label other historical figures. Both are relatively new terms.

It is therefore vital, especially for those who fear social unrest -- as exemplified by the opposition to corporate globalization -- to discover a new composite form in which the concepts of "terrorist" and "freedom fighter" are conflated. And if the evidence for this is inadequate or flawed -- then it must necessarily be provided and reinforced by whatever means are necessary. Those aspiring actively, in an unwelcome manner, to freedom -- "the freedom flighters" -- must be grafted onto "terrorists" as the rapacious dinosaurs of modern society. By associating any protester, endeavouring to occupy the moral high ground, with this hybrid, such higher aspirations can be successfully condemned by the lower associations.

There is a further irony to the comparison of the two stories in that it is the creationists, especially in America, who are most critical of such fossil evidence for evolution. On the other hand it is precisely those associated with fundamentalist Christianity in America -- and supportive of creationist views of evidence against evolution -- who have been most active in assessing evidence for political views out of sympathy with their own as "evil" and "terrorist".

Archetypal twist: bird-like dragons

Composites, like the sphinx, are of fundamental importance to the kind of individual psychic integration explored by C G Jung and others interested in the myths of cultures around the world. But the Knights Templar and the Freemasons fell victim to much-publicized misunderstanding of composite icons central to their respective mythologies.

Just as the relationship of dragons and dinsosaurs has long been a theme of speculation, there is a long tradition of mythical beasts combining bird-like aspects (symbolic of more evolved awareness) with those of more savage animals (symbolic of nature in the raw). The case of Archaeoraptor may well prove to be part of that symbolic process:

The significance of the challenge, framed by palaeontologists as the search for the "missing link", may be more fruitfully understood in terms of the psycho-cultural integration explored by Jung and others for individuals. But there may well be a "missing link" to be found in the psychic integration of humanity as a whole. Similarly the challenge of relating and distinguishing those characteristics of humans framed by the archetypes of the honourable "freedom fighter" and the dishonourable "terrorist" may also require understandings from disciplines of the psyche.

In both cases efforts to conflate and confuse the categories, or to maintain the distinctions rationally, may be doomed to failure. A different approach is required to understand the nature of the "missing link". It may require new thinking.

It is therefore interesting to consider the resources being allocated by the American military to "psychological operations" to deal with those that oppose them. These may include blackening the character of opponents by whatever means possible. Opposing leaders may be falsely accused of extreme mistreatment of women, psychoses, cannibalism, and the like. All evidence relating to matters touching on "national security" has now become questionable. But, as with the activities of the intelligence agencies, little effort is however made to focus on the nurturing of such a vital link -- perhaps tantamount to (re)growing the broken spinal cord between the two extremes of the human psyche. The broken junction between the unrelated fossil parts does indeed symbolize a larger challenge -- above all in the light of the hopes of evolutionists that they should be organically joined.


There have been relatively few comments on the psycho-cultural dimensions of the crisis in world society associated with the 11th September attacks and the clumsy response.

It may be useful to see the evocation of "evil", as an explanatory factor for the USA and the UK, as associated with the kinds of dimensions that C G Jung was wont to explore. Unwittingly, it is possible that George Bush is re-legitimizing the kinds of mythical dimensions which help to reframe and re-enchant a society that has grown increasingly alienating and meaningless under the homogenizing influences of cultural imperialism.

The danger is that simplistic imposition of patterns of explanation may be used to determine social policy. Efforts may be made to manage the instabilities of society by the invention of novel threats and the fabrication of disasters. [more]

The learnings from the simple tale of the Archaeoraptor forgery may be useful in distinguishing meaningful conclusions from those that are simply the wishful thinking of those in desperate need of simplicity and quick fixes.


In July 2004, over two years after the above paper was completed, two formal investigations were completed into the intelligence processes in the USA and the UK that had resulted in the interventions in Iraq in 2003. Both of these emphasized the role of "groupthink" -- as explored in the above article.

USA: A US Senate Intelligence Committee investigation report (Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Pre-War Assessments on Iraq, 9 July 2004) concluded that the principal claims justifying the invasion of Iraq -- that Saddam Hussein had biological and chemical weapons and was developing nuclear weapons -- were fundamentally wrong and the result of a "global intelligence failure". The report placed most of the blame on the CIA, which it notably faulted for a tendency to cling to the conventional wisdom, or "groupthink", about Saddam's weapons programme. One Senator commented: "Leading up to September 11, our government didn't connect the dots. In Iraq, we are even more culpable because the dots themselves never existed" [more] Senator Jay Rockefeller report, while not specifically addressing it, made it clear that a kind of intelligence community "groupthink" affected not just the U.S. agencies, but also "extended to our allies and to the United Nations and several other nations as well, all of whom did believe that Saddam Hussein had active WMD programs. This was a global intelligence failure" [more | more]

UK: In the report Lord Butler's Review of Intelligence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (13 July 2004) specifically warned of the risk of group think in the UK intelligence service. He recommended that a "structured challenge" and a "Devil's advocate" approach should be built in to how the intelligence community develops its evidence. The manner whereby the UK government and its intelligence service convinced itself of the need to invade Iraq now appears to be a classic case of group think. [more | more]

Question: With respect to what other topics do governments and intergovernmental agencies become locked into group think? Are examples of groupthink to be found in relation to overpopulation, environmental degradation, exploitation of non-renewable resources, pension funds, health, global warming, etc?


Steven A. Austin. Archaeoraptor: Feathered Dinosaur from National Geographic Doesn't Fly. March 2000, Institute for Creation Research [text]

Charles Colson. The Archaeoraptor Fraud: This Bird Will Never Fly. Conerstone Church Online. 31 January 2000 [text]

Tim Friend. Dinosaur-bird link smashed in fossil flap. USA Today [text]

Jeff Hecht. Piltdown bird. New Scientist, 29 January 2000 [text]

R. Monastersky. All mixed up over birds and dinosaurs. Science News Online, 15 January 2000 [text]

National Geographic News. Archaeoraptor Statement. 3 February 2000 [text]

The Archaeoraptor Fraud of National Geographic Magazine: the "Piltdown Bird" [text]

Archaeoraptor Was Used to Brainwash School Children For Many Years? [text]

Kristin Leutwyler. The Jigsaw Fossil Part dinosaur, part bird? All wishful thinking. Remains dubbed Archaeoraptor liaoningensis are a hoax. Scientific American [text]

Corey S. Powell. It's a Bird, It's a...Dinosaur? Fossil finds heat up the debate over the origins of our feathered friends. Scientific American [text]

High-Resolution X-ray CT Analysis of the Archaeopter Forgery [text]

The Archaeoraptor Hoax: Why "Scientists Had Previously Thought" is Such A Commonly Used Phrase in Articles About Science [text]

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