From Dr. Boli’s Fables for Children Who Are Too Old to Believe in Fables.

ONCE TWO SCIENTISTS—it hardly matters what sort—were walking before dinner beside a pleasant pond with their friend, a reporter for the Dispatch, when they happened to notice a bird standing beside the water.

“I am a skeptic,” said the first scientist. “I demand convincing evidence before I make an assertion. But I believe I can identify that bird, beyond all reasonable doubt, as a duck.” The journalist nodded silently at this assertion.

“I also am a skeptic,” said the second, “but evidently of a more refined sort, for I demand a much higher standard of evidence than you do. I see no irrefutable evidence to back up your assertion that this object before us is even a bird, let alone positively identifying it as a duck.” The journalist raised his eyebrow sagely.

“But what of the feathers?” the first scientist demanded. “Surely you must have noticed the feathers, which are the veritable hallmark, so to speak, of a bird.”

“I have seen nearly identical feathers on a feather duster,” the second replied. “At present the evidence is not strong enough to say whether the object before us is a member of the avian genus Anas or a common household implement.” The journalist held his chin and pondered this revelation.

But this object has two legs, and walks upon the ground,” the first scientist objected.

So indeed do many members of the genus Homo, including our own species,” the second replied, and the journalist smiled a knowing smile.

But this creature has webbed feet,” the first scientist pointed out, his voice rising slightly.

My cousin Albrecht has webbed feet,” the second replied. “You are making my case for me by presenting not one but two compelling pieces of evidence that this object is in fact a member of the genus Homo, and very likely my cousin Albrecht.” The journalist looked up, as though he were carefully weighing the argument.

But it has a broad and flat bill,” the first scientist said.

The platypus has a broad and flat bill,” the second pointed out, “and so has a baseball cap. Since we have much evidence that suggests the object is a member of the genus Homo, and some that suggests it belongs to the genus Ornithorhynchus, it seems reasonable to suppose, as a provisional hypothesis, that the object is a mammal, and with somewhat less certainty we may identify it as my cousin Albrecht wearing a baseball cap.” The journalist, unable to suppress his instincts any longer, produced a long, narrow notebook and began to scribble furiously.

But it has feathers!” the first scientist shouted. “It has feathers, and two legs, and webbed feet, and a broad flat bill, and it says ‘quack,’ and—look—it’s gone into the pond now, and it’s floating on the water. It’s a duck!”

Each one of those observations is susceptible of a different explanation,” the second scientist responded calmly. “Where is your compelling evidence?”

The first scientist slapped his forehead. Then, calming himself, he turned to his friend the reporter. “Since we seem unable to reach a conclusion,” he said, “would you be kind enough to favor us with your opinion?”

Reputable scientists disagree,” said the journalist. “There is a debate. The question is far from settled. The truth probably lies between the two extremes of duck and not-duck.

So the two scientists both stomped away in dudgeon and hostility, and the journalist, unable by himself to decide where to eat dinner, starved to death.

Are you well-informed in all matters of ornithology and semantics? A healthy corrective dose of misinformation will help you adjust to the real world.


  1. Bob says:

    Excellent allegory, sir!

    • playn jane says:

      typical,the A.G.W SCIENTIST CANT EVEN ACCEPT THE DUCK,for what it is!!!! opting to disagree for GENO HOMO interventions!!!!<———


  2. RBH says:

    Who will stand up for the ostrich?

  3. Paul Braterman says:

    “Yes Minister” (UK satire) many years ago:

    The Minister for Administrative Affairs has to respond to an inconvenient scientific finding (smoking causing lung cancer, or something of the kind). His senior civil servant advises him:

    Say there is disagreement among the scientists. Say more research is needed. Scientists are ALWAYS disagreeing with each other, and thee is ALWAYS room for more research.

  4. Augus says:

    EXCELENTE LECTURA .- Para mejor efecto LUEGO DE REFLEXIONAR ALGO, discútala con sus hijos, alumnos y subordinados.

    FABULA “EL PATO” de las Fabulas del Dr. Boli para niños demasiado viejos para creer en fábulas.

    Tambien sobre como los periodistas con su ignorancia generalista nagna, dirigen la opinión de la masa.


    Cualquier coincidencia del segundo científico o del periodista, con algun politico socialista en Estados Unidos de America, premio Nobel, y muy histriónico-narcisista, es solo casualidad. LQQD 20100124 HOSTIA!!!

  5. menvall says:

    The allegory is correct. The problem with it is that it leaves us as a donkey between the haystacks, where is the truth to be found? The journalist said: probably between the two extremes of duck and not-duck. This expression leaves the truth between the two extremes as a relative conclusion, where one is more true and the other less true. It means that we can close up on truth by excluding statements that are less true, like empirical science does.

    Truth is thus not a question of black or white, but of a particular position on a gray-scale. Not being able to exclude truth from lie does not exclude being able to exclude less true from more true. The duck is a duck if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, more than it looks like, walks like and sounds like something else. Partinioning reality into kinds means every object have to be of some kind, and the fact that the kinds are gray-scales means that there have to be some objects that are ambiguous between kinds. If these kinds are nested, like apes and humans, their gray-scale property means that there may be non-apes that also are non-humans,leaving them as nothings.

    The allegory does thus leave us between the haystacks leaving out the solution. The solution resides in that we have to decide whether it is a duck more than it is something else in our classification (conceptual) system. Its being is not existential, but conceptual.
    The problem with the duck is analogous to sorting potatoes into large and small. The potatoes are not large or small existentially, but larger or smaller to us. If we also have to sort them into tasting good and bad, there may be single potatoes that are split

    • drboli says:

      Dear Sir or Madam: It appears that your comment was too long for the ungenerous limits of the comment system. If you read this reply, Dr. Boli begs you to continue the comment in a second comment, and if necessary a third. You simply cannot leave him hanging this way.

      • Frank says:

        Wot is, or is it are, these learned gentlemen, or is it gentlewomen prattling about? Prattling – aint that the sound ducks make? Eureka – I solved the problem. Thems not trucks, thems cows ‘n hens ‘n ducks!!!!


    • jim says:

      The solution resides in training the journalist to distinguish logic from bulls**t.
      With no other plausible explanation for all of the observations, the object being a duck is the best working hypothesis with which to proceed.
      Of course, if the first scientist was worthy of the name, he would have predicted that the duck would enter the pond and float before it happened.

  6. Jesús says:

    Terrific! An accurate picture of the denialism in any field of science. Congrats!

  7. Nick Palmer says:

    A fabulous fable!!

  8. It rather reminds me of an old lawyer’s fable, having to do with a man being charged for shooting his horse–under the Small Birds Protection Act. (Which may be mythical itself, for all I know.)

    The key to such sophistry is that it is completely willful most of the time–though perhaps it becomes an habitual cognitive disease with enough repetition.

  9. David44 says:

    Very clever, but of course for the allegory to be germane to the great question of our time, the debate between the two scientists would not be whether the object was a duck but whether the duck was a wild duck or one produced in an incubator by farmer Brown down the road.

  10. obehindrad says:

    Very nice! The journalist’s conclusion reminds me of this:

  11. Cory Albrecht says:

    Very nice example of a strawman argument you have here. Those caricatures of the scientists are exactly how creationists apparently believe that scientists think.

    After all, us sane and reasonable people understand the following:

    1) That it does matter what kind of scientist, since a physicist, for example, is not competent to pronounce upon biology as that is not the subject in which they were trained. A creationist, however, would apparently call a plumber whenever their car breaks down.

    2) That a real scientist would know that it’s not isolation that one would look at the traits of being two-legged, having feathers or a bill or webbed feet, but that one must look at the union of of facts and how they intersect before making pompous pronouncements. Creationists are like the scientists in this story – they latch on to a single fact and claims without considering all the other facts out there, especially ones that don’t support their claim.

    As I said, this was a wonderful post illustrating a typical creationist tactic, that of the strawman argument. Perhaps next you could tackle the common misunderstanding by creationists on what the word “theory” means in the context of science and their common cry of “but it’s only a theory!”

  12. Donald Oats says:

    Not identical, but reminded me of:

    Three friends see a sheep on a hill, in profile. The first friend, an engineer, says “Well that settles it, sheep are white.” The second friend, a physicist, says “No, all we know is that *that* sheep is white.” The third friend, a mathematician, says “No no no, we only know that that *side* of *that* sheep is white.”

  13. mt says:

    Alternate Ending:

    “Each one of those observations is susceptible of a different explanation,” the second scientist responded calmly. “Allow me to take the duck so that I can study it and verify your observations”.

    “You may not take the duck!”, replied the first scientist. “There’s already a consensus among my colleagues that this is a duck, and besides, you’re not intelligent enough to know a duck when you see one.”

    “Now, if you would excuse me,” continued the first scientist, “I have an urgent call with the local politician. We need to setup a park with taxpayer funds to protect this duck. If this duck were to die before it would otherwise naturally die, it could have a catastrophic effect on the duck population. The loss of this dusk’s offspring, after 5 generations, could mean that tens of thousands of ducks would be lost. Also, I’ll be requesting funding to study historical duck populations at this pond. I’ll be using tree ring widths to determine the population, since I assume there’s a linear relationship between tree growth and soil fertilization from duck droppings.”

    The second scientist sighed… “Before we do all this, let’s make sure the duck is really a duck and not a loon.”

    The first scientist was furious. “You must be funded by gun manufacturers! We have to act now, it’s more likely than not that we’re facing an imminent collapse of the duck population. Don’t bother me anymore with trying to get this duck. I have more important things to do!” With that, the first scientist stormed off.

    The second scientist, frustrated but still curious, picked up a loose feather off the ground, and went back home to start a blog.

    • jim says:

      that is a very interesting and apt ending – the second scientist takes one small piece of evidence and starts a blog, instead of settling his “curiosity” by doing some actual science…

      also interesting that he/she says “Allow me to take the DUCK so that I can study it and verify your observations”.

    • Bodhisattva says:

      The reporter, still hungry, caught the duck, roasted it and ate it. It was delicious!

  14. georgesdelatour says:

    “I believe that ducks alive today are the biggest and fattest ducks to have lived for the last 1000 years. I’ve used proxy data to estimate duck girth across the last millennium. They stayed the same size until the start of the 20th century. Then they shot up in size everywhere, ever since they started eating man-made intensively-farmed bread 100 years ago. If we don’t stop growing wheat the ducks will get bigger and bigger until we hit a tipping point and they literally start exploding”.

    “Woah, steady on there. I really like eating beans on toast. I don’t want to give up bread unless I’m certain that’s what’s causing the ducks to get so fat. Don’t we have Viking stories from 1000 years ago describing huge fat ducks in Greenland? And didn’t Charles Dickens live through the Little Duck Age, when all the ducks were really scrawny? Maybe there are natural cycles of duck size caused by other factors. I feel sure you’ve made a mistake. Can I see the data you used to estimate duck size across the last 1000 years?”

    “No you can’t. You’re obviously in the pay of the granaries. And morally you’re no different from David Irving.”

  15. jim says:

    “Of course there are natural cycles of duck size caused by “other” factors (whoever said there weren’t?), but none of those other factors can explain the recent increase in duck sizes – which by the way was predicted 100 years ago (before it happened!) based on nutritional studies and growth experiments. And of course you can have the data, its everywhere, all freely available from numerous websites..”

    “No No No, I don’t want all that data (it supports your argument), I want this one specific bit of data that you obtained from a 3rd party under a license agreement that specifically forbids you to share it..What? you cant give it to me! That proves it! This entire duck story is a great big conspiracy cooked up over 100 years ago involving thousands and thousands of scientists! Thank god for that, I am addicted to beans on toast and I would have hated to give it up just for some stupid ducks.”

  16. Arne says:

    It’s funny…
    Many people read this fable as if it were about evolution or global warming. It might as well be about whether or not the earth moves around the sun or other issues. Or about ducks.
    There was some Greek philosopher who said the gods of the African people have black skin and if donkeys worshipped gods, they’d probably look like donkeys.
    Like everybody else, my first reading of this fable was one that confirmed my beliefs. Since I’m quite involved in these scientific matters that so much divide society, I immediately felt identified with the first scientist.
    How many of us put themselves in the role of the second scientist?
    This should be something EVERYBODY should think about, no matter on which side of which issue they are.
    Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I’m neutral. That may be the most important message in the fable. The journalist refuses to take sides which is arguably more morally despicable than taking the wrong side (think about the biblical parable of the talents, for example).
    I am definitely on one side and am totally convinced it’s the right one. Though I do reconsider my opinion every day. And I’m convinced that if everybody did so in the best possible way, there would never be any lasting disagreement on any scientific subject.
    If you’re thinking: “Well said! If only THEY would take this advice seriously…”, maybe you should start with yourself.
    I guess this piece may be called an example of universal art because it is praised by a very divided public.
    Thank you Dr. Boli for enriching the world with your celebrated magazine.

    • Adam Nieman says:

      Lovely, humane comment that enhances a lovely, humane fable.

    • Bodhisattva says:

      I didn’t see it as either global warming or evolution. I saw it as one guy pointing out a number of lines of evidence that tended to suggest the bird was a duck and another pointing out that there were conflicting interpretations that led to “not duck”. Of course I would see they’re getting nowhere and reason it out for myself, as I have with Evolution (True, but does not disprove creation or intelligent design – all three can actually be reconciled) and Global Warming (real, primarily driven by natural causes and atmospheric water vapor. Carbon dioxide is a bit player at best which produces a negligible influence and indeed even the IPCC and Michael Mann admit that as the level of atmospheric CO2 increased the rate of surface warming decreased, trashing the claim that atmospheric CO2 is the primary determinant of surface temperature or surface temperature trends.).

  17. Eric Wolff says:

    So the moral of the story is that journalists should be choosing between different scientific arguments? Is that really what we want here?

    • ginckgo says:

      No they need to learn to distinguish between hypotheses that are congruent with the whole body of scientific data, and hypotheses that are a jumble of cargo cult science datoids (factoids?). Think the ‘controversy’ between evolution and intelligent design. These are not two equal scientific arguments, one side just pretends to adhere to the science.

      • Bodhisattva says:

        Indeed – those who push Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change Alarmism have been caught red handed faking the data and only claim to adhere to the science, as you note. The other side points out, as even the IPCC and Michael Mann admitted, that as the level of atmospheric CO2 increased the rate of surface warming decreased.

  18. Wayne Richards says:

    That is not a duck.

    If you read the profile of Dr. Boli, you will see that quite recently he began publishing on the World Wide Web. We all know how addictive and, yea, contagious the web can be. That explains the webbed feet on the creature.

    The feathers shown do not resemble the feathers used in a feather duster, even with the most generous margin of error. If the feathers were black, the creature would clearly be a Black Swan. But they are not black.

    The bill was once a beak, but has been tragically malformed by the ingestion of Genetically Modified Food. Breeders of this particular bird have long and repeatedly been warned of the ugly consequences likely from feeding their birds Frankenfood, and here is a typical example.

    The final, indisputable proof of this poor creature’s real identity comes when it said, “Quack”. I now cite the ancient and time-tested maxim: if it looks like a duck, and waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a PARROT! A worldwideweb infected, genetically malformed PARROT!

    And it’s pinin’ for the fjords.

  19. “hmm, it signs its name like an mt”

    “but it really seems to miss the whole point. as far as I know mt’s don’t usually do that.”

    “it could be a real mt being doubly sarcastic”

    “if so it would be much funnier.”

    “well, perhaps the mt was distracted”…

  20. Marcel Kincaid says:

    The comments here from deniers are typically stupid, ignorant, and intellectually dishonest. Take this one:

    “Very clever, but of course for the allegory to be germane to the great question of our time, the debate between the two scientists would not be whether the object was a duck but whether the duck was a wild duck or one produced in an incubator by farmer Brown down the road.”

    First, it’s a debate between thousands of duck scientists on the one side and a handful of duck scientists plus some emeritus professors of physics and other related fields and hordes of ignorant boobs on the other side — virtually all of whom are ideologically right wing or libertarian. Second, the handful of duck scientists on the latter side *agree* that the ducks are from farmer Brown, but say the ducks aren’t “sensitive” enough to breed so heavily as to foul the pond. Third, the evidence that the ducks are from farmer Brown, evidence denied by the emeritus professors and hordes of boobs, is overwhelming, with DNA isotope signatures from farmer Brown all over the ducks, farmer Brown lighting fire to massive numbers of sequestered ducks, sending them to the pond, and a steady trail of webby footprints leading from his farm to the pond.

    • Bodhisattva says:

      None of which explains why the IPCC and Michael Mann himself (along with other prominent climate scientists) recently stated:

      “…the rate of warming over the past 15 years (1998–2012; 0.05 [–0.05 to 0.15] °C per decade) … is smaller than the rate calculated since 1951 (1951–2012; 0.12 [0.08 to 0.14] °C per decade).”


      It has been claimed that the early-2000s global warming slowdown characterized by a reduced rate of global surface warming, has been overstated, lacks sound scientific basis, or is unsupported by observations. The evidence presented here contradicts these claims. A large body of scientific evidence — amassed before and since the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that the surface warming slowdown, also sometimes referred to in the literature as the hiatus, was due to the combined effects of internal decadal variability and natural forcing.

      I notice your post was mostly ad hominem attacks and appeals to authority with no actual reference to any actual data. Good luck with that approach.

  21. Marcel Kincaid says:

    “So the moral of the story is that journalists should be choosing between different scientific arguments? Is that really what we want here?”

    No, it’s that journalists shouldn’t be imbeciles who can’t distinguish between a cogent empirical argument and absurd sophistry. You appear to be much like the journalist in the story.

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  3. […] do better next time; please don’t hit us) and tell the public how it is? Call a liar a liar? And a duck a duck? (There’s an excellent analogy hidden behind that ducky title btw.) And then we have people argue […]

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  6. […] p (90 % <= f <= 100%) : 0.02 Then I would be quite confident that the percentage would be in the range 60% … 90 %. But according to Curry’s construction, “My assignment allows the anthropogenic influence to be as large as 98% and as small as 98%” In other words, a well defined uncertainty yields an inconsistent certainty. QED This leaves aside how to deal with the third value in a two valued logic. In addressing that, consider that if one believes that the odds of a proposition A is P, then according to ordinary rules the odds of not-A is assigned a value of (1oo% – P). The desire to separate out uncertainty from “uncommitted belief” is something that a lot of people have already thought about it. Read up on frequentists vs Bayesians. Curry’s construction effectively demonstrates the problems with using frequentist logic in situations where an estimate is required, rather than a hypothesis tested. Suppose, to return to a favorite example, one has in view a creature and wishes to estimate whether it is a duck. The evidence may be sufficient for a frequentist to state with confidence that the probability of the present observations in the case of a duck is P, and the probability of the present observations in the case of a not-duck is Q. In most cases (lacking a huge observational set), the sum of P and Q will be less than 1. Indeed, once there is enough evidence to make P and Q add to 1, it would be very pathologically strange not to be able to state with certainty the duckiness of the creature in question; either P will be one and Q zero or the other way round. That’s essentially at the core of frequentist analysis. I think this gap is what Curry may be trying to grapple with in her white zone, given that in earth science we often lack enough data for a compelling frequentist analysis of important questions. Neither P nor Q is an estimate of the probability that, given the observations, one sees a duck. This depends, it turns out, on the expected rarity of ducks! Assuming you are willing to quantify your prior belief in ducks, you can make a consistent argument for the propbability space being partitioned into duck and not-duck with none of that peculiar middle ground. […]

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