Chapter 21: Sample Bias

The Pewter Museum of Paleontology is one of the city’s crown jewels, almost as massive as its gym. It’s situated to the far north of Pewter, where the slopes of the surrounding mountains are traced with roads and pockmarked with mansions of the city’s most wealthy inhabitants. In the deepening twilight, Red watches through the cab’s window as the museum’s external lights suddenly turn on and highlight it, so that it’s visible from miles away.

He gently massages his right arm, morbidly drawn to feeling the muted tenderness deep within it. He was released from the hospital just an hour ago, and texted the others to let them know. Blue didn’t respond, but Leaf said she was still at the museum, so after stopping by the pokemon center Red used some of his swiftly dwindling funds to take a cab there.

As he waits, Red goes over his finances. The new week is coming soon, which means he’ll be able to take out another $100 from his savings of $2,148. His mom deposits a portion of his dad’s pension into it every month, adding another five hundred or so. He did some heavy spending to get ready for the journey, but now he’s hoping to live a bit frugally to start building his savings some more.

The problem is new opportunities to spend keep popping up, like paying Psychic Narud to help with his research, let alone any lessons. At times like this the weekly allowance limit is grating, but he knows that one of the best ways to exercising self control is to have such artificial limits until they become habitual.

The best solution he can think of is to apply to a research institution for funding. He has to preregister his hypothesis and research methodology anyway, so putting in some more work for an application to some places might be worthwhile. But at this point he’s not particularly sure his original hypothesis is even worth testing anymore.

When Red met Psychic Laurie and explained the situation, the doctor grumbled and muttered to himself a bit as he felt around in Red’s mind, much the same way Narud had. Even prepared for the sensation this time it was still disconcerting, and Red was relieved when the doctor finished, even though he simply confirmed Narud’s estimation and left to see his next patient without another word.

With his spinarak’s attack confirmed as a ghost move instead of a psychic one, his own supposed psychic trauma could explain why it was so strong against him. But it doesn’t exclude the possibility that it was still an abnormally strong attack paired with a particularly vulnerable target. The high concentration of “Other” that his pokedex detected in his spinarak might still be a significant indication of powerful ability.

It’s a thin thread, and seeming thinner all the time. Still, the experiment might be worth running regardless: for the personal experience, yes, but also for the field as a whole. A null finding is still important, so that anyone else who has a similar hypothesis can look back and see his research found no correlation. Such failures are integral for the pursuit of science to march on.

Red sighs. It just sucks to be the one to eat the cost of it, this time.

The taxi pulls up to the front of the museum, and Red hands the cabbie a twenty before stepping out into the night, tucking away his three dollars of change. It’s just his imagination that his wallet feels lighter, surely…

Red begins to climb the right side of the steps toward the museum entrance. An irregular stream of people walk down the left, mostly younger kids with their parents. About halfway up there’s a huge recess in the staircase, with a bronze statue of an aerodactyl skeleton on a podium. Red smiles as he watches a girl of about 5 reach up to grasp the last bone of its long tail, only to be shoo’d away by her father.

Red reaches the top and pushes through the glass doors, into the wide and well lit lobby. His eyes are drawn up to the dome above him, which has been painted to look like an overhead view of an excavation site, with people working to unearth some unidentified skeleton. Red hasn’t been to the museum since he was the little girl’s age, but he remembers the sense of wonder it evoked. He knows it’s had a lot of renovations and new exhibits since he was last here, and an echo of that wonder returns as he heads toward the ticket stalls.

“One please,” he says, and slides over another five. 43… He forces a smile at the receptionist and enters the museum proper, trying to shake worries of his diminishing cash for awhile and enjoy himself. After the past few days, he figures he deserves it.

The museum is a honeycomb of interconnected sections, each chamber focusing on a different topic. Red starts by entering a long, looping hall, its outside wall showing different strata of earth with pictures and descriptions of the fossils that have been found in each. Occasionally a sample will be on display in a plastic box sticking out of the wall, and Red stops around the middle of the 64-66 million year stratum to admire the perfectly preserved skull of a baby tyrunt, each tooth the size of his fingernails.

The inside wall of the curving hall opens into different rooms that further explore the time period it’s across from. The earlier rooms each cover shorter periods of time, but once it gets far enough back, it’s not uncommon to see tens of millions of years lumped into one room. Red goes into one of the last ones, which is between the 350 million and 400 million year stratum. It’s designed to look like it’s underwater, with blue tinted lights and bubbling aquariums, to fit with all the fossils here being from aquatic creatures. A relicanth swims lazily in a tank set in the far wall, ignoring the two kids that are tapping on the glass to get its attention.

Red’s phone buzzes, and he sees a message from Leaf asking where he is. After he responds, he wanders over to one of the walls with a lot of writing on it.

From here on back in the fossil record, we find nothing but aquatic creatures. This isn’t an accident! The ocean is considered by many to be the source of the first lifeforms: did you know that there are more Water pokemon than any other type? Some scientists believe that hot ocean vents created the perfect environment for the first organisms to form. Whether that’s true or not, current evidence indicates that land creatures didn’t show up until far after aquatic ones, and the earliest specimen show many of their same features. Whether the result of natural processes or some intelligent creator, the ocean is one of the most fertile grounds for discovering secrets of the potential origin of life on earth, and clues to the origin of species.

Under the writing there’s a progression of different skeletons, each vaguely less fishy than the last, with the age marked next to each. Red moves on to the next wall, which shows specimen from this time period.

He stares at a sectioned omanyte’s shell, admiring the polished gleam of each chamber and smooth geometry of the septa’s curvature. The origin of species… it’s not hard to imagine some intelligent creator when looking at things like this. Pokemon like klink and magnemite seem far too organized to have just popped into existence on their own. Far easier to grasp the idea of a purposeful creator than the sheer, mind boggling mathematical odds of pseudo-random natural processes forming such complex, working organisms.

But you can’t just look at one thing and draw conclusions from that. Avoiding such sample bias is fundamental to science. You can support any conclusion you want if you only look at examples that fit your hypothesis.

If you examine one species in a vacuum, like omanyte, it might make sense to believe it was designed by some intelligent creator that values beauty. But if such a creator exists, they’re terribly inconsistent in exhibiting that value.

Yes, the omanyte’s shell is beautiful, by many human standards of beauty anyway. But what about a vertebrate’s skeleton? Not particularly considered beautiful. Or the chitinous form of insects, which many like himself find outright repulsive?

So if beauty isn’t a recurring theme in nature, then maybe some other value was prioritized. The beauty of the omanyte’s shell compared to the chitinous form of a spinarak might be subjective, but order is fairly objective. Life may not all be beautiful, but perhaps an argument could be made that it’s organized? Klink are living beings made of moving gears. Surely that’s the fingerprint of an organized creator?

Red snorts. Voltorb, another pokemon that came into existence more recently, are so volatile that they often live short, fairly pointless lives before exploding, without even attempts at reproduction. The route of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in non-fish vertebrate travels from the brain to the larynx by looping around the aortic arch. In adult giraffarig, that means about twenty feet of extra nerve, a particularly wasteful and pointless design, the result of chaos, not order…

Or maybe expecting gods to follow human concepts like reason and consistency is mistaken on its own, and there are multiple who care about different things, or just one that has no unified or consistent methodology. In which case, trying to understand them would be worse than useless.

But anyone could cloud any idea in contradictory or inconsistent aspects to shield it from logical examination. Not being able to understand something doesn’t affect its potential truth value at all, nor justify believing in it.

Red yawns and leans against the exhibit, surprised at how weary he is after spending so much time in bed lately. Maybe it had something to do with his psychic experience earlier. He wonders if he should tell Leaf about it right away, or wait until Blue’s around too…

The bubbling of the water tanks and the chatter of the museum visitors makes for a soothing background noise, and he rests his forehead against the cool glass of the exhibit, feeling oddly detached from himself. As the dozens of voices buzz around him, Red admires the path of the helix spiral from an inch away, musing over whether the clue to some god lies somewhere in its curves, perhaps one of order and chaos, his gaze following the loops up right down left, up right down left, up right down left…

“Red!”

He turns and sees Leaf jogging toward him with a wide grin. “It’s good to see you up and about! Isn’t this place great? Come on, you’ve got to see this new exhibit that’s going up.” She grabs his left arm and begins to pull him past the rest of the aquatic fossils section. “I’ve been talking to the researcher in charge of it, and it looks fascinating, especially since we’ll be passing by Mount Moon soon.”

Red lets her drag him along as his senses return. “What’s it about?”

“Another explanation for the possible origin of life!” She waggles her other hand’s fingers, voice deepening. “Frooom spaaaace!”

Red grins. “Radiopanspermia? I thought that was proven unlikely: any bacteria that can travel by radiation pressure would be too small to survive in space without protection. Also what does it have to do with paleontology?”

“Not radiopanspermia, lithopanspermia.” They’ve exit the strata tunnel, and Leaf lets go of his hand as they walk together toward the back of the museum, past the artificial indoor dig site and theater room. “The bacteria hitches a ride on or in meteorites.”

“So not from space then: from another planet and then through space. What bacteria can survive in space? And planetary re-entry?”

“Cyanobacteria have been shown to do the first but not the second, but non-photosynthetic organisms deep within rocks to protect them have a chance to survive the exit and entry process.”

Red’s brow rises. “This has been tested?”

Leaf grins. “That’s what the exhibit is for. Many of the conditions were simulated of course, but it seems possible.”

They reach a doorway with a Coming Attraction banner over it, where a splashy cardboard graphic showing a meteor strike advertises the new exhibit. Red slows down, but Leaf walks around it and through the doorway.

“Uh, Leaf…?”

“Come on back, it’s okay!”

Red follows her, and they emerge in a half finished showroom. Most of the floor is still bare and empty, and the walls are bright with a recent coat of paint. A worker is at the top of a ladder installing some lights, and two more are pulling things out of a Container box while a fourth puts the lid back on his and withdraws it into its ball.

Leaf leads him to the side through another door, and this room is clearly much closer to being done. It looks like a small lab, with a focus on equipment and samples. An older woman is testing an unusually large and wide centrifuge on the far side of the room, her grey hair tied back in a ponytail as she peers through her glasses at the spinning machine. She’s dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and flip-flops, and when Leaf and Red approach she looks up with a smile.

“You must be Red.” She holds out her hand. “I’m Dr. Brenner.”

He shakes it, marveling anew at how normal his arm feels. “Red Verres. What’s your field of study, Dr. Brenner?”

“Officially it’s microbiology, but lately I’ve been branching out.” She pats the edge of the centrifuge. “Lately I’ve been studying astrophysics more. It’s fascinating stuff.”

Red nods. Like math, he finds studying physics more pragmatic than fascinating, but that might just be because he’s not as good at it as he’d like to be. “We’re not interrupting anything, are we?”

“Oh, no, not at all, I’m glad for the company.” She shuts off the centrifuge, and they watch it slow to a stop. She takes empty beakers out and puts them aside. “I’m just testing the equipment before the grand opening. Would you like the not-so-grand pre-opening tour?”

“Sure. I know the basics, but I’m curious to know what you’ve got on display here.”

Leaf stays behind to read the info-placard by the centrifuge as Red follows Dr. Brenner around the lab. “Well, there are a number of aspects to lithopanspermia that needed to be verified for the hypothesis to stay viable. First off, microbial life would need to be capable of surviving the stress of planetary ejection, that is, the gravitational pressure of escape velocity.”

“Is that what the centrifuge was for?”

“Exactly. The next is survival in transit: being able to survive the vacuum of space, and the bombardment of radiation.” They approach a table with a vacuum tube on it. “Nonfunctional, of course,” Dr. Brenner says, tapping the glass. “But simulating space to test different bacteria’s resilience has led to some interesting discoveries with extremophiles. And last is atmospheric re-entry.” They move on an empty part of the room. “Which we test with-”

“Sorry to interrupt,” Red says. “This is all really interesting, but if you don’t mind me saying so, even with experimental tests to ensure it’s possible, isn’t it still too speculative to warrant its own exhibit?”

Dr. Brenner laughs, a full, rich sound that makes Red smile despite a stab of irritation. It was a serious question.

When she finishes though, she’s shaking her head. “I’m sorry, I’m not laughing at you, I promise. Leaf told me you worked at Oak’s lab, and here I was still treating you like a tourist.” She walks back toward Leaf, and Red follows. “Ah, the clarity of youth. And so polite about it! No, I don’t mind you saying so, especially since I raised the same objection myself. That’s partly why I invited Leaf back here to chat after overhearing her interviewing some of the museum guests.”

Red turns to Leaf. “Interviewing is a strong word,” she says with a smile. “I was just curious to know what they thought of the museum’s exhibits. I’ve been here all day, and saw some very mixed reactions.”

“Like what?”

“Well, there were a few who-”

“Why not read from your review of the museum?” Dr. Brenner says. “It was quite evocative.”

Leaf’s cheeks flush. “That’s nice of you to say, but it’s just a rough draft.”

“You wrote a review?” Red asks, brow raised. “I’d love to hear it.”

She hesitates a moment, then takes a tablet out of her bag and taps a few times on the screen. Leaf clears her throat, then reads, “‘The children were fascinated, wide eyed with wonder as they raced from one exhibit to the next, their energy often too much for the parents that trailed behind. It wasn’t hard to see why: though paleontology is often lumped in with geology as the ‘mere’ study of rocks, Pewter’s Museum of Science clearly spared little expense to bring such a potentially dry field to life’… mmm…. hang on, I went on a bit describing the place… ah, here: ‘the impact of which were most evident on their parents. Some were bemused, others curious or thoughtful. But many looked irritated, shocked, or even angry. It wasn’t long before a pattern emerged: the exhibits that discussed evidence and hypotheses on the origins of life were the most troublesome. When asked about their thoughts on the museum, the responses were fairly similar: an admiration of the production value of the exhibits, but a concern for the accuracy of the subject matter.'”

Leaf pauses, looks up at them, then closes the tablet and tucks it away. “That’s, uh, the main point. It was interesting to see so many people react so strongly to the idea that life originated in the ocean, as if they didn’t expect to see something that challenged their views so much.”

“Is it really that widespread?” Red scratches his hair beneath his hat. “I mean, this isn’t really new knowledge.”

Dr. Brenner smiles. “I think you may have an exaggerated view of just how old and widespread it is. You’re both young: things that were discovered even as little as a decade ago seem like common knowledge, simply because you’ve known of them your whole lives. And you were raised in very educated circles.”

Red frowns. He had a few friends and acquaintances in Pallet Town that weren’t connected to the lab or any scientific field… some were even adults, like his dad’s old friends among the nearby Rangers. But he can’t remember ever really talking to them about things like this. It’s possible, even probable, that his perception of what’s normal is skewed by the company he kept.

“A lot of the people I spoke to were residents of Pewter though,” Leaf says. “Shouldn’t they be a bit less surprised?”

“Ah, well, the museum’s undergone a lot of changes lately. The more we learn the better it refines its exhibits, and the ones that are upsetting people… well, they’re generally newer.” She takes off her glasses and wipes at the lens, frowning down at them.

“Is that why you raised objections?” Leaf asks. “Do you think this one’s going to upset people too?”

Dr. Brenner looks at her in surprise, then smiles and puts her glasses back on, beginning to walk around the lab. They follow her as she starts checking over the various equipment that’s set up. “There were politics involved. I wasn’t always working with the museum, I’m fairly new here, actually, but Pewter has always had a bit of a conflict at its heart when it comes to the science it specializes in and the beliefs of its people.”

Leaf nods. “From what I heard, the main spiritual beliefs of residents hold that the first people came from stone, and that the original beings that survived were mostly rock type creatures.”

“Exactly. Ever since we became capable of reviving extinct species from fossils, many were able to reconcile the new information with those beliefs, and they seemed justified, since every revived pokemon is part rock-type. But we’ve always been unsure if that was just a side effect of the resurrection process. Even if the original creatures might have really been what we manage to create in a lab, others who focus on more than surface facts notice how little the rest of the evidence matches the creation stories.”

“What about the tourists?” Red says.

“Most have their own beliefs, some of which are pretty compatible with the fossil record. But Mayor Kitto and his predecessors, along with the city legislature, always used to put a lot of pressure on the museum board to keep the controversial exhibits from opening.”

Leaf’s brow furrows. “That’s terrible!”

Dr. Brenner grins at her indignation. “Ostensibly it was to ensure the accuracy of the data, and to keep the peace in the city. To be fair, there’s certainly been a lot of complaints in the past year, and it’s been getting worse.”

Red frowns. Public indignation isn’t a justification for suppressing the truth. He supposes he might feel differently if people storm the museum and burn it down, but that seems unlikely. “What changed?” Red asks. “Why did the museum decide to shift course?”

She shrugs. “I wasn’t in the board meetings, heck, I wasn’t even working here at the time. I don’t know what the deciding factor was. But there are always rumors. I’ve heard the mayor’s the one that had a change of heart, told the museum’s board behind closed doors to open whatever new exhibits they wanted.”

“So when you said politics, you meant it literally,” Leaf says. “What does he get out of it?” Red is struck by his friend’s intensity, and he can’t quite place why it feel so familiar until he realizes she reminds him of his mom when chasing down a story.

Dr. Brenner examines a microscope, peering through the lens and adjusting it. The slides nearby are labeled bacillus subtilis. A poster on the wall has a grid with columns labelled Low Earth Orbit, Planetary Ejection, Atmospheric Re-entry, and Simulated Conditions, and bacillus subtilis has checkmarks across the board. “My best guess?”

“And your second best, if you have one.”

She smiles. “Leader Brock isn’t happy about it. Considering Mayor Kitto isn’t an idiot, I’m assuming that was either the intended result, or an understood cost. I think it’s possible that the real pressure has been from the Gym this whole time, and the mayor is starting to push back.”

Leaf whistles quietly. “Power struggles between mayors and leaders seldom end well.”

“At least the museum gets to show whatever it wants now,” Red says. “Brock has no business telling it what to put on display.” Red tries to imagine someone telling the Pallet Lab what it can and can’t study and fails. He’s suddenly glad he never had to worry about the opinions of a popular but uninformed leader, and hopes Pallet doesn’t get a Gym anytime soon.

Leader Brock,” Dr Brenner says, the slightest of emphasis on the title, “Has always done what he thinks is best for our city. I disagree with his perspective, of course, but as far as I know he hasn’t made any ultimatums or commands. In the end, this exhibit is a sort of compromise.”

“How so?”

“Well, recent excavations of meteorite impact sites in Mount Moon found fossils, not just of pokemon but also microbes. There’s some debate over whether they were actually in the meteorites when they landed, and are therefore extraterrestrial, or if they’re from earth.”

“IIIIInteresting,” Red says, rubbing his jaw. People have thought clefairy and jigglypuff came from space for ages… this evidence would do even more to support that theory. “And if it’s proven that life came from rocks in the sky, that goes a long way toward supporting the idea that Pewter’s spiritual beliefs are at least metaphorically correct after all.”

“Exactly. So is it a bit premature compared to some of the other exhibits here? Sure. But speculative as it is, I plan to focus it on the science we have available, which is sound.”

Leaf smiles. “I’m looking forward to coming back when it’s finished.”

Dr. Brenner’s phone buzzes, and she checks the screen before tucking it away. “Sorry to say, I’ve got a prior engagement to go to.”

Leaf is already heading toward the exit, and Red follows her. “That’s okay, we’ve taken up enough of your time.”

The microbiologist laughs as she sees them out of the exhibit. “Not at all, it was a pleasure speaking with you. Are you leaving Pewter soon?”

Red nods. “We might stay for a few days, maybe a week, depending on how long it takes for our friend Blue to challenge Brock. Afterward we’re going to Cerulean.”

She smiles. “Well, I’ve gotten Leaf’s contact info, and sent her the location of the dig site incase you all decide to drop by and see it. I can give them a heads up: I’m sure they’ll be happy to have you visit.”

Red turns to Leaf, who’s grinning apologetically. “I know Mount Moon isn’t the safest place to travel through, but the dig site is on the outskirts. I thought, if our path takes us that way anyway…”

Red smiles back. “It should be okay, yeah. Blue might not be interested in the dig, but I’m sure he’ll be happy for the chance to catch new pokemon.”

“Thanks again, Dr. Brenner,” Leaf says, turning to her and shaking her hand again.

“You’re quite welcome,” she responds as Red does the same. “Feel free to come back anytime before you go. I’ll be here every night, around the same time.”

They wave and head for the museum’s exit, and Red checks his own phone. Still no messages from Blue. “Hey, have you-”

“No, I assumed he spoke to you. Think he’s still at the Gym?”

“One way to find out.” Red calls, and after about a dozen rings Blue finally picks up.

“Oh, Red! Hey man, sorry I didn’t respond earlier, I was, uh, a little busy.”

“That’s alright, I figured as much. You’re not at the gym, are you?”

“Oh, yeah, I am actually.”

Red checks the time with a frown as they leave the museum and begin to head down the front steps. “You’ve been there all day. Don’t your pokemon need a rest?”

“Well, I haven’t been battling for awhile. I, uh… I’m with Leader Brock.”

Red’s brow rises. “Really? I didn’t think he’d be giving private lessons on your first day there.”

“Well, normally he wouldn’t, but… we kind of fought already.”

Red stops dead, and from the expression on Leaf’s face she can hear Blue through the phone too.

“…You what?!

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