B = 9 – 1/5c – 1/10r – 1/10g – 1/10sb + 1/5a + 1/10t [how to unbelieve]

I grew up, and I learned that dinosaurs had never existed’

How do we perceive truth in a time of alternative facts?

Corine and I had gotten into a conversation about being raised in a Christian family. I, however, was unfamiliar with the thought of dinosaurs not being real, but I quickly realised I had always simply assumed they had existed. But would it also be possible to not believe in dinosaurs? Could I make myself unbelieve?

This project dives into the notion of post-truth, where facts can be agreed or disagreed with and feelings function as evidence. What happens when we encounter information that goes against the narrative we're familiar with, and how willing are we to doubt beliefs we have always held on to?

For a year I tried to no longer believe in dinosaurs. I talked to four different dinosaur experts, each with their own beliefs and theories. Meanwhile I searched for defaults in our current evidence. After each encounter I measured myself on a scale of 1-10, in which 10 means being absolutely convinced that dinosaurs have existed, and a 1 means firmly not believing in them at all. The mathematical formula shows which factors come into play when trying to unbelieve.

Part two of the project takes place in the town of Dinosaur, where I went with my friend Alli. While simultaneously trying to prove that there were no dinosaurs, I asked Alli about losing her faith, the Christian faith we used to share. Why had she let go of that belief and what did that mean for mine?

How to unbelieve gives insight into what it means to doubt and to potentially lose a belief. It uses photography, video and audio to show this process; media we've traditionally turned to for both evidence and storytelling.

download: how to unbelieve - master thesis

Prologue - Corine

B = 9, in which ‘B’ stands for ‘belief’, in which ‘9’ means ‘9’ on a scale of 1 - 10.

‘I grew up, and I learned that dinosaurs had never existed.’

While talking about our Christian upbringing, Corine almost casually mentioned she had been taught that there were no dinosaurs. My parents must have never seen dinosaurs as a threat to our belief in God as can't recall a crusade against them, but I could place the religious argument. You could easily say that dinosaurs were never mentioned in the Bible and thus had never existed, and leave it with that. I realized though that I had always simply assumed dinosaurs had existed, that I had never considered otherwise. But could I turn that narrative around, and no longer believe in dinosaurs myself?

After my conversation with Corine I created a scale of one to ten with the question, 'on a scale of one to ten, how much do I believe in dinosaurs?' I decided to place myself at a nine, and not at a ten - I figured I had never been interested enough in dinosaurs to be absolutely convinced of their existence. My ultimate goal was to get as close to a one as possible.

Ever since my conversation with Corine I started illustrating the project by making blind drawings of dinosaurs. A blind drawing consist out of one uninterrupted line that is drawn when solely
looking at your object, without looking at how the drawing progresses.

Encounter one - Pedro

B = -1/5c, in which 'c' stands for 'certainty', in which my belief drops from a 9 to a 7.

'Well, you would have to be very, very religious in order to deny all of this evidence'

I met Pedro at a dinosaur museum - he was a paleontologist and spent his days in the museum's workshop. I asked him how I could unbelieve in dinosaurs, and his reply was that I had to be religious in order to do so. That didn't sit well with me - I consider myself religious, but did that automatically mean that I close my eyes at evidence that possibly contradicts my beliefs, and is that restricted to religious people only?

The museum presented big claims about a giant meteorite, about massive volcano eruptions that had once completely changed the climate. The Biblical account of Noah's flood all of a sudden didn't sound that absurd anymore, and I wondered how much of what we know and believe depends on what other people tell us, and on the context in which it is presented.

Pedro's unwavering certainty paradoxically reminded me of what he had accused the religious camp of, and I found myself wanting unbelieve in dinosaurs even more. Shortly after my visit I found out that the dinosaur bones Pedro had pointed to when talking about evidence weren't original, but replicas. It meant that his evidence was fake to begin with. 

Encounter two - Aart

B = -1/10r - 1/10g - 1/10sb, in which 'r' stands for repetition, 'g' stands for gaps and 'sb' stands for seeing and believing, in which my belief drops from a seven to a five.

'I am not a scientist, but an artist. It's my job to fill the gaps that are there'

Once I figured out that the dinosaurs in the local museum were fake, I set out to find out who then had made them, and ended up in Aart's workshop. He made dinosaurs eighty hours a week for both museums and amusement parks.

After talking to Pedro, I had started to repeat to myself that dinosaurs hadn't existed and the more I did that, the easier it became to find gaps in existing evidence. I discovered that the brontosaurus was the product of fraud in the early days of paleontology, and that China uses dinosaur bones as a political treaty.

Aart told me it's very rare for dinosaurs to be found in one piece. There are a lot of gaps to fill, and that's where he steps in; building the bones that are still missing. It was quite absurd being at Aart and seeing what I had told myself to believe, namely, that dinosaurs were fake. And I was right because here they were: being manufactured in front of my eyes. 

Encounter three - Frans

B = +1/5a, in which 'a' stands for 'absurdity of the alternative', and my belief goes back up to a seven.

'I know that this is true, because it resonates with what I feel inside'

As it turned out, most religious people had caught up with the current dinosaur discourse, but to my surprise there were other people who denied that dinosaurs had ever existed.

Frans was one of them. How on earth would a T-rex have been able to get up from the ground with those tiny arms, and how would there have been enough hours in a day for the brontosaurus to eat, given his body weight? Frans believed there had been a time where giant humans and giant animals had lived on the earth. The fossils that we know as dinosaur bones aren't actually those of dinosaurs, but are the remnants of giants who have turned into stone. Dinosaurs were invented as a cover-up to hide that truth from us.

Frans showed me photos of giant rocks that looked just like animals, and he told me that he knew that this was true, because it was what he felt to be true.

I left Frans' place quite confused. His reasoning had sounded logical within the worldview he had presented, and I didn't have any counterarguments to what he said - after all, I was there to be convinced that dinosaurs were fake. But did that mean that I believed him? How do you know whether you believe something or not? And what Frans had said about his beliefs, didn't I say the same about my belief in God?

After Frans I realised I couldn't go down on the scale any longer. It would involve turning around my worldview, believing there was a conspiracy happening against me. I could keep pointing out why dinosaurs didn't make sense, but in the end, I couldn't answer the question as to why someone would make dinosaurs up. Frans' explanation had been so absurd that it made me want to believe in dinosaurs again.

Encounter four - Gert-Jan

B = +1/10t, in which 't' stands for 'trust', in which my belief rises from a seven to an eight.

'It was a punch in the face, having to admit that I was wrong'

Gert-Jan had specialized in explaining dinosaurs from a creationist point of view. He believed dinosaurs had been on Noah's ark, and that there was a possibility of them still being around somewhere.

I expected Gert-Jan to be somewhat of a pseudo-scientist, having his conclusion ready before looking at the facts. He surprisingly told me he had always regarded the theory of evolution to be true until someone asked him questions about it, questions he didn't have answers to. When he started doing his research, he stumbled upon facts that supported the Biblical creation narrative, and while he wasn't out to change his worldview, to him it felt necessary in light of this newfound information.

I wasn’t sure whether or not I agreed with Gert-Jan’s particular beliefs about a literal interpretation of Genesis. I was all too familiar with the arguments in favor of a young earth - they had been very relevant in my teenage years, when I first started questioning the beliefs I had grown up with. Years later I felt somewhat silly for being persuaded by them so easily, for using them as proof, as a validation for my faith while not looking into any counter evidence.

I did notice though that despite those differences it became more appealing to believe in dinosaurs again. After all, Gert-Jan was a person I trusted, given the core beliefs we had in common.


B ≠ f, in which 'f' stands for 'facts'

In hindsight, my belief in dinosaurs adjusted itself largely to the narrative I chose to tell myself. It changed depending on how certain my conversation partners were, on the absurdity of their theories. My belief also depended on what I was willing to give up - after all, if the project were to really succeed, I would end up being 'that person who doesn't believe in dinosaurs'. In the end I realised that facts nearly hadn't mattered.

I had known Alli for over seven years when we went to Dinosaur together - her having lost the faith we once shared, me still holding on to it. I remember being curious as to why she had let go of her beliefs, and yet scared as to what her story would mean for my own.

Alli told me it had never been her intention to no longer believe. She had felt the need to back up her obvious belief in God and went to study theology, with an unexpected end result. I didn't like the questions she asked me in return. Was there more evidence for dinosaurs than there was for a Christian God? And if people wouldn't have told me about the bones of Christianity, such as the Bible and Jesus, would I have come to the conclusion myself that this was all true?

We drove for hours and hours, and the landscapes around me turned into dinosaurs, even though I tried so hard not to see them.

Dean owned a gift shop next to the gas station in Dinosaur, and was convinced he was selling real dinosaur bones. We asked him how he knew, and asked him again. He finally admitted he was told they were real.

Tom and Dorothy spent their days volunteering at the local welcome center. Yes, they had had visitors who didn't believe that the dinosaur bones the area was known for were real. 'Let them believe what they believe', Dorothy said. 'That's about all you can do, really.'

One of the park rangers told us that 'evidence is evidence', and that the less people know, the more certain they are they know everything.

In the end, I can't tell you exactly why I still believe in both dinosaurs, and in God. Was it simply a matter of trusting the people around me and repeating a narrative over and over again, for years? Did what I feel to be true count as truth and had I closed my eyes at contradicting evidence, like Pedro had said? All I know is that within what I know now, the world seems to make more sense this way. 

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