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What’s real anymore? Hard to tell

A replica of one of the largest dinosaurs

A replica of one of the largest dinosaurs ever discovered is unveiled at the American Museum of Natural History on Jan. 14, 2016 in New York City. The replica of the Titanosaur weighs about 70 tons, is 17 feet tall and stretches to nearly 122 feet long. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

Have you seen the new dino?

He’s a whopper — a 122-foot-long titanosaur whose skeleton spills out of his room in Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History. He looks magnificent, but the bones are not real. Those are back in Argentina, where he was discovered, too fragile to be transported. The fiberglass skeleton on display is a re-creation — three-quarters of it from the 84 bones actually recovered, the other 25 percent essentially projections. The museum, to its credit, makes no attempt to hide this.

But on some level, he’s not real. And it reminds us that life is a journey through seas of unreality.
Singers lip-sync (Beyoncé at Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration), Broadway shows use canned music instead of live orchestras, and all manner of hoaxes populate the Internet.

Altered photos put people in places they never were, and enhance the bustlines of actresses and hairlines of actors. One picture showed John Lennon playing guitar with Che Guevara. Another captured a great white shark leaping from the ocean to attack a Black Hawk helicopter.

In October, Amazon sued more than 1,000 people for posting fake product reviews on its site and said many were paid $5 for each little fiction.
Betty Crocker never existed. Nancy Drew mystery author Carolyn Keene was a series of ghostwriters. Marion Morrison, Declan Patrick MacManus and Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson became John Wayne, Elvis Costello and Katy Perry. The list is endless.

Politicians reframe their lives, too. At least four candidates at Thursday’s Republican presidential debate were accused by rivals of presenting fictional versions of their views to make themselves more attractive to voters. At least two candidates will face similar charges in Sunday night’s Democratic debate. All of the accusations are at least partly accurate.

What’s real?

We all tell our own stories at times, with inventions that alter reality to make ourselves a little more valiant or beneficent or wise. We smile at the someone we all know whose tales of old athletic accomplishments are, shall we say, creative. And we say nothing, because nothing is at stake.

But often it does matter. And often, when our powers of discernment are tested, we flunk.
A computer program written by Cornell University researchers was able to ferret out fake online reviews of hotels with 90 percent accuracy. Humans were successful barely more than chance would dictate.

Sometimes, though, we don’t even try to be discerning. Our willingness to do so is lacking. Or maybe we don’t have the tools.

That brings us back to the dinosaurs. For years, scientists believed Tyrannosaurus rex walked upright with its tail dragging on the ground. But more than 20 years ago, places like the Museum of Natural History began to reflect more recent paleontological thinking that the mighty T. rex had a more horizontally oriented spine — like the T. rex popularized in “Jurassic Park.”

Yet, students from elementary school to college are more likely to draw the old-style T. rex when asked to depict the dino, according to another team of Cornell-based researchers. Why is this important? Because pop culture images, the team says, appear to be more influential than actual science. And this is the science of the most popular dino ever. So, how do you get people to accept what’s real when it conflicts with what they believe?

John Lennon said reality leaves a lot to the imagination. As you watch this election season unfold, remember those words. And when reality and imagination intersect, be discerning.

There’s an awful lot at stake.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.