Lessons from a Duck-Billed Platypus

No question about it, the duck-billed platypus is one strange creature. About the size of a pet cat, this weird furry mammal lays eggs like a reptile, has a snout like a duck’s bill, a flat tail like a beaver, webbed feet like a goose and walks with legs out to the sides like a lizard. In addition, the male platypus has a venomous spike on its ankles that enables it to kill in self-defense.

No European had ever seen such a critter until 1797 when British explorers made their first sighting on the banks of a lake near the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, Australia. The first record of the duck-billed platypus can be found in Lieutenant-Colonel David Collins’ “Account of the English Colony in New South Wales” in which he catalogues a whole host of strange creatures unique to the land Down Under. In great detail, he described this most unusual new specimen.

The response in England was less than enthusiastic, though they can’t be faulted entirely. This was a creature too bizarre to be believed. The scientists back home decided it had to be a hoax.

For much of my life I have been somewhat harsh in my judgment of these scientists. Their bumbling doubts and disbelief seem somewhat comical from our modern vantage point. But put yourself in their shoes. Not all of the treasures British sailors brought home from overseas were authentic. Chinese opportunists, for example, took mummified monkeys, cut their bodies in half at the waist and sewed them to the back ends of fish, selling them to sailors as “mermaids.” They were very clever. (Nowadays we do it using Photoshop, and some folks are still fooled.)

So those scientists can’t be blamed for being somewhat skeptical. Ultimately, the whole thing is a matter of trust. I have no record here of what their thinking was. They may have believed the explorers were playing them for dupes. Hence, they distrusted this strange evidence of a creature unlike all others. Or, it may be they felt the explorers were good men who themselves had been duped.

Frankly, a healthy skepticism is not necessarily a bad thing. But at some point, keeping a closed mind to new ideas has its own risks and consequences. One of these risks is that we never learn anything new or fail to believe something that’s true.

Modern Times
At this point, it’s time to turn this column in the direction of synthetic motor oil, because I’m not sure how interested you’ll be in the other things I learned about duck-billed platypuses while researching this column.

Quite honestly, I believe a lot of oil change professionals are like these scientists when it comes to synthetic motor oils. You know what I’m talking about. “Snake oil, that’s all it is.” Whatever that’s supposed to mean. Do they mean it is oil from snakes? Or oil that is being sold by snakes? I would guess the latter, hence real snake oil salesmen were tarred and feathered in earlier days.

The more common argument against synthetics is they are better than conventional petroleum, but too expensive to be worth the higher price. “They cost too much,” some people say. Compared to what? Compared to car insurance? Compared to the inconvenience of regular oil changes?

Since the 1970s, countless scientific studies and SAE papers have been written about the superiority and performance benefits of synthetic motor oils. And yet, to this day, the biggest opponents to synthetic oils that I run into are not the common folk in the street, but rather the trained professional mechanics and quick lube people who ought to know better. Like the scientists who simply could not believe those platypus specimens were real, there are simply too many mechanics out there who have been “trained” just enough to doubt the possibility that synthetics are what they claim to be.

Sometimes, no matter what the evidence, some doubters prefer to doubt rather than to believe what science has proven and billions of miles of experience has demonstrated. At a certain point, it becomes obvious some people will prefer to be naysayers no matter how clear or persuasive the arguments are. I’m not making this up. There are oil change professionals who will never recommend synthetic oils no matter what.

Why is this? If it could be proven synthetics were better for the customer, would actually save them money in the long run and were more profitable for the oil change companies that installed them, what’s there not to like?

More than 200 years have passed since those British scientists initially rejected the possibility of a duck-billed platypus. Their doubts, however, were soon vanquished with further evidence. How long will it take for quick lubes to have their doubts cleared up and resolved? Synthetics exist because they are meeting real needs for today’s and tomorrow’s engines. If you’ve been sitting on the fence, it’s time to take another look.