I get tweets: What fringe subject is worthy of investigation?

Standard

I read every tweet and email and take them into consideration, answer or discard as necessary. I got a tweet yesterday that prompted me to write this post first thing when I woke up this AM. Here is is:

[W]hat fringe subject do you think is worth serious investigation? Obviously, it isn’t Bigfoot.

It’s a good question to answer considering that this person sees me as a “skeptic” (in the way they perceive “skeptic”) and apparently sees me as at least a bit dismissive of Bigfoot research. Perhaps this person only sees my opinion in dribs and drabs across the internet and has picked up that I don’t particularly like the field of Bigfootery these days. I’m not sure who could – it’s full of unprofessional, money-grabbing, sham research. Hoaxing is rampant and the “evidence” presented daily on certain websites is worthless.

Yes, I’m negative on Bigfoot research. No doubt. But there are two items that need to be clarified. Since Twitter is a poor media for such discussion and I could not point to something I’d written already or an interview I did that wasn’t really long and too much to hand out and say “read this”, I’m writing it here.

First thing: All fringe subjects are worth of investigation. Observations deserve explanation.

(I’m not sure what the writer meant by “serious investigation” because my goal is always to find out the best answer. I assume that the opposite of serious investigation is sham inquiry and I really don’t like that. Think Ghost Hunters and Finding Bigfoot as sham inquiry because they are TV shows masquerading as research.)

I’ve been interested in ghosts, cryptozoology and anomalous natural phenomena since I can remember. It’s fascinating stuff and should be taken seriously. People see things. They have experiences that profoundly affect them and they want to know what happened. They may interpret it one way but there may be other explanations. The questions that need to be asked are “What, if anything, happened here?” and then “What is the best possible explanation?”

The reason why I dislike the current mode of popular amateur research is that they are presuming that the experience was exactly as the witness described and then directly seek out Bigfoot/paranormal activity. Wrong. That’s feeding your beliefs, not looking for the best answer. The current, popular mode of “serious research” has procedure and goals that are off-base. With some adjustments it could be much better but it may not be as exciting. I’m not sure the investigators are willing to change.

Second: It can’t be helped that some people will think I’m hostile to Bigfootery. We won’t agree on some basic stuff. But the truth is, I know several people who seriously care about the subject and are passionate about the quest. They clearly want to do the best job they can. I respect them and encourage them for that. I enjoy talking to them about how they might make their process more scientific and sound. Several seem to be open to that. Even though we disagree on some points, we are still friendly. THAT is worthwhile. That is serious research – when you can take constructive criticism and get better at what you do.

That’s why I’m writing this post. I’m open to constructive criticism. People have said I can be dismissive and I want to make sure that they know I don’t always mean to be personally dismissive but I am also passionate about the subject with my own particular views.

If you are interested in the version of skepticism that I subscribe to (and everyone should have these skills for daily life), check out the Media Guide to Skepticism.

Also, this is a piece I wrote about how paranormal proponents want skeptics to leave them alone. And why we won’t.

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8 thoughts on “I get tweets: What fringe subject is worthy of investigation?

  1. RDW

    Actually, you don’t seem all that dismissive, to me. You’ve seemed patient and reserved. I’d certainly be hard put to be as “nice” as you’ve been. But looking at the Tweet, you might be reading more into it than you need to. It sounds like the person might be just asking a simple question : ” Bigfootery is obviously a dead end. What might more time be spent on? ” Regardless, you do excellent work, Ms. Hill, and I’m glad Twitter suggested that I follow you and Doubtful News.

  2. Chip Smith of Nine-Banded Books/Hoover Hog here. Since I Tweeted the question, I thought I’d use this space to clarify.

    First, I should say that I do appreciate your response. I wasn’t expecting it.

    It’s clear enough from where I sit, however, that the rhetorical subtext you suspect in my question is — understandably — misunderstood. I cut my teeth on James Randi’s books and consider the skeptical appraisal of extraordinary claims (and all novel empirical claims) to be not merely valuable, but crucial to human understanding.

    Where Bigfoot research is concerned, I’m nowhere near as well-informed as you, but my best understanding is that no credible evidence has been presented for the existence of such a man-beast, and I think the odds are vanishingly small that such evidence will be presented in the future. I also understand that this is an area that may be usefully distinguished from other species (pun semi-intended) of cryptozoological research. My sense is that you agree, perhaps with some obligatory qualifications.

    What strikes me a curious about your engagement with the subject, then, is that you persist. This would be more understandable if you adopted a more a sociological perspective on the fringe community of independent researchers who devote their lives to chasing mythical beasts, but yours remains primarily a skeptical beat. And you often seem less fascinated than annoyed.

    Don’t get me wrong. I think it is important to expose fraud and shenanigans, particularly when people are being bilked. That’s why I consider James Randi a personal hero. It’s just that this is a big crazy world full of big crazy ideas, at least some small few of which — if pessimistic meta-induction still has merit — may turn out to be true. My sincere question, then, could be rephrased by simply asking: Where you are placing your chips? Maybe we can dispense with overtly supernatural flummery for foundational reasons, but we’re still left with a lot of “fringe” or merely counter-consensus ideas that might yet survive skeptical scrutiny. What’s your sense from the trenches? What might we be WRONG about?

    I do apologize for the note of cynicism in my original question.

    • idoubtit

      Chip: Like I said, I do read everything. Feedback is crucial to making sure the message is getting across.

      Your reply is very intriguing. I have seen a few places where Bigfoot proponents have told me to “go away”. But, at the core of this (and for several other skeptics) is that we WANT it to be true just as much as the next person does. But the evidence has been disappointing so far. Yet, I look. I take the new stuff into account. That, I think, is TRUE openmindedness – the willingness to still consider while remaining objective. I have no dog in this fight, whether Bigfoot is real or not, so I’m not going to advocate for its existence as some do (it’s their livelihood and is connected to who they are in life). I have studied the community of amateur researchers. That was the topic of my masters thesis. My interest is science and the public. I do get annoyed with the deliberate hoaxing, emphasis on fame, money and control. The Bigfoot community is, from my perspective, and in general, misinformed, juvenile and hostile to women and criticism. (Please note there are exceptions but I must generalize because these characteristics appear blatantly over and over again, just look at Bigfoot Evidence blog, especially comments, for examples.)

      My goal is to answer the question “What happened, if anything”. That’s really hard to do. Not to sound demeaning but I don’t think that the average person knows how to undertake such an investigation or research plan without rather extensive study. You miss things. I obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Geoscience without a good foundation in it.

      I’m not a betting person. I have to judge from the evidence that exists right now. And right now, I effectively do NOT buy into Bigfoot. But honestly, it would take such a small bit of solid evidence (a bone, a piece of a body) to really get me intrigued that I feel I’m squarely able to jump the fence when needed. Just show me.

  3. UFOs, and more specifically, “strong” UFO cases that have a combination of factors such as:

    – multiple witnesses
    – repetition
    – corroborating evidence e.g. radar traces, physical traces.

    Hopefully the scientific study of these phenomena could then be disengaged from the “fringe” e.g. the Hessdalen Lights study and even become state-sponsored as it is in Chile.

    • idoubtit

      We tried that already. Nothing was found but residue of unexplained, which there will ALWAYS be since we can’t always have all the needed information.

      Also, I would argue that many cases have all those factors. Most are poor observations, reliant only on one or two witnesses.

    • One Eyed Jack

      The key in UFO research is separating UFO from aliens. The two are not the same, but inevitably entwined.

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