A Bigfoot book that is incredibly relevant 30 years later

Rendition of unknown bear that may represent the Yeti
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Once again, I’ve finally gotten around to a classic cryptozoology text. MAN! I missed out on this one for so many years. John Napier’s Bigfoot: The Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality ©1972 is one of the best Bigfoot texts I’ve read. I’m sure it’s because Napier was a scientist, a paleoanthropologist and primatologist – one of the first who paid serious attention to the idea of Bigfoot (Sasquatch and Yeti).

Bigfoot research has not progressed much. We still have no better evidence than we used to. As Napier notes, eyewitness accounts are the “lifeblood of the Bigfoot phenomenon.” Therefore, this book is TOTALLY relevant today and should be required reading for those weekend “squatchers”. The best parts of the book were the places where Napier says pretty much exactly what I’m thinking, and the parts where he nails down ideas about the creatures that have come to pass decades later.

Napier’s “Bigfoot” in the title is indicative of the defining characteristic – the big foot – and includes both the Yeti and Sasquatch. The Yeti preceded the North American Bigfoot/Sasquatch for public attention. The 1951 Shipton expedition introduced the Yeti to the public with the revelation of the clear photograph of a footprint. Napier obtained the original uncropped negative and discovers all is not as neat as it seems. The Shipton track is not human or ape and it’s not certain that the photo represents the print as it was made by whatever made it. Napier lists many options of animals that could have made the snow track only for it to be distorted by the elements and mistaken for what it is not.

Napier points out important cultural aspects of the Sherpas who tell the tale of the Yeti. He delivers some surprising conclusions such as the Sherpas are not all that great at identifying animals as people think, they aren’t particularly terrified of the Yeti as popularly depicted, and their narratives are garnished with traditional folklore themes that make it extremely difficult to discern a real animal from a legend. The stories contain popular folklore motifs such as backwards-turned feet, hair so long it impedes vision, and breasts so large they are slung over shoulders out-of-the-way. Silly stuff.

Napier refreshingly debunks several baseless ideas that mystery-mongering researchers love to use. For one, the idea of prehistoric survivors is not a good one. I agree. Though monster hunters like to say that myth has some basis in fact, that is not necessarily so, not when other evidence goes against the idea. He is blunt that scientists aren’t hiding information on Bigfoot. Scientists are not only “gossipers” (true – we love to share our discoveries) but also extremely curious. Bigfoot would be too big, wondrous and fantastic a discovery to hide. And, there is nothing threatening about the discovery of Bigfoot that would overturn biology. However, the scientific community pays little attention to ideas that have no merit. After examining what little there is on Bigfoot, science concludes there is nothing there to pursue. Bigfoot is not commonly spoken about because there is nothing scientific to talk about. Napier does note that no harm exists in looking into it, if interested, mainly because the public is interested and wants to know what experts think.

Monster worship is common across cultures. We must consider that our monster tales are a part of the evolution of our culture; it has nothing to do with intellectual ability. There will always be monsters to fear or love. That does not necessarily mean they are real animals. Bigfoot, Napier says, does not have the obvious social purpose or symbolism as some legends do. Here he means the Sherpa tales. He does not address the more current idea that Bigfoot in America is symbolic for freedom, habitat preservation, and the great American forests. The legend of Bigfoot undoubtedly exists. It’s when reality is extrapolated from the tales that we get into trouble. As we see over and over with paranormal-based TV, drawing inferences from someone’s imaginative hypothesis is really bad science. Reliable information connects to a foundation of what we already know to be true. For example, we can judge the idea of Bigfoot in terms of paleontology, physiology, evolution, ecology and psychology. (In an interesting tidbit, Napier says he rejects Ostman’s famous tale of being kidnapped by a Bigfoot family because his description of their meatless diet does not correspond to that of an animal of such proportions.)

Speaking of the Ostman story, Napier tells of an earlier Yeti version, that of Captain d’Auvergne, who was injured in the Himalayas, was rescued by a yeti, taken to a cave, and nursed back to health. He also relates the story of the Minnesota Iceman. While reading the tale of the frozen dead hairy man, I could not help but think that serial hoaxer Rick Dyer was a fan of this traveling sideshow tale as well. It’s curious how the stories seem to repeat themselves (look up Patterson and Roe).

Napier is clear that Bigfoot was big business. In America, it was a commodity to be exploited. Never so much as now, 30 years after this book came out. Napier also blatantly notes that the monks in Nepal were shrewd to capitalize on the Yeti legend to get money for facilities. Nepal government charged handsomely for Yeti hunting permits. The Yeti was exploited for tourism in Nepal just as it still is in Siberia and its relative is in the American Northwest.

For all the serious expeditions that were funded to look for the Yeti five decades ago and the money ponied up today to look for Sasquatch, NONE have been successful in bringing back a worthwhile contribution. Except one… Bryan Sykes who collected DNA in the Himalayas. I was fascinated that Napier notes the following about the description of the Yeti – the local monks called it a bear, three-quarters of the reports describe a partially quadrupedal animal, and for all intents and purposes, Yeti sounds like a bear. Indeed the Sykes results came back “bear” but a unique bear. This portion of the book feels like a prediction come true.

The core question of the book is “Is Bigfoot an idea or an animal?” The “true” answer, of course, is “both”. Many animals account for Bigfoot sightings but the idea of Bigfoot has outgrown even its huge features. Bigfoot is bigger than ever.

I did not expect such a fine treatment of this subject, so very much in tune with my own thoughts, when I decided to check out this book from my local university library. Add this book to your Bigfoot library.

The long and short of The Making of Bigfoot

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making-of-bigfoot-book-10632larThis is a brief review of Greg Long’s Making of Bigfoot. I don’t have the extra time or feel it’s worth the effort at this point to write much in detail. But in a nutshell, Long goes in search of the truth about Roger Patterson and his famous Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967 that he contended showed a female adult Bigfoot/Sasquatch striding across a creek bed.

I liked, disliked, and was ambivalent about this book.

It took me a while to get to it (published 2004) because it make a wave at the time but not a blockbuster wave enough to prodd me into reading it. And I’m sure I was busy with raising two young kids at the time.

The book was mostly an array of interviews with major and minor characters in the saga of Patterson’s Bigfoot explosion. My first observation is that it would have been better (and shorter) if not for the extraneous travel log details about popping open diet sodas and eating burritos and chocolate donuts. In places it sounded like old Nancy Drew books –  the pair checking into a hotel and talking over the evidence, one reinforcing the other.

I STILL don’t know what the side stories about Merritt’s western town and the various rockabilly band tales were about or what relevance that had. There was a good bit of what seemed like superfluous details. Maybe I just missed the point.

The hard-hitting part of the story were the various statements made by witnesses like Merritt, Heironimus, DeAtley and Radford that shed light on Patterson and his life. Was he a cheat and a crook? Yes, that seems perfectly clear. He skimmed off other people and didn’t feel very guilty about it. Was he talented? Yes. In many ways. I think he was perfectly capable of pulling off a hoax.

The story of the film is laid out as a contrived money-making venture. I see the case that way too. Bob Heironimus’ story sounds plausible. No story is air-tight. It’s been a long time and memory is fallible. The kicker for me is the William Roe story. This was first brought to my attention in Abominable Science but Long mentions it as “the script” to the Patterson film. And, indeed it is.

There are a few pickup truck loads of circumstantial evidence here that paints Patterson and Gimlin in a poor light. There are also inconsistencies and loose ends and tangents. In the end, the book falls short because the true bottom line is not clear. There is no Bigfoot suit.

Ten years later and there is nothing new come to light. The film is still THE PG FILM and is disputed same as before. There is NO better evidence of Bigfoot at all. The BEST explanation right now is that it’s a guy in a suit and this was staged by Patterson.

Would this book make an objective reader more convinced that Patty the Bigfoot in the film was a hoax? Yes. It would. Is it definitive? No. I’m not sure it could ever be because the witnesses are dying and the physical evidence is lacking. Worst of all, the history and facts are all wrapped up in egos and belief which means selective reading of the evidence and some cognitive dissonance.

Worth a read but annoying in many parts. I want to see the damn suit.

Science and society: The giant earthquake that launched a new era in geologic knowledge

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I am a geologist by training and my main interest was natural hazards. I was not able to apply my interest to earthquakes or volcanoes as I’d hoped but I did get to help the public deal with sinkhole hazards that also cause property destruction and occasional loss of life. This short film is worth watching. It was a turning point in science and society – the geologic aspect.

Great Alaska quake

There is little sense in praying to be safe from a disaster but EVERY good reason to study, plan and prepare. The average person does not necessarily have to understand seismology or even basic geology to get a benefit from science, but citizens should CERTAINLY appreciate that our advances in knowledge and, consequently, in safety and environmental regulations are based on a scientific process. You can say that about a lot of areas of life. There have been more than one instance to defund these hazard programs and even the USGS itself. How short-sighted and stupid.

This is my philosophy: Science literacy means science appreciation first and foremost. It’s really important.

Remembering the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, the largest in U.S. history.

Great Alaska Earthquake 50 years ago today: What it taught science – latimes.com.

Skeptical damnation: What happened to withholding judgment?

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been researching Professor Ray Hyman’s writings about the field of parapsychology. I don’t have to tell some of you how awesome he is (but shame on you who don’t even know WHO he is if you call yourself “skeptical” Sorry, didn’t mean to pull an almost “no true Scotsman”).

In the 1980’s, Hyman and parapsychologist Charles Honorton went back and forth in a public debate regarding a database that Honorton (and others) put forward as the best evidence for psi (extrasensory information exchange). The details of this project are endlessly fascinating but, in a nutshell, two top representatives from opposing viewpoints had a productive, intellectual discussion which resulted in the issuance of a joint communique between them stating what they agreed upon. Hyman noted that this document influenced the quality of future experiments of this type. The interesting quote I found from Hyman caught my eye today since it had less to do with any particular subject than with peoples’ response to opposing positions in everyday life.

No one knew the ins and outs of the extensive database like Hyman and Honorton because of their in-depth discussion. This was a huge collection of specialized information and five years of thoughtful critique. Yet, many commentators in the peanut gallery felt it their place to put in their two cents worth of opinion. To this wave of opinionation, Hyman said:

“Neither sides’ supporters had the necessary grasp of the details to independently judge which one of us was right.”

[R. Hyman, "What’s wrong with materialism?" In Debating Psychic Experience,  Krippner and Friedman, Eds., 2010, 144-145.]

Yet, judge they did.

This statement hit me square in the face today. We hardly ever have a solid grasp of the evidence in order to make a fully informed conclusion about an issue, let alone to condemn another person. Thanks to the internet, we feel inclined to head to our respective team corners and respond publicly and emotionally as soon as possible, to shoot from the hip based on less-than-valid information. Then, we defend that position.

I’ve been APPALLED by self-styled “skeptical advocates” who have made a habit of jumping to convenient conclusions on a controversial issue instead of waiting for evidence to be verified or even to come out at all! Especially when it involves personalities that the individual dislikes, the drama-bloggers, facebook-swearers, and rage-tweeters are ever so quick to point fingers and call names. They feel obligated to state their opinion regarding even highly personal and subjective issues, even to the point of being libelous and defamatory.

Really poor skepticism abounds. There have been so many incidents of outrage theatre over the past few years where snap judgments (followed by a conviction and metaphorical execution) have been made – mostly about feminist, social justice or he-said/she-said disputes – based on poor or no evidence except someone’s story or second or third-hand claim. Or, let’s throw a fit simply because he/she really hates him/her. It’s been embarrassing to watch.

What are you, twelve? This behavior is juvenile. However here are professionals, organization employees, and role models who are doing this. Last I checked, we are supposed to be rational adults. Any outside observer to the skepto-atheist community would be hard pressed to come to THAT conclusion based on evidence all around.

There is nothing wrong with defending or supporting your friends. But that does not mean blindly accepting that they are faultless and ganging up on others who have a different view. I have admitted that I support my friends who are in trouble, but that does not excuse whatever bad behavior they exhibited. I’m learning to take no side regarding right or wrong because I can’t know what the truth is. I also won’t condemn people for eternity for a mistake that they have the ability to make right. I value positive contributions and will continue to do so.

Excuse my bluntness but, Jeez, what a bunch of self-absorbed know it alls are around! Maybe, try taking a break from the flame-fests on the internets for a while and do something that’s not destructive to yourself, your friends, your reputation, and your philosophical colleagues who agree with you about generally everything else except these few internal squabbles!

You do not have a grasp of enough detail to judge who is right in a personal dispute that is not your own. Neither do I. But at least I recognize it.

Exploring extraordinary topics and people: Back from a conference

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I have returned from this weekend’s Exploring the Extraordinary (ETE) conference in Gettysburg. It was a three day event, about 40 participants, many academics, and me, who sat through the whole thing as a self-identified materialist skeptical person.

I am going to write about this conference for my Sounds Sciencey column but I decided to hit a few high points that were more personal.

I can find nothing to criticize regarding the event. It was well done all around. I attended every talk. They were varied and unique – a blend of arts, science and speculation. Since lunch was served there was extra time to sit together and chat. While I did not attend the dinners in town (I had work to get done), that also gave people a chance to chat so there was a nice cooperative, networking, friendly vibe. Cheers to the organizers!

One of the speakers, a grad student, spoke about her anthropological research of a local ghost hunting group. Much of her findings overlapped with what I had also observed in my work. I asked her a question about the group being “scientific” and she said she purposefully left that angle out. Curious. But the next day, she came over to me and said she was happy to meet me because she was familiar with my thesis and articles, she knew that scientific aspect had been covered by my work already but didn’t even know that was me asking the question! We laughed and agreed to keep in touch.

I actively took a TON of notes and learned so much. I was furiously writing during George Hansen’s talk on liminality – the betwixt and between. George was the one who notified me of this event. He is not on a side. He is known in both the skeptic and believer communities. Now I am too. Maybe we are both in the liminal zone in that sense! I don’t agree with all the speakers said, but I don’t always agree with the conclusions and attitudes displayed by several skeptics either. However, I can listen and learn and gain a much greater understanding than I would closing myself off to one or another viewpoint. I am in the liminal zone between skeptic and believer.

The first day, when I was with Howard Lewis of The Skeptical Review, we self-identified as nonbelievers in life after death during a “straw poll”. I wasn’t going to lie or remain hidden. By the end of the second day I was CLEARLY the only person there who was a participant in skeptical activism. While in the lunch line, one attendee said, “So, you’re the skeptic? Why are you here?” Her tone was snide. My reply was that I am interested in various persepectives and this meeting had great content. I also heard grumbling about the “skeptics” editing Wikipedia. (After a quick check with Susan Gerbic via twitter, I found out they were complaining about an entry her team didn’t even touch!) In running into another person I’d so far just known via the web, who publishes a predominently non-skeptical paranormal web site, he assumed I’d be skewering the speakers and ideas or that I was some sort of spy who would take info back to CSI or JREF. I have no clue where people get that from. Is it just a skeptical stereotype? Do I look and act like a skeptical stereotype – I’m not old, not male, not curmudgeonly, not a debunker, not hostile, not argumentative, not confrontational. I have an opinion but it’s an informed one. Or if I don’t know, I will tell you so. I’m no stereotype!

This morning, one of the organizers, a Gettysburg professor, introduced himself and mentioned they were talking about me at dinner the night before.

“Oh? In what sense?” I asked, slightly uncomfortable.

“That you were nice,” he answered.

HA. Maybe I am doing my part to change the skeptical stereotype. I do hope so. This is the second paranormal-themed conference I’d attended where people were openly surprised and probably suspicious about a “skeptic” in their midst. But why? I’m just as fascinated and curious about these topics. I just make a slightly different conclusion sometimes. I think I only had a question/comment twice in the three days.

Perhaps I belong everywhere. Or nowhere. Sometimes it feels that way. I’m not PRESS, I’m not a spy. I’m just curious. But I have to say that I am utterly disgusted with the bad mouthing of “skeptics” at the pro-paranormal conferences (which I did hear a bit of). Yet, I am just as disgusted with the bad mouthing of “believers” at the skeptical events. I could find much common ground with these lovely folks who are mediums, or have had paranormal events happen to them, or who research spiritualism and psi. And they also noted much common ground with me.

All in all, it was a excellent forum for exchanging ideas. As I’d heard about the TAM experience, several people at ETE noted they felt energized by the conference. I had a enlightening time and I was quite comfortable there.

Doubt and About: Spring means conference season

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Time for another summary of skeptical “serious leisure” activities.

Conference season is here. I gave a keynote at the Central New Jersey Mensa gathering a few weeks ago. It was my first keynote, on “Sounds Sciencey”, and it went really well. As with skeptical gatherings, I found a range of opinions here from those who can think pretty deeply about stuff. They were also of the typical demographics of a skeptic con.  I was nervous about the Q&A thinking they would catch me on something philosphical. I was struck, however,  by two things the crowd responded to: They HATE religious shield laws that allow faith healing families to kill children and not get harsh penalties; and, they are disturbed by genetically modified organisms. It was a odd crowd to be in as you can hear people remarking to themselves while you are speaking – positive and negative. There were many good questions and much agreement. On the topic of religion, I stressed the importance of skepticism and speaking out in support of children’s rights over the parents’ religious freedom. With the case of GMOs, gene insertion was problematic. My rejoinder that there is not much natural about agricultural AT ALL and there never was, wasn’t satisfying in comparison to the ability to put a glow in the dark gene into fish or similar cross-species manipulation. I understand that it’s complicated. That’s about all I could point out. Public policy issues involving science and society are ALWAYS complicated. Anyway, I emerged unscathed.

Only one incident of note occurred: one man could NOT comprehend why I didn’t take at face value his story about his psychic experience. It was one of those “How do you explain THAT?” situations which I dislike. He had no concept of the poor quality of memory and witness testimony. I had to leave that since there was nothing I could say. It’s too much to talk about in one exchange and likely pointless.

Having one-on-one discussions like that or being put on the spot are a bit stressful for me since I want to say the right thing and not offend or get people angry. Writing is easier because you can pause and edit (I proof and edit five or more drafts before finalizing sometimes) or come back to it when the mood suits. This is one reason why Virtual Skeptics was a bit more taxing than writing. I was nervous about saying something controversial or that would be misconstrued. It’s happened before. I don’t know WHO is watching or listening. So, it’s very difficult to match the delivery of the message to the audience in such a casual show. At least, I found it difficult. I don’t like getting the facts wrong. Now that I’ve left VS, what will I do with Wednesday evenings? Hopefully read more. A kind soul has sent me some back issues of Fortean Times and I buy way too much off Amazon one-click so I never lack for an array of stuff to suit whatever subject I’m in the mood for. I’ve just finished Ray Hyman’s The Elusive Quarry – cover to cover and took tons of notes. I’ll be writing about that in the future. It’s FULL of gems of wisdom.

I also have many other project ideas and have the next few Sounds Sciencey pieces in outline.

This weekend is a trip to the “other” side. I’m heading to a paranormal conference. This is seemingly an academic-oriented one even though it appears many are amateurs. But it’s not a paranormal fan party like typical para-cons are. This one will have substance, not TV stars. I’m so curious! I’ll be writing that up too.

April is a visit to a sci-fi con I’ve not been to yet – RavenCon – another new experience that I’m looking forward to. I like to see  how people react to the skeptical POV. I’m not the normal-looking or -sounding skeptic so it can be interesting.

[I owe thanks for those last three items - the meetings and The Elusive Quarry - to Barry Karr.]

I’m planning for Balticon in May, and TAM in July, as well as a few days of sun and NO critical thinking. I have gotten no where on my book draft progress as I’ve been researching a few more aspects to round it out. It will come together in short order. I’ve stopped worrying about it. But I dream of a day when I can do this full time, to have long stretches to work things out instead of trying to squeeze in time on nights and weekends.

Finally, I’ve cut back some on social media. There used to be a time where I felt like I HAD to speak out about stuff that bugged me. I engaged others online and fired off replies or tweets. But after a while, I thought, “Who am I to spout my opinion?” Some people probably think that’s obnoxious. I think it’s obnoxous when many other people do it. So I set up some rules and restricted myself from areas of discussion that would cause strife. Within reason. That is, pick your battles.  I don’t need to put in my two-cents about everything. If I’m asked, I’ll answer. Again, within reason. With those self-imposed rules in place, I have felt a distinct lessening of the need to react (and possibly overreact). Instead of burn-out, I’m going to consider that a sign of maturity instead.

I depart Virtual Skeptics

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The show will go on in capable hands.

I have been jettisoning projects here and there – podcast contributions, my Huff Post blog, as well as being less active on my own blog – in lieu of attention to writing projects and Doubtful News.

Not gonna hide it, I need some down time so I don’t get burned out, not just with skeptical stuff (aired live and saved for posterity), but day-to-day, career/family/self stuff. I feel that feeling coming on far more often lately. Typically a good sleep whisks it away. It must be managed, so, I plan on taking a few extra hours a week to do that.

It is with regret that I bow out of Virtual Skeptics hangout/webcast. I feel certain Bob, Brian, Eve and Tim will carry on as before and will find someone wonderful to replace my face-space.

Meanwhile, I’ll be around, still writing, doing conferences and researching, just slightly less than usual, specifically not on Wednesdays, live at 8 eastern. Rock on.

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Sciency, scientifical and wackadoodle are now official

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New words have been added to the Oxford English dictionary, the “definitive record of the English language”, including a few near and dear to me…

New words list March 2014 | Oxford English Dictionary.

  • bookaholic: Yes, I am a minor sufferer.
  • Coney dog*: I very much enjoy these and have since I was a kid.
  • demonizing: This word is getting around, overused, just like “evil”.
  • do-over: I like this word, employ it often.
  • ethnozoology*: A technical term for the actual scientific part of cryptozoology. [Definition given as "The traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning animals; the scientific study or description of this."]
  • sciency*: This is one of my words, obviously. But they spelled it wrong. Sounds Sciencey [Definition given as "Of a somewhat scientific or technical nature; (also) having an interest in or aptitude for science."] The “somewhat” is important.
  • scientifical method*: I wish I knew what they meant by this versus the scientific method! [Definition given is as an older use meaning "scientific method"] *pffth*
  • scientificality*: Ditto. [Definition given is:  1. A scientific or technical issue, term, or detail. 2. The property or quality of being scientific.] For the 2nd def – I used the word “scientificity” but that’s not been recognized.
  • scientificness*: Ditto. [The quality of being scientific.] Ok, boring.
  • Scientological*: This was capitalized so I am REALLY curious. [Yep, having to do with Scientology.]
  • sword and sorcery: Cool!
  • wackadoo*: Citation needed. [Definition given as: A. Crazy, mad; eccentric. B. An eccentric or mentally unbalanced person; a crank, a lunatic.]
  • wackadoodle*: Love this word. On my list of favorites. [Definition given as the same as wackadoo although this does sound like a crazy poodle.]

As you can figure, the access to OED is paid and I don’t have a subscription which sucks. Can you help me out if you do and post the meanings to the 9 starrred words? I’d appreciate it. I want to be all definitive, you know. Thanks to those that sent the explanations to me!

Scientific people use words and their meaning properly. Scientifical people do not. I don’t want to just look sciencey, I want to get it correct.

You can also email paskeptic(at)gmail.com. Thanks.

Unexplained terminology Explained: ‘Paranormal’ versus ‘Supernatural’

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Paranormal investigators say they look for evidence of paranormal activity. That phrase always confounded me. I don’t quite get it. What does it mean when someone says they have evidence of “paranormal activity”? And, how do you know it’s not normal activity that you just couldn’t ferret out?

There is a problem with how the word paranormal is used because it is often utilized in a way that is perhaps not consistent with the original intent.

Language evolves. Let me take a shot at unpacking some of these definitions about unexplained phenomena. See if it makes sense.

“Paranormal” and other terms for strange goings-on have changed over time. The word paranormal was coined around 1920. It means “beside, above or beyond normal.” Therefore, it’s anything that isn’t “normal” — or, more precisely, it is used as a label for any phenomenon that appears to defy scientific understanding. Ok, right there is a tripping point. Whose scientific understanding? The observer who is calling it “paranormal”? If so, that is problematic as a theoretical physicist sees things a lot differently than a dentist or a police officer. So, it appears too subjective to be precise. Each person may have their own idea of what constitutes “paranormal activity”.

The term “paranormal” used to just mean extrasensory perception and psychic power but, since the 1970s in particular — thanks to TV shows and proliferation of the subject in popular culture — the term expanded in scope to include all mysterious phenomena seemingly shunned by standard scientific study. It was a convenient way to bring many similarly peculiar topics under one heading for ease of marketing. So today, it can include everything that sounds mysterious: UFOs, hauntings, monster sightings, strange disappearances, anomalous natural phenomena, coincidences, as well as psychic powers.

Not everyone agrees that fields of study such as UFOlogy or cryptozoology (Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster and the like) should be considered paranormal but, if we think about the fact that after all this time, we have yet to document what these things actually are, that is beyond normal. Therefore, paranormal (arguably).

What appears as paranormal could essentially one day become normal. This has happened before with meteorites and still mysterious but likely explainable earthquakes lights and ball lightning. Or, we might not have developed the right technology or made the philosophical breakthrough yet to provide an explanation for some seemingly paranormal events. Perhaps we may find an instrument that can measure whatever it is that results in “hauntings” of a particular type. (Notice that I didn’t say an instrument that detects ghosts — an important distinction.)

Contrasted with paranormal is “supernatural.” To say something is supernatural is to conclude that the phenomenon operates outside the existing laws of nature. We would call such phenomena miraculous, a result of religious, occult (or magical) forces that are outside of human doings. These forces don’t adhere to boundaries of nature, which are waived. Perhaps the entity decides not to be detectable, for example. When that happens, we can’t test it, capture it or measure it. We just broke science. Our understanding stops if the explanation allows for supernatural entities to suspend natural laws on a whim. We end up with a form of “[Insert entity name here] did it.” Game over.

Paranormal events can appear to be supernatural but that in no way is proof that they are. Some unaccounted for natural explanation can be the cause. There is really no way to have excluded all natural possibilities in an investigation. We just may not have all the information. So to say something is the result of “paranormal” or “supernatural” activity is faulty logic. It can appear to be but you can’t say that it is for sure.

If you look at older anomalistic literature, you’ll find the word “preternatural” — a perfectly cromulent word — in place of paranormal. It’s not used as much anymore but it denotes a situation where the phenomenon appears outside the bounds of what we consider normal. It’s not supernatural, just extraordinary.

An even better word to use for weird natural phenomena — like strange falls from the sky (frogs, fish, colored rain), mystery sounds and lights, odd weather phenomena, etc. (things that might also be called Fortean) — would be paranatural. Events seem beyond natural because they are rare, unusual and we can’t quite pinpoint how they happened, but we need not revoke natural laws to have them occur. It’s similar to preternatural but sounds more modern.

Sorry about the word salad in this post but terminology is rather important for effective communication in order to avoid being misunderstood. These various words reflect the degree to which you want to go beyond observable, experimentally derived evidence. They get progressively LESS likely to be the correct designation: Paranatural -> paranormal/preternatural -> supernatural (which we can’t actually “prove”).

Pedantry over. We now resume normal communication.

This was originally posted at Huffington Post May 19, 2013.

Engage outrage, sacrifice skepticism

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Drs. Carol Tavris and Elizabeth Loftus are two female role models of skepticism and critical thinking that tower above any others for me. They have established an influential body of work that has informed, influenced and inspired many people. This work has nothing to do with their personas, their creation of drama for attention (the drama came as a result of their scholarship that was sometimes shocking and controversial, but scientific), or their gender. They are also friendly, kind and lovely people and I consider it a privilege to have met both of them and chatted for a while.
carol and sharonsharon and beth

Feminism in skepticism is a messed-up, misguided issue right now. Any story about harassment or rape is loaded with emotion, not reason. Reason, if applied, is seen as a betrayal. That’s disgusting and I rarely talk about it. However, truth matters to me.

This brings me to two important stories that came out yesterday, one of which was written by Tavris and quotes Loftus. The second references the Tavris piece and has a foundation in the work of Dr. Loftus.

Memory. It is flawed.

This is one of the most important concepts that any human in modern society would do well to grasp. Imagine the problems it could alleviate if we could admit our memory might be wrong about something; if we could recheck facts instead of being so invested in a flawed system of memory.

Tavris wrote a feature for e-Skeptic called Believe the Survivors or the Science? What the science of memory can teach us about the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen case. If you are at all interested in the case, PLEASE READ IT. It captures exactly my concerns when I read the harrowing letter by Dylan Farrow and didn’t know what to think about it. Here’s a bit:

When an emotionally compelling story hits the news, it’s tempting for all of us to jump to conclusions. Many people are inclined to believe, as I first did in the McMartin [preschool Satanic abuse] case, that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Wrong: sometimes there’s just smoke—and mirrors. The problem, as studies of cognitive dissonance show, is that as soon as we take sides, the brain sees to it that we will justify and solidify our position by seeking only the information that confirms it, and deny, ignore or minimize evidence that we could be wrong.

Of all things skeptics should be aware of is how we can so easily be fooled. Yet, I see tripe about victim blaming and shame heaped on some for questioning claims. HOW CAN YOU FORGET the Satanic Panic, the Salem Witch trials, the false eyewitness testimony that put countless people in jail and possibly some to death? This is not trivial.

Ben Radford wrote this piece: The Anatomy of False Accusations: A Skeptical Case Study | Center for Inquiry. It outlines an accusation of sexual assault where the evidence clearly points to the conclusion that it didn’t happen. And then cites many more. Many, many more certainly exist that we don’t know about.

We need to accept that not everyone is speaking truth, whether they consciously know it or not. But… that does not necessarily make them a liar, a bad person, or worthy of scorn. People are complicated. Our brains, our culture, our relationships are complicated. Accept that things are not black and white. There is no justification for “for me or against me” statements. I am not against an alleged victim or for an alleged perpetrator. I am for the best solution which means the relevant facts should come out before judgement. We are people and we make mistakes, all the time.

Please, spend some time thinking about the judgements you have made against people who have not been in a position to defend themselves. Is it really worth it to condemn them based on one or a few outrageous allegations and a swell of public outrage? I have been appalled at the feminist-skeptic-niche’s (which is a false label) reaction to some allegations (ALLEGATIONS!) of assault and/or rape. You aren’t helping anyone by being closed-minded and automatically defaulting to the female victim. She needs your sympathy but she also needs more than just that, because things are very complicated.

From Tavris:

What we should not do, as my coauthor Elliot Aronson has said, is “sacrifice our skepticism on the altar of outrage.” Outrage is good when it leads to constructive, mindful efforts to promote justice—for innocent children and for innocent adults. But outrage without skepticism and science is a recipe for hysteria and witch hunts.