America’s most hyped haunts – Book Review

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America’s Most Haunted: The Secrets of Famous Paranormal Places
By Theresa Argie and Eric Olsen (2014)

ammosthauntedThere are books that people will love that others will hate for entirely distinct reasons. This is one of those books.

I categorize America’s Most Haunted as a paranormal true believer’s travel guide to “must see” places that are totally overhyped and banking on any paranormal popularity they can get. The authors count down ten locations that they have researched. There is no introduction to the book so it is not clear how or why they picked these ten, but according to their accounts and those of several contributors familiar with the sites, these are “tried and true” places for paranormal activity.

The book also has no table of contents, index OR references. No references means I can not care less about the stories inside – they are worthless as nonfiction, OK as entertainment. In that respect, the stories succeed because they are entertaining but they are often absurd in what we are asked to accept as true. The book is far more well-written than typical local ghost story collections. However, being well crafted does not make the stories any more reliable.

I have a fundamental problem with “stories”. As a collection of anecdotes, the reader has no way to assess if they are verifiable or accurate to any degree. Yet, people make serious assumptions from stories. No doubt many readers will swallow these outrageous stories of “it happened to me” without a critical thought.
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Two new videos

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Recently posted are two videos from The Amazing Meeting 2013 (yes, 2013 but better late then never).

The first is me talking about the Doubtful News website and what it means to be an “honest broker”, a concept we can all utilize to present information.

The second is a presentation by Don Prothero then a panel discussion with Don, me, Daniel Loxton and Blake Smith. It’s about cryptozoology and their typical “abominable” standards for science and scholarship.

 

Sykes paper is a clarion call for higher standards for cryptozoology

Rendition of unknown bear that may represent the Yeti
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The highly anticipated paper from B. Skyes regarding DNA testing of anomalous primates has been published and is, thankfully, freely accessible.

In 2012, the team from University of Oxford and the Museum of Zoology, Lausanne, put out a call for samples of suspected anomalous primates – Yeti, Bigfoot/Sasquatch, Almasty, orang pendek. The samples, if accepted, would be genetically tested using a cleaning method previously vetted in the Journal of Forensic Science that removes all traces of surface contaminants (most likely human) to get to the original DNA sequence. A specific portion of the DNA was used – the ribosomal mitochondrial DNA 12S fragment – for comparison to sequences in the worldwide genetic database GenBank.

A total of 57 samples were received. Two samples were actually not animal hair: one was plant material, the other was glass fiber. Those not trained in biology/zoology cannot always tell the difference between organic and inorganic matter or plant vs animal fibers, as we’d also seen from hunters collecting samples on the Spike TV show Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty.
37 of the sample were selected for genetic analysis. 18 were from 8 U.S. states, including pairs from AZ, CA, MN, OR, TX. The rest were from WA, what is believed to be the prime habitat of Bigfoot/Sasquatch. 8 samples were anticipated to be the almasty from Russia. Three samples were collected in the Himalayan region of Asia and one came from Sumatra supposedly representing the orang pendek.

Let’s see what the results were.

Unfortunately, there were no anomalous primates in the lot. The sequences all matched 100%, there were no “unknowns”.

One was found to be human – from Texas. That only one matched with humans is a testament to the rigorous cleaning method that removed contamination. Sykes revealed his thinking about Melba Ketchum’s paper by noting that human contamination often “confounds the analysis of old material and may lead to misinterpretation of a sample as human or even as an unlikely and unknown human x mammalian hybrid” (Ketchum, et al.). Therefore, her claim of rigorous forensic procedures is shot down, again. Incidentally, Sykes et al. does not consider Ketchum’s paper as a “scientific publication” likely because it was self-published. The Sykes et al. study is regarded as the FIRST serious study regarding anomalous primate DNA – he cites two others that were joke papers. Recall that Ketchum cited these in her paper as genuine, revealing her professional ineptness. While the Sykes, et al. paper lists Ketchum as a reference, it is only to cite it as a poor study, not within the valid body of scientific literature, with misinterpreted results. [Burn.] The quality difference between the two papers is remarkable. The Sykes paper is readable and understandable with minimal jargon and a clear presentation of the data and conclusions. Ketchum’s paper was gobbledygook and, with this new commentary on it, albeit subtle, is another death-blow to any further serious scientific consideration.

All the U.S. samples turned out to be extant (already existing in that area) animals such as cow, horse, black bear, dog/wolf, sheep, raccoon, porcupine, or deer. There very clearly was nothing anomalous at all.

All the Russian samples, at least some of which were collected by Ketchum associate Igor Burtsev, also were disappointing. There were two anomalies, however. Samples of raccoon and American black bear were among the Russian samples indicating either a mistake in the location of the samples or individuals of these animals were imported to Russia at some point and their samples left behind.

Sadly, the orang pendek sample from Sumatra turned out to be from a Malaysian Tapir. This is not the first time tapirs have faked evidence for a Bigfoot creature. But I suspect this sample was very disappointing since the orang pendek is considered to be a plausible cryptid – likely a new species of primate. However, this test failed to provide support for that idea.

The Nepal sample turned out to be a native goat, a serow. However, the other two Himalayan samples were the most interesting of all.

Not one but two samples, those from Ladakh, India and Bhutan, matched a fossilized genetic sample of Ursus martimus, a polar bear of the Pleistocene era, 40,000 years old. Note: TWO samples! There was not a match with the modern species of polar bear. Thus, the study has discovered a new anomaly! This result is a boon to bear studies. Future research will continue to look for more evidence of the representative animal, hopefully a living one. The paper is clear, as was the documentary on this discovered which aired months ago, this previously unknown hybrid bear may contribute to the yeti legend. The look and behavior are reportedly different from the other native bears. Is the Yeti a bear? Well, the yeti is a very general term and its description varies across the huge expanse of the world where it is reported to exist. Even the orang pendek, more akin to an orang utan, is sometimes referred to as a “yeti”. Therefore, the “yeti” is likely not just one animal. It is feasible that this new bear constitutes one version of the yeti. Sykes has been open in stating that it does not mean a primate Yeti is not out there. It just means this result was not supportive of that idea.

Rendition of unknown bear that may represent the Yeti

Rendition of unknown bear that may represent the Yeti

The main thrust of this paper hits the gut of cryptozoology. As it is practiced today by amateur Bigfoot hunters and monster trackers, it is not science. This paper represents science. It’s a high bar. I’ve said as much before. To do science requires very specific training. One result of the Ketchum fiasco and the Sykes “success” has been to educate cryptid hunters about genetics and reliable tests that can give them the results they desire. This project was an excellent example of amateurs working with professionals – exactly what needs to be done to make real discoveries and come up with better answers than “It’s a squatch”.

sasquatch

I’ve always disputed the claim from paranormal researchers (including cryptozoology enthusiasts) that science ignores their work. Scientists had previously been involved in the founding of the field of cryptozoology but also studies in the psychical research and UFOs. They looked, there was nothing there and they moved on. (See my thesis on amateur research and investigation groups, ARIGs)

Now, the modern field of cryptozoology has been put on notice. You need to raise the standards; you need to stop wasting effort. Blurry pictures or another FLIR recording of a warm blob is not going to constitute worthwhile evidence. We best learn about nature through a scientific process. That means amateurs must work WITH the experts, not rail against them.

I was very pleased with the results of the Sykes, et al. study. I look forward to his book release on this topic as well.

I used to be a skeptic, but then…

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Arm yourself against narrative devices that draw you to the dark side

Here is something to keep in mind when listening to EVERY PARANORMAL INVESTIGATOR EVER (it seems) who is telling you his favorite “It happened to me” story. They will insert the phrase “I used to be a skeptic” in order to elevate the believability of their story. It’s a ploy they use without even knowing, in order to make themselves appear more credible.

This may seem obvious but a new study has come out to demonstrate this in quantitative terms with experimental evidence.

First, definitions:

“Avowal of prior skepticism (APS)” – a narrative device designed to enhance the credibility of the narrator and meant to increase the likelihood that the listener will attribute the event to a paranormal cause. The technique “At first I was skeptical” is followed by a description of a potentially paranormal occurrence and then admission of conversion to belief.

People will use this technique in conversation in order to show he is a normally rational person, not prone to silly ideas. It bolsters the source credibility which is really important if you are trying to influence the listener. It also is a way to be more potentially dramatic in a story. It’s a clue that something rather unbelievable is coming up and you should pay attention.

“Stake inoculation” – a way that the narrator addresses in advance an expected counter argument.

APS is a form of state inoculation since one of the obvious arguments against a person providing a questionable claim regards their believability and credibility. They don’t want you to think they are a gullible fool.

Sheep-goat – the divide between “believers” (sheep, suggesting followers) and “skeptics”(goats, suggesting stubborn rejection). I prefer to use advocates versus counter-advocates. It’s less inflammatory. Also, I didn’t know that was a real thing people understood but I must have heard it a dozen times the past few months with regards to psychical research.

The study showed that if you admitted you were a sheep before telling your amazing story, it wasn’t very convincing. People possibly saw you as overly-credulous. But if you preface the claim by saying you are a goat, people are more impressed and more likely to buy your amazing claim. UNLESS… they know you are doing this on purpose. When people knew of the strategy, they were likely to notice and see it as an attempt at manipulation. Being aware of this APS ploy is at least a little guard against how the narrative attempts to sway you. You may be more likely to focus on the evidence, not the flowery details designed to pull you in. When someone says “I was skeptical,” YOU should be more skeptical.

Narratives are more persuasive than dry statistics or scientific messages because they carry value and emotion in the social act of communication. But narratives, we also call them anecdotes, are one person’s interpretation. They are unreliable for accuracy. Yet, it’s how we get most of our knowledge every day. We rely on what people tell us. HOW they tell affects what we believe.

You can find out more about the study here.

A few other tidbits were notable in this study.

- Anna Stone coauthored An Anomalistic Psychology with Professor Chris French. I love the concept of this branch of psychology – to examine people’s strange experiences without presuming a paranormal cause. It’s a (big) step above parapsychology and I think the way this field is going. It certainly has the promise of progress, there is no house of cards being supported.

- Women are still seen to be more gullible and less credible than men. Is this an old stereotype still hanging on? It’s worrisome to see that. I suggest skeptical woman provide more examples of why that’s not true.

- It may not be education level that is a predictor of belief in the paranormal but cognitive performance. The author notes that students who are more analytical in their thinking are more prone to skepticism and thus a lower level of belief. Are we born with skeptical minds? Or are they made? I argue they CAN be made if guided early.

- Finally, there was mention of peer pressure. You are less likely to express doubt if everyone else is on board. But, your expression of doubt can trigger the same in others! So stand up after that talk and express your doubts and ask the tough questions. The appearance of consensus can be influential to the person still sitting on the metaphorical fence. Once a belief is established, it’s REALLY hard to dislodge. So, it’s far better to prevent it from taking root.

 

If I tell you I’m credible, I am, says incredible Bigfoot claimant

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I hardly ever call attention to and criticize a particular blog post by someone I disagree with. Though some drama bloggers seem to do just that, it’s not good content and it’s often lazy. But I found an occasion to do so that I think may be illustrative of a point that has been irking me about Bigfoot research, generally.

There are few things I know for sure. For many things I rely on the history of what humans have established as knowledge about the world – our scientific knowledge. One thing I can say for sure is that people who research the paranormal – who they are, why they do it, and what their goals are – are complicated and I would not disparage anyone for spending time on something they feel is personally fulfilling. Therefore, you won’t see me making fun of people who think researching the unknown in their leisure time is worthwhile. I do it too! We should keep at it.

The range of views and approaches by researchers are wide and varied. Sticking to Bigfoot with this discussion, there are those who subscribe to the idea that it is a flesh and blood animal and there are those that believe it is a supernatural being not subject to natural laws. There is also a subset of us that Daniel Loxton characterizes as “post-cryptid” cryptozoologists. We look at the entire subject from an objective perspective including adding in what we feel are very important aspects of historical records, folklore, social sciences, evolutionary and ecological considerations, and so forth. We practice evidence-focused skepticism. It’s less speculation and more process of scientific inquiry.

I discovered an essay today by whom some consider a prominent Bigfoot researcher. Matthew Johnson posted on May 27, 2014 via his Team Squatchin USA website a piece entitled “BIGFOOT POLITICS, OPINIONS, EGOS versus REAL MEANINGFUL RESULTS!!!” [1] (capitalization and punctuation is original).

It begins: “Dearest “NEWBIES” to the realm of Bigfootdom,”

The gist of the post is: Don’t be fooled by people with a lot of talk and no results. “Talk is cheap.” Results are what matters.

I can’t argue with that in the least. But to illustrate his core message, Johnson ends up being the epitome of the straw man he creates. I don’t think he notices that what results is a sad example of the low-quality intellectualism, unprofessionalism, and lack of understanding about science and society that pervades amateur paranormal research and makes it a LOL-stock (laughing-stock).

Matthew Johnson describes himself as “one of the most credible people in the Bigfoot world.” (People write their own bios, you know.) He is a licensed psychologist and an experienced speaker in his career focus of positive parenting. In his personal bio, he brags that he is really tall and played basketball against some NBA stars. He consistently refers to himself as “Dr. J”.

None of this relates directly to Bigfoot at all. Is credibility is a distributive property? Nope. Most people we can judge as reasonably credible by default because they don’t want to be seen as liars. But everyone has trouble with observational mistakes, even trained observers. Having a doctorate outside of the field you are opining about does not give you credibility in that field. I don’t use my license in geology to boost my credibility about cryptid research! Yet, I can say something about how science works in society since I have not only academic but work experience in this field. So, I’m going to point out what is totally wrong in Johnson’s piece regarding a sound research approach.

I’ll get to the primary blunder in a moment but the first thing I’ve noticed about Johnson’s posts is the page style and characteristics that make his essays awful to look at and read.

  • Words in ALL CAPS or random capitalization of words throughout the piece.
  • Multiple colors (bold black, red, blue and green). This also appears on his site promoting parenting information.
  • Overuse of ellipses (……)
  • Poor grammar, careless and excessive punctuation
  • Repetitive points and inelegant, unsophisticated language even for a blog post (use of “LOL”, “squatch” and filler phrases like “mind you”)

All of which make the post look unpolished and amateurish – not what I would expect from an author with advanced degrees.

The heart of the post is his take on “results” in the field of Bigfootery. After saying that spoor or audio recordings are not what he is referring to, he states the following:

RATHER, when I refer to RESULTS, I’m actually talking about frequent interactions with the Bigfoot/Forest People. I’m actually talking about attempts at mutual communication between the Bigfoot researcher and the Bigfoot/Forest People. I’m actually talking about increased visuals, increased exchange of learning language, and increased CONTACT between two or more sentient beings. In other words, the intent of true Bigfoot Research is to prove that the Bigfoot/Forest People exist in order to protect them as well as their environment. How is one going to prove that they exist without ongoing and consistent CONTACT via a trusting relationship developed over time.

That Johnson identifies his specific, unsubstantiated (to me) belief as “results” is incredible (that is, NOT credible). What kind of messed up message does this send to people interested in the Bigfoot phenomena? The majority of Bigfoot researchers have a default value that Bigfoot exists. That has not been answered to the satisfaction of the scientific community – the makers and gatekeepers of reliable knowledge. Researchers have their own personal goals, which may be to prove Bigfoot exists. For Johnston to proclaim “true Bigfoot Research” means protection of the forest people is obnoxious, egotistical, and downright kooky. From the public perspective, the question to be posed regarding Bigfoot is still, “What, if anything, are people experiencing when they say they have a Bigfoot encounter?” Formulating the question this way leaves all options wide open and includes the sub-question “Does Bigfoot exist?”

Johnson continues about producing “real meaningful” “RESULTS RESULTS RESULTS”. The obvious retort is, “Where are your results, Dr. Johnson?” Can I see them? Are they published in a respectable format available to study and build upon (like science or even most religions)? Are they reliable? Robust? Repeatable? Recordable? You say “talk is cheap” but isn’t all you have to show as results is your story from 2000? I’d say it’s your talk that is cheap.

I see no results to look at for myself. I see no evidence to support your claims for the forest people. I hear a LOT of stories. Credible? Hardly.

It’s not just Dr. J but the majority of paranormal spokespeople who play this game. Their reputations are built by their cadre of supporters who believe them and are emotionally invested in the subject. There is hardly ever any relevant or sound evidence that any interested individual can examine.

So if I may be so bold as to be one of “those” persons to dole out advice to “newbies,” I would say don’t trust people who insinuate you should trust them. There must be substance not just stories. Don’t put faith in those that say they know what is out there but have nothing but specious, sanctimonious words as their “results”. Step back and look at the big picture, the forest and all the wildlife in it. Open-mindedness means that you might be mistaken or wrong or entirely on the wrong track. But if you are too busy proselytizing instead of thinking broadly, you are doing nothing productive.

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1. As of posting this page, the Team Squatchin USA page is suspended. I do not know why. Therefore, I uploaded a PDF of the post here: BIGFOOT POLITICS, OPINIONS, EGOS versus REAL MEANINGFUL RESULTS .

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.