I used to be a skeptic, but then…

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

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.


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 .

No, you are not the new Jane Goodall: My Twitter exchange with Melba Ketchum

I had a discussion with Melba Ketchum today on Twitter regarding her continued claims that Bigfoot will be proven true.  Some of it spilled over to Facebook – her favorite communication outlet. I was surprised she responded and it went on for quite a while. For those of you who missed it, good for you. But here it is mostly in its entirety (a few other tweets weren’t worth adding); see what you can glean from this.

For background, note that my site, Doubtful News, has been critical of Melba’s work with good cause (melba ketchum | Doubtful News). I also wrote a chronicle of the history of her project for Skeptical Briefs (which you can see here The Ketchum Project: What to Believe about Bigfoot DNA ‘Science’ – CSI) and in Skeptical Inquirer. I’m not some lone skeptic picking at her claims. She has the entire scientific community against her. She revels in being the maverick, persecuted, pulls the Galileo gambit. I find it distasteful.

This is the first time she responded to me in public. She should totally stop doing that.

Continue reading No, you are not the new Jane Goodall: My Twitter exchange with Melba Ketchum

Defending the faith of cryptozoology

My latest post, regarding the rational vs non-rational response to the new cryptozoology book by Loxton and Prothero, Abominable Science, went live on Huffington Post yesterday.

Cryptozoology Gets Respect While Bigfooters Behave Badly.

When critical thinkers approach the subject of Bigfoot (or cryptozoology in general) with a focus on the evidence, they are met with reproach. We are challenging much more than the claim; we challenge their belief. They will resort to what Biblical literalists will do to evolutionists – they demonize, call us names, misquote, pick at small mistakes, and take words and ideas out of context. They create an extreme position and shoot it down (called a “straw man” argument) because it’s a power play to make them feel superior. (Note that some aggressive “skeptics” will do that and it’s not fair play in that case either.) All the while, they skirt the MAJOR flaws in their own conclusions.

Bigfoot-themed and other cryptozoology blogs and forums are typically hostile to skeptics, even moderate ones like myself. They can’t understand why we even want to participate since we are going to “deny” everything. Gee, sorry for being interested in the topic and in getting a good answer for peoples’ experiences. Questioning is not denying, it’s thinking.

A while back I challenged cryptozoologists to read the book and make a fair assessment. Some seem to have read it. Three known men gave it ridiculous reviews. They only read the parts that interested them and presumed judgement on the whole book. That is intellectually dishonest and really shallow, not to mention extremely arrogant, behavior. This is why we can’t take self-proclaimed cryptozoological experts seriously. They treat their subject more like a religion, based on faith.

Continue reading Defending the faith of cryptozoology

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

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

Bigfoot study getting skeptical attention

My Bigfoot pieces on Doubtful News have been getting some attention. That makes me think that a (balanced) skeptical view is welcome on this topic. For one, it just SCREAMS “skepticism needed,” with even the Bigfoot researchers disgusted at the quality of Bigfoot evidence coming out and the seemingly daily parade of hoaxes.

Ketchum Bigfoot DNA paper released: Problems with questionable publication (Updated) | Doubtful News.

The up to date news is that the Melba Ketchum study is looking worse every day. The promised high-definition video from the associated Erickson project has yet to appear except for the short clip of what looks like (just saying) a carpet breathing a bit TOO deliberately. And perhaps the face looks a little too like Chewbacca? Hmm.

Continue reading Bigfoot study getting skeptical attention

Ketchum’s Galileo Gambit

One of my essential reading blogs, Respectful Insolence, has resurrected an older post on The Galileo Gambit. It was timely. It was in reference mainly to the day to day parade of quackery that passes by in the media. Orac coined the term “Galileo gambit” to describe a very common ploy used by quacks – they compare their persecution and non-acceptance to that of Galileo.

At least, I think I was the first to coin this term. I haven’t been able to find a reference to the “Galileo Gambit” dating before I wrote the original version of this post way back in 2005.”

Immediately, I thought of Dr. Melba Ketchum who recently pulled the Galileo Gambit when she announced the publication of her Sasquatch DNA paper.

We encountered the worst scientific bias in the peer review process in recent history.  I am calling it the “Galileo Effect”.  Several journals wouldn’t even read our manuscript when we sent them a pre-submission inquiry.  Another one leaked our peer reviews.  We were even mocked by one reviewer in his peer review.

Sorry, a lame excuse. It’s special pleading for why she had such trouble with her paper.

Continue reading Ketchum’s Galileo Gambit