Mind the gap: Entering strange new territory on my Bigfoot weekend

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Are you a believer or a skeptic?

Awful categories, aren’t they? No one fits neatly into one or the other all the time. I apologize in advance for using these words as descriptors. I couldn’t think of a good way to express what we mean when applying these as processes, not a broad brush label.

Everyone is skeptical about something. Some of us apply it more evenly or have embraced it more thoroughly (as a process we use to judge claims). Even true believers harbor doubts about aspects of their subject. Sometimes, the doubts win and they drift away from their believing community.

I’m not talking about God, I’m talking about ghosts and Bigfoot.

I want to share some interesting episodes that took place in what I’m calling my Bigfoot weekend of October 21-23. I discovered many people existing in the gap between skepticism and the paranormal. They can tell us a whole lot about these topics we might otherwise miss.

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New cryptozoology: less credulous, more scientific

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There is a stereotype about Bigfoot and Nessie devotees. Typically, they are middle-aged or older men, often with facial hair. They seem obsessed and the public might see them as a bit “off”.  It’s true that there is not that much diversity in the list of monster researchers. But, cryptozoology is changing.

Today’s researchers are examining questions from a new perspective. They can organize and communicate better thanks to the internet. There are new types of books and media. I feel positive about the future of the field of cryptozoology and excited for new things to come. At The Amazing Meeting 9 (TAM 9) in Las Vegas in July, gathered together was a group of people that had everything to do with my positive attitude.

All the people in this photo contribute to moving the subject of cryptozoology away from the stereotypes and the paranormal realm and into the circle of popular cultural and scientific understanding. This group is no less excited by the idea that cryptids are real, unknown animals. It’s just that we are realistic about it. We don’t assume the stories can be taken at face value because we know mistakes are made. We do not come in with a presupposed notion about what a person saw. Our scope is larger; our conclusions are based on what we know is likely true, not what we wish to be true.

From left: S. Hill, B. Smith, B. Radford, D. Prothero, J. Nickell, M. Crowley, K. Stollznow, D. Loxton

Photo by M. Crowley

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Today’s edition of being scientifical: UFO research and homeopathy

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Ever on the lookout for scientifical examples, here are two that I thought were interesting.

The first relates to my interest in amateurs being scientifical. UFO researcher Budd Hopkins presented the results of a study he conducted at a conference about UFO abductees. According to Robert Sheaffer (Skeptical Inquirer V. 35 No. 3 May/June 2001 p 25-27), he was roundly taken to task. Hopkins devised an image recognition test supposedly to determine if children were being abducted. He also conducted a Roper poll to find out how many Americans believed they have been abducted. His research lacks the basic protocol of credible research. Why? Hopkins is not a scientist. Continue reading

Research groups’ useful social function is not “being scientific”

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The LA Times reports on the MUFON conference with the headline “convention emphasizes scientific methods”. The reporter then skewers this idea by showing how at least some of the attendees have thoroughly embraced the idea of alien visitation and human-alien hybridization. Oh my. (Read about a scientist’s experience in attending a MUFON conference here.

The reporter doesn’t have to go to the fringe to point out the sham of science here. It’s more basic than that – rooted in popular misunderstanding about what science is and what scientists do.

UFO researchers, including MUFON, were included in my study of ARIGs (amateur research and investigation groups). I looked at how they use the concept of science and being scientific in their activities. In this article, we see some common devices come up: they emphasize the “precision of a scientist” and the use of devices; they document reports, they are “professional”. All that is fine but certain critical components of being scientific are missing. Continue reading

Young Earth Creationists’ sneaky strategy to be scientifical

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Earth magazine has an intriguing and disturbing article by Steven Newton describing how geologists, who actually represent the Institute for Creation Research, the Discovery Institute and Christian universities, subtly promote the view that Noah’s flood was responsible for geological observations in the American West. Their new strategy is to give talks, posters and guide field trips at a premier geologic conference.

How can this be? Well, if you’ve ever been on one of these field trips, you know they can be a jargony nightmare. Even as a professional, when it comes to very specialized terms and labeling used in petrology and sedimentology, vocabulary is wicked tough to learn and remember. If this is your introduction to a particular feature or region, you look to the expert guiding the trip to provide you with information. You likely do not have enough background yet to form good questions or recognize some dubious interpretation.

The article’s author, a director for the National Center for Science Education, went on the trip run by five co-leaders. The Creationist content was not openly disclosed. Continue reading

Bigfoot researchers making big leaps

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A few behaviors really irk me: acting like an authority to the public when you don’t deserve to be authoritative and making shit up to give a good story. The scientist in me would like experience, credentials and an exhibition of expertise. I also need evidence for wild claims. Because, well, you know… I doubt it.

One group in particular is very fond of putting these behaviors together – self-styled Bigfoot researchers.

I’m fed up with Bigfoot proponents pulling “facts” out of thin air and telling me what Bigfoot likes and doesn’t like, where he sleeps at night, how he avoids detection, how he communicates. They tell the public that wood knocking and nighttime howls are from Bigfoot. They find locations where one passed through or slept. They even apparently know about their “culture”. How can you, Bigfoot researcher, justify these fantastic claims? I’d like to know.

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Bigfoot – The walk-on extra

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Lots of us have pocket video camera phones, we are being filmed by security cams and night vision cams are a fun toy to play with. The latest role for Bigfoot/Sasquatch in his media role appears to be as the unobtrusive walk-on extra in tourist and run of the mill videos. I love these. And by “love” I’m being sarcastic. I hate them, they are goofy, but the media and YouTubers go wild. It sends Bigfoot advocates and skeptics into analysis/accusation/ridicule mode. Here are a few of the most popular clips. Continue reading

Balticon: Scientifical and Real Mad Scientists

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Balticon is a conference done by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. I was asked to participate in their new mini-skeptic track that was developed by Marv Zelkowitz of the National Capital Area Skeptics (NCAS). I thought it was a success. Throughout the day I was there, on Sunday, I saw a big skeptical respresentation. But, also, there were many people who hold that critical, thoughtful mindset but don’t associate themselves with that community. I was glad to speak to them.

My talk was on Being Scientifical: Amateur Research and Investigation Groups. I looked at 1000 web sites of these groups in the U.S. who investigate ghosts, UFOs, cryptids, and general paranormal phenomena. By mimicking science, or doing what they think is science (hence “scientifical”), amateur investigation groups appear serious and credible to the public. This image is effective in selling the public the idea that they find legitimate evidence of the paranormal. It’s concerning.

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Pop descent into low quality

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As a follow up to my last post on why cryptozoology may or may not be called a pseudoscience (depending on your criteria), I was reminding of the idea of “deviant” science as discussed by Dolby.

When a “deviant” science, or what might be labeled pejoratively as “pseudoscience” by mainstream scientists or commentators, appeals to a niche group and takes off primarily outside the scientific community, active enthusiasts keep it afloat instead of allowing it to die off like most popular trends. One can argue that this process has happened to many fringe topics such as UFOlogy, cryptozoology and ghosts (possibly add Creationism and global warming denialism as well). Here is a gem of a quote I found while researching “deviant” science:

“…work [on this deviant topic] is disseminated to a wider more passive group from which further enthusiasts are drawn…[T]hose with a mild and passive interest in the deviant science are sufficient in number to provide a market for further journalistic activity. They buy books and read popular articles on the subject. As their critical standards are usually not very high, the commercial pressures of writing for as large a market as possible encourage professional writers to write at a low intellectual level and discourage the display of the apparatus of scholarship. Popular literary traditions in deviant science therefore may be of low quality…”
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