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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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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Paranormal-themed nonfiction TV: A list

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I was writing an article when I realized I needed a clear idea about when this whole amateur investigation reality-television thing became popular. So, I started a list. (I’m a good Googler.) Here is a list of TV shows (series) that portray the paranormal as real or examine it as possibly real. Some are reality-type shows, some are documentaries. (Therefore, I have also included some shows on here of a skeptical nature.) Some are not wholly paranormal-themed but they contain an element that suggests a particular subject or event is beyond that which is currently accepted in the scientific community. I realize the line can be blurry.

Since one of my areas of interest is how the media promotes a view of science and the scientific to the public, I think the popularity of these shows is important. There is some research into how paranormal/supernatural themed shows affect the public belief in the paranormal, but there is LITTLE to NO research on how reality-type shows affects this or, regarding my interest, how the public perceives the “scientificity” of these shows.

I cataloged 125 shows ranging in premier dates from 1949 to some upcoming ones on the horizon. Continue reading

Buell and PRS to offer classes for the credulous

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I once went to a presentation by the Paranormal Research Society, held at a local Pennsylvania State University campus. It was not sponsored (nor endorsed) by the university but by a student activities group. I chuckled softly to myself when Ryan Buell flubbed information about some very famous “ghost” photographs. His background on parapsychological history seemed thin. I was thoroughly unimpressed. (I’ve since watched the show and was even more unimpressed.) I’m sure he’s better now, being under the tutelage of Lorraine Warren, clairvoyant/demon enthusiast. PRS has announced that in response to tremendous public requests, they will be offering educational webinars.

“PRS will begin hosting and offering classes and lectures on paranormal research and various topics through the means of online webinars. PRS will offer both individual lectures and web courses, as well as invite outside experts/researchers to offer classes.”

Color me skeptical about the seriousness of such a venture…
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Miracle Detectives Followup – I love the internet

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I had a fabulous online talk with Miracle Detective co-host Indre Viskontas.

She was kind enough to contact me via email after seeing my initial post on this blog back in April 2010 when the show was cast. I followed up to tell her my thoughts on the show (on The Oprah Network). I thought she would make a great interview for SheThought website so here is one version of an interview.  More of the interview will be appearing in a future issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

I learned a lot from listening to her. Continue reading

Paranormal investigators doing good, but going wrong

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There are so many ghost hunting groups wandering around in the dark that they trip over each other. I attempted to count paranormal investigation groups and gave up at around 1500 without even searching Facebook. We all have our opinions about what they try to do – find evidence of life after death. Those of us aware of how scientific methodology and answering a question works in practice are critical of their equipment, and, dare I say, pseudoscientific, activities.  However, I might surprise some of you by saying that they also do a lot of good.

Many paranormal investigation groups will state explicitly and foremost that their goal is to aid people who have had a frightening, confusing experience. I’ve concluded that most do think they are doing a positive thing by either validating an experience for someone or by explaining it through objective (and more often subjective) evidence.

They also support causes such as historic preservation and cemetery preservation/restoration. They enjoy teaching people about cultural landmarks and memorable characters of the past. They encourage curiosity and imagination. Can’t say those aren’t worthy efforts; let’s give them that. Continue reading

In Search of… sham inquiry & a public beguiled

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I’m heading into my last semester in the Science and the Public Ed.M. program through the University at Buffalo.

It’s been an experience. I’ve kept track of all the concepts about science, people and the world that I never would have understood without this program. I’ll share that someday after it’s all over. In summary, I am constantly surprised at how much understanding I missed, even after obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree, having extensive scientific training on the job and being a long-time member of the science & skepticism community.

This last semester will be devoted to thesis writing. I’m actively collecting data right now for the project. Continue reading

Footprints that go nowhere

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Tom Biscardi’s Searching for Bigfoot gang appears to have taken up the reins where MonsterQuest left off, by leading expeditions to stake out sights where evidence of Bigfoot surfaces. In response to a highly dubious piece of evidence, that looked more like a clump of leaves than an ape, they rushed to PA a few months ago to camp out for a day or so. Recently, they went to North Carolina to follow up on the collection of a footprint.
http://www.wsoctv.com/news/23937399/detail.html

Maybe they can get their own TV show too? Join the crowd of seekers seeking to prove the unknown on television. I’d watch.

The breaking story about the new footprint didn’t even make me pause. We have 50 over years of Bigfoot prints and stories. No shortage there. I even have a colleague who mentioned he thought he found a Bigfoot print in his garden in central PA. Ideally, trace evidence (and anecdotes) should be a clue to lead you to a bigger story. But they are questionable if interpreted on their own. So little data is available from them that we head quickly off the cliff and tumble into wild speculation.

How many have prints and anecdotes have lead us to hoaxes? Many hoaxes have been foisted on the public, media and scientists alike.
How many are unresolved (because so little information is available to decide on a cause)? Most would fall into this category. We just don’t know what happened. Don’t jump to an unwarranted conclusion.
How many have lead us to better evidence to support the existance of an unknown animal out there? Still waiting. The trail goes cold real fast.

Bigfoot prints are news because they are iconic pop culture references. Bigfoot = footprint. We all know what the footprint is supposed to look like before we see it. We are conditioned to respond to it. I’m now conditioned to respond to it with a “meh”. Do they really give us any new information at all? Nothing comes from them.

Footprints take us nowhere. Bigfoot researchers have to raise the standards. We’ve been around and around this block too many times. There’s nothing new to see here, just one’s own tracks covering the same old ground.

Solving Unexplained Mysteries: A review of “Scientific Paranormal Investigation” by B. Radford

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This past March, I registered for a seminar on Scientific Paranormal Investigation at CFI – Washington, DC. Ben Radford was presenting and the event description mentioned his upcoming book of the same name. This was fortuitous since I was working on developing a thesis project about the prevalence of sham inquiry, focusing on amateur investigation groups, such as Bigfoot, UFO and ghost hunters. Sadly, I missed the event because of the death of my grandmother.

As my thesis idea gelled, I realized Ben’s new book would be a must-have for my references. So, I purchased it directly from his website (www.radfordbooks.com)  as soon as it was announced, before it even made it to Amazon. He noted in the inscription that I was his first order.

This unique volume includes so much about the topics on which I’m focused for my project -laypersons conducting investigations into paranormal activities and what it means to be “scientific”. I wondered how this book would compare with Missing Pieces by Baker and Nickell. It’s different in content, focus and scope. For starters, at this point in time, there has never been so many paranormal investigation groups. Thanks to the internet and television, these groups number over a thousand on any given day in the U.S. alone. Millions of people view Ghost Hunters on television and think that’s an example of how scientific investigation is done. It’s a timely topic. Continue reading

Just get out there and do science

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When I tell people what I do (geologist), most will say, “I’ve never met a geologist before. That’s so interesting.” While I don’t do what people probably imagine a geologist might do, the foundation is important. I still consider myself a scientist.

This report is about a study that says parents apparently want to encourage their kids in science but don’t feel they are equipped to do so. From Science Daily: Parents Need Help Encouraging their Kids in Science http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100510092004.htm

I have never been asked to speak at my kids school. I never get asked to speak at community events. People don’t typically inquire at my workplace about meeting scientists or having them speak to groups. I’ve been asked to speak about specific issues, but not about a job in science. Therefore, I believe most people think they have never met a scientist but we are really all around them. It’s not some esoteric subject. It’s a shame that our culture has stereotyped scientists as the brainy, socially inept white male in a lab coat with unkempt hair. That’s really inaccurate.

Here is where TV can help.

I know. TV is bad. It mostly is. But shows like Mythbusters have made science into family fun time. There is no excuse for parents not to be introducing their kids from ages 4 and up to Mythbusters as a gateway into thinking about how the world works. That is science. So, for parents that feel sleepy at the thought of watching David Attenborough documentaries, cue up Mythbusters on the tube to watch and talk about together. Then, get outside and look for bugs, fly a kite, put Mentos in soda, count the birds, look at the stars, examine dirt with a magnifying glass, hike a nature trail, watch the clouds, collect things at the beach, plant seeds, start a rock collection, identify wildflowers… I could go on and on. Just get out there and observe the world. It’s not that hard.