Texarkana Fish Rain Mystery Solved

I am excited to share the results of an investigation done by Paul Cropper and myself on the strange fish rain in Texarkana on 29 December 2021. The results have been published in the July 2022 issue of Fortean Times (FT420).

We are fairly confident we determined the factors that led to fish falling across this area of Texas: A flock of cormorants (and possibly other birds) disgorged their recently consumed meals of small shad while in the air or perhaps during takeoff.

Conclusion: They were temporarily eaten, and… released.

Paul secured a video, probably the first ever, that shows fish falling as it happened. It’s a huge Fortean milestone, I think. And I hope it tamps down the probably bogus idea that fish (or other animals) are swept up in waterspouts and deposited over towns. There is actually no evidence for that happening.

Press Release

Texarkana fish rain had unexpected and unpleasant source

The fish that fell in a December thunderstorm likely came from the nervous stomachs of birds that ejected their recent meal, investigators conclude.

An intense thunderstorm on December 29, 2021 brought dozens, if not hundreds, of small fish falling with the rain and hail over a four-mile swath of Texarkana. Paul Cropper, an Australian researcher of anomalous phenomenon, collected evidence that led him and colleague Sharon A. Hill (U.S.) to the unsavory origin of the fish rain – regurgitated bird stomach contents. Their conclusions are published in the July 2022 issue of Fortean Times magazine.

Cropper collected firsthand accounts from business employees, airport staff, and residents across town who found the fish strewn across the landscape. The two investigators also obtained assistance from scientists at the University of Texas Biodiversity Center in Austin. The fish, identified as Gizzard shad, had characteristics indicative of partial digestion. The researchers strongly suspect the fish had been eaten by cormorants (a common, large shore bird). Then shortly after, the birds, at least some of which were airborne, were caught up in the storm front and disgorged their meals.

Texarkana Regional Airport officials and a resident had noted the presence of cormorants around the time of the storm. Cormorants are common in large numbers and are known to exhibit the disturbing habit of expelling their stomach contents. The reason for this behavior is unknown.

Rains of fish have been reported for centuries, but direct evidence showing fish definitively falling from the sky was lacking, until now. Cropper collected photos and videos from locals who found the fish on streets, sidewalks, grass, parking lots and the airport runway. More importantly, fish remains were found in truck beds and on roofs – indicating that they fell from some height. He obtained high resolution security footage from Discount Wheel & Tire on Summerhill Road that appears to show six fish impacting the ground during the storm. Employees collected many dead fish from their parking lot after the rain. This footage appears to be the first video documentation of fish falling from the sky during a rain event. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnE_a_WfgAU “Texas Rain Of Fish December 2021”)

While many media outlets reported that the fish were sucked up by a waterspout and dropped some distance away, this hypothesis has never been documented and does not fit the evidence in Texarkana. Additionally, Cropper and Hill confirmed no waterspout occurred during this storm and no other human-related distribution of fish via aircraft or by hand was plausible. The bird theory remains the best fit for the evidence. Samples of the fish were retained by the University staff for further testing.


How the investigation transpired

On December 30 of 2021, Paul Cropper messaged me about a rain of fish that had just been reported in Texarkana (Texas and Arkansas) from the previous afternoon. The local TV news reported on the event which appeared to show a considerable number of fish. Shortly after, it was clear that fish fell across a considerable area. Then, photos appeared showing the fish in the beds of pickup trucks and on rooftops. This was the crucial observation! Many reports of fish falls are not really “falls” but the result of flooding streams or a human-related event. The immediate release of multiple reports and photos of fish that really did appear to fall indicated this was an investigation worth pursuing.

Paul quickly contacted the media reporters, the local businesses, and also solicited reports on Facebook. And he got great responses. Eventually, he collected many photos and some videos. He talked directly to people who witnessed the event, and then contacted scientists at the University of Texas in Austin.

For the next few weeks, we looked at the evidence and had email discussions with many involved. We had some working hypotheses to consider as the additional information came in. Initially, the most reasonable hypotheses were as follows:

1. Storm related flooding and wind – the fish appeared in unusual places because of creek flooding or they moved over land due to the heavy rain. Or, that they were blown out of a shallow pond.

2. Dropped from a plane – the fish were dumped, possibly from a plane that was seeding a lake.

3. Waterspout – the default idea that fish are sucked up from a water source and dumped miles away.

4. Birds – the fish had been dropped by birds that were carrying them in their beaks, talons, or stomachs.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t get to Texarkana, but thanks to Google Earth we were able to map the nearest water sources. While there were small streams and a few ponds nearby, these sources couldn’t account for the distribution of fish across the town and in residential and business areas. The fish were not coming out of the storm sewers, they were falling. We had ample evidence for that. The fish were not of the type that “walk” across land during rains.

Fish are sometimes dumped into stocked lakes via plane. But this is not that common. This explanation would have likely been reported by the agency doing the stocking. The most obvious reason this was discarded was because planes weren’t flying under these weather conditions and the closest lake, Wright Patman, was 8 miles away.

We determined from weather data that the storm front did pass over Wright Patman lake, which had this species of fish, but the tracking was more north-northeast and not a direct line. Although there was hail, no tornadoes were reported. Further information from National Weather Service personnel confirmed that no unusual conditions were seen at the lake for this storm event. The waterspout idea could be confidently ruled out.

We did have evidence of birds flocking in the area. A local resident filmed a disoriented large bird (likely a cormorant) in her neighborhood at the end of the storm.

The regional airport personnel noted that flocks of cormorants are common and some had been seen prior to the storm. We were also well aware of the habit of these fish-eating birds to release their stomach contents either to quickly fly away or to feed their young. This was a known and common behavior that had been observed by bird researchers. But they had never seen it happen during active flight (we asked them). Therefore, this remains a weakness of the hypothesis.

Fortuitously during this time, I found a news video out of Holland documenting the annoyance of townspeople next to a canal where cormorants vomit their food on the walkways.

Looks familiar.

You have to see cormorants eating fish to understand why the fish in the fall looked relatively whole and why there were so many.

If this guy had more, he would have scarfed them up too.

The University researchers managed to pick some frozen fish samples from the local resident who was cooperating with the investigation. They corresponded with us noting that the fish samples did appear to be in various stages of decomposition consistent with digestion (head first). They still currently have the samples and are attempting to test them for bird DNA. We hope to hear the results soon.

Conclusion

We felt confident we know where the fish came from. But the extent and number of fish was still a little shocking. Not everyone will accept the conclusion. Some skeptics might continue to deny the fish fell at all. But we’re very confident that they did. There were many independent witness, reporting at the same time, with photographic evidence over a wide area, including documenting locations off the ground and in private or publicly inaccessible areas (such as the airport runway) that confirm that this was indeed a fish rain. But the most impressive evidence we hoped for was a video.

Thanks to Paul’s diligent work and the generous cooperation of contacting Discount Wheel and Tire, the business on Summerhill Road featured in the news reports, we’ve got a video.

Granted, it’s not crystal clear that all the objects seen falling were fish. At least one could be wind-blown debris. We must consider that the employees collected a bucket full of dead fish in this exact area after the storm and witnessed the fish falling as well. It’s not reasonable to discount or dismiss this video evidence – it supports the fact that the fish did fall from the sky that day, exactly as described by witnesses.

It’s also not reasonable to discount the conclusion we’ve made here. We know this behavior happens in birds. The surprising aspect is the extent of the fall. This scenario hasn’t been this well-documented before. Also surprising is the attention this event received worldwide. It’s my hope that the conclusions made in this investigation also become known worldwide. We’ve learned something highly interesting (though a bit yucky) about the natural world.

Thanks to Fortean Times for being the platform for this investigation report. We are the cover story! SUBSCRIBE!

Additional sources

“Hail, Fish, & Videotape: A Texas Fish Rain Caught on Camera”, Fortean Times, No. 420, July 2022. PDF download here.

“Like Ducks and Penguins, With Nervous Stomachs”, New York Times, 22 Aug 2007. http://www.nytimes. com/2007/08/22/nyregion/22birds.html

“Residents of East Texas town report fish falling from sky”, Dallas Morning News, 2 Jan 2022. http://www.dallasnews.com/news/texas/2022/01/02/residents-of-east-texas-town-report-fish-falling-from-sky/

“Storm rains bushels of fish on Texarkana”, Texarkana Gazette, 29 Dec 2021. http://www.texarkanagazette.com/ news/2021/dec/29/fish-appear-in-several-places-in-texarkana-after/

“A Fishy Day: Fish fall from the sky in Texarkana”, KSLA News 12, 30 Dec 2021. http://www.ksla.com/2021/12/30/ fishy-day-fish-fall-sky-texarkana/

“Fish rain from sky in Texarkana”, KTAL News, 29 Dec 2021. http://www.arklatexhomepage.com/news/local-news/ fish-rain-from-sky-in-texarkana/

“It’s Raining Fish! The Ichthyology Collection Now Holds Rare Fish Rain Specimens.” University of Texas Biodiversity Blog: biodiversity.utexas.edu/news/entry/ ichthyology-collection-now-holds-fish-rain-specimens


Citing this blog: Hill, Sharon A. (2022) “Texarkana Fish Rain Mystery Solved”. SharonAHill.com, 18 June 2022.

Contact

Please contact me at Lithospherica@gmail.com for additional information and interview requests. Contact Paul via https://www.thefortean.com/.

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The coelacanth as a red herring

This post is updated from its original publication in 2009.– SH

In researching three areas of what I concluded were mostly “scientifical” fields of inquiry for my book – cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and creationism – I was amused to find one example used to the same end for all three – the discovery of the coelacanth in 1938. Its frequent use, however, as a symbol of hidden nature and incomplete science, is not what scientifical claimants portray it to be.

In an attempt to showcase how orthodox science is “wrong” or “blind”, proponents of ghosts, creationism, and cryptozoology all cited the finding of the rare, bottom-feeding coelacanth fish as a scientific shocker.

Coelacanth in the wild

Paranormal investigators cite the coelacanth

Ghost hunters say the coelacanth represents unexpected findings still left in nature.

Joshua Warren, in How to Hunt Ghosts (2003), highlights that the discovery was unexpected and the fish’s existence unknown to scientists. Therefore, he surmises, there may be many more unexpected findings left in nature to come to light. Perhaps, paranormalists suggest, we are just around the corner from scientifically proving ghosts exists. That’s quite a stretch – to compare a cave-loving, rare marine fish with spirits of the dead (or whatever ghosts might actually be). It’s hardly a reasonable comparison.

Creationists love so called “living fossils”

Creationists love the prehistoric-looking coelacanth because it appears to not have evolved – looking much like it did from the last fossil find 65 million years ago. If evolution is true, they proclaim, why didn’t it sprout legs and walk by now? (From M. Issak, The Counter-Creationism Handbook, Univ of Calif. Press., 2007, p. 99.) One can find many examples in Creationist-based information that point out similar examples where species alive today do not appear to have changed much from their fossil ancestors. These examples, they say, are weaknesses for evolution as the method of creating diversity on earth. Such claims egregiously misrepresent evolution and life on earth across deep time.

Coelacanth as cryptid symbol

The coelacanth is an iconic species for cryptozoologists – those who pursue mystery sightings based on conjecture that such sightings represent a scientifically unrecognized animal. The fish is frequently used as an example of the possibility of large, interesting animals that might yet be discovered. Several cryptozoology books cite a statement by Georges Cuvier in 1812 who proposed we already know all the large animals out there and that it was likely no more would be discovered. This was a “rash dictum” indeed, and was unreasonable for the time and still is even now. To over-generalize and paint all of the scientific community as a naysaying, closed-minded lot is a silly and unreasonable argument. We know there are plenty of new species yet to be found in the deep sea, in the dense forests, and in the dusty, unattended drawers of the museum.

The coelancanth is a dubious cryptid, regardless of its prominent place in cryptozoology. It had no substantive legend attached to it. No one was actively seeking it. Sure, it was a surprise when found and it was a new species (contrary to the Creationist arguments that emphasize it hadn’t evolved). But a slow, bottom-feeding, fish that was occasionally caught by locals does not compare to the more elaborate tales of Yeti, Bigfoot, large lake creatures, and sea serpents. It does not follow that modern discoveries of new species are support for the claim that certain legendary creatures are real animals.

Coelacanth as a wonderful surprise

This poor fish has been abused as a symbol for the weaknesses and failures of science – but the version of science invoked by pseudoscientifical researchers is false. The coelacanth is serving as a red herring – distracting the viewers from seeing the lack of rigor in these fields through a dramatic but misrepresented example. No reputable scientists are pronouncing that there is nothing new to discover in the world. It’s not the fault of science that many scientific-minded thinkers doubt the reality of ghosts, God, or Bigfoot. That’s entirely due to lack of evidence and suitable explanatory mechanisms.

The finding of the coelacanth was in no way an example of how science as an institution or method is misguided or inadequate. Instead, the finding of the modern coelacanth is a testament to the wonderful ability of nature to still hold surprises for us. And we must credit the fast-thinking museum curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who preserved the carcass as best she could, then contacted a genuine expert to examine it before declaring the jaw-dropping discovery. One can only hope if a sasquatch is found, someone will be that diligent instead of negotiating a fee for viewing the remains. We must realize that scientific efforts by careful, experienced and legitimate researchers are useful and should be supported because another amazing discovery most certainly awaits.

Many pseudoscience proponents will jump at a chance to show that science has a flaw because they wish to promote their own wishful views that can’t quite compete. The lovely coelacanth doesn’t deserve that association.

Toy tiger

Fake tiger tales and other plush hoaxes

Police in the Steyning area of West Sussex, England, were called to a public park on the evening of July 23, 2020 to respond to a report of a big cat on the loose. The Horsham police were likely familiar with the popular idea that large, non-native, “alien big cats” are roaming the UK. Hundreds of reports have been made across Britain alone in the past few years. Many areas have their own local “beasts” that many people believe are real and dangerous. But, hard evidence is scant.

All we know of this latest report is based on a tweet from the police.

The police found a specimen of a “black panther” except it was a stuffed toy. It’s not clear if a hoaxer called in this report on purpose or if someone had mistaken the toy for a real animal.

It would not be the first time that authorities discovered plush animals misinterpreted to be living large cats. In my several years of covering odd stories for Doubtful News, I’d come across several similar incidents. One can bet it won’t be the last, either.

In 2013, local tales of big cats in Essex seemed to be confirmed when officials driving through Epping Forest saw a large black panther perched in a tree.

Epping Forest cat. The Independent. December 12, 2013.

Someone had placed the discarded toy in the position as a joke. The location is known for illegal dumping.

More frequently, replicas of tigers are mistaken as genuine. I found many such stories. On the same day as the Essex plush panther, “someone” reported a tiger in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. When a news crew arrived, a tiger toy was perched on a stroller.

BC tiger. Global News, July 23, 2020.

I suppose it’s possible that a very credulous person could have thought this was real in these upside-down days, but come on!

In 2011, in Hedge End, Southhampton, England, police consulted zoo personnel and prepared a tranquilizer dart after several people reported a white tiger on the loose. Observers had viewed the animal through a zoom lens and were convinced it was the real deal. Before the police could take action, the toy blew over in the wind and it was clear they’d been fooled. What wasn’t clear was who did it. The incident caused public fear and some wasted emergency efforts.

Hampshire police released this photo of the Hedge End fake tiger. (The Guardian online May 22, 2011)

A farmer in Aberdeenshire, Scotland called police after he saw a tiger near his cows. Police mobilized, but after 45 minutes of observation, the animal failed to move and the farmer concluded it was just a toy. He didn’t know who had put it there. (The Telegraph, February 6, 2018)

Scotland tiger, from Facebook February 2018.

Here is a more realistic case. In 2015 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an animal control officer responded to a report of a tiger in a backyard. As he peered into the yard, he viewed a scene he saw as all too real and shocking. A small tiger, facing away from him, was lying in the yard. He called for backup.

Michigan toy tiger. ABC 27 News May 29, 2015

It was only when another officer arrived that they realized the animal was just a toy. No one lived at the vacant property so it’s unclear if this was a deliberate hoax. “I can’t blame the caller because it had me,” the officer said.

A month prior to that, a caller to emergency services in Camas, Washington reported he’d seen a live Bengal tiger with some teens. The 911 caller was convinced that it was NOT a toy as it was “wagging its tail”. “The more I think about it, it seems pretty dangerous,” the caller added. “At first I thought, well it must be a big stuffed animal and then it started moving and it wasn’t stuffed.” You can listen to the call where he says he thought it perhaps their pet and was concerned about laws against such dangerous animals. After joking around with it by the car, the kids tied it to the roof and drove off. Many drivers who passed them had honked and laughed about the rooftop hitchhiker. Offices then flagged them down.

Washington tiger. Good Morning America, June 10, 2015.

Another lifelike toy tiger placed on the roof of an abandoned hotel caused traffic trouble in Humble, Texas, near Houston in 2012. The Houston Fire Department said they received calls about the animal and responded, only to find it was a toy. They removed it to avoid further trouble. (ABCNews Jan 19, 2012)

There is something about tigers, it seems. One of my favorite misidentification stories is from 2018 when NYPD responded to a call from Harlem saying a tiger was on the loose. It turned out to be a raccoon.

The lesson to be learned here is that our observation skills are just not that good. When we get an initial thought about what we see, our brain then fills in details to support that idea. Sometimes, we see things that just aren’t there and even inanimate objects can become alive. These incidents are not infrequent, noted by the handful examples above. There are countless more cases of misidentification that occur every day. Yet, people still think they know what they saw. This does not bode well for the claims that people see unusual creatures, or UFOs, or apparitions. Mistakes and misinterpretations must always be a primary consideration before jumping to any more exotic possibilities.

Update March 2022: Police in Oldham, England respond to a call about a tiger loose in a neighborhood garden that was actually a stuffed toy.

Dead bulls generate media BS

News outlets have picked up and run with the story of five bulls (Hereford bovines) that have died under mysterious circumstances near Salem, Oregon last July. I’m not sure why this is getting attention again now except for the obvious – that ideas about aliens are back in the public consciousness thanks to a whole bunch of hype from the To The Stars Academy claiming to have videos of unidentified aerial phenomena and “metamaterials” they claim may not be of earthly origin. I find all that entirely underwhelming. But dead cows that have seemingly had some of their organs removed (notably the genitals) is an American paranormal trope that has been around for decades, and animals dying under strange circumstances is a curious thing. I don’t have the time or expertise to look into the cases in detail. I am looking at this as an interested person reading the news and hearing some really bizarre paranormal-themed conclusions pushed.

The latest story of cattle death and mutilation began in local media outlets in August. The five carcasses found at the Silvies Valley Ranch were all males, there was no immediate cause of death, and they all happened in the span of a few days.

From Oregon Live:

The five dead bulls were found on July 30 and 31, in a wooded area about 15 miles from U.S. 395, the nearest major road. They were each about a quarter mile apart, Marshall said. There is some official disagreement on when they were killed – the Harney County Sheriff’s Office, which saw only four of the bulls, puts the deaths at three to 14 days before discovery, but Marshall believes the cattle were discovered within 24 to 48 hours of their deaths.

The officials at the ranch and the local sheriff’s deputy described it to reporters as unexplanable. Yet, even these early articles invoked bizarre, fringe ideas. The new wave of articled from mainstream sources (took them a while to grab on) are even worse. Even NPR did a story without critical commentary:

The bull looks like a giant, deflated plush toy. It smells. Weirdly, there are no signs of buzzards, coyotes or other scavengers. His red coat is as shiny as if he were going to the fair, but he’s bloodless and his tongue and genitals have been surgically cut out.

It’s important to always understand that many sensational stories end up not being what was told in the media. Key facts are left out, exaggerated, or entirely wrong. When careful research is done, the story often resolves into something far less sensational. Taking a logical view of these cattle mutilation stories, a few things very obviously jump out:

  • The cases are assumed to be related. They are lumped together and other claims from the past are added to the conglomeration. Then they are tied together by some dubious facts under a common name that strongly assumes a common cause. Is this justified? No. Lumping things together that may not be related implies mysteriousness when there may be none – each case needs to be investigated individually before concluding that they are related if the evidence leads that way.
  • Several facts about the carcasses are assumed or misrepresented. The idea of the wounds being from lasers or scalpels is not at all well-demonstrated. There are data and real world experiments that show this appearance and missing soft tissue is explainable by natural causes – bloating that leads to splitting of the skin, insects and predators that remove parts. While it is certainly possible that someone could have taken a tool to the carcasses, that seems less likely than more obvious explanations. The idea of lasers seems high tech and fits in nicely with a dramatic tall tale of aliens abducting cows for some unknown use and dumping the remains.
  • Almost every story includes the claim that there was “no blood” left in the carcass. This is a total red herring. When an animal dies from sickness or internal injuries, it doesn’t bleed out. The heart stops pumping and the blood pools due to gravity, coagulates, and is not in “drop” form anymore. Even if there was an opening, the blood would soak into the ground or be eaten by various carrion feeders like flies. Does roadkill bleed if you cut it days later? No. This is nonsense from people who don’t know what naturally occurs in dead organisms.
  • The same media reporting patterns occur – the stories from those affected or afraid are provided and the expert information is marginalized unless the expert’s comments play into a dramatic conclusion. There are plenty of people who could cogently argue the opposite view – that this is not nefarious or all that mysterious – but that wouldn’t get clicks, would it?
  • There are no tracks around the body. This suggests that the animal just died on its own. This is somewhat mysterious, for sure, but it is not so weird if the animal was felled by lightning, poisoning, an acute allergic reaction, or illness. Has every possible toxin, disease, or illness been ruled out? No. In fact, almost none of the articles on the Oregon deaths included information from a veterinarian. None mention necropsies were done. One reason was that the remains were not fresh enough for this kind of evaluation. I’m not clear on why that would be an issue. You can certainly discern if the animal was injured in some way. Obviously, blood tests were not possible.

Opinion of the Vice-president of the ranch, Colby Marshall, is quoted repeatedly in the media pieces:

“We think that this crime is being perpetuated by some sort of a cult,” he said. NBC

Marshall said he wonders if the killer used poison darts. “We think that these are very sick and dangerous individuals and they need to answer for this horrible crime,” he said. Oregon Live

Marshall speculates the bulls were darted with a tranquilizer that knocked them out. While some people acted as lookouts, others bled the animals out by inserting a large-gauge needle into the tongue and into an artery, then removed the organs after the heart stopped beating, he surmised. LA Times

Guesses and wild speculation printed in the media sound like “facts”. They are not.

Deputy Sheriff Jenkins also chimes in with ideas put forward by others and his own thoughts:

“A lot of people lean toward the aliens,” Jenkins says. “One caller had told us to look for basically a depression under the carcass. ‘Cause he said that the alien ships will kinda beam the cow up and do whatever they are going to do with it. Then they just drop them from a great height.” NPR

“Personally, I would lean more toward the occult, where people for whatever reason – whether it’s a phase of the moon or whatever rituals they’re going to do with their beliefs – are coming to different areas and doing that,” he said. LA Times

Jenkins, the deputy, said the wounds, when examined, appeared clean-cut. “The parts were definitely cut out with a sharp blade,” he said. “There weren’t any signs of predatory eating or chewing. They were cut out by at least one person.” Capital Press

None of Jenkins claims given above are factual but his capacity as a law enforcement officer carries weight even though he may have zero expertise in this particular area.

The articles note that common causes were ruled out – poison plants, predators and gunshots. Lightning storms did not occur during the time. There was not a full moon. The animals were not found close together. NBC news at least noted that natural causes were likely and explained the missing blood and the conditions of the carcasses. They cited Dave Bohnert, director of Oregon State University’s Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, who said he believes people killed the bulls, but it could be natural – he had not investigated the case. It is odd that all were bulls, much less numerous in the herd than cows. So there is something here to solve but none of these people quoted are helping much.

The articles, not to mention the voluminous and really cringe-worthy commenters, serve up ridiculous “conclusions” about what could have done this. If someone can point to reliable sources that confirm any people butchered cows in this way in the name of Satan, please supply citations. There is little to no evidence of this far out claim. Mention of exsanguination automatically triggers people to yell “Chupacabra” which is goofy, but some people seriously believe there are vampire creatures preying on livestock. And, even early on, jokers suggested Sasquatch was messing with the cows. Unfortunately, this is not a new idea – it has been suggested that Bigfoot likes to hang around cows and even slaughter deer in spectacular ways. Again, it’s goofy. It is not reasonable to suggest some outside nefarious source (alien or human) is responsible when the natural sources have not been adequately studied. The best you can say is “I don’t know” what happened to these animals.

Interestingly, Oregon Live states the ranch is owned by a veterinarian. It seems odd that little science and mostly wild speculation and assumptions pad these news stories. Also of note, back in August, tissue samples were taken but there is no mention of the results. Decomposition makes the results difficult to interpret.

UFO investigators and alien believers deeply cling to the conclusion that this is very mysterious and point to other amateur sleuths that they claim have uncovered valuable clues. Yet, it remains that valid natural explanations are likely and these are accepted by the majority of scientists, veterinarians and experienced animal professionals. An FBI investigation in New Mexico in 1980 concluded there were no unnatural causes at play. [Rommel, Jr. Kenneth M. Project Director, “Operation Animal Mutilation: Report of the District Attorney, First Judicial District, State of New Mexico,” published in June of 1980.]

What is a fact is that some animals die suddenly and we sometimes just can’t figure out why.  That makes us nervous. People come up with creative ideas about what happened. But as a news consumer, it’s of paramount importance to think critically about the information provided. It’s unreasonable to propose extreme explanations and it’s irresponsible for the media to market these nonsense claims as if they had merit.

Doubt and About: Revisiting Fort and more short book opinions

It’s been a long while since I did a “doubt and about” post detailing what’s going on. I’m in a weird space right now. I don’t really feel like talking about anything but I also want to share some things. Going by that last sentence, I am admitting that I am inconsistent. I have internal conflicts. I know something is bad, yet I indulge it – like talking about Bigfoot. I have changed my mind about things. I have discarded previous modes of thinking. I find there is nothing wrong with that and I am enjoying the exploration. 

Blogs are dead. Yet, people still write them and others read them. I likely will regret this post and others tomorrrow. But it feels natural to write publicly at this moment.

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The Doubtful Witness: You don’t really know what you saw

How often have you heard someone say “I know what I saw”. Observations and remembrances of events are deeply flawed but we still rely on our memory to give us a true account and we believe reports of eyewitnesses. These accounts are the primary evidence put forward in support of paranormal reality. Those who believe in the reality of UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts, or anomalous phenomena are heavily influenced by seemingly legitimate and truthful tellings of strange events people say happened to them. They also contend that there are so many accounts that “there must be something to it” and “all these witnesses aren’t lying”. Investigators collect these reports and then derive ideas, theories, and conclusions from them. But if the reports are not accurate, the data is unreliable and misleading – garbage in, garbage out. Here is the second example of why we need to qualify eyewitness accounts as data. (See the first here.)Read More »

The Doubtful Witness: Masefield’s Montrose ghost story

The primary evidence put forward in support of paranormal reality are accounts of witnesses. Those who believe in the reality of UFOs, Bigfoot, or ghosts are heavily influenced by seemingly legitimate and truthful tellings of strange events people say happened to them. They also contend that there are so many accounts that “there must be something to it” and “all these witnesses aren’t lying”. Investigators collect these reports and then derive ideas, theories, and conclusions from them. Astounding accounts show up in the media, sometimes repeatedly, and those who hear paranormal-themed stories from TV and popular written accounts tend to accept that they are accurate. This is a deeply flawed assumption to make. I recently came across two sources that exemplify why we need to qualify eyewitness accounts as data. Here is the first. Read More »

UFO reports declining: Several social factors involved

An article in Gizmodo today focused on the question of why UFO sightings (reported to NUFORC and MUFON – the major U.S. organizations who record these claims) are in decline since 2012 – a 30 to 40 percent drop from 2012 to 2017. When Jennings Brown, the journalist, contacted me Friday to talk about it, a few things came to mind. In contrast to the opinion of one leader in the UFO community quoted in the piece, I refuse to cop out with an untested, unsupported sci-fi-inspired answer to this trend. I suspect the real answer is social and far more complicated than we can easily tease out.

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Sometimes, an alien artifact is just a rock

Paranormal investigators often lament the lack of scientific interest in anomalous or paranormal claims. Many have stated they want to contribute to a shift in thinking about these anomalies, to “prove to science” (or scientists) that “the paranormal” exists. Some want to “change the science”. None of this makes any sense, though, since science is not a monolithic thing, it’s a body of knowledge, a process to obtain that knowledge, and a network that collects, analyses and distributes that knowledge. A few bold people can’t overturn centuries of accumulated knowledge and an established process by their collected anecdotes and bits of questionable evidence.

It’s also a mistake to say that science hasn’t paid any attention to such claims. As I describe in my book Scientifical Americans, the most reputable scientists diligently examined and argued the reality and explanation for encounters with ghosts, UFOs, sea serpents, and Bigfoot. They found nothing worth pursuing.

Yet, here I am, a scientist by training, who is willing to examine your evidence of the paranormal. It’s funny, though, not many people contact me with pieces of evidence. But when they do, it’s often very clearly something quite ordinary.

This week I experienced another incident of an amateur paranormalist imbuing a find with far more meaning that it deserves. I’ll leave out names because, as I describe, I did not get permission to share the details as it was on a mutual Facebook friend’s wall, which was not public. I’ll do my best to describe the exchange. A little sleuthing might reveal details if you want that or contact me privately. But specifics aren’t really the point. This incident illustrates a number of common egregious errors that paranormalists make. (I use the term paranormalist to mean a person who is outwardly promoting the existence of something beyond our current scientific knowledge as an explanatory cause.)

My acquaintance posted a thread about an object from several years back that was purported to be an alien artifact – a piece of a UFO perhaps. This object is substantial, but it does not look manufactured or particularly technological. As a geologist, it looked like a stalactite of some sort, perhaps from a foundry operation. It turns out that’s what it probably was. Further on in the thread, a New England-based paranormal investigator (I’ll call him P.I.) posted a screen capture photo of what he described as himself holding what he believed could be an alien artifact. I don’t have permission to share the picture and can’t find it online. He did not disclose the location except to say it was from a “secret” investigation in Pennsylvania that was still “ongoing”. He said it was from a site that had many other strange goings-on which I assumed to be not only UFO sightings (obvious from the alien source of the artifact) but perhaps unusual creatures or environmental observations. Such reports have been associated with “window” areas of “high strangeness”.

I don’t know anything about the case, but what was quite obvious to me was that he was holding a rock that looked like a typical iron concretion type commonly found in PA. These can look odd. They are heavy, usually nodular, or elongated because they were subjected to geologic stresses over hundreds of millions of years. They have various regional names (one of which is unforgivably racist). I would find them all the time in the anthracite region of Columbia and Schuylkill Counties. To show you how bizarre they can be, here are pictures of one I have obtained near Centralia, PA some 20 years ago.

There are old-timers who considered concretions like this to be human artifacts and hyped them as evidence that the rock and coal veins were not ancient but only thousands of years old. This is ridiculous as many and various lines of evidence tell us how old the Pennsylvanian geological epoch is. One guy with a kooky interpretation isn’t going to overturn that. But people see what they want to see in nature. Some see my concretion as an alien head. I see it as entirely coincidental shape explainable by our human tendency to see familiar forms in random things.

Anyway, back to the claim about this new PA alien artifact. P.I. noted that it looked like metal but was not magnetic. You could see bits of dark material in relief above the orange iron oxide coating similar to this:

He said pieces were “sent out to different institutes and they had no clue what it is”. I replied with the following:

This looks quite natural – an iron oxide with other minerals. I’ve seen such things just outside the coal regions in PA. Did these “institutes” respond or did they just say “it’s a rock” and not respond at all.

I’ve seen many a piece of clinker that people think is from space. It’s a fallacy to assume it’s out of this world just because it looks weird or you’ve never seen anything like it before.

P.I. reiterated it was not a rock or metal and that “they” from a “very top place” couldn’t identify it. What is a “very top place”? Was it a top place for identifying alien artifacts? (That would be rather weird.) Top geologists looked at it? A University? Who? What exactly were they given? I asked for documentation. He said it will be forthcoming. No timetable or location of the upcoming report was provided. Typically, such report never appear as promised. Paranormal investigators rarely publish a complete report, and if they do, it’s put on a website or as part of commercial media. When our mutual acquaintance suggested to P.I. that we all cooperate and inquired about what form the published findings would take, P.I. resorted to an excuse of confidentiality to “protect” the owners. The owners of the artifact, he said, did not wish to loan it out for examination, which strongly suggests they feel it is otherworldly or special. This investigation seems tainted.

Another person then chimed in to say that my above comments were insulting. I inquired about exactly what was it I said that was insulting but he didn’t explain. Many people construe fair criticism as hostile. It’s not. He made the extraordinary claim, not me. As such, I feel perfectly within acceptable social norms to question such speculation. If you state that you are a researcher, I expect you will be fair-minded in a discussion about the topic and not peddle nonsense. I wasn’t insulting him; I was providing an informed, qualified opinion that should have been given some consideration. But it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. Real life is that way sometimes.

I tried to go back to review the rest of the exchange to summarize here but it’s been deleted. Checking with the host of the thread, he tells me he did not delete it. Perhaps P.I. felt he’d said too much or I had backed him into a corner he couldn’t get out of so he deleted his subthread. I messaged P.I. privately offering my help to examine the case confidentially, in good faith, and I apologized for coming off as “insulting”. My intent, I made clear, was to find answers, because I am curious too. I got no reply. That’s when I looked further into his online presence to find he is a regular podcaster and speaker at paranormal events but has no noted scientific credentials. I also looked for more info on this case when I came across a list on the webpage of another team that cooperates with P.I. It explicitly stated they were all investigating a case in Western Pennsylvania from 2016 to the present which was described as “a wide-ranging paranormal flap involving Bigfoot, shadow people, UFOs and apparent government monitoring.” Sounds like this could be the case. No other details were given. Why advertise this if you aren’t willing to share information?

If researchers are serious about finding out the real solutions to these claims, why would they not want the help of a geologist and fellow paranormal researcher nearby? Why wouldn’t he say who “they” were who failed to ID the object? Why is this all so secret? Why did he overlook the obvious?Why would he think this is a piece of machinery when it doesn’t look manufactured? I think the answer is pretty clear.

P.I. and others like him portray themselves to their network and to the public as professional, serious, knowledgeable, even scientific, yet they are bluffing. This hyped-up mystery mongering is why ARIGs get a bad reputation with scientists. There are plenty of us who are willing to help research their questions. They appear to not really want to know the answers and instead engage in a sham version of inquiry that starts with a paranormal premise and looks only for support for that premise. This exchange has resulted in me doubting his quality of “research” and his integrity. A researcher/investigator is obliged to seek out the best information, not create additional layers of fantasy, mystery and drama. Hundreds of people go to paranormal investigators promoted on the web as reputable hoping they will get an expert opinion. That’s not happening. I do hope P.I. changes his mind or at least considers that this alien artifact is entirely terrestrial and delivers that straight to his client.

I remain open to requests to examine potentially paranormal evidence. I can’t personally investigate them all but I will take a look. I will not hesitate to conclude “I don’t know” if I really have no idea. Paranormalists make such extraordinary efforts to gather evidence and ponder cases yet remain overly committed to supernatural ideas – such a waste of time! It’s not fair to their clients that they ignore obvious conclusions in order to advance their personal paranormal agendas. This happens every day, everywhere, from Bigfoot in the backyard to lights in the sky. And they call skeptics mean and closed-minded! I’m not having it. This kind of nonsense makes me angry and it should make all ethical researchers angry. If you make an extraordinary claim, such as saying something is a suspected alien artifact, you sure as hell better have more to back it up than wishful thinking and personal weird experiences. I’m sure P.I. now thinks I’m one of those nasty skeptics, but he’s the one who could end up being disingenuous and taking people for a ride.

Cryptozoology “expert” called in to look for Maine serpent (UPDATED: Snakeskin found)

Back in June, locals of Westbrook, Maine said they saw a large snake slithering around. After no sign of the beast a week later, a Westbrook police officer witnessed it eating something near Riverbank Park on the Presumpscot River. A second officer called in also saw it. From their Facebook page:

On 6-29-16 at about 0330 hours an Officer on patrol in the area of Riverbank Park observed a large snake on the riverbank in the area of Speirs Street. The snake was eating a large mammal, possibly a beaver (not joking). A second officer arrived and they both watched it swim across the river to the Brown Street side of the Presumpscot River where it disappeared in the thick underbrush. They estimated its length to be at least 10 feet. WPD contacted the Maine Warden Service and they expect that the snake will remain dormant for a few days because it just ate a substantial meal. The snake has been dubbed “Wessie” or the “Presumpscot Python” by locals. We ask the public to be mindful of the snake’s presence in the area and immediately report any sightings so we can remove the animal from the river.

No northern US snake gets that big. Snakes that size are native to tropical areas. The news of a possible escaped Burmese python set the town abuzz. This article noted that local businesses hoped it would be a draw, a clear case of crypto-tourism. After a week with no additional sightings confirmed, the Mayor said she called in an “expert” but declined to elaborate. Many local people were already looking for it. The article mentioned that “a local cryptozoologist and herpetologist group” had volunteered to help.

Burmese Python by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble/Creative Commons
Burmese Python by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble/Creative Commons
Today, an updated article says that the unnamed expert was a cryptozoologist but he has yet to investigate. Hmm…Read More »

The 1988 US Army commissioned report on Enhancing Human Performance

It was news to me that back in 1985, the US Army commissioned an analysis of certain techniques that were proposed to enhance human performance. The Army Research Institute asked the National Academies to form a committee to examine these questionable strategies. The report is available here where you can read it for free.

Enhancing Human Performance Issues, Theories, and Techniques (1988)
Daniel Druckman and John A. Swets, Editors; Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance, National Research Council

The following is my takeaway from this curious report.

The committee’s task was to “evaluate the existing scientific evidence for a wide range of techniques that have been proposed to enhance human performance” and to “develop general guidelines for evaluating newly proposed techniques and their potential application”. (p 15)

The committee looked at the relevant scientific literature and unpublished documents; each sub committee reported on their findings. Personal experiences and testimonials were not regarded as an acceptable alternative to scientific evidence, even though, as they note, people may hold them with a high level of conviction.

The study was prompted by military people who may have been well respected and felt these phenomena had military potential, as learning and communication tools, or as threats or aids to defense. For example, random number generators (RNGs) were used to test for the ability of micro PK (psychokinesis). Those with this ability were said to be able to mentally bias the machine to produce non-random numbers. Ideally such power could be used to affect enemy equipment.

Some types of enhancements examined are not that well-known to me or in my realm of interest: learning during sleep (concluded no evidence but a second look is warranted), accelerated learning (found little scientific evidence, but more investigation is needed), guided imagery, biofeedback, split brain effects, stress management, cohesion, influence, and parapsychology. (“The committee finds no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 for the existence of parapsychological phenomena.” Therefore, the Army should drop it.) It was this last section, a subcommittee chaired by Ray Hyman, that was my focus.

I found the entire report to be readable and rather interesting and wondered why I hadn’t come across it before. If anything, the appendix of key terms at the end is extraordinarily useful.

The parapsychology section included examination of extraordinary mental abilities – remote viewing, micro PK, and the Ganzfeld technique for enhancing telepathy. I was familiar with the claims for remote viewing and Hyman’s critique of the Ganzfeld. I was interested in the state of parapsychology, having examined it through the Hyman/Honorton exchanges, therefore, this report added to my knowledge. I also knew of the academically-framed lab work of Jahn. Here in one place is a science-based committee fairly assessing ALL the evidence of these alleged paranormal powers. They concluded that none of it had merit and the military gave up on efforts to incorporate these techniques.

The committee concluded that after 15 years of research, the case for remote viewing was very weak, virtually nonexistent. There were certainly claims by some researcher of a clear effect but these claims were exaggerated. Two research programs – Helmut Schmidt and Robert Jahn (PEAR) made up 60% of the experiments that had been conducted. Their results revealed a small departure from chance. A tiny effect is enhanced by the volume of studies that were incorporated. The report notes Jahn did 78 million trials! The more studies that show a tiny effect end up looking statistically significant when grouped together. But regardless, the effects were extremely weak. The parapsychology committee argues that most influential positive effect in Jahn’s massive database is the result of testing one person. This is not a robust set of data.

Anomalies

In science, anomalies have a definition – they are a precise and specifiable departure from a well-defined expectation. In parapsychology, however, anomalies mean everything. They are vague and undefined – anything that looks odd is considered. With this wiggly definition, any one anomaly can have an infinite variety of possible causes, not all the same. That’s not particularly useful.

Because parapsychologists do not have a theory to explain the anomalies, there is no way to show that the anomaly of one experiment is the same as the anomaly in another. Without a theory to hang the data on, we do not have a coherent class of phenomena. Arguments are made that “There’s something there.” Perhaps there is. Odds are, it’s not something paranormal, it’s an artifact of the testing.

Then there is Cleve Backster who experimented on plants, testing them with a polygraph. His astonishing work on plant responses was popular in the press and appeared to be influential. People believed his study was scientifically solid. But it wasn’t. It was not repeatable with controls.  The questionableness of his work never got out to the wider audiences. The idea of “bioenergetic fields” as discovered by Backster, was put forth as part of the explanation for dowsing, energy healing and remote viewing. The idea of plant telepathy and special perception is still supported by New Age purveyors. The Backster idea was something certain people WANTED to believe in.

It’s a rare case, as noted in the report, that a person can make a distinction between his subjectively compelling personal belief and that which is scientifically justifiable. I’d previously researched this with regards to the interaction between Charles Honorton and Ray Hyman. Hyman’s 3 types of criticisms show up in this report:

  1. Smoking gun – cause is due to factor X
  2. Plausible alternative – cause could be due to factor X
  3. Dirty test tube – cause is from some artifact resulting from unacceptable standards

The dirty test tube critique was used by Hyman to criticize the Ganzfeld results. (And also the basis of Jim Alcock’s critique regarding remote viewing).

Honorton eventually agreed with Hyman that the Ganzfeld experiments were not of optimal design, but insisted that didn’t affect results. If the scientific methods are not appropriate, error creeps in, the results are unreliable. In the conclusions of the parapsychology section, the committee determined that what they found, the research methods and results, were too weak to establish the existence of paranormal phenomena. Thus, it was recommended that such techniques were not worthy of investment.

Yet, you will regularly encounter those who INSIST remote viewing works and has been successfully used. And there are those who insist parapsychology is/was successfully used by the military, and will eventually breakthrough and show all of us naysayers. I doubt it. It’s been a very long time, there’s been plenty of opportunity, but they’ve produced nothing convincing. If the military discarded the idea that the mind can be used as any sort of extrasensory tool or weapon, that clearly signals it’s not worth academic efforts to pursue either.

Sykes paper is a clarion call for higher standards for cryptozoology

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.

The Mystery of the Sky Noises

The world is a noisy place these days. Strange sounds abound.

The paranormal/Fortean media outlets were abuzz about the strange sounds from the sky starting in the summer of 2011. These “sky noises” are anomalous sounds that appear to be emanating from above, and do not sound like your everyday planes, trains or automobiles (so people say). Things quieted down for a while but now, they are back. Yes, it’s summer and that means that strange stories flood the local news. Yet, people really are hearing these noises.

Is it thunder, fireworks, earthquake sounds? Could it be HAARP, the magnetic poles shifting, the earth moaning cause, you know, it’s old and stuff…? Obviously, it’s horns from heaven, heralding the  Apocalypse… Or alien spacecraft. Or Bigfoot. Or, maybe it’s just the normal noises around here.

Thanks to the media coverage (which is typically terrible), mystery-mongering websites and forums, and people who believe the world may really be coming to end, some people are freaking out over these events. You shouldn’t freak out. I’ll show you why. But first, some background.

Read More »

New Sounds Sciencey post: Apocalyptic January and the Portents of Doom

I posted a new piece that was inspired by two Januarys in a row where weird things were in the news. Then, I found some common themes between the two. Here’s a preview:

In January 2012, the Internet was buzzing over a string of reports about strange sounds coming from the sky. It’s what Forteans would call a “flap,” meaning there is an outbreak of activity in a relatively short time span that causes a commotion. This flap reminded me of last January (2011), when another flap manifested. This one got the public all aflutter over mass animal deaths, mostly birds and sea critters.

Read More »

Did zoo animals predict the Virginia earthquake? Look closer.

A day after the east coast earthquake (now forever to be remembered by me as “the best birthday present ever!”), the Smithsonian issued a press release about the behavior of animals at the National Zoo, more than 80 miles from the epicenter of the quake. Some media outlets reported on the news as “animals go wild”, “animals went berserk”. Many said “how animals predicted the quake”.

All of those are wrong.

What really happened?Read More »

Stunning findings about origin of mountain lion killed in Connecticut

This post originally appeared on the Keystone Society for Rational Inquiry blog.

In a followup to this story Connecticut officials have reported some “amazing” news.

…they said that the Connecticut Cougar had made its way east from the Black Hills of South Dakota and that genetic testing matched samples of an animal confirmed as having been in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

That means that the animal traveled more than 1,500 miles to Connecticut, more than twice as far as the longest dispersal pattern ever recorded for a mountain lion. The news stunned researchers trying to make sense of the first confirmed presence of the species in Connecticut in more than a century. Many believed that the animal must have been released or had escaped from captivity.

Daniel C. Esty, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said that the journey was a remarkable and positive reminder of the ability of wild animals to survive and adapt, but that there was no evidence that mountain lions were returning to the state.

“This is the first evidence of a mountain lion making its way to Connecticut from western states, and there is still no evidence indicating that there is a native population of mountain lions in Connecticut,” he said.

But the finding may add at least a smidgen of mystery or paranoia to dozens of reports of similar creatures in Connecticut and the Northeast, most of them investigated and then dismissed as mistaken impressions. Before the animal was reported seen in early June in Greenwich, the last confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in Connecticut was in the late 1800s.

This news means that the animal passed through Pennsylvania en route to Connecticut.
Read More »

Ghost hunters as “really good researchers, I guess”

Story from The Onion: ‘Ghost Hunters’ Enjoys Surprising 100% Success Rate

“What can I say? We’re just really good researchers, I guess.” At press time, despite having repeatedly resolved the most central question of human existence, the program is somehow not on the cover of every major newspaper, magazine, and scientific journal in the world.

Sure, we can all laugh at how sharp and witty The Onion is. It’s a little strange to get such accurate news (through a satirical filter). Why are the Ghost Hunters convinced of their work? Why do they think that they are doing “research”? Well, wait…aren’t they doing research? If we define research as a systematic way to collect data and information in a sustained way, then, sure, I guess they are doing research.

But their research isn’t taken seriously. It’s not scientific. There are many reasons why paranormal investigators work falls way short of being “scientific”. I’ll just focus on the primary reason – paranormal bias.Read More »

It “appears as if” the world is ending

Remember that the year began with mass animal deaths? It continued with revolution in the Middle East. And, poor Australia was hit with the wrath of the gods. (What did you guys do? Just kidding.) Now, we have catastrophic earthquakes – one after another – and a wicked tsunami. With all the political turmoil and natural disasters this year, it would appear as if the world is being ripped apart, socially and physically.

“Appear as if” are the important words to consider. It depends on the perspective you take.

People mostly get their news from the media. The media gives attention to unique things, stories that affect certain groups of people or important people. They don’t always cover events that affect A LOT of people if those people aren’t considered important (remote, poor, unknown).

Once a story is in the news, the topic becomes important. I’m calling this the Google Alert effect. Read More »

Everyone panic. Or not.

A few weeks ago, I moved my desk next to an upstairs window overlooking a Bradford pear tree. For the past 3 weeks, when I sat at the desk during the day, periodically, a flock of about 50 starlings would swoop in and land on the tree,  devouring the shriveled fruits up like grapes. Then, in a whoosh, they would be off. Sometimes I would hear them clamor on the roof. This has happened no less than a dozen times. They seemed hungry. 

On my way home from work over the past month, I noticed crows arcing across the sky across the interstate from as far as I can see from left to right. This happened for several consecutive days in the same place.

This is the behavior of birds. It seems remarkable but not too unusual.

On December 26, we were on the beach in South Carolina near Charleston. It was snowing. There were starfish embedded in the sand. The south was experiencing record cold. It happens. I felt bad for the alligators in the swamps.

Suddenly, we experience such a Fortean start to 2011!  A massive and suspicious bird die-off in Arkansas on New Years Eve triggers a wave of mystery, speculation and imaginative explanations fed by more accounts of animal mortality events.  The current media sensation of reporting mass mortality events is very interesting in many ways. Shall we count the ways? Yes, we shall, because it’s fun – fun like outrageous speculation about the end of the world! (Well, if you have a hot-air filled balloon of speculative belief about these things, you won’t think this is fun.)

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