Well-worn paranormal paths go nowhere: When to give up

Gary Campbell is the keeper of the Official Sightings Register at Loch Ness. In an article today in the Daily Record, he says that even after 20 years of this project, sightings still continue.

Gary Campbell, keeper of the register, said the fascination of Nessie was showing no signs of abating.

He accepted five sightings for 2015 – the most in 13 years.

Hoaxes and those that can be explained are not logged. The mystery, he says, remains unsolved. It appears that any reported sighting that can’t be easily explained is logged as evidence of a bigger “mystery” and the “mystery” is subsequently turned into a singular mystery “creature”. Through mass media magic, an unknown phenomenon (or multiple phenomena) morphed into a plesiosaur-like monster living in the loch. Living plesiosaurs in Loch Ness is an absurd and unscientific conjecture. However, that the Loch has some strange surface phenomena is not in doubt. But, Campbell connects the phenomena reported at the Loch not only with Nessie, a real creature, but with a long historical record (since the story of Saint Columba).

“It’s 1450 years now since the first report of a monster in Loch Ness – it doesn’t look like Nessie’s going anywhere just yet.”

This is bogus reasoning. The Nessie mystery is long-solved. It’s not one neat and clean explanation but there is no monster.  He’s right in that she’s not going anywhere because tourism is too big of a hook for this area. Even though this would have to be an animal that does not breath air, doesn’t die, doesn’t have babies, and can live on sparse food supplies and avoid detection during thorough scans of the water body, it’s still “real” to some who can’t let go of that cherished belief. There’s nothing very harmful about myths and local legends but what about those for which this has become the basis for their life’s work?Read More »

The Bigfoot Book: Speculation and supernatural but no skepticism

bfbookNick Redfern’s latest, The Bigfoot Book, has a sound premise and great potential. It’s all about stuff you may never have heard about or saw relating to the Bigfoot phenomena. This is a collection of small articles on topics related to the Bigfoot phenomenon – an “encyclopedia” (though not comprehensive by any means) written in an easy reading style. The sometimes arbitrary titles – such as “Exeter Watchman Publishes First Newspaper Article on Bigfoot” to describe what appears to be the first account of a Bigfoot-like creature in print in the US – are too often not helpfully descriptive. And entries are arranged in annoying alphabetical order making this a book you need to read cover to cover or you will miss the interesting stories buried in it. The collection includes articles on movies, books, scientific reports and documents, historical references, press releases, and more from all over the world. The entries include many from the UK courtesy of Jon Downes and the CFZ. US readers will find many new things in here and summaries of subjects that have not been previously discussed in book form such as Melba Ketchum’s DNA study results and recently released movies like Willow Creek.

It falls short, however, because of a fatal flaw. Serious researchers of cryptozoology will be disappointed as the sources for the content draw heavily from unreliable Internet sites or are copied quotes from other sources.

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Dreaming of DNA: Review of Sykes’ Bigfoot, Yeti and the last Neanderthal

bigfoot sykesOriginally published in the UK as The Nature of the Beast, Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes’ Bigfoot, Yeti and the Last Neanderthal: A geneticist’s search for modern apemen is highly enjoyable and reveals a bunch of interesting tidbits as well as showing us some rather personal insights and new facts from the professor who attempted to bring credibility to the study of hairy hominids.

First, I’d say, all Bigfoot enthusiasts should read this book. I’m fairly certain the title was changed for the US distribution to add the word “Bigfoot” in order to appeal to the Finding Bigfoot-crazy Americans. Sykes viewpoint as a scientist and as a Yeti/Bigfoot cultural “newbie” is unique and provides an insightful look into the wacky world of Bigfootery. While that sort of makes the book charming, it also makes it problematic. Dr. Sykes apparently didn’t know the first thing about the subculture of the North American hairy man and he got taken for an exciting ride a few times. He got pulled into the belief, admittedly losing scientific objectivity at times.  To those of us who already knew the sordid history of Bigfoot seekers – Melba Ketchum, Derek Randles, and Justin Smeja or the collection of those who say they have a special relationship with the creature or believe it is a spiritual or supernatural being –  this book could, at times, be wince-inducing.

“…when I have found myself in the company of cryptozoologists, their sincerity and absolute belief in the existence of their quarry begins to rub off.”  – Dr. Bryan Sykes

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If you think Bigfoot is an interdimensional being, you’ve lost your footing

A person making an extraordinary claim may feel very special. A couple that I met recently who do paranormal research described some acquaintances’ behavior during an investigation of a supposedly haunted place : a woman “swooned” as the spirit overcame her. It was all very dramatic, they said. I’ve seen similar when one ghost hunter of a group claims sighting of a full-body apparition. The rest of the group pays rapt attention to the experiencer, openly wishing they had the encounter as described.

I recently gave a talk at a local paranormal-themed event about science and the paranormal, part of which was a description of “supernatural creep”. This week, I was reminded how powerful the pull of the supernatural is to some and that they will slide towards ever more sensational and dramatic interpretations.

Pursuit of paranormal investigation can be a path to personal empowerment. It becomes serious leisure – part of the definition of self. Some curious people that I thought were grounded have left the ground, metaphorically speaking. Paranormal people I thought were worthy collaborators turned out to be jokers and self-promoters, first and foremost. They’ve either lost contact with reality via small steps, or they have deliberately pursued sensationalist fantasy for some reason or another. (I can’t really say why, don’t know.)

Supernatural creep happens when an investigator takes eyewitness stories at face value, including supernatural qualities of the encounter, and incorporates these features into the description of the phenomenon. Such features include invoking spirits, demons, angels, miracles, or physical implausibilities such as time- or inter-dimensional travel, psychic communication, or other behaviors that do not align with the laws of nature. Read More »


Stone-throwing wall-thumpers: Review of Australian Poltergeists

APPaul Cropper sent me a copy of his new book with co-author Tony Healy, Australian Poltergeist: The Stone-throwing Spook of Humpty Doo and Many Other Cases. He must have known how much I love this topic and was eager to learn about various cases around the world.

I learned about the concept of poltergeists before many of today’s weekend ghost hunters were out of diapers. It seems like today’s paranormal investigators do not know much about the long and detailed history about this particular type of haunting. I didn’t know as much as I wanted to but Australian Poltergeist gave me great info but also an increased interest in seeking out more.

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Neutrality and the wood ape report

It’s very difficult to be truly neutral. In most situations, you can only get somewhere by taking a side and exploring it. Last week’s hubbub regarding the Wood Ape report that I posted on Doubtful News was illustrative of a number of different issues that arise when attempting to learn more about and assess an extraordinary claim.

My approach to the report, which you can read here, is one of interest and openness. To me, having seen probably hundreds of poorly done “reports” by amateur paranormal investigators (ARIGs) and obvious and ridiculous hoaxes, this one was not of those. If we expect claims to be supported, and we ask for higher quality, then my view is we should not dismiss out of hand the product when we get it.

It was clear that this approach annoyed several Bigfoot Skeptics (for lack of a better term) – namely ones who follow Doubtful News who were disappointed in the lack of strong tone – and a few people from the former JREF forum (now International Skeptics) who have known me as a one who will dig into the nonsense such as that of Melba Ketchum (an OBVIOUS and embarrassingly awful presentation of pseudoscience).

Several people misunderstood my approach. I have gained much information and understanding by not being hostile or dismissive to those on the metaphorical “other side of the fence”. I’m not out to debunk Sasquatch. I wish to understand what people are experiencing and why they conclude this creature is real. Some commenters do not share that goal and thus had a problem with the post and perhaps my cordialness towards Brian Brown, host of the Bigfoot Show podcast and a NAWAC researcher who co-authored the report.

I feel that there is something to be explained in this Area X (Oklahoma) event. What is happening? Is it an elaborate hoax on the investigators from people launching rocks at the cabin in Area X? Is the land owner pursuing a monetary agenda? Are the participants promoting a scenario that will be turned into a profit making venture such as tourism, TV show or a movie? Is this a case of poltergeist activity perceived by the researchers? There are pretty much limitless possibilities to apply.

Asking “what’s going on here?” is not limiting the view, it is aiming the inquiry at the large target. Language of neutrality is difficult. No matter how I try, there still will be some bend in the framework I use. I may have framed it in a way that suggested belief or led credence to the group or belief; it was not the intent to advocate for the existence of wood apes.

What has come out of this exposure?

I expected pushback but not quite like this.  Some opinions were asinine, unsupported, and conspiratorial – very UNskeptical indeed. But I concede that the framing of the piece may have been in such a way as to feel like a betrayal to those who thought I was more concrete in my nonbelief than I really am. So, I can understand if the harsh comments were a result of feeling that I was promoting the claim. Please consider that examining the claim is NOT promotion of the claim. I did not say it was any sort of proof or even good evidence.

The exposure did result in some people suggesting that there were potential shenanigans going on. But yet didn’t provide evidence for this. To assume that the reality was not as published means I would be accusing the researchers of exaggeration, deception, and, at the extreme, fraud. If they are f***ing with me than I will likely find out eventually and say so, thus putting them far back from whatever ground they could gain. I have no reason to suspect they are doing that. While I’ve lost faith in humans many times, I’m not ready to assume people who have previously been honorable are deliberately suddenly and drastically dishonest. It does not follow. (You can observe my interaction with Brian Brown on this episode of the Bigfoot Show).

I did contact Brian again to address the suggestions that there is something unscrupulous going on.

Is there money involved?

“We are a 501(c)3 and we operate using the funds we generate from member dues and any donations from interested outsiders. We do have a button on our website and a page dedicated to generating those donations, but that’s about it. We don’t make very many explicit appeals for donations from interested outsiders. Also, we have nothing to sell. No “product.” There has been discussion within the group of staging crowd-sourced fundraising campaigns for specific things (like more thermal cameras, for example) and we have toyed with the idea of things like t-shirt sales, but we haven’t pursued those things to date and I’m personally wary of doing anything that makes it appear as though we’re trying to profit from our work. 100% of our income (the vast majority of which is from member dues) goes into furthering our research. This year, for example, we purchased new communication equipment. Also, things like the tremendous amount of small lithium-ion batteries we chew through in a summer.”

So, their donations or support goes back into the research efforts.

What is the potential you are being hoaxed?

“We pay the owners a relatively small amount annually to be on their property for such extended periods (it’s not uncommon in Oklahoma for property owners to receive modest lease payments from hunters and such). We also contribute to the upkeep of the structures as there is a fair amount of wear and tear from all those people staying there over months at a time. However, we are most often not accompanied by the owners. They are only present over a few times of the year and a handful of weekends during the summer months. Is there a motive to hoax? I suppose the only answer to that is to weigh the effort that would be necessary against the benefit of doing so. It just doesn’t make any sense from that perspective.”

One commenter mentioned that locals heard the gunshots so it’s not a “remote” area. However, another, non-NAWAC, skeptical researcher assured me that it is remote and that hoaxing just does not make sense. Brian did not know of any residents within several miles since they have explored the area thoroughly in the 15 or so years they have been active there.

“Of course, this is Oklahoma we’re talking about and there are lots of guns and people who enjoy using them. While we rarely hear gunshots from others, it’s happened. Lots of people shoot guns around there.”

There were allegations made that Brian is in marketing and so, should not be trusted. (Poisoning the well attempt?) He responds:

“I’m in marketing, yep. Without making any attempt to try and raise anyone’s opinion of marketers in general, all I can say is I use my abilities to ensure the group is as well-presented to the public as possible. The NAWAC is filled with serious people trying to do serious things in a field littered with those it’s impossible to take seriously. It’s a daunting “branding” challenge, to be sure. Am I promoting the existence of the animal? Yes, 100%. I know they’re real and I know their habitat is threatened and I’d very much like to see them recognized and protected. Also, I take the mission of our group seriously, especially the part about education.”

So, yes, Brian does have an agenda to show Bigfoots are real. That is the largest flaw in the foundation of the report, but it does not prevent the researchers from pursuing the falsification of the events in this particular location. If they are being harassed by people or other animals, they will attempt to show that so as to not be seen a promoting a false claim which would be embarrassing and at odds with their goals. The report, he notes, was meant to not be sensational. It’s well known that it’s very hard to be taken seriously in a field loaded with jokers.

On the podcast The Bigfoot Show, they did mention the idea of a fictional movie about Bigfoot. It’s not a stretch to make this dramatic wood ape attack scenario into a movie reminiscent of The Legend of Boggy Creek. So, in the back of my head, and knowing the viability of viral marketing, I could entertain the possibility that this is a setup for such a project.

Brian says:

“On the BFS we have discussed doing, essentially, a video version of the show (though that idea is pretty much dead at this time). […] At no time was the idea of bringing cameras to [Area] X considered by me (though Herriott may have suggested it on the show) nor would I ever involve the group like that. In fact, the NAWAC routinely turns down appeals by television producers (Finding Bigfoot in particular about 50 times — their producers apparently don’t talk to one another much).”

This didn’t exactly answer my question about this being part of a media scheme. So, I leave all possibilities open.

As I said before, but not everyone accepts, I’ve no dog in this fight, I just want to know what’s going on. I’m on the skeptic side of the fence but it does not mean I can’t peer over to the other side to see what’s brewing. Being in the center means on some days I make one side unhappy and on the other day I make the other side unhappy. So be it.

Two new videos

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

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

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