Bigfoot researchers making big leaps

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

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. Read More »

Buell and PRS to offer classes for the credulous

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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Paranormal investigators doing good, but going wrong

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.Read More »

Footprints that go nowhere

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

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.Read More »

End of Monster Quest

I’ve heard that this is the last season for Monster Quest on the History Channel. There are efforts afoot to try and save the show but, I’m not going to add my voice to that. I’ve always had serious problems with MQ (see here for a start). It presents a distorted and poor quality view of scientific investigation.

I’ll concede that it is designed to be entertainment, not science. But, they DO mention their intent to use science in process. Science, frankly, doesn’t always make great TV – lots of waiting, rechecking, thinking… Not much action there. There have been a few interesting and decent episodes where they have concluded that there was no good evidence to support a “monster”. Far more have ended by concluding that “We didn’t find what we were looking for but [we didn’t prove animal x isn’t here so] we’ll keep on looking.” Not the best plan. A short investigation isn’t enough. I often wondered why they can’t let a group stay in one place for more than a few days. I supposed that gets prohibitively expensive.

I didn’t appreciate the rampant speculation, the drama, the repetition and the deceptive habit of interpreting the evidence in a very narrow, biased way. There were many times when I screamed “What the hell are you talking about? It’s so obvious!” at the TV. The concept started out good but the episodes were, frequently, rather silly. Too many casual viewers, like my 10 yr old, could spot the sloppiness in their inquiry and unjustified leaps of logic.

I would watch more cryptid shows. But, I would like a better quality program – one that tells me something new in an honest manner. As you might expect, I’d prefer a skeptical investigator. Too many of the people on MQ came with a clear agenda to find a critter. NOT, as it should have been, to figure out what is actually going on. That is what made it sad and seriously unscientific.

Update: Good writeup of reactions to the finale on the Gable film here.

Will The Othersiders just scare themselves?

The Othersiders is a new show on Cartoon Network where teen friends visit alleged haunted locations and perform so-called investigations, similar to the Ghost Hunters and Ghost Trackers. It’s fun to be scared and to imagine ghosts exists and places are haunted. I love all things paranormal and really wish  these supernatural concepts were supported by something more than good stories. Alas, poor ghost, I find popular ghost hunting activities extremely unscientific and self-deceiving.

The Othersiders will premier on June 17 – I have not seen any episodes yet (note the post date). From the website, we see they will be using the standard fair of sciencey-looking equipment – temperature indicators, electromagnetic field meters, night vision cameras (everything is in green), tape recorders.  Do they know what they are measuring or looking at? Since science has never described what a ghost should be or act like, why should one assume they are measuring the effects of a ghost?

There are also several other red flags on the website that suggest what the intent of this show will be. There is a ghost figure in the spinning night vision camera and other equipment, spooky sounds, “facts” about the places that are not facts at all but based on anecdotes, and the token skeptic who needs “hard core proof”.  The team members say “It’s real, it’s happening.” Sure it is, but WHAT is happening? I don’t think our interpretations will be exactly the same. However, I’m not in a creepy place at night expecting the unexpected.

Call me psychic (then again, please don’t), but I predict The Othersiders will follow the same formulaic pattern of all the other ghost shows. I bet I can make some spooky predictions about how it will go. See how many come true:

  • Investigators will visit places already aware of the popular haunting stories of the place, predisposing them to expect an experience. They will know which areas have the best stories. Bet on them being uncomfortable in these locations. They have been primed.
  • The focus will be on belief and terms like ‘proof ‘and ‘evidence’ will feed into that belief, not dispute it.  Stories and personal experiences will count heavily towards influencing belief.
  • There will be a lot of “I don’t know what that was but it was very weird.” (Cue the jump to paranormal conclusion.) Token skeptic will be shaken up. It’s hard to be left out when everyone else is having fun with the story.

“After each investigation, we’ll put up our verdict and let you make your own decision,” notes the website. This is a standard disclaimer for all paranormal-themed shows. You decide (after we show you an edited, biased, unconfirmed version of the events). Remember, it’s not real. It’s an edited, manipulated situation on TV.

I find interesting how obvious it is when “paranormal investigators” scare themselves and each other. They have started with the assumption that what they are investigating is paranormal. Bad move, very unscientific. What is most disturbing about these shows is that they send a message to impressionable teens trying to make sense of the world – the paranormal is a genuine explanation. Instead of being happy with, “Gee, that was weird”, they assume, “It was a spirit that haunts this place.” After 200 years of looking for ghosts, we still lack substantial evidence for spirit entities  – the best we have are stories and personal experiences. If we just get more of that from The Othersiders, what a waste. We could sure use something different.

If I am wrong and The Othersiders promotes critical thinking and logical explanations, not the supernatural, I will certainly applaud the creators. So, watch it, look for these themes, and ask questions.

Questions: Are they promoting a pro-paranormal viewpoint? What are some more normal explanations for these occurrences? Are activities being manipulated – are you being primed for what to see and hear at the locations and from the instruments?  Are they so psyched about ghosts that they find every little movement and noise to be “paranormal”?  Do they consider those or discard them in favor of more interesting causes – like spirits? Are they just freaking themselves out?