“Assume the simple position” (Occam’s Razor)

BQ

I have been doing this long enough and with enough frequency that if one read a post a day it would take a year to finish the blog. I heartily encourage this activity, but for readers lacking the time or ambition, I can sum up the blog’s contents as being an endorsement of Occam’s Razor. This is the notion that, all other things being equal, the solution that makes the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one. Closely related to the Razor is the notion of the burden of proof, which states that the person making an assertion is required to provide evidence for it and not merely challenge listeners to disprove it.

Carl Sagan famously noted that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Suppose I amble into work late and my co-workers wonder why. One postulates that I may have encountered the road construction they had. They were there, it happened to them, they know I take the same route, so that seems a likely reason. But another wonders if I was delayed by persons on horseback engaged in a medieval war reenactment, which had taken place over the weekend on a family farm. A third co-worker speculates that I may have slipped into a wormhole where aliens detained me to obtain skin and blood samples before releasing me back onto my usual route.

The first choice requires just one assumption, that I had encountered the same construction as my co-worker had. From there, the number of assumptions increase. The equestrian excuse would require that the reenactment went beyond the scheduled date and took place in a locale other than its designated point. The final explanation would require assuming the existence in Moline of both wormholes and aliens and assume I had encountered both on my commute.

Anyone espousing the third option would have the highest difficulty level since it employs the most assumptions to reach its conclusions. Still, such attempts to shift the burden of proof and bypass Occam’s Razor happen all the time.

O.J. Simpson’s defense team attempted to shift the burden to the prosecution by trying to make it prove that Nicole wasn’t killed by Colombian drug dealers who mistook her for Faye Resnick. Judge Lance Ito disallowed this line of reasoning, owing to a total lack of evidence. “Prove it wasn’t drug dealers” is not a valid defense argument and such reasoning is not critical thinking.

While the number of assumptions is important, so too are the quality of those assumptions. The Simpson trial, like most criminal cases, had prosecutors assuming  the defendant’s guilt and defense lawyers presuming his innocence. But there was no reason to think drug lords were targeting Faye Resnick, much less confusing her for Nicole Brown Simpson, as this required more assumptions than concluding that the relevant evidence included a trail of O.J.’s DNA leading from the crime scene to his vehicle and residence, his history of abusing the victim, and bloody shoe imprints. 

Now let’s apply this to science. A blogger at logicofscience.com wrote about authoring a paper on the diet of a turtle species. In his research, he collected the shelled creatures, had them defecate in a bucket, then examined the feces. There, he found a variety of plants, insects, and crawfish. The conclusion was that these turtles ate a variety of plants, insects, and crawfish, since this explanation required the fewest assumptions.

The biology blogger noted he could have instead deduced that “someone went out before me, captured the turtles, force fed them crawfish, then put the turtles back into the pond.” Or he could have assumed this force feeding was done by aliens. But theses options would require unfounded assumptions, the latter necessitating a step beyond even the middle choice. Such conclusions are usually instances of begging the question, where speakers reach the conclusion first, then attempt to buoy that conclusion with unproven premises.

No one takes issue with the science when it involves reptile diets or other noncontroversial topics that leave world views and favored industries untouched. But if the scientific conclusions do impact those areas, there are those who seek to dull Occam’s razor, beg the question, and contort themselves in order to finagle around the evidence.

Young Earth Creationists, for example, insist all animals and plants were destroyed in a worldwide flood 5,000 years ago. This means that in the YEC scenario, all corals today would had to have started growing around the time the Pyramids were constructed. But corals grow about a foot a year under ideal conditions. The Great Barrier Reef would have taken more than 500,000 years to reach its current size.

For corals to have gotten as large as they are today, if they only started growing 5,000 years ago, they would had to have grown at a rate many times more than  has ever been observed. The standard YEC response is that perhaps growth rates were much faster in the past than they are now and that the rate has slowed down exponentially since, for reasons unknown.

They employ the same thought process with being able to see stars millions of light years away. This proves Earth has been around at least as long as it has taken the most distant starlight to reach us. But the YEC answer is that maybe the speed of light has not been constant. The coral and starlight responses are both instances of ad hoc reasoning backed by no evidence. It requires assuming that an aspect of botany or astronomy is much different from what has ever been observed or recorded. It is also begging the question. They begin with the assumption that a worldwide flood wiped everything out 5,000 years ago, then try to make all evidence (or in these cases, speculation) fit that assumption. They go from conclusion to evidence, whereas science works the other way.

A third area of creative deduction by YECs centers of alternating layers of light and dark sediment that accumulate in lakes. The different colors are the result of seasonal changes, with light layers made in winter and dark ones made in the summer. Some lake centers feature millions of these layers, so we can draw one of these conclusions:

  1. A set of two layers forms every year in these lakes. Some lakes contain millions of layers. Therefore these lakes are millions of years old.
  1. Layers were formed during the flood, through an unknown mechanism. By a second unknown means, floodwaters sorted the particles into alternating layers of sediment, then the layers managed to form only over lake beds, and did so at a rate of 10 layers per minute, rather than two per annum, which is the only rate that has been observed.

The YEC takes on these occurrences requires rejecting all data and scientists’ understanding of the natural processes involved. Their response to the scientifically-deduced facts are to offer unsupported ad hoc speculation that proposes unknown and unworkable mechanisms. They fail to manage even the first step in the Scientific Method, observation, because no one has observed the phenomena they claim are occurring. As our turtle excrement-collecting blogger noted, “If we grant creationists the ability to create unknown mechanisms in order to derive interpretations that match their pre-existing biases, then an infinite number of interpretations become possible. It is always possible to generate an ad hoc argument, which is why Occam’s Razor is so important. It tells us that the solution that makes the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one.”

That is why almost all conspiracy theories collapse under the weight of Occam’s Razor. Some anti-vaxxers claim that pharmaceutical executives pay immunologists to say vaccines don’t cause autism. Here, we have two options:

  1. Ethical scientists reach their conclusions through sound research.
  2. These hundreds of researchers from multitudinous institutions and companies are being paid to falsify data. Moreover, none of these hundreds who are in it solely for ill-gotten gain have been lured away by wealthy anti-vaxxers offering to pay them more.

This shill accusation is similar to the charge leveled at climate scientists. On this issue, the two primary competing options are:

  1. 99.8 percent of the 12,000 peer-reviewed papers published in the last five years have attested to anthropogenic global warming, so this is likely happening.
  2. Anonymous elites are paying these thousands of climate scientists to reach this conclusion and fabricate data, yet this plan is being foiled by oil company executives and Facebook posters exposing the plot.

Again, from the logicofscience: “Ask whether there is any reason to think the scientists are corrupt other than the fact that you don’t like their conclusions.”

Going back to the Sagan quote, if one is going to assert the scientific consensus is wrong about climate change, the Big Bang, evolution, vaccines, or GMOs, it is insufficient to offer, “Were you there when the universe began?” or “Follow the money trail.” The burden of proof is on the speaker to provide clear, well-researched, and reasoned evidence for their position.

In some instances, there is no damage other than to the listener’s intelligence. Ancient Aliens attempted to branch into evolutionary biology by suggesting extraterrestrial visitors may have altered dinosaur DNA in order to have them develop into smaller creatures like birds and coelacanth.

In other instances, the misinformation is fatal. Anti-vaxxers mistakenly cite improved sanitation and nutrition as the reason for the decline in infectious diseases over the last century and a half. While those were welcomed health advances, when it comes to disease eradication, here are the two choices offered:

  1. Vaccines work by mimicking disease agents for the real deal, which is why instances of the diseases plummet after vaccines are introduced, and spike when vaccination rates fall.
  2. The introduction of vaccines has coincidentally occurred at a time when the impacts of improved sanitation and nutrition were beginning to be seen. This benefit has extended to countries with deplorable sanitation like India. This has even effected airborne diseases like rubella, which are impacted by sanitation and nutrition improvements by an unknown means. A decline in vaccine rates does not impact disease; rather there has been a coincidental reduction in sanitary and nutrition benefits for unknown reasons when vaccine rates go down. The reason all this is not universal knowledge is because nearly every immunologist is pumping out fabricated propaganda to discredit sanitation and nutrition improvements and cover for vaccines, which actually cause disease.

Those who embrace the latter idea also cotton to the idea of a repressed cancer cure. But which requires the fewest assumptions: That oncologists have been unable to find a panacea for a disease that has more than 100 variations, or that they have, but are eschewing everlasting fame, untold fortune, worldwide adulation, and the chance to spare them and their loved ones, in order to continue enriching the pharmaceutical industry, which has yet to figure out there is more money to be saved in selling that cure?

Meanwhile, 9/11 Truthers talk about the hijackers having little flight training and Tower 7 collapsing despite not bearing a direct hit. They hypothesize that Flight 93 was shot down, insist that a missile hit the Pentagon, and make repeated references to jet fuel and steel beams. However, even if all their claims were valid, it would no more indicate guilt by the Bush Administration that it would cause blame to fall on Islamic terrorists, communists, the Irish Republican Army, or the few remaining Branch Davidians. Which requires the fewest assumptions: That a wealthy and committed terrorist leader with the means and stated desire to pull of such an attack did so, as indicated by passenger phone calls, conversations between hijackers and air traffic control, and flight manifests; or that it was all an elaborate hoax that included WTC security workers, victim’s family members, the airlines, Pentagon witnesses, BBC reporters, and even Philippines police officers, who in 1995 uncovered and turned over to the FBI evidence of what became the 9/11 plot?

One final example, focusing on Bigfoot, which has two primary options. Which of these contains the fewest assumptions?

  1. A complete lack of verifiable evidence strongly suggests its non-existence.
  2. A sustainable population of eight-foot bipedal apes has lived, bred, hunted, and roamed from the Northwest Territories to the Bayou for two centuries without once being shot by a hunter, hit by a vehicle, or leaving behind a corpse, skeleton, fur patch, or excrement.

It is not on me to disprove an ad hoc rationale about a troop of lumbering beasts mastering stealth and adroitly avoiding human contact at all cost. The burden falls on those who make these assertions the centerpiece of their Sasquatch Science.

“Scotland Yarn” (Loch Ness Monster)

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One can deny the existence of the Loch Ness Monster but not his staying power. There have been reports about a beast inhabiting the loch for 1500 years. He was a more terrifying beast in earlier incarnations, consistent with the heyday of sea monsters. The modern era began in 1934 with the publication of his most iconic image and he’s stayed relevant in cryptozoological circles ever since.

Nessie was in the news again this month with a viral photo that could be generously be interpreted as its head, followed by two humps. Looking at it closely, it was pretty obvious the lead image was of a seal, and it can reasonably be assumed the two humps were his fellow cavorting pinnipeds. Most observers went the seal trio theory, though I did spot one online poster who insisted Nessie was real and being hidden by the government. The poster offered no details on how the government was doing this, how he knew it, or why Her Majesty’s animal control division had let Nessie out for this daytime frolic.

Whereas most crypto critters are bloodthirsty or at least induce fear, the Loch Ness Monster seems safe. There are no bloodcurdling wails or ferocious fangs are associated with it. Drawings of the beast frequently depict it in smiling cartoon form and a snaking replica of him near Loch Ness is there for children’s climbing amusement. There is no equivalent of that for the Florida Skunk Ape or Chupacabra.

Whether the most recent photo was of Nessie or his potential snacks, such images have notably become less frequent in the era of ubiquitous cell phone cameras. Despite nearly 100,000 visitors per year and webcams focused on the loch, we have yet to be presented with a clear photo of the beast. Additionally, the BBC aimed 600 sonar beams through every meter of Loch Ness and came up empty. The same cannot be said for some people’s desire to believe something significant is there.

The reason for Nessie’s continued hold on the public is largely due to his alleged home. Sasquatch is reported to be anywhere from Alaska to Alabama and Yeti resides 25,000 feet up, abominable indeed. By contrast, seeking out Nessie is much easier. There’s no danger of getting lost in the woods or of oxygen deprivation. And if one fails to find him, at least a nice lakeside picnic was had.

So tourists continue to flock to Loch Ness, where sightings are driven by expectation, pareidolia, and communal reinforcement. Accounts are embellished by repeated retellings and even what is said to or asked of the eyewitness can become woven into future narratives. Eyewitnesses also are subject to errors in guessing the size of distant floating objects. Put all this together and an overturned log or ripple in the water becomes a living fossil.

The best proof, of course, would be the capture of a live creature. Also very strong evidence would be carcass or skeleton. There have been an untold number of sightings and plenty of photographs, but no amount of weak evidence can be combined to equal one strong piece.

The most well-known photo was revealed 60 years later to by a hoax involving a toy serpent’s head affixed to a toy submarine. Other photos are invariably dark and grainy, often indistinguishable from the water or floating debris. It might be an elusive sea serpent, or a log, shadow, wave, or vegetation.  

Among believers, Nessie is most often suspected of being a plesiosaur, but that animal’s anatomy was suited so that only its head could surface for air, not its entire neck for graceful, elegant positioning. A few have suggested an oversized fish, but a breeding population would require a diet of hundreds of times of what the loch houses.

Marine biologists have concluded that 10 is the minimum number that would be needed to sustain the Monster population. Yet for all the technology and submarines deployed to find one, along with 24/7 webcams and a ceaseless stream of visitors trying to do the same, there is nary a carcass, nor even a bone. For that matter, not even an up-close, in-focus photo clearly showing the Monster’s features. When one considers how often whales and dolphins are spotted in much larger bodies of water and in much lower population densities, it’s easy to see the extreme unlikelihood of Nessie’s existence.

Many of the sightings are likely the result of logs being thrust above the surface. This is especially prone to happen because of seiches, which are waves in an enclosed body of water. Imagine getting out of the bathtub and the resultant waves that flow back and forth. This can happen in a lake, with various physical phenomenon replacing a freshly-washed body standing up.

While lakes have a tranquil look, there are waves below the surface. In springtime, the warming temperatures cause the lake surface to heat up, while the wind churns the water to distribute the heat down to about 60 feet. So there is a warm upper layer and a cool bottom layer, somewhat analogous to oil and water.  When this circumstance is combined with a wind stoppage, it’s as if a giant got out the lake. The upper layer water begins to flow, relieving the pressure on the lower level, which begins to flow in the opposite direction. This can have the effect of dislodging logs and vegetation and shooting them to the surface. This is most likely to occur in lakes that are long, narrow, and deep, and which experience strong winters and have winds that run the length but not breadth of the lake. All of this applies to Loch Ness. So most sightings are either of logs being displaced or of Nessie finishing his bath.

 

 

 

“The problem of the root” (Cryptobotany)

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In 1924, the New York World ran a first-hand account of a young woman sacrificed to a carnivorous plant that resembled an oversized pineapple.

This death-by-tropical fruit tale began with German explorer Carl Liche foraging through the Madagascar jungle. Accompanying Liche was a companion, Hendrick, who went by one name in the sidekick tradition of Tonto, Robin, and Watson. This duo did the 1920s version of networking and enticed the cave-dwelling Mkodo people to help them hack and slice their way through their journey.

As penetrating thick vegetation by blade goes, it was going swimmingly enough until they stumbled upon the eight-foot pineapple lookalike. From the top sprouted eight slender leaves about 12 feet long, which were augmented by hook-shaped thorns. A culvert was filled with sweet liquid. Surrounding this receptacle were long, hairy tendrils, while the trunk was dark and very hard. The tribespeople then offered one of their women as a sacrifice to their delectable deity. She was forced to drink the liquid, which enraged the pineapple, who grabbed hold of the victim, suffocating, then consuming her.  

This tale was consistent with the yellow journalism era that favored massive headlines, minuscule fact-checking, imagination over investigation, and exaggerated artist’s renditions instead of photographs of the alleged subject.

At the same time, readers had also been entranced by tales of 800-pound hairy monsters and vine-shrouded lost cities that turned out to be gorillas and Mayan ruins, respectively. So why not a people-pulverizing pineapple? Believing that then would be different than swallowing it today.

Still, the Roaring Twenties forerunners of James Randi and Michael Shermer found reasons to disbelieve the tale beyond its fantastic nature and lack of corroboration. For one, Liche described perpetually-waving tendrils that are unknown to any plant species. Also, the murderous Madagascan monster was evolutionarily untenable. It would have needed to have been assembled by Victor Frankenstein’s botanist equivalent. Some of its specialized features are known in other plants, but no known member of the botanical world has all of them. In fact, this creature featured elements that came from different plant groups. It would be like an ape with wings. Such a combination could never emerge from random mutation and natural selection.

Multiple return trips failed to turn up a killer pineapple, nor even the tribe that had sacrificed one of their young maidens to it. It turned out the Mkodo were fabricated as well, and so too were their supposed travel companions, Liche and Hendrick. The story had been made up by the World’s Edmund Spencer.

This was the most well-known tale of people-eating plants. But there have been others, such as the Nicaraguan Vampire Vine, whose octopus-like appendages trapped its prey with rope-like roots and excreted a gum with a foul odor and taste. Combined with its victims’ screams, it repulsed all the senses.

Central and South America have also been the supposed location of trees who use either spikes or constricting branches to bleed or squeeze careless explorers or natives to their deaths. Also, a U.S. explorer in the Philippines reported that a tree hypnotized him with waving vines and was trying to lull him to his death. So much more subtle than the angry conifers in the Wizard of Oz.

Consistent with the region, India’s killer plant targeted not man, but his cows/reincarnated ancestors, using branches like arms to ensnare and kill its bovine prey.

There are carnivorous plants, of course, with the Venus Flytrap being the most well known. Plants, unlike animals, are capable of producing their own food and they soak up minerals from the soil. But in wet areas like swamps and bogs, plants sometimes lose potential minerals to running water. They adapt by becoming carnivorous so they can pilfer insect nutrients. Humans appear safe since the largest carnivorous plant, the Nepenthes vine, feasts on nothing bigger than frogs.

Another reason to not fear the plant world is that almost all carnivorous ones employ pheromones to lure their prey.  They would need to entice us by unleashing pizza aroma or by sprouting bulbs that resemble cheese quesadillas. Plus, multiple victims would have to fall for it over and over again, which would be as unlikely as repeated plunges into known crocodile watering holes. Moreover, a tree which has the ability to swing its vines or branches and use these supple appendages to pick up and destroy a human being is impractical.

While it may seem that I am typing the obvious, many of the subjects I write about feature implausible ideas that people subscribe to. This includes energy medicine, healing crystals, a flat (possible hollow) Earth, and Machu Picchu being built by tourists from Andromeda or Atlantis. I have yet to see a claim so baseless or extreme that it couldn’t find some believers. But when researching killer plants, I came across almost nothing. Whereas there are thousands of cryptozoology sites, there are less than 10 that address cryptobotany and I could find none where it is the main focus. Even those persons who seemed open to the idea mostly considered it intriguing, not realistic.

A good deal of my free time is spent writing this blog and otherwise promoting the skeptic movement. While it is a great passion, I would prefer to abandon it. I would love nothing more than for there to be a mass awakening that resulted in a fully-vaccinated, GMO-fed populace that realized it was the result of natural selection. I so much want to see the day when astronomy debates center on String Theory, not the shape, movement, or age of Earth.

But since this is not the case, I cannot feel too optimistic about the seeming lack of belief in trees, vines, and flowers that kill people, or at least dogs and monkeys. A few paragraphs back, I outlined some of the scientific reasons a man-devouring shrub was very unlikely. But cases just as strong are made against Bigfoot, so why are persons pursuing a bipedal ape, but not a bush that could devour it? Why are those who are fascinated by the notion of a living plesiosaur inclined to show little interest in real-life Audrey II? I think there are four reasons.

First, for the cryptozoology enthusiast, the thrill is the chase. With a man-eating plant, one could find it, but it wouldn’t be able to get away, so the chase is over. And since it’s stationary, it probably couldn’t even said to have been captured. Asserting that a sustainable population of lumbering giant apes has also managed impregnable stealth is rather silly, but at least the beasts have locomotion that would make it possible for them to get away and hide. But a pernicious plant isn’t going anywhere.

A second reason the interest is so low is because cryptobotany is missing the out-of-focus photos, the videos shot through thick brush, and the contemporary anecdotes that populate cryptozoological circles. An alleged Bigfoot photo can be scoured for clues as to how its hair would have evolved, to estimate its height, or to proclaim it as proof it eats twigs and berries. But cryptobotancial images are limited to artist renderings that sometimes feature its shrieking human lunch. They are not purported to be the genuine article so there are no clues to search for, no reason to try and deduct what type of plant it might be or how it digests humans.  

Third, contemporary first-hand accounts are missing. Someone can claim a Bigfoot sighting and be believed and encouraged by his credulous cronies at cryptomundo.com. No further evidence will be requested. But if the same person claimed that on the way home, a cactus-like creature ate his goat, persons would ask where this stickered killer was and the claim would wither.

A fourth reason is that believers prefer their crypto critters to inhabit deep forests, rivers, or mountaintops, areas that are largely inaccessible to man. But this feature would doom a plant that munched on large mammals since prey would venture its way too seldom for it to avoid starvation.

For these reasons, belief in man-eating plants seems to be almost non-existent. Now back to work on making that the case for Reiki, chemtrails, and Tarot cards.

 

 

“Shark Weak” (Modern megalodons)

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There are nearly 500 species of shark, most of which are harmless to humans, with obvious exceptions such as the hammerhead and great white.

According to Ryan Haput at Skeptoid, the fossil record reveals there was a much larger and more lethal shark millions of year ago, the megalodon, which likely could have devoured multiple great whites and hammerheads at once.

As part of its race against the History Channel to the bottom of the Stupid Pit, the Discovery Channel ruined one of its few remaining gems, Shark Week, by featuring a supposed documentary on a search for a living megalodon during the 2013 season. Like This is Spinal Tap, the mockumentary was hilarious. Unlike Spinal Tap, the producers were hoping to have it taken seriously. What is not funny is a network that started out as a science ally ended up producing faux documentaries they tried to pass off as authentic. They were busted when the supposed marine biologist leading the expedition was revealed to be actor Darron Meyer. The fact that they never found a living example did not keep them from naming the program, “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives.”

This was allegedly a giant monster hunt but was actually just a wild goose chase. What’s sad is that a TV program whose mission was tracking down unverified creatures would be a fascinating, entertaining way of bringing zoology to the masses. But to actually succeed, the scientists and producers would need to pursue insects or maybe small reptiles in a rain forest. Meanwhile, cryptozoologists and Discovery Channel executives prefer their secretive animals to have fangs, claws, and the ability to shred humans with ease. Minor point here, but the megalodon search is not precisely a cryptozoological undertaking, since the animal once swam our oceans. Promoters are not asserting a new species, but the existence of a living fossil.

According to Haput, giant triangular fossil teeth were discovered at least as early as the 17th Century, by Danish naturalist Nicolaus Steno. These are the largest shark teeth ever, up to seven inches long. Haput wrote, “Estimating the size of the shark…is difficult because the majority of the fossils found are isolated teeth or disarticulated vertebra, but it was likely between 50 and 70 feet and weighed up to 100 metric tons.” Most exciting to the Crypto Crowd, it had a bite that would produce 10 times the force of a Great White commoner.

Based on the evidence, paleontologists conclude that the megalodon was a large predatory coastal shark that went extinct 2.6 million years ago.

In the Discovery Channel shlock fest, staged footage shows a boat being attacked, with the passengers concluding the damage is inconsistent with encountering an angry whale. The next obvious step is hyperbolic post hoc reasoning, so enter marine biologist Collin Drake, who deduces that it must be a megalodon because a giant fin was captured in a photo of a German U-boat in these same waters during World War II.

I love the concept of chasing a giant aquatic best, but want it to be done in “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” or “Attack of the Giant Leeches.” I don’t want it in purported science documentaries.

This one featured sonar readings, beached whales, and an enormous amount of magical thinking that tied those elements into a giant prehistoric shark. In fact, the only piece of evidence presented was a Megalodon tooth allegedly found in 10,000-year-old sediment. But paleontologists who examined the find concluded it was an example of reworking. This is where a tooth erodes out of its original encasement and is re-preserved in newer rock.

Dr. Steven Novella has said that alternative medicine uses science the way a drunk uses a lamppost – for support, not illumination. Similarly, the Discovery Channel will gladly embrace genuine science if it furthers its goals, such as establishing that a 100-foot beast swims amongst us, ready to devour surfers, seals, and maybe even a blue whale. So the Channel identifies climate change as the reason the animal has swum from the depths of the sea back to the coast. In their explanation, warming oceans have forced the super beast back to his old chomping grounds.

Near the end of the program, team members deploy a life size whale decoy and 5,000 gallons of chum. A blurry, shaky image follows, during which the monster is tagged before diving more than 6,000 feet. Drake concludes, “I believe we just encountered megalodon,” cramming his version of the Scientific Method into one sentence.

As noted earlier, the biologist was later revealed to be an actor. No coincidence there, noted oceanographer David Kerstetter. “If even one credible scientist had doubts about this, the Discovery Channel wouldn’t have had to use actors,” he said. “But there is no discussion among fisheries professionals whether Megalodon is extinct.”

Indeed, no fossils indicate a megalodon in the last 2.5 million years. Haput noted, “This date coincides with the rise of our modern composition of whale diversity, including the gigantic filter feeders like the blue whale, which were smaller in general during the time of the megalodon. This is also around the time we start seeing orca in the fossil record, suggesting that there may have been intense competition driving the megalodon to extinction or that orca evolved shortly after the extinction of the shark to fill that niche in the ecosystem.”

In her takedown of the documentary, Discover Magazine’s Christie Wilcox wrote that the Channel could actually have made a worthwhile documentary about the megalodon: “They were incredible, fascinating sharks. There’s a ton of actual science about them that is well worth a two hour special.”

When the Discovery Channel was justifiably excoriated for trying to pass fiction off as fact, executives meekly noted it included a disclaimer about events being dramatized. This would justify recreating an actual moment, but no “Dramatized Events” umbrella is so broad as to include completely fabricated events, fake newscasts being called real, or claiming an actor is a marine biologist. In doing so, the Discovery Channel created a whopper bigger than the one they were chasing.

“Featureless presentation” (Bigfoot)

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There are dozens of purported cryptids worldwide, from the relatively small Chupacabra to the behemoth Mokele-Mbembe, from benevolent leprechauns to bloodthirsty New Jersey Devils, from aesthetically-pleasing mermaids to revolting Skunk Apes.

But no Champys, Batututs, or Manananngals have managed to penetrate the cryptozoology triumvirate of Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, and Bigfoot. And among this trio, Sasquatch reigns. This says less about the monster than about those seeking him. Nessie is underwater and the abominable snowman resides in the world’s highest mountain range, but with Bigfoot, anyone in North America can get a gander. Mix this desire with preconceptions, then throw in thick vegetation and an upright bear, and you’ve got a sighting to report.

I have dealt with claims from Bigfoot proponents before, so want this time to focus on some of the lesser-known arguments against the notion of Sasquatch.

First are the alleged Bigfoot vocals. Part of Bigfoot lore are the yelps, shrieks, and wails heard by terrified but excited hikers and campers. Yet these reported sounds are too varied to have come from one creature. No one would mistake a howling wolf for a croaking toad, yet wildly varying sounds are all placed under the Bigfoot vocal umbrella.

A second problem is the absence of tracks. Bigfoot aficionados explain away the total lack of roadkill and other corpses by assigning to Bigfoot extreme stealthiness. Yet even if he were a skilled recluse, he would still need to leave tracks, and even Bigfoot’s most-known investigators, such as Jeff Meldrum, have come up empty. Meldrum is an anthropologist, so he would know where to look and what to look for if stalking a North American bipedal ape. After all, rare mammal tracks are found by expert biologists who know where and when to look.

Many alleged tracks have been reported, of course, but this brings us to the third problem. Bigfoot is supposed to live in forests and on mountains, making his way over rocks, ice, sharp fern leaves, cockle-burs, rushing streams, and thorns. This should produce feet that are rough, scarred, calloused, broken, and torn. Instead the prints are smooth, almost manicured. They should appear consistent with an animal who has adapted for rugged conditions, but instead are featureless. Additionally, a large, lumbering bipedal primate should have toes that splay apart, as they do in wild primates. Instead, the toes seem neatly placed together. This is all strong evidence against the existence of Sasquatch unless we credit the monster with footwear innovation or the ability to fly.

Finally, Bigfoot DNA in the wilderness should be ubiquitous. Melba Ketchum purported to have evidence that Bigfoot was a cross between homo sapiens and an unknown animal. For maximum benefit, she should have had it being a Roswell alien.

Explaining an imaginary animal by invoking another imaginary animal is obviously unsatisfying. And if Bigfoot were real, scientists would regularly encounter DNA consistent with a North American bipedal ape. Yet this has evaded Ketchum, Meldrum, everyone else. Desire, preconceptions, vegetation, and bears can only get you so far.

“The tooth comes out” (Tooth Fairy Science)

tooth

When my children put teeth under their pillow, they wake up with substantially more money than I did at their age.

If attempting to ascertain why, I could examine various factors, such as whether the amount the Tooth Fairy leaves has kept up with inflation, if the Fairy values incisors more than molars, and if the time in between lost choppers impacts the amount left. I could query 1,000 children, analyze results for socio-economic trends and determine if there is a correlation between the frequency of Tooth Fairy visits and the sell of home security systems. I may even endeavor to conclude once and for all if the Fairy is male, female, or androgynous. The findings could be put in a snazzy hardcover book with impressive graphics and detailed footnotes. Yet none of this would establish that a stealthy, mobile spirit is replacing extracted calcified objects with cash.

Tooth Fairy Science refers to doing research on an unverified phenomenon to determine what its effects are, rather than to ascertain if it exists.  It is post hoc reasoning in research form. The phrase was coined by Dr. Harriet Hall.

This shoddy science is a regular feature of studies into ghosts, cryptozoology, reincarnation, alien visitors, alternative medicine, parapsychology, and creationism.

I have three co-workers who believe our office is haunted. Curiously, this sprit only manifests itself when the workers are by themselves at night. Perhaps he is nocturnal and dislikes crowds. We have ample video and audio equipment in the office, and we could set these up and record what times bumps most occur, detect any unexplained shadows, and note any high-pitched whistles. This data could by analyzed and a conclusion reached about the ghost’s characteristics. But this would not take into account wind, pipes, electromagnetic interference, or a worker on floor above coming in at 11 p.m. We would have to assume the ghost’s existence and attribute these factors to it.

Similarly, cryptozoologists will shoot sonar into Loch Ness or look for disturbed vegetation in Bigfoot’s supposed stomping grounds, then attribute any findings they consider consistent with their monster to be proof the animal was there. As such, they do not consider other explanations, such as the sonar detecting a bloom of algae and zooplankton, or a warthog beating Sasquatch to the trap.

That’s because when Fairy Tale scientists uncover data that is consistent with their hypothesis, they assume the data confirms it. For example, psychiatrist Ian Stevenson spent years collecting stories from people who claimed to be reincarnated. He used these anecdotes to support his belief in reincarnation, and he used reincarnation to explain the stories, a textbook case of circular reasoning.

Moving onto alien abduction, John Mack talked with persons who claimed to have been taken by extraterrestrial beings. He assumed the stories to be real instead of considering that he might have implanted the ideas by asking leading questions, such as “Was the alien about four feet tall,” as opposed to “How tall was the alien?” The mental state and susceptibility of the subject was not considered, nor were explanations like fraud, attention-seeking, or sleep paralysis. 

Alien abductees aren’t the only subjects that spend time on a Tooth Fairy scientist’s couch. So do alternative medicine patients. Chi, meridians, and blockages are assumed to exist in “energy” medicines such as craniosacral therapy, iridology, therapueitic touch, reflexology, chiropractic, Reiki, Ayuvedic, and more. I have addressed the rest of these in previous posts, so we’ll address Therapeutic Touch here.

First, Therapeutic Touch is neither. The practitioner’s hands are close to the patient, but are never on them. As to the therapy part, practitioners claim to be able to sense a patient’s “human energy field” with their hands, then manipulate the field by moving their hands near a patient’s skin to improve their health. Scientists have detected and measured minute energies down to the subatomic level, but have never found a human energy field. Nine-year-old Emily Rosa designed a controlled test of the practice which Therapeutic Touchers failed spectacularly. Any seeming success is because of the fluctuating nature of many illnesses, the placebo effect, confirmation bias, and nonspecific effects. The latter is a common error and refers to confusing the effects of practitioner-patient interaction with the supposed effect of the treatment.

In a test that proponents claimed proved Therapeutic Touch’s validity, researchers gauged the effects of the technique on reducing nausea and vomiting in breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. All patients were on the same chemotherapy regimen and they were randomly divided into three groups of 36 patients. The first group received usual Therapeutic Test treatment, the second group got a similar treatment except the practitioners’ hands were farther from the patients, and the third group received no treatment. A single practitioner performed all the treatments, which was fatal to conducting a proper study because he should not have known which patients were receiving which treatment.

Since there is no evidence the energy field exists, there can be no evidence that how far the practitioner’s hands are from the patient would make a difference. The alleged energy can’t be measured, so there’s no reason to believe any energy was transferred to, or benefited, any patient. While the authors claimed the study showed Therapeutic Touch worked, they had failed to establish that the central feature of the practice even existed.

Likewise, parapsychologists are quick to point to rare instances of a subject performing better than chance as proof that various forms of ESP are legitimate. Unsatisfactory results are considered as the power being unable to be accessed due to cosmic interference, negative energy from a skeptical observer, or some other ad hoc reason. They look to justify the failure as owing to a particular cause rather than the cause being that the power doesn’t exist.

Then we have the creationists. The Institute for Creation Research website informs us, “The very dependability of each day’s processes are a wonderful testimony to the design, purposes, and faithfulness of the Creator. The universe is very stable. The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. Earth turns on its axis and always cycles through its day at the same speed every time.”

All of these phenomenon are explicable through known laws of physics and astronomy, and the ICR has affirmed the consequent by saying if there is order in the universe, there has to be a god controlling it, and since we see that order, a god exists. They attribute any majesty to this deity without bothering to prove his existence first. It’s one thing to do this as faith in one’s religion. It’s quite another to claim this as science while bypassing the entire Scientific Method.

I’m going to have to wrap this up. My daughter lost another tooth so I’ve got more research to conduct. 

“Creatures of the Sleight” (Gnomes and fairies)

PIXIE

My 4-year-old knows the only way he’ll play with Super Mario is through a Wii, and he has figured out that zombies are safely confined to television. So I’m unsure what to make of adults who believe in gnomes, fairies, and elves, but we’ll try to unravel this monster of a problem.

At southererncrossreview.com, Buck Young lays out the history of such creatures. Whether he made it all up or stole it from others who did, I’m unsure. In either case, his claims are accompanied by no evidence or sources.

He writes that, Once Upon a Time, “They tended the forest and took care of it, played in it, danced and sang in it, cared for wounded animals, worked out disputes between species, sat on mushrooms discussing matters of importance and drinking Labrador team, rode down streams on leaves and bark, parachuted from trees on dandelion seeds.”

If a 25-year-old pines for the 1940s, an era in which he never lived, it’s indicative that there’s something significant missing in his life. He’s supplanting his current, unsatisfying existence with a romanticized version of a time that never was, and thinks his life would be different if only he had been born in the right place and time. Fairy chasers are an even more extreme case. They are seeking an idealized world on a higher plane populated by benevolent creatures who will provide unrivaled companionship.

Not only is reality inadequate, but there are hints of self-loathing. For at some point, this paradise was ruined by malevolent men. Buck blames agriculture, one of Mankind’s most important developments. At first, he writes, farming was a Communist utopia in which everyone received a half acre of land and a goblin government fulfilled every need. Naiads brought fresh water, elves harvested vegetables, and wizards explained how the lunar cycle benefited farmers.

But then humans cleared too much land and became concerned only with the bounty, not the land from which it sprouted. With their homes chopped down and dug out, the diminutive dudes fled. Only trolls stayed behind, tormenting and killing those who tried to cross bridges or low-lying marshes. Young offers pointers on how to avoid these trolls, and since following his advice, I’ve safely journeyed over many a river. 

The problem for Young is how to square the pixies and nymphs running away with their still being here for us to try and fellowship with. He halfway explains that they live on some sort of unspecified alternate plane, and it’s up to true believers to seek them.

If we ever find them, here’s what they will look like, per a youtube video: goo.gl/Evbm1v. This montage includes the Cottingley fairies, more than 30 years after the cousins who were photographed with them revealed how they pulled the ruse. Even by the almost nonexistent standards of fairy hunters, including the Cottingley affair today is bizarre.

In the hoax, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths copied drawings of dancing girls, added wings, and propped them with hairpins. They fooled many, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who ironically created a fictional character more fascinating than the Cottingley fairies. Doyle exemplified those who want so much for  something more to be out there in a better world, that they will suspend rational thought. Combine this insatiable desire to believe with pareidolia and a horribly out-of-focus video, and they have all the proof they need.

More faint, blurry, and distant evidence is offered at ufosundisclosed.com: goo.gl/4weFKe. This site’s mission statement rests on the twin fallacies of the ad populum and the appeal to ancient authority: “The fact that these little people have been so believed in over so many millenniums in so many different cultures and lands would suggest that there is a reality behind these tales.

In actuality, these creatures have their beginnings in myths take from either literature or oral storytelling. They were not meant to be taken as real any more than Chewbacca or the Three Little Pigs were. They were either entertainment, or life lessons in the form of allegories.

Precisely what creatures the credulous seekers see is based on what culture they are in. No leprechauns are spotted in China, nor are any dragons spied flying over Dublin. No Tengu birdmen are seen in Greece, nor are any cyclops heard rumbling through Japanese forests.

As to why we can’t catch any of these Lilliputian critters, ad hoc rationalizations abound. They don’t want to be caught, they are too fast, too smart, don’t feel humans are ready, they escape to another plane, make themselves invisible, or blend into the forest.

Not that any of this would matter to the skeptic, writes poster Skygazer: “Some people are so blind to the world around them that they would be unable to see a thousand such beings if they sat on their laps.” I hear the same line from cryptozoological circles.

This strawman is used to swerve around the fact that there are no captive or domesticated creatures after thousands of years of sightings. If a leprechaun rode a Chupacabra into Times Square and this duo was subsequently examined by biologists and doctors, and determined to be undiscovered species, this proof would satisfy me. I am a skeptic, not a denier. Although given my druthers, I’d prefer to see science verify zombies and Chewbacca.