“Trippin’ over Sasquatch” (Cryptozoology)

BF

There are some people who delight in past mistakes made by scientists. They enthusiastically repeat these tales of science failures by posting them on the Internet or texting them into a cell phone, all while living in a world with airplanes and without smallpox.

What they fail to understand is that science is a process, not an end point. This process includes attempts to falsify and recalibrate, and test again. When mistakes are made, they are acknowledged and corrected. Moreover, such mistakes don’t prove competing notions, despite the assertions made by proponents of alternative medicine, creationism, and cryptozoology.

In my skeptic experience, science-loathing crypto lovers are relatively few in number. A majority of those intrigued by the concept of discovering a giant new beast present the search as part of a continuing effort to expand zoology. Now, I’ve never been much impressed by this rationale. There are a gazillion undiscovered insects out there, and if increasing our knowledge of the animal kingdom were the goal, those on Finding Bigfoot would instead be pursuing a graduate degree in biology while using their vast entomological knowledge to find new creepy crawlies. They wouldn’t be looking for Bigfoot, they’d be looking for the little critters he might snack on.

Since less-intense members of the cryptozoological community advertise themselves as broadminded and merely considering the possibly these creatures exist, this means they are at least ostensibly open to the possibility that there are no monsters  under the bed, on the mountaintop, or in the jungle.

Then there are those who offer no pretense of open-mindedness. Many conspiracy theorists  offer self-congratulation for being able to think for themselves and see through media accounts. But they then quaff however much speculative and poorly-substantiated tripe the conspiracy websites can offer them. Similarly, crypto fanatics say they are the ones who are advanced enough to realize these creatures exist and excoriate anyone who questions this. Consider their reaction to skeptic Benjamin Radford’s essay on 10 reasons Bigfoot was supremely unlikely.

On the site cryptomundo.com, one fervent believer called Radford a nihilist, another said he was an attention-seeker, while a third said debating skeptics or proffering evidence was a waste of time since “they wouldn’t consider the possible existence of Sasquatch even if they tripped over one.”

Our purpose here today is to demonstrate this claim’s falsity. First, a definition. A cryptid is a proposed animal based on anecdotes, lore, and eyewitness accounts. However many known animals there are in the world, that’s how many have gone from undiscovered to discovered, so it has happened for millennium and will continue to occur. This includes a few animals whose existence seemed unlikely, but then was validated. However, these are not triumphs for cryptozoologists because these new creatures were not found by cryptomundo.com, YouTube regulars, or producers of MonsterQuest. They were discovered and examined by anthropologists, zoologists, or biologists using the Scientific Method.

Most important, confirmatory evidence was embraced, not shunned or suppressed, despite claims of the cryptomundo crowd. Insinuations of science being unbending and perhaps even covering up newly-discovered truths are frequent among pseudoscientists. They also play the Galileo Gambit, which is what a cryptomundo regular calling himself Hapa did. He wrote, “Plate tectonics were laughed at and was without peer review yet now is as accepted as gravity and atomic theory.” But validation of plate tectonics does not mean that Bigfoot also being ridiculed and unsupported by peer review is proof of its existence. In critical thinking circles, that is known as the false equivalence fallacy.

Further, ridicule and lack of peer review could be overcome. Consider the platypus, a venomous, egg-laying mammal with a duckbill, otter-like feet, and a flat tail.  Another odd distinction it holds is being one of only two known mammals to hunt by means of electroreception. Many in the West presumed the platypus to be a fraud. To be sure, it is such a hodgepodge animal that it could be used as a rejoinder to the crocoduck challenge issued by confused creationist Ray Comfort and his sidekick, Kirk Cameron. More on that unintentionally hilarious episode here: tiny.cc/z0mcoy

While scientists viewed the platypus with suspicion, that’s different from being closed-minded. They asked to see the evidence and it was presented. By contrast, this is not possible with Bigfoot, Yeti, or the Loch Ness Monster. There is no evidence to see, nothing to analyze, nothing to put under the microscope, no body part to test, no findings to submit for peer review.

But with the platypus, there was a corpse to consider, and George Shaw, keeper of the British Museum’s department of natural history, examined the find. The Aussie animal was so quirky, and coming in the era of P.T. Barnum and the Fiji mermaid, Shaw had to consider the animal to be a potential hoax. But after careful reviewing the evidence and following the Scientific Method, Shaw became convinced. He wrote, “I can perceive no appearance of any deceptive preparation, nor can the most accurate examination of expert anatomists discover any deception.”

Despite the claims of the cyrptomundo aficionados a few paragraphs back, scientists embrace newly-confirmed evidence. If Hapa and his cronies ever produce a Sasquatch specimen that shows itself to be genuine under the protocols Shaw used on the platypus, Bigfoot will be acknowledged, given a scientific name, and categorized.

Similarly, the giant squid for centuries was thought to be in the purview of exaggerated sailor stories. The aquatic beasts were referenced by Aristotle and Pliney the Elder, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th Century that note was made of carcasses washing up ashore. These were examined and, through science, the giant squid went from a kraken-like myth to a verified reality.

Other examples of confirmed cryptids are the mountain gorilla and komodo dragon. There is also the okapi, whose discovery and confirmation doubled the size of the Giraffidae family. Nineteenth-Century Europeans had heard tales of an elusive forest beast known as the African Unicorn and this was confirmed when the British governor of Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston, came into possession of an okapi skull and hide. These are examples of the third strongest piece of evidence when looking for new animals, after a live specimen and a complete corpse. When the okapi remains were confirmed as authentic, science classified it.

Cryptozoologists sometimes use such finds to bolster support for the existence or Chupacabra, Sasquatch, Nessie, or Yeti. But these so-far mythical beasts lack the proof that moved the other animals from suspected to confirmed. Fuzzy photos, wide-eyed witnesses, and ad hominem attack on skeptics are not evidence.

It is understandable why a giant squid would be hard to find and the large terrestrial mammals that Western scientists were only able to verify in the 19th Century lived at a time when getting from England to Africa or Australia was much more arduous, time-consuming, and expensive than today. Also, these were solitary animals living in remote locations, such as a dense forest, nearly insurmountable mountaintop, or Australian outback.

By contrast, Nessie is said to reside in an enclosed area, there are now regular treks up the Himalayas, and Washington state forests have been visited by outdoors enthusiasts and vacationers for decades. No Sasquatch has been killed by a hunter or vehicle, no hiker or camper has stumbled onto its remains. Then there are the untold hours spent by persons using video equipment, bait, and night vision devices to search in the precise location where sightings have been alleged, and none have come away with so much as a hair or tooth fragment that might belong to the sought-after cryptid.

If Finding Bigfoot lands its prey, I will announce this as a major cryptozoologist victory, and do so on my head for good measure. But so far, the platypus, giant squid, mountain gorilla, okapi, and komodo dragon, and every other confirmed creature were discovered by scientists. This shows why measured inquiry, careful investigation, and verified evidence is valued over hearsay, speculation, and desire.

 

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“Tall tail” (Jersey Devil)

DEVIL

Even by the lax standards of cryptozoology, the Jersey Devil seems an unlikely creature. It is less biologically plausible than a bipedal ape, a modern-day plesiosaur, a Himalayan half-hominid, or a canine-reptilian hybrid. Descriptions of the Devil more resemble a chimera. His serpent body stands about four feet high, he has an equine head, cloven hooves, two small, mostly useless arms with talons, a forked tail, and it takes to flight utilizing leathery wings reminiscent of a bat’s.

This Devil’s tale is split into two periods. The latter started with a glut of sightings around 1909. The first stretches back another three centuries. That legend centers of the offspring of Daniel Leeds, an English immigrant and historical footnote who published the American Almanack in days or yore when they spelled almanac that way.

In the story, Leeds’ wife, Deborah Smith, gave birth to her 13th son in 1735. Different versions exist as to what happened immediately after. One story is that Smith or her clergyman cursed the newborn; others say it was horribly deformed (not sure what other kind of deformity there is); the least believable version is that the infant transformed into a monster who killed his mother, then escaped up the chimney. A less macabre version excludes the matricide, but still has a Devil being unleashed into the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.  

Biographical records, however, show that even mundane elements of this tale are in error. Leeds died in 1720, 15 years before the diabolical birth. And he was married to Ann Stacy, then Dorothy Young, but never to a Deborah Smith.

Leeds’ writings and the foreboding locale in which he penned them likely contributed to this legend. He started as a Quaker, but had a falling out with the church and a long-running feud was born. His former church dismissed his work as a blasphemy for attempting to blend Christianity with occultism or science. For example, he would use astronomy to try and gain a deeper understanding of the nature of God, a technique that got Giordano Bruno burned at the stake. Leeds suffered a fate nowhere near that excruciating but Quakers were forbidden from reading his work, and church leaders were only too happy to point out that the Leeds family crest featured a dragon, and indeed, later descriptions of the Jersey Devil corresponded with the animal on the Leeds crest.

Meanwhile, the foreboding appearance of the Pine Barrens made them a natural stomping ground for a creepy creeping cryptid. There are close to a thousand legendary animals said to exist worldwide, but I know of none who have an urban industrial district or strip mall as their place of origin. Nay, to be mysterious and captivating, a beast need arise in a deep loch, underground cavern, enchanted forest, foreboding windswept mountaintop, impenetrable jungle, time warp, or outer space.

Besides the Jersey Devil, several ghosts are said to haunt the Pine Barrens, including Captain Kidd’s. In Leeds’ time, the barrens were home to highwaymen, fugitives, poachers, moonshiners, deserting soldiers, escaping slaves, and others from society’s outskirts, so this also makes it fertile ground for satanic spawn.

References to the creature before the 20th Century normally refer to it as the Leeds Devil, but by the spate of 1909 sightings, few knew who Leeds was, so the name Jersey Devil was assumed.  

Some of the sightings may have been of the Sandhill Crane, a large slender bird capable of standing tall and spreading its two-meter bat-like wings. Its footprints can also be said to slightly resemble cloven prints. It’s likely that a majority of the sightings, though, were of other animals, or persons dressed in black, or even of rustling tree branches, all interpreted by persons wanting to be part of the hot new craze.

An attempt was made to monetize the hysteria through the beast’s “capture” and display. This was shown to be a fraud wherein hucksters had affixed artificial wings to a kangaroo, then used a harness to control its movement in order to make it seem menacing. From the rear of the cage, a stick was used to elicit shrieks or whatever sounds captive marsupials make when being prodded for purposes of cruel entertainment.

Reports of the flying fiend happen far less frequently than they do for the Big Three of cryptozoology: Bigfoot, Yeti, and Nessie. But Devil sightings do feature the same unverified accounts and complete lack of bone, hair, or skin samples. There are hundreds of purported sightings of a menacing, bouncing, beast who seems only too willing and able to mutilate those he stalks, yet can never get around to finishing the job. While most tales feature anonymous witnesses, Napoleon Bonaparte’s less territorially-ambitious brother, Joseph, claimed a sighting. And a naval hero, Commodore Stephen Decatur Jr., allegedly shot a cannonball at the fleeing beast, with less success than he had targeting Barbary sailors.

Even most who believe in the Jersey Devil reject the original tale of his demonic nature. But without immortality and supernatural powers, a sustained existence seems hopelessly remote. The Jersey Devil being real would necessitate a sustainable population existing for 400 years with none of its eggs being discovered, with it never being a victim of hunters or motorists, and with its remains never having been found by hikers, campers, or anglers.

There have been hundreds of reputed sightings, but the plural of anecdote is not data. Sightings are weak evidence and these hundreds do not combine to from one strong piece of evidence, such as carcass or at least a body part. There is a group called the Jersey Devil Hunters, but the only place they will ever make a capture is in a hockey arena.  

“Remember the data” (Anecdotes vs. evidence)

ONE MAN

While “Don’t knock it until you try it” is the cliché, skeptic leader Brian Dunning thinks a better suggestion is, “Don’t try it until you knock it.” He was being somewhat sarcastic, as no opinion should be formed until all available evidence is considered. But his point was that personal experiences are inferior to data.

When it comes to favoring personal experience, this mistake is most frequently committed with regard to alternative medicine therapies and products. People often trust their perceptions more than any other source. But clinical test results provide a much better assessment of efficiency than someone’s word that it worked.

Our senses are prone to error and not everyone’s are as pronounced as the next person’s. Further, we all carry preconceived notions, biases, and expectations. Then there are mood swings, good days, bad days, and medium days. Hence, the assessment of a person grabbed off the street will be filtered through his or her prejudices, biases, preconceptions, preferences, and forgetfulness. It is impractical that their anecdote will be proof that the product or procedure will work (or fail) for everyone.

That’s why scientists use controlled, randomized trials. These will overcome the biases and other weaknesses addressed in the previous paragraph. As Dunning explained, “If you want to know whether listening to a binaural beat will make you fall asleep, a science fan knows not to try it to find out. She knows her sleepiness varies throughout every day and she knows that the expectation that it’s supposed to make her sleepy skews her perception. Instead, she looks at properly controlled testing that’s been done. Those subjects didn’t know what they were listening to, they didn’t know what it was supposed to do to them, and some of them unknowingly listened to a placebo recording. She knows the difference between real, statistically-sound data and one person’s anecdotal experience.”

Trying an untested product compromises a person’s ability to objectively analyze testing data about that product. This is also true in areas beyond alternative medicine. It can come into play while reading a horoscope, seeing an alleged ghost, or attending a psychic seminar. A cousin of mine did the latter and afterward, she excitedly posted there was “NO WAY” the psychic have known what she did, save an esoteric ability.

This is known as subjective validation, where an experience being personally impactful is considered evidence that the phenomenon is authentic. But with psychics, there are issues regarding cold reading, selective memory by audience members, and the lack of confirmatory testing. In my cousin’s case, the experience resonated with her because she had an intense experience, but that is not controlled data. A test could be designed, and in fact have been carried out, and no medium has ever consistently performed better than chance.

Still, persons will insist they know something works because it did for them. But this is not necessarily what happened. During the 2016 Olympics, athletes tried cupping and elastic kinesio tape, two alternative therapies completely lacking in evidence and with no plausible working mechanism behind them. Desperate for the extra edge against fellow world-class athletes, Olympians tried them and their personal experiences convinced them it worked. Yet these swimmers, runners, and gymnasts also had access to personal trainers, excellent nutrition, regimented rest periods, massage, icing, and other attentiveness that guaranteed they would perform at their peak. Giving the credit for victory to cupping wins the post hoc reasoning Gold Medal. Michael Phelps, after all, had collected plenty of first place finishes before he started overheating, misshaping, and discoloring his back. There’s also the issue of those who tried these techniques and came in 17th.  

Now we will examine another instance in which personal experience is treated as preferable to tested evidence. An Answers in Genesis chestnut is “Were you there,” which they genuinely consider a solid retort to proof about the age of the universe, Earth’s earliest days, and the development of homo sapiens. This is a vacuous, absurd reply. No one questions if Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence by asking historians if they were there when he dipped his quill into ink.

This supposed “gotcha” question reveals Young Earth Creationist’s substantial ignorance about how science works. As Dunning explained, “Scientific conclusions are never based simply on personal reports, but upon direct measurements of testable evidence. Nobody’s been to the Sun, either, but we know a great deal about it because we can directly measure and analyze the various types of radiation it puts out.”

Likewise, chemists can’t see quarks and astronomers can’t see dark matter, but these entities can be measured and their attributes analyzed. The answer to a time-honored riddle is that a tree falling in forest does indeed emit soundwaves whether anyone is there to perceive them. Likewise, Earth formed, heated, and cooled regardless of whether this was being witnessed. Researchers understand the science behind the various dating methods that are used to determine this. In the same way that DNA is preferable to a witness at trial, radiometric dating, carbon 14 dating, and the speed of light are more important than the fact that no one from Earth’s earliest days is alive to recall it.

From those that deny something has happened, we move to those who assert that something has happened despite lacking concrete evidence for this claim. Specifically, some persons will wonder what’s the harm in using a product or technique if it makes a person feel better.

The harm can come in such forms as using Therapeutic Touch instead of antibiotics. Such methods not only waste time and money, but the patient may bypass legitimate medicine that would work. And in certain cases, such as with colloidal silver, black salve, and some essential oils, active ingredients are being ingested and overuse can be dangerous.

Another way in which personal experiences are trusted over clinical evidence is to claim, “I know what I saw.” Yet senses are prone errors, deficiencies, and bias. A popular video asks viewers to count the number of times a basketball is passed between a group of persons. When most respondents are asked to give that number, they usually give the correct response. But they also fumble when asked the follow up question, “What walked through the group while the ball was being passed?” It was a man in a gorilla suit ambling by, yet most viewers missed it because they were so consumed with keeping track of the number of tosses.

“Our memories change dramatically over time and were incomplete to begin with,” Dunning wrote. “And who knows how good was the data that your brain had to work with was to begin with? Lighting conditions can come into play, as can movement, distractions, backgrounds, and expectations of what should be seen. Possible misidentifications and perceptual errors all had a part in building your brain’s experience.”

That’s why Bigfoot sightings are not considered to be “case closed” proof of the beast’s existence. Anthropologists would need to look at testable evidence, which in the case of Sasquatch, is utterly lacking.

Out of frustration, aficionados of alternative medicine, conspiracy theories, cryptozoological critters, and a Young Earth, and will sometimes label scientists and skeptics “closed-minded.” But closed-mindedness includes refusing to change ideas no matter how much contrary evidence one is presented with. Since phone calls from 9/11 hijack victims described Islamic terrorists, Truthers concocted an evidence-free ad hoc assertion that those victims and the family members they telephoned were in on the government’s plot.

Meanwhile, being open-minded means changing your position when you discover you’ve been mistaken. I balked when I first heard that race was a social construct instead of a biological one. Using some of the reasoning addressed earlier, “I knew what I saw,” and clearly race had to be biological since I could see the difference between someone from Canada and someone from Nigeria. But as I learned about alleles, gene frequency, migratory routes, blood types, and the Human Genome Project, I changed my mind.

There are mounds of evidence that disprove such notions as chemtrails, chiropractic, a Flat Earth, vaccine shedding being the cause of disease, and the first man being spoken into sudden existence 5,000 years ago. Yet hardcore adherents to these ideas consider the skeptic or scientist to be the closed-minded one.

People who assert this think of science as an unbending set of dictates from dour men in crisp lab coats or arrogant academics perched in ivory towers. However, science is a process that continually adapts, refines, improves, adds to, subtracts from, and alters data, according to where the evidence leads. And that refinement is subject to still further peer review, examination, and testing. That is why scientifically controlled data on the ability of a eucalyptus rub to cure rheumatism will always be preferable to what Aunt Tillie says.

“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)

nessbetter

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.