Well, the long-awaited day has come: Tomorrow at 10pm on Spike is the premiere of 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty. As some of you know, I was alternately intrigued and embarrassed about being intrigued last year by the way paranormal claims have evolved recently under new media pressure.
I’ve considered all that stuff nonsense for thirty years (admiring science-based debunking magazines like Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, which you should read). And I would contend no new evidence of value for any paranormal claims (including God) has come forth in the era of social media and sensationalist cable TV -- on the other hand, I was tempted to write an article last year about how new media, especially YouTube, had changed belief in such things in ways one might not have predicted.
For instance, you’d think the ease of posting video might simply kill off all such claims, since everyone now (basically) has to put up or shut up in an era of ready cellphone videos. On the other hand, believers have now become adept at reading evidence of Bigfoot into even the blurriest of videos.
But the epistemological tango does not end there, since even the believers have become prone to making sarcastic jokes online about their weariness at looking at so many inconclusive “blobsquatches.” Call me irresponsible, but on balance, I think the newfound ease with which people can drift back and forth between the believer and skeptic communities is probably a good thing, limbering up some minds on both sides. The believers definitely need to learn the basics of skepticism, but we skeptics could do with a lot more education about why some things have more persuasive power (yes, even to smart people) than other things.
A climax of sorts was reached last spring when the Bigfoot people released a much-touted documentary that was supposed to unveil a Bigfoot carcass once and for all -- and of course failed, with one of the documentary’s stars ending up derided as a two-time hoaxer (one who is still at it, since he will appear on Bigfoot Bounty, as this article explains). He all but says -- and you almost can’t blame him -- that he’ll keep doing this if people are dumb enough to keep letting him. A bit like Lucy with the football in Peanuts.
I predict Spike will end up not having to give away their $10 million bounty to anyone, and their blog about the show has barely been updated since it was launched over a year ago with a promise of Bigfoot updates. Just as the unclaimed $1 million-plus prize from the James Randi Educational Foundation for any proof of psychics inclines me to believe there are no psychic powers, the likely unclaimed Spike bounty should by rights put an end to Bigfoot claims -- though the skeptic should never allow himself to move so far from agnosticism as to be blindsided if something really weird happens.
Around the same time last year’s Bigfoot documentary came out, coincidentally, the UFO believers gave it arguably their best shot by releasing a documentary called Sirius based on the so-called Disclosure Project, which encourages military veterans in particular to come forward in whistleblower-type hearings and video interviews to tell what they (think they) know. Ultimately, no smoking gun (and an apparent tiny alien corpse shown in the film and admirably subjected to scientific scrutiny at a Stanford genetics lab may just be an aborted human fetus) but an A for organizational effort.
(On the other side of the debate, sort of, I am also intrigued by the documentary Mirage Men, due on DVD in April, which alleges that far from covering up aliens, government has been subtly encouraging belief in them to distract the public from stealth technology tests.)
I spent three decades (yes, even back in high school) discouraging Disclosure-type efforts as largely a waste of time, but I can’t help thinking, just tactically, that the next step for the Disclosure Project probably ought to be putting pressure on new-minted Obama advisor John Podesta, an ardent advocate of UFO information disclosure by the government and chairman of the influential left-wing thinktank the Center for American Progress. (He also dislikes the Sequester budget cuts, but I doubt any left-wing comedians will be doing jokes likening resistance to budget cuts to belief in aliens. If I had to pick, I would call advocacy of UFO disclosure the wisest of his positions. I wish I were joking.)
As for me, conscious of the fact that government workers are wrong with great frequency, I cannot put too much stock in even the most riveting tales told by Disclosure Project interviewees (and I readily admit some of them sound very convincing, intelligent, and above all martially-efficient in their accounts, chock full of radar jargon and everything). However, in my admittedly far sloppier way, I have come up with two favorite accounts (in the sense of almost giving a skeptic doubts) amidst all the paranormal claims (I know of) made online. Both are UFO-related, and I have not seen a scrap of persuasive evidence for any Bigfoot, ghost, psychic, God, demon, or for that matter UFO abduction story:
1. As I’ve mentioned before, the 1994 sighting at the Ariel School in rural Zimbabwe is intriguing because even if we assume no extraterrestrials were involved, we are left with a bizarre glimpse of just how strange and psychologically-affecting an incident can befall a very large and intelligent-seeming group of children.
This hokey three-minute video account isn’t such a bad summary, though it only scratches the surface of the hours and hours of footage of sixty-plus children of varying ages swearing they saw a saucer and a tiny man land near their school at recess -- and still swear it sixteen years later when re-interviewed in 2010 in several cases. (The TV producer in me knows this could easily be turned into a good documentary if someone competent -- and skeptical -- edited all the raw footage, though at the same time as a skeptic I feel guilty and exploitative even being slightly tempted to do so.)
Even a couple skeptics who’ve written about the case have been left with the unsettling conclusion that the best terrestrial explanation might be that someone went to elaborate lengths to hoax kids in rural Zimbabwe -- which is itself rather odd, you have to admit.
Then again, the man interviewing the kids a few days after the incident (seen in that linked clip) was the late psychiatrist John Mack, an inadvertently pushy believer in UFO phenomena who likely irresponsibly led many patients under “hypnotic regression” to believe they’d been abducted (and now it sounds like fodder for a swell, character-driven, ambiguous dramatic film). Still, just knowing you can turn kids into such convincing witnesses, even if there was nothing (much) there, is intriguing in itself -- though perhaps not surprising given things like innocent people still being released from jail two decades after the “Satanic abuse” preschool trials.
2. This TV account gets a little complicated, but basically numerous credible witnesses not only saw something like a black, lighted, silent, hovering triangle making its way low across Ohio in 1994 and Illinois in 2000 (with brief interstitial material between those accounts about similar cases in 1966 and 1957), multiple independent police precincts responded to calls about the phenomena.
To the delight of TV producers everywhere, we still have the recorded and logged calls people put in to 911, complete with jokes about how bizarre the thing looked and subsequent on-the-scene cop claims that something the size of a house was rotating in the air above them. And one person got a video of it, albeit showing only tiny points of light.
We are probably not being visited by probes sent from other planets. Then again, fourteen year-old skeptic Todd would not have believed from reading dry newspaper accounts (instead of seeing video) just how credible some of the purported witnesses are and just how odd (even under the most skeptical interpretation) some of those lights in the sky are.
Of course, we have also recently confirmed that glowing gas-orbs can be produced in the days prior to an earthquake, so admitting there is some weird stuff in the world does not necessarily oblige us to prepare for membership in the United Federation of Planets. But again, one wouldn’t want to be taken completely by surprise, either.