Oct 14 2008

Mande Barung Bunk

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Comments: 9

Dipu Marak is referred to by the BBC in multiple articles as a “passionate yeti believer.” Recently Marak’s passionate belief was put to the test, and he passed (or failed, depending upon your perspective) with flying colors.

The mande barung is the local name for an alleged ape-like creature believed to inhabit the Garo hills in Meghalaya, India. It is the “Bigfoot” of the region. Incidentally, the “Yeti” is the name for such a mythical creature in Nepal.

Why is Dipu Marak a passionate believer? He says:

“We have so many reports of sightings that I sincerely believe there is some sort of huge creature in the Garo hills.”

He is committing the common fallacy of either limiting the number of hypotheses he is willing to consider, or prematurely dismissing some. Specifically he is failing to consider that many eyewitness reports can simply be wrong. There are many historical examples that prove this principle.

My favorite example is “The Great American Airship Mania of 1896-97″ which Robert E. Bartholomew documented so well. At the time there was the widespread belief that we were on the verge of inventing airships (heavier than air flying machines) – and so people starting seeing them. Their descriptions fit the quaint image of an airship, not the designs that eventually worked and took to the air.

This leads to the second factor Marak fails to consider, the role of culture and belief. Meghalaya’s Divisional Forestry Officer Shri PR Marak is quoted by the BBC as saying:

 ”As you know the presence of such a creature is an important part of our culture – passed down to us by our parents and grandparents.”

The mande barung is deeply embedded in the cultural beliefs of the region, more so even than flying saucers are in American culture. When people of that culture see something ambiguous – obscured by the dense jungle, through the corner of their eye, in a poorly lit situation, etc.,- they fill in the missing pieces with something from their cultural belief. Believing is seeing.

That people are poor eyewitnesses is well established, and so when confronted with eyewitnesses who claim to have seen an unknown creature, Occam’s razor favors this explanation. At the very least we can say that the existing evidence is compatible with the hypothesis that the mande barung exists, but also with the conclusion that the creature is purely mythological.

We can also consider plausibility. There is nothing impossible about the mande barung. It is possible for such a creature to be hiding in the dense and sparsely populated jungles of the Garo hills. However, the region is not pristine, and while there are almost certainly undiscovered species there, a large mammal is unlikely.

There is no fossil evidence of a non-human hominid surviving anytime recently. However the fossil record is imperfect and could certainly miss a small population.

So the bottom line is that the mande barung being an actual new primate species is not impossible, but is improbable.

To resolve the controversy we need evidence. Positive evidence – a specimen or biological sample, or even a clear photograph, can definitively resolve the question. However, lack of evidence is never definitive. All we can say is that the more time and effort spent on looking for the mande barung without any results, the lower the probability that it is real and not just a myth. So far there is no physical evidence.

Marak was hoping to change that. He found a tuft of fur that he believed to be from a mande barung, due to local sightings. He turned the fur over to the BBC to be tested (which suggests to me that he is a sincere believer). The results are now in: the fur has been DNA matched to a Himalayan goat. These results are mildly interesting as the fur was recovered outside the known range of the goat, but the fur does not come from a primate or some new creature – it’s a goat.

Marak’s reaction is revealing:

“While these results are discouraging, it does not affect my firm conviction that there is a yeti-like creature out there,” he said. “It has been seen too often for it to be dismissed as nothing more than a myth.”

This is not a scientific attitude. First, there is no justification for a firm conviction that the mande barung is real.  And second, evidence (in the positive or negative) should have an effect, even if it is not definitive. What Marak seems to be saying is that his “firm conviction” is actually a fixed belief.

Worse, Marak offers us this rationalization (this from an earlier interview):

“But like the Loch Ness monster this creature is obviously not fond of giving too many photo opportunities.”

I don’t think Marak helps his case by comparing the mande barung to the Loch Ness monster. He is invoking the old “shyness effect” – the argument that a controversial phenomenon that lacks evidence has precisely those characteristics necessary to preclude such evidence. This is a post-hoc rationalization for the absence of evidence.

Regarding that, he says:

“While I cannot prove conclusively that this creature definitely exists, nobody can say conclusively that it does not exist either.”

True, but irrelevant. You can never prove something does not exist, as I stated above.  But the burden of proof lies with those claiming a new phenomenon. Further, since this statement is generically true and can be said about anything lacking evidence, it cannot be used to support belief in any specific claim lacking evidence.

While I think the current scientific analysis strongly favors the conclusion that the mande barung is a mythical creature and not an existing species, my mind can be changed by new evidence. I will reasonably accommodate any new evidence that comes to light, and if something truly compelling is found will accept the mande barung as a new species.

Marak, however, has demonstrated that he is unmoved by evidence. This supports my contention that it is the true-believers, and not the skeptics, who are closed-minded.

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9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Mande Barung Bunk”

  1. DevoutCatalyston 14 Oct 2008 at 10:29 am

    Nikon ran an ad a decade or so ago containing the
    famous photo of the Loch Ness monster, with a caption
    that read something like this — “Some people see a
    monster. We see poor focus, underexposure, and a lack
    of composition.”

    Poor photographic evidence is the stuff that fuels the
    true-believer’s heart.

    Poor photographic evidence also contributed to a frenzy
    amongst some ornithologists surrounding the
    Ivory-billed woodpecker. Exhaustive searches to find
    living examples of this presumed extinct bird have been
    conducted over the past few years.

    I see now that Cornell’s Ornithology lab is scaling
    back their efforts, and will be sending no full time
    observers to Arkansas this winter. This saga appears to
    be drawing to a close, the evidence for this living “monster” is decidedly weak.

    In the end, science takes no prisoners. Rather, it sets people free.

  2. Jim Shaveron 14 Oct 2008 at 11:24 am

    Steve:

    I agree with your conclusion, as any true skeptic should. However, I don’t think the tuft of goat fur really counts as evidence against the mande barung, and I wouldn’t expect it to change the position held by a good researcher, even if his opinion is most likely wrong.

    The goat fur was purely circumstantial evidence that could only help Marak’s cause, not hurt it. If there is nothing of substance, no provenance, to tie the fur to the alleged sightings, then we can only discount the fur as a gamble that didn’t pay. If, on the other hand, the fur evidence came with a complete account of its origin, such as a story told by multiple witnesses of an encounter with the mande barung in which a spear was thrown that scraped the fur from the creature or something like that, then we would have a nugget of real negative evidence after the DNA tests showed the fur to be from a goat. That is, if the local hunters could be so easily fooled by a goat, their other stories must be treated more skeptically, too.

    Without such provenance, though, I think the goat fur counts only as a failure to find evidence for the mande barung hypothesis, not as evidence against it.

  3. Steven Novellaon 14 Oct 2008 at 12:51 pm

    Jim – what you are saying is not different than what I wrote. You cannot prove a negative. Lack of evidence is never definitive – it is only useful in decreasing the probability of a phenomenon existing to the extent of the thoroughness of the search.

    I agree that this one tuft of fur failing to confirm the existence of the mande barung is not definitive – but I would not say that it does not hurt the case at all. It is one small piece of data, and negative evidence has a cumulative effect.

    So far all attempts to confirm the mande barung, including this, have failed. This does not prove it does not exist, just makes it less likely. It also further tells us that people can find unidentified pieces of fur that can turn out to be from animals even outside their known region. Previous attempts to identify the fur were inconclusive for this reason.

  4. Jim Shaveron 14 Oct 2008 at 2:40 pm

    Steve:

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, and it is clear to me, too, that we agree on the most important points. I probably didn’t make my point as well as it can be made, and that point is simply that evidence such as the goat fur in this case, especially in the absence of a good provenance, tends to be very unbalanced in its value. If extensive DNA tests and other tests were unable to match the sample with any known species, the weight of the evidence in favor of the mande barung hypothesis becomes significant (though certainly not conclusive).

    However, when the tests instead reveal the mundane answer of Himalayan goat, the weight of that evidence by itself against the mande barung hypothesis is only minuscule (a magnitude that I took the rash liberty of rounding down to “none” in my previous post).

    Taken together, of course, the accumulation of evidence against the mande barung hypothesis is significant and grows asymptotically closer to conclusive as time and research continue.

    The kids tell me that the Yeti at Disney World this summer looked real. However, as my eyes were tightly closed at the time, I cannot vouch for the evidence of their sighting.

  5. mat alfordon 14 Oct 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Duh! Surely the mande barung was CARRYING the goat…

  6. Jim Shaveron 14 Oct 2008 at 5:37 pm

    Nice deduction, mat! That explains how the goat got outside its normal habitat. Question is — pet or food? (Or is mande barung kinky?) That’s how it is with science; you solve one mystery and two more pop up. :D

  7. hughie522on 15 Oct 2008 at 2:53 am

    A New South Wales, Australia man called Nathan Rees holds a similar belief in the “Penrith Panther” (like the “Tasmanian Devil”, though we actually know the latter to have previously existed).

    In an interview with news.com.au, he said:

    “I don’t think it’s necessarily an urban myth. There are too many people reporting sightings.”

    (See here: http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,24370998-662,00.html).

    The sad part of course is that there are very few videos/photos (which look either like feral cats or photos taken outside Australia) and most of it is your typical, “I saw it once and no one will take me seriously.”

    The sadder part is that Mr. Rees is the Premier (like ‘governor’ in the U.S.) of New South Wales…

  8. sonicon 15 Oct 2008 at 1:07 pm

    This post brings up an excellent point- you can’t prove a negitive. It seems that this gives comfort to all sorts of crack-pot ideas(nobody can prove I’m wrong), but also points out the difficulty in demanding proof.
    By demanding proof, we must admit that there is always some uncertainty. (Further evidence is always possible)
    But the point of demanding proof is to be certain.
    The heart of skepticism-no?
    Welcome to Earth-human!

  9. [...] it completely wrong. He begins: “Skeptical” atheist Steven Novella has a blog post on “Mande Barung,” an Indian version of the Himalayan Yeti and the North American Bigfoot. Novella ruminates on the [...]

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