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Abominable

After a few weeks of being away due to a combination of the new website getting underway, plus several rounds of a lingering cold which turned into bronchitis, I am back in the swing of my regular Monday blogging routine. I’d like to thank the creators of azithromycin for their assistance in my recovery.

Now on to more important things – like Yeti.

The wholly mythical and ever elusive Yeti has found a new and reputable ally in trying to convince the world that he/she/it has jumped out of folklore, and into reality. Sir David Attenborough is a world famous broadcaster and naturalist (his brother is the actor and director Richard Attenborough) and he has given the Bigfoot true-believers of the world a nice big banner to wave furiously in the face of science.

Attenborough has been the respected face and voice of British natural history programs for more than 50 years. He is best known for writing and presenting “The Life Series”, in conjunction with the BBC Natural History Unit, which collectively form a comprehensive survey of all terrestrial life. He is also a former senior manager at the BBC, having served as controller of BBC Two and director of programming for BBC Television in the 1960s and 1970s.

And as first reported on February 28, 2009, Attenborough was quoted as saying:

“I’m baffled by the Abominable Snowman – very convincing footprints have been found at 19,000ft. No-one does that for a joke. I think it’s unanswered.”

For the record, here is a short clip of the interview, so you can see and hear it for yourself in its context. What he actually said was:

“I am absolutely baffled by the Abominable Snowman … because very, very convincing footprints have been found. What made them? … Nobody goes up 19,000 feet to make a joke. I think there is an unanswered problem there.”

This is a classic example of how even the truest, most respected scientists can be tricked. Attenborough, a trained scientist and critical thinker, an outspoken defender of evolution over creationism, whose notable awards include: Member of the Order of Merit, Companion of Honour, Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Fellow of the Royal Society, Fellow of Zoological Society of London … this man cannot perceive of a human intervention at 19,000 feet. Why this seems implausible to Attenborough is rather remarkable, and an excellent reminder to us all that every single person in the world is capable of being deceived, either by themselves or by others. It makes no difference as to how studied, revered, and honored a person is.

What seems even more implausible is that Attenborough is making up his mind based on a photograph taken almost 60 years ago. The infamous Shipton Photograph, snapped in 1951, is the single piece of “evidence” that Attenborough (and many others) have deemed as being beyond the possibility of a hoax. To borrow Attenborough’s own words, “very, very convincing footprints” have been made by people all over the world, and the documented evidence of this is abundant.

Attenborough’s observation that, “nobody goes up 19,000 feet to make a joke”, while it seems to be simple common sense, does not rule out the possibility that it actually could happen. There were 16 people on the mission (6 of them local Sherpas). Is it impossible that one of these people could have had a hand in the print (no pun intended)?

I might be equally inclined to say that it is implausible that a pair of older Englishman would spend night after night, over the course of years, walking around the fields of Great Britain using a plank and a rope to make shapes in the wheat. What is the likelihood something like that could happen in comparison to a single photograph taken at an exceptionally high altitude?

Attenborough is correct in that “there is an unanswered problem there”, but to answer the unanswered by inserting something like the Yeti, with no other direct evidence that such a creature even exists or how it would be possible for such a creature to exist, represents a blind spot in Attenborough’s logical processes. It is an underestimation of the threshold at which people are fooled by what they see. Thank goodness for people like James Randi, who has been one of the world’s greatest teachers of this critically important observation of the human condition.

Attenborough is allowed to explore his fantasies and speculations just like the rest of us, but skeptics are very aware of the law of unintended consequences. The Bigfoot believers of the world will cling on to Attenbororough’s words and wield them high up in the air for everyone to see. If the history of incidents of famous people having lent their credibility to pseudoscience is any indicator, then the damage has been done. Any retraction or correction by Attenborough (if he is even so inclined to make any) will be for naught. Remember Jimmy Carter and his UFO sighting back in 1969? Carter is the “UFO President”, so adopted by MUFON and other extra-terrestrial true believer groups, and Carter will be for as long as UFO’s are part of the culture (i.e. forever). As far as Attenborough and his Yeti comments go, the barn doors are open, and the cows have left the barn. Closing the barn doors now does little good in wrangling up the cows.

5 comments to Abominable

  • Martinus

    On a point of order Sir David is still the brother of Lord Richard Attenborough who is not late yet, although he had a serious accident at the end of last year. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Attenborough

    Years ago I remember reading that enlarged footprints like the Shipton photo were a natural phenomenon when the sun hit a normal mountaineer’s footprint. I can forgive Attenborough a lot for the sound body of work he has produced over the years but he should have known better than to go on that show.

  • Drum Billet

    Jane Goodall says that she is SURE that bigfoot exists. I’d say that is more reprehnsible than what David Attenborough said seeing as how she is a trained scientist and he is a TV presenter.

    Also, Richard Attenborough isn’t dead!

  • llysenwi

    I heard once that the most likely explanation was that the photo was of snow leopard tracks in soft snow (causing the elongated print). Snow leopards only have four toes (nice and round too) on both front and hind feet. They are also known to go up to 20,000 feet, but just for practical jokes.

  • I’m not sure that David Attenborough said the Yeti, AS or Bigfoot exisits. He said there is an unanswered question.

    If evidence came to light to suggest the photo was a fake, I’m sure he would realign his understanding based on that fact. He obviouly beileves that the photo was not created as a practical joke – and that gives him ‘paws’; He therefore needs an explanation – that explanation could be many things.

    Given the unlikely existence of a large homind at high altitude the most likely explanation is a mis identification of either a human or animal print. That doiesn’t make the photo a hoax however.

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