Sep 09 2013

Another Sighting

You are driving down a dark road at 5:30 AM. Chances are, you’re a bit sleepy. Something suddenly runs across the road in front of your car. Your headlights catch it briefly as it dashes into the woods on the other side of the road. What was it?

That, apparently, was the question faced by a 15 year old Nebraska boy – why a 15 year old was driving was not addressed by the article. It seems his early morning brain processed the unexpected sensory input into – Bigfoot.

There is no credible evidence, after decades of search, that anything like Bigfoot exists anywhere, least of all Nebraska. The flat state does not contain the vast forests that would be necessary to conceal a breeding population of large primates. Despite that, there have been 14 reported sightings in Nebraska since 1957.

The report, of course, had to consult a “Bigfoot expert” and so they went to Jeff Meldrum, an anthropology and anatomy professor at Idaho State University and author of the 2009 book “Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science.” He is quotes in an interview as saying:

“There’s ample evidence to indicate there has to be something out there. What it is exactly is yet to be determined.”

This, of course, is where believers and skeptics disagree. Meldrum acknowledges that it is unlikely Bigfoot exists in Nebraska. Therefore the sightings there, including the most recent one, have to be mistaken. If those sightings are in error, then why can’t all such sightings be in error? In other words – such sightings are not reliable as evidence. People misinterpret what they see, and they fill in the gaps with their expectations.

There are numerous historical examples of this. In 1978 a red panda escaped from the Rotterdam zoo. Although it was found dead shortly thereafter, on train tracks just outside the zoo, the zoo had announced the panda was missing, spawning numerous reported red panda sightings over the next year. This is now sometimes called the “red panda effect.”

Sightings of any kind – Bigfoot, UFOs, other cryptozoological creatures, tend to wax and wane with media attention and public awareness. Belief seems to drive sightings, not the other way around.

If sightings are not credible evidence, then what is? How could we ever know if a previously unknown creature exists? The answer, of course, is physical evidence.

The most definitive evidence, of course, would be an actual specimen. This could include a living creature, a recently dead specimen, a skeleton or even a fossil skeleton. Believers and skeptics acknowledge that no such smoking-gun evidence exists.

There is debate surrounding other kinds of physical evidence: hair samples, skin samples, DNA, tracks, photos and videos. None of this evidence is compelling either. Photos and videos are often blurry (leading to the name “blobsquatch” to describe many of them), or at the very least are not incompatible with a person in a costume. Tracks are easily hoaxed. Hair samples always wind up being from other animals, or simply not animal fibers. The DNA evidence is nothing but pseudoscience.

Meldrum and other believers are falling for the “where there is smoke there is fire” fallacy. This is misleading because our brains are smoke machines, and worse, it assumes there must be a fire so it just confabulates one.

Our brains work by filling in the perception and memory gaps with whatever details are necessary to construct our preferred narrative. That is why we need rigorous methods to sort out what is real from what is neurological illusion.

Large amounts of low-grade evidence is exactly what we would expect, and see over and over again, with phenomena that are not real but have large numbers of believers none-the-less. That is what we see with Bigfoot.

What you do not see with phenomena that are not real is even a single piece of unequivocal evidence. There are no specimens of Bigfoot, no demonstrably alien artifacts, no clear psi phenomena.

So what, then, did our precocious driver see? I’m not familiar enough with the local fauna of Nebraska to guess. If this were in Connecticut where I live I would say a deer, very probably. It could even have been something unusual, like an early morning hunter in camo.  What it wasn’t, however, is evidence for the existence of an otherwise unknown creature.

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