Oct 14 2008

Mande Barung Bunk

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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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