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I Get Mail: Cryptids, Smoke, and Fire

Apr. 18, 2015 by | Comments (10)

In my role as the Editor of Junior Skeptic (and now INSIGHT) I quite often receive email from media, researchers, and general readers about topics I’ve covered. My schedule does not always allow me to respond in the depth I’d like, but I try to be helpful as often as I can—in keeping with the Skeptics Society‘s mission to inform the public. Today I’d like to share a pleasant exchange with an Abominable Science! reader named Karl, who wrote to ask me the following:

I have been listening to a lot of podcasts dealing with Bigfoot and Dogman and the eyewitness accounts can be compelling. Apparently, these two creatures have been seen all over the U.S. and indeed the world. There is a substantial database of accounts by now.

My question:

Do the skeptics believe that ALL of those accounts are attributable to hoaxing or mistaken identity? And if not, what are these people actually seeing?

It seems unlikely to me that ALL of these seemingly sober and earnest people, whose accounts can be vividly detailed, are either lying or mistaken in what they saw and experienced.

Here is my lightly edited reply:

Hi, Karl,

Thanks for reading. I’m glad you enjoyed the book!

At this point, it does seem very likely that some cryptids do not exist, in which case mistakes and hoaxes are the best explanations available for eyewitness sighting reports. We know both things happen fairly frequently (mistakes especially) as Don Prothero and I discuss in Abominable Science! There are cases discussed in the book, for example, in which ordinary birds were mistaken for water monsters.

The “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” argument seems very compelling to me and to most people, intuitively. But there’s a flaw in that argument, when we think about it: people see a LOT of different kinds of smoke. Some could well be associated with “fire,” but are they all? I blogged about this issue at Skepticblog in 2010.

For example, there’s a literature of sincere-sounding eyewitness accounts of mermaids, ghosts, dragons, and fairies. Some witnesses describe Bigfoot using psychic powers or emerging from UFOs. Other witnesses have said that spirits speak through them, or that “Ascended Masters” made them invisible and then transported them to hidden Atlantean bases underneath famous American parks, or claim beautiful humans from Venus took them on trips aboard flying saucers. And so on.

Should these claims be accepted? They’re all supported by multiple reports from seemingly sober and earnest people. In every case, proponents raise the “where there’s smoke there’s fire” argument. And yet—surely they can’t all be right? And if we grant that it’s possible that some phenomena described by eyewitnesses are not literally true, how do we decide which claims to accept and which ones to set aside?

What, for example, should we say when enthusiasts, scientists, journalists and skeptics spend several decades looking into those cases, searching hard for the inferred fire behind the smoke, and find nothing but smoke and smoke and more smoke, year after year—as is the case for major cryptids, such as Bigfoot?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Daniel

PS: When a cryptid is reported “all over the U.S. and indeed the world,” as is Bigfoot, this is not necessarily a good sign that those eyewitness sightings reflect a biological reality rather than a cultural phenomenon. Anthropologist Grover Krantz, who was during his lifetime Bigfoot’s best known scientific defender, made this point best:

Many sasquatch enthusiasts seem to think that by finding more widespread [anecdotal and trace] evidence of the species, they are in effect strengthening the argument that the species is real. Up to a certain point this reasoning is valid … But when it is suggested that a wild primate is found native to all continents, including Australia, then credibility drops sharply. Only humans, along with their domesticates and parasites, have distributions that are worldwide; no other land animals even remotely approach this condition. Beyond a certain point, it can be argued that the more widespread a cryptozoological species is reported to be, the less likely it is that the creature exists at all.

— Grover Krantz. [Emphasis added.] Bigfoot Sasquatch Evidence. (Hancock House: Surrey, 1999) p. 197

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

10 responses to “I Get Mail: Cryptids, Smoke, and Fire”

  1. Snowfire says:

    Where there is smoke there might be fire–or maybe some joker just tossed a smoke grenade!

  2. Brian says:

    Your dismissive argument regarding the likelihood of Big Foot et al – “Only humans, along
    with their domesticates and parasites, have worldwide distributions that are worldwide..”
    etc is not valid since the introduction of intercontinental jet travel. I myself saw – and conversed with – Big Foot recently at Cork Airport (Ireland). At first I took him to be your typical big hairy backed Kerryman, but I caught a glimpse of his passport where he was described as an “International Big Foot”. I asked him if I could take a selfie, but he told me he was on his way to San Francisco where he could go unnoticed. He then expressed the hope that I would have a nice day and ended with the suggestion that I should go and perform an act upon myself which, alas, demanded an element of flexibility no longer feasible with my 75 year old torso.

    • Jerrold Alpern says:

      What country issued the passport?

    • Ed Graham says:

      “…demanded an element of flexibility no longer feasible with my 75 year old torso…” Or, any torso in an airplane rest room.

    • Snowfire says:

      To get to SFO from Cork he’d most likely need to go via Heathrow–good luck passing unnoticed there!

  3. Max says:

    Smoke and mirrors is more like it.

    Many ufologists acknowledge that the vast majority of sightings are bunk.
    Here’s a random example from the Tennessee MUFON team: “I believe 99% of the cases are explainable or are hoaxes, done for publicity or other reasons,” Steve says. “But, that leaves the 1% of real cases. I would love to be the one who proves, scientifically without a doubt, that UFOs exist.”

    But if 99% of the UFO sightings are explainable or hoaxes, then it’s not a great leap to assume that 100% are.

  4. Paul Andreassen says:

    The problem with the “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” line of argument is that there isn’t even necessarily any smoke. Cryptid sightings are, effectively, reports of smoke, not the smoke itself. In essence, they’re saying “where there are reports of smoke, there’s fire.” Quit a stretch.

    • Max says:

      If cryptid sighting are reports of smoke, then what’s the smoke?
      I’d say that eyewitness accounts are smoke, and hearsay is a report of smoke.

  5. André says:

    I just have to say that I love all your posts. I enjoy cryptozoology and the paranormal a lot although I’d consider myself a sceptic. Keep it up and thanks for being one of my favorite blog authors!

  6. Juliet says:

    It also doesn’t help when reports become a series of ‘Top this!’ narratives, as if the tellers think they need a ‘hook’ to be taken seriously. So a creature report may start off comparatively plausible, then as the story spreads, the creature becomes more and more impressive and/or vicious.

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