Public Funding of Investigations Central to the Debate with Skeptics"
By Roger Knights
The question of investigative
funding should be what is central to the debate with skeptics, not the
question of belief.
The government funds a great many scientific research
projects, more than a few of them involving truly piddling topics-stuff
like the courting rituals of some obscure foreign frog, for instance.
(The supermarket tabloids keep me up to date on the latest outrages.)
Sometimes, of course,
these investigations pay off; e.g., a study of such behavior in the desert
rat helped the CDC to quickly identify the transmission mechanism for
the Hantavirus. Within this context-that of relatively liberal and long
shot funding criteria-a "search for sasquatch" would not seem
out of place. (In fact there should be an official Office to Investigate
(all) Strange Phenomena, similar to the Office on Alternative Medicine.
Political parties should make adding an OISP a plank in their platforms,
if they want to pick up a few million votes.)
Such an investigation should
start with an analysis of hair samples, especially a DNA analysis, if
it is possible.
About hair samples:
there is strength in numbers and also in a high-profile, officially supervised
testing protocol. (This is what the Chinese have done. They've rightly
emphasized hair samples over track casting.
As Track Record #63, p. 6
describes, they've used the PIXE (Protein Induced X-ray Emission) technique,
and state: "repeated experiments using wild man hairs from different
origins show consistent results."
Other techniques should be used,
such as the protein-immunological method favored by biochemist Jerold
Lowenstein of San Francisco, as well as the standard morphological examination
of microscopically enlarged samples. (Pictures and analysis of all samples
should be posted on the web so a variety of experts can weigh in on them.)
A hair analysis project
won't be conclusive, but it would certainly "firm up" the evidence
considerably and influence many minds, at least to some degree. (Assuming
many of the hair samples are genuine and BF is real, of course.)
Why should skeptics
and other non-believers go along with an expenditure program like this?
In order for our side to be able to make its case, it needs the resources
to prepare its case, the same way a prosecutor does. Imagine an analogy:
a prosecutor receives allegations that company X is mixing in worms with
its meat as "hamburger helper." The allegations are hearsay
testimony from friends of employees, plus complaints from some customers
that their burgers seem a bit slimy. At this point the prosecutor has
well-founded suspicions, but not a case; if he went to court, a judge
would laugh him right out of it. Society therefore gives him the means
to do what it takes to nail his case down, namely time-consuming, expensive
"discovery proceedings" to sift through the company's purchase
orders.What I'm saying is
that this dispute isn't merely an armchair or barstool altercation between
private parties, but rather has risen to the level of the social and collective
(because of the volume of testimony and the size of the potential benefits).
No fair-minded skeptic will deny his opponent the social resources necessary
to make his case e.g., access to thoroughly professional hair-analysis,
to posses of drivers, to polling data, etc.
It sounds bad for a skeptic to insist (in effect) that "there can't
possibly be any facts worth finding" in this matter. (Bear in mind
that BF doesn't involve (touch wood) the paranormal, so there are no prima
facie grounds for a skeptic to deny the dispute its day in court.) The
vast majority of the public lacks that arrogance and resents it in others.
(Nota bene: this is precisely why our side must reconfigure the terms
of the debate: away from "true or false?" and toward "investigate
or not?" which puts the skeptics on the defensive. Their basic attitude
is, "My mind is made up, don't bother me with facts;" our job
is to make that attitude evident to the public, and make that the issue
in the debate.)
Bet?" Challenge. Those skeptics who'd deny a relatively piddling
appropriation (as federal spending goes) are saying, in effect, that it's
100 to 1 that nothing mind-changing will be found. Once that implicit
assertion is made explicit, they are then in a position to be challenged
to back up their opinion with a bet, e.g., a believer might offer to pay
a skeptic $100 per year if the skeptic will pay him $10,000 if mind-altering
evidence turns up. Do they feel lucky enough to take that chance? If not,
they should agree to fund the fact-finding.
The public is curious about fringe phenomenon like BF and would like to
know more; but the skeptics, who hold influential scientific positions
and to whom political society defers, have played the role of I-know-better
parents and frustrated that curiosity. (Illustrative of their wet-blanket
attitude are the career-setbacks they imposed on professor. Grover Krantz.)
There is a tremendous undercurrent of popular resentment at this fact,
about which they are completely unaware, being nerds.
If ever a BF body
turns up, and if we have positioned them so that they have come out against
funding an investigation, the undercurrent will become a wave of revulsion
all along the line against their know-it-all attitudes, and against the
current political/social presumption that they probably know best.
skeptical remarks about BF will be thrown back in their faces when they
issue similar-sounding statements about UFOs, etc.
THEY will become the
social laughingstocks, not the "kooks." Skeptics, if they have
an ounce of political sense (doubtful), should therefore give themselves
an "out" now by supporting funded fact-finding. Otherwise, when
this ship goes down, they'll be tied to it.
The author indicated
this article was originally published in the Bigfoot Co-op, Oct. 2001
© Roger Knights
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for an Office to Investigate Strange Phenomena" (OISP)
By Roger Knights
In the December
 Bigfoot Co-Op, Dmitri Bayanov praised an article of mine in
the October issue ("Make Public Funding of Investigations Central
in the Debate with Skeptics"), and quoted its last paragraph.
However, on p. 9, Mr. Bayanov went on to make a recommendation that wasn't
in the spirit of what I advocated.
He wrote, "The realistic way
is for the Ph.D., scientists who truly know best
to come up with
a joint statement that bigfoot is a reality and it's high time for the
government and the scientific community to solve the problem." We believers, if we
wish to break the log-jam, must proceed in a more subtle and modest fashion,
psychologically difficult though that may be.
On that point, here are
two key sentences from my article: "our side must reconfigure the
terms of the debate: away from 'true or false?' and toward 'investigate
or not,' which puts the skeptics on the defensive.
Their basic attitude
is, 'My mind is made up, don't bother me with facts'; our job is to make
that attitude evident to the public, and to make that the issue in the
debate." Hence, when we issue any call for a government-funded investigation,
we should avoid asserting "that bigfoot is a reality."
just sets us up to be shot down by the skeptics' response that bigfoot
isn't a reality. We should avoid that timeworn debate.
Instead, we should
make the more modest but insidious claim that there is enough evidence,
not to compel belief, but to launch an investigation to cast more light
on the situation. (Akin to the Condon investigation of UFOs.)
the skeptics have no good reply.I'd even avoid asserting
that the purpose of the investigation should be "to solve the problem."
That might arouse fears among the public and the scientific community
that OISP might feel under pressure to come to a premature conclusion.
Instead, we should have a more modest goal-that of fact-finding and fact-organizing.
We should state that OISP would leave conclusions about BF's reality up
to the scientific community.
Going further, I'd suggest that there be
funding for an explicitly skeptical branch of OISP, which would be dedicated
to shooting holes in the reports and evidence accumulated by the investigation.
Finally, I'd propose the establishment of a board of oversight, composed
of scientific notables, whose purpose would be to ensure that OISP didn't
become "captured" by believers.
By suggesting those
things, we would be proposing something that would be hard to object to,
and that would make any objectors look silly and arrogant. We would "position"
our opponents disadvantageously.
In brief, we would make an offer that
can't be refused-one to which no reasonable objection can be made-and
then watch the skeptics squirm. Such an offer would get us only half a
loaf, but that's OK for a start.
Once a start had been
made, other things would begin to happen. OISP would validate studying
the topic, which would make it easier for individual scientists to launch
their own BF studies. It would also become easier to indicate that one
inclines to a belief in BF.
Finally, the study of BF would be a precedent
for studies by OISP of additional Strange Phenomena, such as cattle mutilations,
other cryptozoological matters, etc.Here's a draft of
the sort of joint statement I submit for scientists and other notables
in the BF believer community to consider signing."We call for
the government to establish an Office to Investigate Strange Phenomena
Such an office is needed for the same reason that the Office on
Alternative Medicine was needed-because, when it comes to fringe topics,
the scientific community suffers from something akin to 'market failure.'
Just as the scientific community failed to check out claims for alternative
medicines, so it has failed to fund studies of Strange Phenomena. This
is perverse, because polls have shown that a substantial minority of scientists
(20-60%) favor investigations of fringe topics. "Substantial
funding is needed, because only a large group effort can organize the
evidence or conduct an adequate search. (E.g., the cost of interviewing
over 2000 sighting witnesses, checking their credibility with their co-workers
and relatives, and taping and computerizing their replies would cost millions;
likewise the cost of setting up hundreds of camera traps would be beyond
the means of individual scientists.)"
investigation needs an official imprimatur, to gain cooperation from reluctant
witnesses, museum curators, and official employees like forest rangers.
this is a field where research by a neutral group like OISP would have
more credibility than research by individual scientists; the latter are
more likely to be dismissed as mere believers or advocates if they turn
up evidence. "
is a field where there are social pressures and career setbacks poised
to descend on individual scientists who pursue the truth of SPs. "For all these
reasons, a laissez-faire policy that leaves investigations up to the initiative
of individual scientists is inappropriate."
may fear that such an office might be 'captured' by believers, or be under
pressure to come to a premature conclusion. Here are the safeguards we
propose to mollify those who entertain such worries."
would be an oversight board, composed of scientific notables, to keep
watch on OISP to ensure it didn't lose its objectivity."
would be a branch of OISP populated by skeptics and dedicated to criticizing
evidence in favor of any Strange Phenomenon being studied."
would be forbidden to come to any conclusion about the reality of the
SP it studies."Currently the
reports and evidence on SPs are in a disorganized, scattered state.
mission of OISP would be to gather and organize that evidence for scientists
to study. For example, in the case of Bigfoot, it would interview witnesses,
videotape and computerize their replies, gather and analyze evidence like
hair samples (e.g., by subjecting them to PIXE analysis), and fund field
investigations to turn up new evidence."
We don't deny
that there are several weighty reasons why Bigfoot, and other Strange
Phenomena, oughtn't to exist. However, such reasons aren't watertight;
they don't close the case-they can only establish a presumption.
a good quantity of good quality evidence exists in favor of a phenomenon,
the case is open enough to justify launching an investigation. (Bigfoot
evidence includes 1500 clear sighting reports, film, footprints, hair
samples with unique DNA, and audiotapes.) The official stance of science
should be one of provisional agnosticism, not denial."Other considerations
that weigh in favor of an OISP are the following:"
already funds many research projects whose potential scientific payoff
is far lower than the discovery of a SP like Bigfoot would be."The odds against
Bigfoot's existence are not astronomical.-there is about one chance in
a hundred, say, that a Bigfoot body will turn up in any given year."
which funds the government, is curious about Strange Phenomena and is
entitled to have its curiosity satisfied."The debate about
the reality of Strange Phenomena has transcended the private sphere and
risen to the level of the social and collective. I.e., it's a public issue;
hence it deserves public funding."
If a Bigfoot
body should turn up prior to an OISP being established, the legitimacy
of official science in the eyes of the public would be considerably diminished,
especially on the topic of Strange Phenomena.
By having previously denied
the field funding and marginalized its researchers, science would be seen
as having arrogantly said, 'There can't possibly be any facts worth finding
on this topic.'
All the disdain that official science, in thrall to a
dogmatic skepticism, has poured on SPs will be returned a hundredfold-science
will not hear the last of it for centuries.
To protect itself against
the risk of this happening, science should take out the insurance policy
of funding investigations into these matters."
The author indicated
this was originally published in Bigfoot Co-Op Feb. 2002.
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