Bigfoot Encounters

Two Articles By Roger Knights

"Make 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? Four reasons:
Basic Fairness
. 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.

Public Relations
. 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.)

The "Wanna 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.

Backlash Effects. 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.

Their 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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Follow-up article:

"Petition for an Office to Investigate Strange Phenomena" (OISP)
By Roger Knights

In the December [2001] 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."

That 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.)

To that, 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 (OISP).

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.)"

Moreover, an investigation needs an official imprimatur, to gain cooperation from reluctant witnesses, museum curators, and official employees like forest rangers. "In addition, 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.

Finally, this 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."

Some people 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."

First, there would be an oversight board, composed of scientific notables, to keep watch on OISP to ensure it didn't lose its objectivity."

Second, there would be a branch of OISP populated by skeptics and dedicated to criticizing evidence in favor of any Strange Phenomenon being studied."

Third, OISP 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.

The 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.

When 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:"

The government 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."

The public, 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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