Oct 162011

Yes, this track is real! It’s a depression in the ground, and as such is a physical fact. But was it made by Sasquatch? That’s the sixty-four dollar question. With virtually all tracks attributed to Sasquatch, we don’t have a film or video record of what actually made the track at the time the track was made. We have to infer what might have made the track after the event.

First off, the track in question was part of a series videotaped by Paul Freeman. An edited portion of this video surfaced some years ago in a TV and DVD documentary entitled Legend Meets Science, produced by Doug Hajicek. The video that this screen grab was taken from was recently uploaded to YouTube, and contains shots of a trackway that appears very ‘Squatchy.

One track in particular caught my eye, and it appears at about 43 seconds into the video. The track contrasts strongly with the surrounding forest litter, as there is very little debris in the track itself. To me it appears to have been excavated rather than created by compression. I came to this conclusion because some years earlier I had made various tests using large prosthetic feet. One test I performed in my front yard. As you can see in my photo, there is plenty of green moss and fine vegetation in both the bottom of the track and the soil surrounding it. I made this track by repeatedly stomping on a Ray Wallace style wooden prosthetic. If you look closely you can see an impression of my own size 12 shoe to the right of the track.

Various details can be gleaned from this simple test, but the obvious one here is that a compressive event, such as a heavy mass pressing into the earth should mash the vegetation in with it, and the vegetation should remain. From this I would conclude that the track seen in the Freeman video was not made by a singular or even multiple compressive event, and as such cannot be attributed to an animal.

I’m not the only person who concluded that Paul Freeman’s tracks were fake. In 2005 a fascinating book entitled Tracker was published by Joel Hardin (ISBN 0-9753460-0-8) which included a chapter entitled Tracks of Bigfoot. Hardin details personally investigating a trackway associated with Paul Freeman in the Mill Creek watershed near Walla Walla, Washington in 1982. Hardin devoted 20 pages to detailing an extensive onsite investigation into this trackway. Unlike me, Hardin is a professional tracker, and perhaps not surprisingly concluded that the trackway was fake. It’s an excellent book, and deserves wider recognition within both the Bigfoot and skeptic communities. After reading Hardin’s book, the notion that an 8 foot tall monster could wander the North American continent and remain impossible to track becomes rather ludicrous.

Despite Hardin’s professional appraisal, the evidence put forth by Freeman has been taken quite seriously by Bigfoot advocate Jeff Meldrum, who devoted a considerable portion of his 2006 book Sasquatch Legend Meets Science (ISBN 0-765-31216-6) to arguing that Freeman’s evidence was real.

 Posted by on 10/16/2011 Bigfoot, Pseudoscience 2 Responses »
Jul 182011

I’ve been in Las Vegas the last few days, taking in my first TAM. For those who don’t know, TAM stands for The Amazing Meeting, an annual conference put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation. This years meeting was “TAM 9 From Outer Space” with presentations having a space-based theme. One speaker was Bill “The Science Guy” Nye. I hadn’t seen Bill Nye in person in many years, and I thought his presentation was great. Funny and inspiring at the same time. His talk reminded me of a strange criticism I once heard.

Years ago I was watching a sideshow performer demonstrate an amazing new stunt that involved red hot metal. To get his steel red hot he had to use a small forge which ran on propane and air. This was back in the 1990’s, long before the Station Nightclub fire which killed 100 people. That fire pretty much put the kibosh on indoor performances that involved fire of any kind. This gentleman was going to walk on red hot steel, or so he said. As with any sideshow stunt that has any element of danger, the stunt must be hyped beforehand for maximum effect. The hype in this case took a strange turn, as the performer began to criticize Bill Nye.

Unfortunately I don’t know what Bill Nye said in the first place. Frankly I never caught his TV show, only his early work with Almost Live, a local TV comedy show based in Seattle. I suspect, but do not know that Nye probably offered the common “explanation” for fire walking, namely that it’s a matter of the low heat conductivity of the wood embers that fire walkers walk on. A classic analogy is that it’s possible to leave your hand in a hot oven as long as you don’t touch the hot metal. Both the air and the metal in the oven are at the same temperature, but the metal is a much better conductor of heat.

In any event, the sideshow performer suggested that Bill Nye was wrong, that it was possible to walk on hot steel without searing the skin. At this point we should consider the social nature of such a performance. The goal of a showman’s pitch is to create tension, to hype the act, and hopefully to leave a lasting impression in the minds of the audience members. It shouldn’t be intended as formal physics presentation! Consider that when an audience enjoys a comedian, a certain suspension of disbelief is in effect. We are OK with a comedian telling a story that may be complete fiction, as long as the punch line is funny. An audience accepts this kind of thing in a comedian that wouldn’t be accepted in a scientist. But was the criticism of the sideshow performer valid? Is the “official explanation” of firewalking wrong? Well, sort of…

As our sideshow performer kept his bally going, his steel slats began to glow red hot. Coupled with the roaring sound of the forge on stage it was an awesome psychological setup. Soon his slats were set into a frame on the floor. In what must have been no more than a second or two the act was over. Indeed, our brave performer had “walked” on the hot steel slats. Only he didn’t really walk so much as hop. And therein is the crux of this whole essay, namely that sometimes simple “explanations” for phenomena fall short, and that the true description is more complex. What our performer was effectively utilizing was a low exposure time. Had he actually “walked” on the hot slats he would have surely gotten burned.

This is not to take anything away from our performer! It was an outstanding stunt, one which I’d never seen before and one which I haven’t see other performers doing. But for our purposes, let’s take a closer look at the physics involved, and what we can learn from it. A good resource on the subject is the Wikipedia article on Thermal Conductivity. A key passage is this:

For general scientific use, thermal conductance is the quantity of heat that passes in unit time through a plate of particular area and thickness when its opposite faces differ in temperature by one kelvin.

Note the critical variable of “unit time.” If we lower the time of exposure to a heat source, we lower the quantity of heat that flows to that which is being heated. A commonplace demonstration of this is running fingers through a candle flame. If you keep your fingers moving you can avoid a burn. The variable of time is often missing in explanations of firewalking. Indeed, the stunt is firewalking, not “firestanding!” Walking provides a series of exposures to the heat instead of one continuous exposure.

It should also be pointed out that skeptics have done an excellent job of debunking the claim that some sort of special mental or “spiritual” state is required to walk on hot coals. Skeptics Ben Radford and Joe Nickell have both performed this feat, and neither needed “chi” powers or motivational seminars to do it. I was amused at Radford’s account of his own fire walk, as he had organized it as something of a house party affair!

I actually began to think about these issues many years ago, way back in high school. Sometime in the late 1970’s I recall reading in Scientific American magazine the suggestion that firewalking could be “explained” by the “Leidenfrost effect.” Indeed, suggestions are still being made that this is the correct explanation. In my opinion this makes no sense as an explanation for the simple reason that any putative hovering water droplets would quickly be smashed into the sole of the foot or the wood embers by the walker’s body weight!

There is a temptation to glom onto “explanations” of seemingly mysterious phenomena. It’s unsettling to witness things that we don’t understand or can’t explain. But when incorrect or incomplete explanations are offered, it can backfire. A classic example in UFOlogy is “swamp gas” which became a term of derision for UFO advocates. I think skeptics are entirely justified in calling out those who would charge money for staging fire walking demonstrations, especially when it’s couched in terms of nonsense like “chi” energy. Today practitioners of marshal arts would call chi “bullshido.”

I would like to suggest that we get our physics correct when we suggest what is really going on…

 Posted by on 07/18/2011 Pseudoscience Comments Off on Fire Hop With Me
May 022011

Way back in 2007 I had my first sighting. It was a bright, sunny day and I was walking on the footpath around Seward Park here in Seattle. Suddenly I saw it; a serpentine form sticking its slimy neck out of the water! Thankfully I had my camera with me and was able to capture this remarkable image:

I didn’t know what to do exactly; was there some sort of Lake Monster reporting center where I could log my encounter? Would they think I was a crypto-crank, a crackpot, a wanker, a chain-yanker, and mock my slithering serpent sighting? This beast was no beaver, or even an otter as some scoffing skeptics have suggested. No, it was the real deal, whatever it was.

But time moved on, and I began to doubt that I could ever see the Seward Park serpent ever again. But the fickle finger of fate has a way of appeasing the prepared, and lo! I saw it again! This time I was even closer, and managed to get off this quick pic:

I know it’s going to take a specimen on a slab for the skeptical scientists to take this seriously, but until that time I’m going to give it the tentative title of “Sewardsaurus.” Note that the second specimen seems to sport some sort of muzzle, or perhaps it’s licking a Frappuccino from a Starbucks cup. Though it’s no Ogopogo, a perfect palindrome like Aja, Aoxomoxoa, or Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas, we see that “Sewardsaurus” is at least alliterative, like “Dover Demon” or “Fence Fiend.”

 Posted by on 05/02/2011 Culture, Hoaxes, Pseudoscience Comments Off on Second Sewardsaurus Sighting!
Dec 022010

When I was a child my favorite magazine was Popular Science. I seem to remember reading it as early as about 1972 or 1973, when I was 10 or 11 years old. I started subscribing in 1975, and kept my subscription for a number of years.

It always inspired me, as it gave me the feeling that science was advancing and that technology would save mankind. By the year 2000 we would have fusion power and our worries about running out of fossil fuels would be gone!

But as I grew older, I realized that a great deal of material in magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics are glorified press releases for start-up companies. They offer glossy press packages to magazines to promote their developing business. If you go back and critically examine popular science and technology magazines from years ago, you will find that many of the products or technologies never panned out.

As I got older, and was exposed to a wider range of information and ideas, I began to see criticism of the quality of mainstream science reporting. Indeed, a great deal of reportage of scientific issues is bad, and often the educated or critical reader must wade through a number of news accounts before getting to a substantive and accurate report.

So it’s particularly disturbing to see when a magazine like Popular Science makes an egregious and fundamental scientific blunder, like this:

There is no dark side of the moon! As seen from the earth there is certainly a far side of the moon, but it’s not dark when it faces the sun! For a better explanation of this popular misconception take a look at Phil Plait’s excellent Bad Astronomy site or this one, which offers another good explanation.

 Posted by on 12/02/2010 Pseudoscience Comments Off on Popular Science Fail
Apr 292010

I’m a skeptic and a photographer. Certain subjects are so ridiculous that to take them seriously enough for a formal skeptical analysis seems like a waste of time. But people in general and skeptics in particular vary in what they take seriously. For me, I took Bigfoot seriously enough to devote a great deal of time investigating one particular and quite esoteric branch of the mystery, namely “Bigfoot’s Dermal Ridges.”

But out in the real world most people equate the subject of Bigfoot with Weekly World News stuff, and so to even take the subject seriously enough to look into it seems like a foolish waste of time.

These days, the notion of a “Hollow Earth” is so ridiculous that it would be a waste of time to even investigate its claims, as there are numerous subjects that are vastly more important to investigate like anthropogenic global warming, vaccine safety, and homeopathy.

Some time back, I was visiting friends in Astoria, Oregon. Jan took me to the nearby town of Seaside which thrives on tourist business, especially in the summer. He took a photo of me in front of the window display of a palm reader.

For me, palm reading is about one click lower than astrology on the scale of what should be taken seriously.

I posted my photo to the popular photo sharing site Flickr way back in December. My characterization of palm reading was a parody; that one could read dermal ridges with the same degree of accuracy as reading flexion creases. Surprise, surprise, several months pass, and “Zorina” the palm reader wanted me to take the photo down! Instead of arguing that her palm reading was valid or accurate, she wanted the criticism of it to go away! It’s the lowest and sleaziest form of rebuttal, something that Simon Singh recently had to endure.

But I’m no lawyer, so I decided to utilize one of the Internet’s best resources for generalized questions; Metafilter’s AskMeFi. I got a number of very useful answers concerning copyright, and I’m satisfied that I’m not violating copyright by publicly posting my photograph.

One poster on Metafilter mentioned the Streisand Effect which is in fact happening to the photo on Flickr. If “Zorina” had never complained in the first place, she would have never become the butt of Internet ridicule!

 Posted by on 04/29/2010 Pseudoscience Comments Off on The Streisand Effect