The red herring

Conclusion to “Sham Inquiry
The coelacanth is a red herring

Mainstream science, which is respected and functions very well with its current methodology, excludes those fields who don’t pass muster. For a theory to be considered as an explanation for observations of the natural world, even the public realizes it ought to be scientific. Using supernatural qualities as necessary components in your theory will get you excluded from consideration outright by the scientific community. The public, on the other hand, finds the paranormal quite fascinating and is willing to give consideration to those that put on a good show. Continue reading

Ghost Hunting – Sham Inquiry

Thousands of eyewitnesses report ghostly encounters from ancient history to modern times. Contact with the dead is very much part of our modern culture. With the expansion of television content and the internet, stories about hauntings have surged in popularity.

Ghost hunting is a popular hobby for thrill seekers. It’s fun to be scared. The official community of ghost hunters, including those of popular reality TV programs, are non-scientists. However, they invariably tout the scientific nature of their activities. Continue reading

Cryptozoology – Sham Inquiry

Cryptozoology is “the study of hidden animals” (called ‘cryptids’). More precisely, it is the pursuit of animals that science does not recognize as existing and, in some situations, be considered ‘monster hunting’ in comparison to the ghost hunters in a forthcoming discussion.

Like the closely related field of UFOlogy, cryptozoology can accurately be described as “a simulacrum of systematic rationality…quite impressive to many…nonbelievers.” Continue reading

Pretend science

Playing Pretend Science

In order to be technical, like science, pseudoscientists engage in a method of data gathering that is not haphazard or lazy. Intricate collection and analysis is often a part of pseudoscientific activity. They may produce enormous bodies of work. Commitment to a cause can prompt “energetic intellectual effort” [1]. The motives and ‘sciencey’ feel of the whole endeavor wins over those nonscientists who can’t recognize that it simply fails to meet scientific standards. Yet, for all the diligent work, the accumulated evidence can still amount to nothing of substance.
The public is happy to admire science as long as they don’t have to understand it deeply. Sham inquiry plays to the admiration of science by the public. A lack of familiarity with how science is supposed to work is a major reason why the public has trouble recognizing counterfeit science. Add an ‘-ology’ to the end of whatever you study and it acts like a toupe of credibility – to hide the lack of substance. The public is vulnerable to pseudoscience that resembles real inquiry and genuine knowledge.
The following are three examples of current pseudosciences. They all don the accoutrements of science without delivering the substance [2]. The field of cryptozoology is the likeliest of the three to hold the interest of real scientists these days because it is associated with the genuine fields of zoology, anthropology and wildlife biology and chock-full of amateur scientists. Ghost hunting is predominantly nonscientists who enjoy using technology and the new view that it gives them on the world. Creationism is a entirely different beast grown completely from religious ideology and dressed in a cheap and transparent scientific costume. This sham does not even fool courts of law but it continues to exert tremendous ideological force on the public.

Cryptozoology
Ghost hunting
Creationism
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[1] Haack, S. (1995). “Concern for Truth and Why it Matters”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 58.
[2] Bunge, M. (1995).“In Praise of Tolerance To Charlatanism in Academia”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 104.

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Immutable

Immutable and Closed to Criticism

A half-century makes a huge difference in science these days. Consider physics, astronomy and medicine from just 50 years ago.

Today’s great pseudosciences are ancient arts – astrology, traditional medicines, dowsing, divination. Apart from incorporating some new technology into their practice, like computers and electronic gadgets, the explanatory basis for these is the same as it was centuries ago – mystical, not scientific. Pseudosciences appeal to their long, unchanging history as evidence of their correctness. The general public is unaware that these science pretenders are missing the testing, modifying and revising of ideas that spurs progress and creates new knowledge. [1] “Ancient” and “traditional” does not equate to “correct”.

Theories given the boot from modern scientific circles can last forever in the same old format because they are not part of a self-correcting process. When no criticism is allowed, the theory does not improve. Several pseudoscience communities will overlook, ignore or demonize rival explanation and exclude discussions of such from their forums. They will make a specific effort to exclude outsiders from their primary means of communication – specialized journals, email discussion lists and internet blogs and message boards.

To observe this closed-circuitry, try politely questioning or posting a skeptical comment on a Bigfoot or psychic-friendly internet message board or blog. Dissenting views are unwelcome. It’s likely that you will be called a “troll” and silenced.

Ironically, pseudoscience views science as narrow-minded, yet they commit the behavior they say they detest in others. To be fair, there is value and enjoyment in conversing with other like-minded folks. However, when one is defending an idea purported to be science, you can not actively exclude your critics and remain credible.

Genuine science is self-correcting, requiring new input, peer review and open criticism as part of the necessary process. Science requires skepticism and considers this quality necessary for science to progress in a positive direction. If any theory, revolutionary or conventional, has sufficient evidence, it will be considered. If it is show to be valid, it will eventually be accepted as knowledge. If the scientific methodology is not followed, or just selectively followed, it can’t be called science.

A field can’t be “progressive” yet remain unchanged. Because it is not open to inquiry, criticism and revision, pseudoscience is not progressive and does not enrich knowledge.

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[1] Carey, S. S. (2004). A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Method, Wadsworth. p. 123

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Unexplained Blobjects

I love when a creative word is coined that so neatly (and humorously) describes a cultural meme that needs describing.

Several months ago, I came across a favorite new word, my neologism of the year.

Blobsquatch

While examining the questionable Sasquatch (Bigfoot) photos that pop up regularly on the Cryptomundo blog, I was introduced to the descriptive term “Blobsquatch” – a perfect label for those photos that show a dark or washed out, undetailed mass usually surrounded by trees or half-obscured by other natural features. I queried Loren Coleman, the primary blogger on the site and renowned cryptozoologist, about the origin of this most excellent contribution to fortean slang. (See “Blobsquatch Babel” post of June 28, 2006.) He helpfully produced some further information. (See “The Short History of Blobsquatch” post of November 25, 2006.)

Loren and other Bigfoot researchers describe a “blobsquatch” as the object in a photograph that lacks definition and detail but is put forth to the viewer as (potentially) a Bigfoot/Sasquatch. In most cases, the object is a trick of light and shadows, or a mundane object, whereby the human imagination assists in “seeing” a legendary creature. The word was first coined and popularized in the Bigfoot online forums around 2002. No specific photo is credited to have prompted the coinage but kudos are due to the creative mind that birthed it.

Blobs, globs and lake monsters

My follow-up question was – just what does one call the similar phenomenon that occurs with lake monster sightings? One helpful commenter on Cryptomundo offered “Blob Ness Monster”. The media would latch right onto that.

I prefer the term “blobster”, as in lake or sea blobster. Examples: The famous Surgeon’s Photograph at left, Sandra Mansi’s photo of Champ here and the latest (impressive) video still-shot of Champ.

Blobster is sometimes used interchangeably with the word “globster” to describe a large, shapeless mass of organic material that washes up on shore. Most often, globsters have been analyzed to reveal they are the least appetizing remains of basking sharks or whales churned about by the sea.

Being a stickler for semantics, I turned to Mr. Webster to help out by differentiating between globs and blobs. ‘Glob’ is a blend of the words ‘globe’ and ‘blob’. So, globs are rounded masses. ‘Blob’ can be defined as “something ill-defined or amorphous”. Clearly, our potential Bigfoots aren’t really globular, they are more blobular, thus Blobsquatch is the ideal term. But, our globsters can be blobsters too. Personally, I prefer globsters because it has more common usage, apparently first coined in the press (by Ivan Sanderson?) to refer to a formless carcass beached in Tasmania in 1960.

Incidentally, when you blend two or more words together to form a new one, it’s called a “portmanteau” word. This blending technique has become increasing popular to describe the phenomena of superstar celebrity couples, i.e. Brangelina, Bennifer, TomKat, etc. Fortuitously, I came upon another fortean portmanteau that captures a similar concept as our Blobsquatch.

Blurfos

I submit “blurfos” as another one of those perfectly descriptive words (though not as laugh-out-loud funny as the first example). By just seeing or hearing this word in context of UFOs, you know exactly what it means. And, it also aptly describes the result of attempting to use photo evidence to prove the existence of a dubious unknown.

Blobjects

A theme began to emerge. I found other examples of ambiguous photographic “evidence” of strange phenomena.

With respect and apologies to Steven Skov Holt and Karim Rashid who popularized the concept of “blobjects” to describe certain interior design features (and the VW Beetle), I will use that nifty 21st century word to encompass this realm of nebulous visuals. It just fits, doesn’t it?

Orbs

We’ve all captured “orbs” in our snapshots.

Orbs commonly appear when light, or especially the camera’s flash, bounces off specks of dust, aerosols, water vapor, little bugs, or other reflective things out of the camera’s focal range. Orbs appearing in the context of hauntings are identified as balls of energy produced by spiritual entities. In the same context, the striking appearance of streaks of light or misty clouds that were not noticed by the photographer during exposure are labeled as ghost photos. Orbs captured on video are even more fascinating, moving with (what seems like) intelligence. Mists or shadows that take on a human-like shape and move about have been recorded on video. I’m not convinced they are genuinely paranormal entities but they are strange and curious nonetheless. Their appearance begs for explanation.

Rods

Another possible trick of light and shutter speed can result in “rods” or “skyfish”. These white or rainbow-colored, spiral shapes have been captured streaking through the skies and out of caves. Just what they are is unknown. Do they show a new form of life living in the air around us that we never perceive? Or, are they light reflections and distortions produced by tiny animals or atmospheric disturbances? Rods also show up on video where their movement is distinctly lifelike. We can’t rule out explanations that implicate the optics and workings of the camera but, again, it is a question worth asking – what is that?

Everyday Blobjects

Digital cameras are ubiquitous in our modern society. While you may not carry a full-size SLR camera with interchangeable zoom lenses around with you, it seems everyone is within shouting distance of someone with a keychain camera or a camera phone. Many people keep disposable cameras around in case of emergencies. But, the quality of the most portable cameras is not terrific. One is very limited in choosing settings for shutter speed, aperture, resolution and zoom. Inevitably, a small object in a wide range of view dissolves into pixels upon close up inspection.

It is relatively easy to produce a blobject of your own on film.

Once, a colleague of mine inadvertently captured a blurfo with a digital camera during the airspace shutdown after September 11, 2001. The object was not the center of focus for the picture and we can never resolve exactly what it is in the picture. (Blurfo in upper right quadrant.)

Blurfo1

Not a UFO. Probably.

 

Orbs have appeared in my family vacation photos from the beach and in snapshots taken at dance recitals. Are they spirits? I hardly think so. Why are these blobjects blurred or out of focus?

Distance is a problem. An auto-focus camera will lock onto the main object such as tree or person unless you specifically attempt otherwise. At far distances, small objects lose resolution and possibly lack adequate lighting. No amount of enhancement can save those.

A slow shutter speed and/or camera movement causes blur. If you are still and the object is moving fast, the resulting blur portrays movement. A small field of view – such as close up or with a zoom – magnifies any small movement of the camera. Without a tripod, the picture will be blurry.

Many blobjects are consciously photographed with the best of intentions. But, some materialize unexpectedly, when the photographer sees the resulting photo and finds an anomalous blobject in it. Here is where our imagination kicks in and tries to match patterns in the photos with what we already have stored in our memory. We may not have noticed the bug or bird that zoomed through the photo or the play of shadow in light.

A film camera can malfunction. Light leakage or a mechanical glitch can cause a bizarre, unexpected trail on the image.

Recently, movement-triggered wildlife photos have captured fur-blurs (“blursters”?). An animal at very close range triggered the camera but precious little detail is in the image to allow one to figure out what critter was responsible.

Most unidentified blobjects are simply mistaken interpretation of unimpressive things like shadows, rocks and trees. There was the infamous case of Yeti rock (See it in this blog post) where a natural rock outcropping so resembled a bipedal creature that the explorer took a photo of it, convinced he saw a live, bipedal creature. (Later reconnaissance proved it was rock protruding from the snow.) I distinctly recall a Sasquatch-shaped arborvitae tree near my childhood home that looked down at me at sunset from the hilltop and gave me the willies.

Blobjective value

Do these blobject images have value? As real evidence, no. It is understandably difficult to go back and recreate the exact situation (season, time of day, weather conditions, etc.) in which the picture was taken and eliminate various explanations although you can possibly eliminate the misidentification of aforementioned rocks and trees. The photos themselves, by their very nature, do not contain enough detail to accurately measure and describe what is portrayed in the image. Poor quality imagery isn’t valuable in any scientific venture, what use can unidentified blobjects be to prove the existence of something many people doubt?

They are most capably used as inspiration – where they do have value. The ghost hunters and ufologists are rightly becoming weary of the hundreds of orb and blurfo picts sent to them by the eager public. Nevertheless, really unique blobsquatches, blursters, and aquatic blobsters generate endless commentary and speculation.

This blobject phenomenon is fascinating because the question of what was captured in the photo remains. Even if it wasn’t what we might wish – a groundbreaking scientific discovery – it may be an important lesson in optics, photo technology or human perception.

We can be assured that a long parade of blobsquatches and other indistinct visuals will continue to appear for our scrutiny. We can view them at all angles, zoom, crop, enhance, and speculate all we want – they will never be the solid scientific evidence we need to prove that something unknown really exists. But they can inspire us to debate, imagine, discover and learn.