Young Earth Creationists’ sneaky strategy to be scientifical

Earth magazine has an intriguing and disturbing article by Steven Newton describing how geologists, who actually represent the Institute for Creation Research, the Discovery Institute and Christian universities, subtly promote the view that Noah’s flood was responsible for geological observations in the American West. Their new strategy is to give talks, posters and guide field trips at a premier geologic conference.

How can this be? Well, if you’ve ever been on one of these field trips, you know they can be a jargony nightmare. Even as a professional, when it comes to very specialized terms and labeling used in petrology and sedimentology, vocabulary is wicked tough to learn and remember. If this is your introduction to a particular feature or region, you look to the expert guiding the trip to provide you with information. You likely do not have enough background yet to form good questions or recognize some dubious interpretation.

The article’s author, a director for the National Center for Science Education, went on the trip run by five co-leaders. The Creationist content was not openly disclosed. Continue reading

Bigfoot researchers making big leaps

A few behaviors really irk me: acting like an authority to the public when you don’t deserve to be authoritative and making shit up to give a good story. The scientist in me would like experience, credentials and an exhibition of expertise. I also need evidence for wild claims. Because, well, you know… I doubt it.

One group in particular is very fond of putting these behaviors together – self-styled Bigfoot researchers.

I’m fed up with Bigfoot proponents pulling “facts” out of thin air and telling me what Bigfoot likes and doesn’t like, where he sleeps at night, how he avoids detection, how he communicates. They tell the public that wood knocking and nighttime howls are from Bigfoot. They find locations where one passed through or slept. They even apparently know about their “culture”. How can you, Bigfoot researcher, justify these fantastic claims? I’d like to know.

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Chupacabra gets a necropsy: Ben Radford’s new book does the dirty work

We were given a teaser of the stunning new findings about the chupacabra in Ben Radford’s preceding book Scientific Paranormal Investigation, which I reviewed here. I was excited to dig into the entire story in Tracking The Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore.

The book has high praise and positive reviews already. Of course, I loved it – not because I love every monster book. I don’t. Most popular ones are quite terrible since they rehash the same old stories without references or critical thought. I loved it because this was a unique and comprehensive look a very “pop culture” monster. There was a ton of new stuff in here. Continue reading

An actual good guide for young paranormal investigators

I like to occasionally check out the juvenile literature section of the local library to see what is in the paranormal-themed books for kids. I picked up this book from the library recently:
Ghosts: And Real-Life Ghost Hunters (24/7: Science Behind the Scenes: Mystery Files) by Michael Teitelbaum, 2008, and was pleasantly surprised. What a nice book for the curious kid aged 8-12. Continue reading

The art of scaring you over nothing: aquifers cause cancer

There are some ideas that are so silly that one REALLY wishes they didn’t have to be addressed at all.

An article appearing here was my introduction to a new, very confused and counterintutive concept: aquifers cause cancer and health problems for humans. Mr. David Reecher, who runs the website Aquifers and Health Institute, has undertaken a public campaign to warn of the hazards of aquifers. When I read the news article, I laughed, thinking it was from The Onion. The statements displayed such ignorant of how nature works that it HAD to be satire. I underestimated human imagination; it was real. I was compelled to investigate this one further.

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Solving Unexplained Mysteries: A review of “Scientific Paranormal Investigation” by B. Radford

This past March, I registered for a seminar on Scientific Paranormal Investigation at CFI – Washington, DC. Ben Radford was presenting and the event description mentioned his upcoming book of the same name. This was fortuitous since I was working on developing a thesis project about the prevalence of sham inquiry, focusing on amateur investigation groups, such as Bigfoot, UFO and ghost hunters. Sadly, I missed the event because of the death of my grandmother.

As my thesis idea gelled, I realized Ben’s new book would be a must-have for my references. So, I purchased it directly from his website (www.radfordbooks.com)  as soon as it was announced, before it even made it to Amazon. He noted in the inscription that I was his first order.

This unique volume includes so much about the topics on which I’m focused for my project -laypersons conducting investigations into paranormal activities and what it means to be “scientific”. I wondered how this book would compare with Missing Pieces by Baker and Nickell. It’s different in content, focus and scope. For starters, at this point in time, there has never been so many paranormal investigation groups. Thanks to the internet and television, these groups number over a thousand on any given day in the U.S. alone. Millions of people view Ghost Hunters on television and think that’s an example of how scientific investigation is done. It’s a timely topic. Continue reading

Trying to boost your local tourism? Become a hauntrepreneur.

I came across this story about “haunted” Lafayette, Indiana.

It’s a typical soft news story about local authors and their new book of collected yarns. It also provided a little Fortean kick since, according to Mysterious America by Loren Coleman, place names that include “Fayette” or “Lafayette” have unusual activity or bad luck associated with them. I won’t go into depth about how that is totally selective cherry-picking and uninteresting. But, it is both.

In Lafayette, the authors rightly thought that a combination of interesting stories and local history would be winner. “I thought people would read about history if a ghost story was attached.” The article notes that the authors are “not ghost hunters, but writers who decided to document people’s stories about supernatural folklore.” They use the usual disclaimer, “We leave it up to the reader to decide whether they believe it or not.”

There’s a problem with that idea. These stories aren’t categorized outright as fiction. They get shelved under “local interest” or “travel”. The concept of ghosts as genuine entities lacks scientific validity. The stories, however, can fall nicely into folklore as suggested. So, file ghost stories under “fiction” or “folklore” and quit treating them as “true stories”.
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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.