Finding Pseudoscience

I’ve been watching a lot of Finding Bigfoot on Animal Planet lately.  It’s not because I’m expecting them to ever find a bigfoot.  It’s because no show on television illustrates the virtues of true skepticism or the powers of rationalization.  If you haven’t watched Finding Bigfoot, I recommend sitting down and watching at least a few minutes of an episode.  Any episode will do because the same sort of pseudoscientific investigations take place every show.

I want to be clear that I don’t watch this show to feel superior.  If anything, I finish every episode wondering at what unacknowledged biases shape my own world view.  It’s a scary thing to realize that, in the right circumstances, on the right topic, we are all capable of believing things unproven and ridiculous.  The reasons for doing so might vary, but if you don’t think this is true of you, then you’re fooling yourself as much as the poor folks running through the darkened woods, looking for a creature that they have no reason to believe exists.

Finding Bigfoot replaced Ghost Adventures as my favorite pseudoscience show because at least ghosts are supposed to be invisible and supernatural.  I still love Ghost Adventures because it has the highest ratio of “dude” and “bro” uttered on pretty much any show on television.  And their standards for evidence are so laughably low that in one episode, a ball NOT MOVING was offered as proof that there might be a ghost in the room.

But Finding Bigfoot is different because this is a show about intrepid investigators tromping through the woods looking for a giant hominid, finding nothing, and yet, utterly convinced that such a creature could exist.  Certainly, I could point out the obvious flaws in this assumption.  Points like that it is basically impossible for a breeding population of large animals to live on this planet without leaving any evidence behind.  I bet, for instance, that you could hire an expert bear tracker, and it wouldn’t be too hard for him to find some bears.  Yet bigfoot hunters, the so-called experts, can’t even offer us more than a grainy photo and a plaster footprint.

None of this matters though to the folks of Finding Bigfoot though because they know the creature exists.  They say so often.  It doesn’t seem to make a difference that they haven’t found one.  It’s just enough to know.

(I know a lot of folks will say the hunters don’t actually believe, but that they’re paid to look.  No doubt this is part of what encourages them, but these are people who have spent years, unpaid, looking for bigfoot.  There is a level of commitment that is worth acknowledging, even if it is a bit misplaced.)

I offer the patented A. Lee Martinez Leprechaun rebuttal.  If the evidence you offer is just as much proof for the existence of leprechauns as bigfoot, then you have to admit it’s not much good as evidence.

All the hallmarks of pseudoscience are present in Finding Bigfoot.  Eyewitness testimony (always unreliable even when dealing with things we’ve already proven to exist) is offered as compelling proof.  Unexplained noises are framed as intelligent responses.  Assumptions run rampant.  This is a show where not only was a wolf howl taken as proof that bigfoot was near, but the listener even somehow knew that what the wolves were thinking.  The blurriest footage is compelling.  And the investigators mistake sincerity for veracity, as if someone genuinely believing they saw a bigfoot is the same thing as actually seeing one.

Pseudoscience illustrates the importance of the scientific method when in comes to research.  It’s not enough to use science-tastic terms or to call yourself an investigator.  Without the proper methodology, you’re just walking through the woods, jumping at shadows.  It might feel exciting to do so, but it’s little more than well-meaning believers stumbling around blindly groping for something they have no reason to believe exists.

But darned if it isn’t compelling television for the skeptic in me.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

 

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5 Comments

  1. Posted December 5, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this, it always makes me happy to find more skeptics in speculative fiction. They’re as badly needed there as in the real world.

  2. Louis
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Wow, on the one side your insight to this idiocracy of tv fodder is fun. The other side makes me wonder why you are wasting your time watching it. It then takes me down a path of why a select few television gems are going off air and these shows continue on. It ultimately makes me sad. Please watch quality tv, kick crap tv out.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      I think you mistake my reasons for watching this, and why I think everyone should.

      It is perhaps the best show on television for showing the value of critical thinking by showing the dangers of not doing it. Furthermore, while it’s true the people are a bit silly, they are not bad people. They seem like perfectly reasonable folks who have simply fallen victim to their own preconceptions. In that way, they are more relatable than the idiots of most reality shows.

      I think it’s unfair to call the show crap. If I watched it expecting them to find Bigfoot, then yeah, it’d be a colossal waste of time. But as an exercise in the dangers of pseudoscience, it’s a brilliant show. Albeit unintentionally.

      That said, I don’t watch it all the time and often, when I do, it’s on in the background.

      But as reality shows go, it’s actually got a cast of nice people who just seem a bit confused.

  3. Steve
    Posted December 29, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately, I suspect most of the audience doesn’t watch Finding Bigfoot with a skeptical lens. It’s not really presented to deliberately and clearly show that they are using pseudoscience rather than real science. You have to be able to discern that for yourself. I am greatly concerned by the number of shows like this that promote pseudoscientific approaches to learning about the world. It seems to me that in putting out this form of entertainment, these shows may well reduce the scientific literacy of the population.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      I see your concerns, but I think that it is all but impossible to reduce the level of scientific literacy in the general public. I don’t mean that in a condescending way because science is difficult, in many ways counter-intuitive to how we want to understand the universe around us. These shows don’t decrease our level of scientific literacy because most of us are not scientifically literate to begin with.

      But I do often share your frustration with them. It can be a shocking reminder of how fragile our scientific understanding of the universe is and how it might all collapse in a moment. But I look at these shows not as the problem, but the symptom.

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