Thursday, January 5, 2012

Is Ranae just a token skeptic? What it means to be truly skeptical about Finding Bigfoot

Ranae Holland keeping the rest of her cast members from Finding Bigfoot at bay (Photo: Neo Edwards)
Hello from your friendly neighborhood skeptic. Guy asked me to contribute my thoughts about portraying skepticism on TV, specifically about Ranae Holland's role on Finding Bigfoot. While here, I thought I might shoe-horn in some comments about the myth and reality of skepticism, sort of as an outreach activity to help understand this point of view that some find, well, irritating.

There is quite a bit of common ground that Bigfoot skeptics and believers leap over in order to get to the arguing phase. That’s a mistake. It sure would be more productive if we could start from an agreed upon place and move forward, not push against each other. Perhaps then we can actually make some progress in coming to terms with one of America’s most fascinating mysteries. So, indulge me while I explain how the critical eye views Finding Bigfoot and why it’s important to be skeptical, that is, if you want to get closer to the truth.


The Mythical Iconic Skeptic

The myth of the cynical, debunking skeptic is as pervasive and ingrained in our modern culture as the myth of the hairy wildman. Both Bigfoot and “the skeptic” are iconic in their own ways.

The idea of a skeptic in society is that of the doubter, the nonbeliever, the cynic or the debunker. I’m going to describe a skeptic in terms of scientific skepticism - that which is attempted by the community of critical thinkers led by the likes of James Randi, Ben Radford, Michael Shermer and Joe Nickell, among others.

My skepticism is an application of a method meant to sort out the likely true from the likely false. To do this, one looks at the evidence obtained in a valid, reliable, hopefully reproducible, objective way. Skepticism is about not being easily swayed by what people just tell you, what you wish were true, or what the rest of the crowd believes. Those means are weak to no support for a claim. Instead, I use established knowledge about the subject, typically from the literature of science (as opposed to religion, for example, because science is the most reliable means we know of to find out about nature). From this careful evaluation of the evidence, we can get to an answer that fits best. Or, if there is not enough worthwhile evidence, the conclusion is left open.

“Skeptic” is so often overused and misused:

The person on a forum that immediately defaults to “It’s a hoax” is not a skeptic.

The person in your family who says, “Aaah, you just saw a bear crossing the road” is not a skeptic.

The person at your workplace who says, “What silly nonsense!” is not a skeptic.

The person who says, “Hmm, what's the evidence you have for that?” is probably a fair skeptic.

Is Ranae a true skeptic?

So, is Ranae Holland a true skeptic (in the specific, critical thinking sense I laid out above)? Or, is she just the token “skeptic” thrown in there for false balance? Here are aspects to consider when evaluating just how credible you can look as a skeptic on TV.

Ranae has some scientific training - a huge plus! Science is WAY more than the cookbook, generalized “scientific method” that many investigation groups say they use. It’s an entire process of collecting the information and synthesizing it into reliable knowledge. It’s not done by one person; it’s a community effort. There are rules and protocols. It’s REALLY HARD and takes A LONG TIME. That’s why we respect it so much. I think she understands that. I would argue the rest of the BRFO does not and there is no way I would consider what BRFO does to be scientific. I think they misuse the term to mean “careful” and “systematic” but, for many reasons, they fail at achieving the high bar of “scientific”. I see Ranae's mind working, trying to run through possibilities. Unfortunately, she is not able to really act on those questions, as I'll mention further along.

Second, look at the framework in which Ranae is working. The premise of Finding Bigfoot hits you in the face – they are out to find evidence of a creature they presume already exists. This is the major flaw of the show and is what infuriates me about paranormal research in general: It’s a show about Finding Bigfoot, not finding whatever the right answer is. Because of that, Ranae is hamstrung. Any skepticism is impotent. It’s not about getting to the best answer for what people experienced, it’s about contriving evidence to support the idea of Bigfoot. When the answer precludes what the evidence says it's a sham investigation.

She is surrounded by others that truly believe. Every sound and knock and shadow is a Bigfoot to people like Matt who are so invested in this belief that it will NOT be relinquished. Ranae is put out in the dark woods with a suggestion that a Sasquatch is watching – a situation that would turn anyone hypervigilant and edgy. Viewers are rooting for the team to find the thing. She has little chance to put on a defense argument and is overwhelmed.

Incredible leaps of logic are made on the show. The men on the team have a model of what Bigfoot is, how it acts and what it’s doing next Saturday night when the moon is full… OK, I exaggerate, but not by much. They have had experiences that they have resolved in terms of encountering Bigfoot. Everything they subjectively judge as an anomaly is attributed to a Squatch. So, Ranae, who was quite familiar with the idea of Bigfoot beforehand, has this feedback loop drawing her into this view as well. This may be part of the editing of the show or it may be genuine, I can’t really tell from just what airs.

When even the pro-Bigfoot cast members complain about the editing of the show, one has to suspect there is a goal to be achieved here which is out of their control.

Being the skeptic on TV is tough. To truly fulfill this role, you must present your side to the others. You can't just make stuff up out of whole cloth (like much of what is presented on Finding Bigfoot). Yet, no one on a TV show is going to be allowed to present literature reviews and experimental results. You don’t have the opportunity to carefully and exhaustively question all witnesses and recreate their encounters. All the background science, necessary to bolster your position, is NOT exciting. It’s not good entertainment. Yelling “What was THAT?” and running away, presumably for self-preservation, is way more dramatic. Therefore, that’s what you see portrayed. Disadvantage: Ranae, the skeptic scientist.

Being the skeptic is hard

While it’s nice that this skeptical portrayal is not a curmudgeonly guy, as is the image the public typically conjures up, Ranae doesn’t want to be one who busts the balloon. I like Ranae. She is likeable, smart and personable. Plus, she looks like she is enjoying this job. I’m sympathetic towards her because I have ALWAYS been easily swayed by others around me, conforming to their views. If one is naturally not inclined to have a critical eye it takes a LOT of practice to learn new habits of careful observation and questioning.

Ranae drops the ball by failing to ask probing questions and digging deep; she appears to have fallen into step with Team Squatch. Except for the occasional eye roll and comment, she goes along with the ridiculous, illogical antics on the show. Once again, this may not be her fault, I don't know.

A true scientific skeptic on the show would make the others look utterly foolish. That’s obviously not what the producers want. The purpose of Finding Bigfoot (for entertainment) would be compromised were someone to scrutinize everything carefully and consider all possibilities. Besides, time schedules simply don’t permit it. That’s one reason why science is incredibly challenging to portray on TV.

In this article, Ranae notes her reservations about being on the show. Oh, have I heard this before, including in my own head! We know what a warping of reality TV can achieve and if given the chance, we are confronted with uneasiness about editors and non-disclosure agreements.

Skeptics outnumbered, unwanted

Should there be a real skeptic on the show? I’m not sure it’s truly possible in this case but it could be done better. A stronger skeptical voice would add more tension. But, unless the majority of the people on the show are skeptical, you will never get closer to the truth, but continue to just run round the woods scaring yourself. Ranae is outnumbered and a victim of contrived reality drama. I would have liked to see a more determined skeptic but the essence of this show did not provide a role for such a person except as a contrast to the others. Since they are so utterly invested in their view, it does not take much for the skeptic to appear contrary. I've heard some commentators remark she takes it too far. Skeptically minded people would say she does not take it nearly far enough.

Here is also a place where Ranae succeeds: she can empathize. This is a somewhat rare and occasionally dangerous skeptical trait. I don’t discount the stories people relate because I appreciate how very powerful personal experiences can be. If I were to have an experience with an unknown entity and not be able to figure out what happened, I would be strongly influenced by it as well. Ranae looks influenced. She is being drawn in; her critical faculties suppressed by those around her. Bigfoot has become the default explanation.

Ideally, a skeptic is dispassionate about the ultimate cause, wanting only to arrive at the answer no matter what it is. What a hard thing to manage, especially when you are attempting to be truthful and thorough only to have your days worth of work chopped up and jammed into a 40-some minute slot of entertainment. That's television for ya!

Whether there is a strong skeptical viewpoint portrayed on the show or not, EVERYONE should be critical of what's portrayed on TV. Programs are constructed, contrived, biased and wrapped up in a package to be fed to the masses. Understand that and train your brain to be more critical to wade through the hype.

Be your own skeptic. All the time. That is, if you want the answer instead of just reinforcement for your existing belief.


20 comments:

  1. Thank you Sharon. What an even-handed piece. You really approached this from perspectives I had not considered.

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  2. To be a good cryptozoologist is to be a good critical thinker, while employing a skeptical but open-minded approach. As I often say to the media, my associates, and our museum visitors, I find the most dangerous people to bring along on an investigation are the "true believers" and the "closed minded debunkers."

    Both parties come to the table with misconceptions that do not assist the scientific method, cryptozoologically and in general.

    One caution regarding Ms. Holland's appearance on Finding Bigfoot might be added to this specific sentence written by Ms. Hill: "Ranae drops the ball by failing to ask probing questions and digging deep; she appears to have fallen into step with Team Squatch."

    Having been involved in many of these reality television programs, I guess I would add this cautionary footnote: "as she appears in the post-edited broadcast episodes."

    Finding Bigfoot appears to be remarkably produced to edit out most hints from Ms. Holland and the other three team members of any skeptical, critical-thinking, and cautionary thoughts they might have had about any encounter and evidence confronted. It is as if, for entertainment reasons, this show is only shown as a "true believer" festival. Yet we have now all heard from producers, crew members, and others that lots of skepticism does happen during the process of this show being made.

    We have learned from these side interviews that each investigation unfolds with more skeptical moments occurring, despite how we see it being portrayed on Animal Planet.

    But then, Ms. Hill understands that, I know, and says so subtly. I just wanted to shout it a bit louder for those reading this who don't get that: What you see on television is only a projected reality of what really happened. More skepticism occurs in the field, and I would propose much more of it issues from Ms. Holland. Most of it ends up "on the cutting room floor," as is said in the business.

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  3. I remain skeptical that anyone with a financial interest in Bigfoot, Lauren Coleman perhaps especially, is to be trusted on the subject. Open-mindedness is integral to skepticism, not separate from it--I see that detail continues to go over your head, sir.

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    1. Logically information, investigation, and evidence cannot be judged by motivations. That is an ad hominem fallacy of logic. It is not open-mindedness that is integral to skepticism, but, rather, not jumping to conclusions. However:
      Scientific skepticism (also spelled scepticism) is the practice of questioning the veracity of claims lacking empirical evidence or reproducibility, as part of a methodological norm pursuing "the extension of certified knowledge".[1] For example, Robert K. Merton asserts that all ideas must be tested and are subject to rigorous, structured community scrutiny (see Mertonian norms).[2]
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_skepticism

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  4. I remain skeptical that anyone who can not spell Loren Coleman's name correctly can have any valid opinion ;)

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  5. Sharon this was a great incite to me as to how the show would be perceived by those on the outside of the Bigfoot research arena. Because I am a believer, based on the overwhelming anecdotal and forensic evidence that has been collected on the subject, and because I know the many thousands of witness reports studied, and field research hours put in by Matt, Craig and Bobo, as well as having read the over 50 page BFRO Expedition Handbook myself, I am aware of the reasons why they are approaching and coming to the conclusions they do about certain situations they encounter on the TV show. But the general American non-believing populace does not have this background information, so yes it would sometimes seem like "Incredible leaps of logic are made on the show."

    I wish there was a way to convey all the knowledge collected from the thousands of hours of ground work and witness reports collected by organizations such as the BFRO (www.BFRO.net) to the television viewing audience. But as a believer I do think the show is serving an important purpose in that it is getting the general populace to think about this subject, and it is enabling those who may have had a sighting or encounter a way to contact others for information and the reassurance that they are not “crazy” or alone in their experience, as well as adding to the sighting database as a result. And that in itself is a very important function.

    Nadia Moore
    Zoologist, UC Davis 1994

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  6. Love your spelling comment Nadia. Too funny.

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  7. I will start by saying that I'm a boderline skeptic. I watched all the episodes of "Finding Bigfoot" and IMO Ranae has slowly assimilated into becoming a believer. Her behavior at present reminds me of one who wants to be accepted by the other members of the group. This is IMO normal behavior and something that happens to all of us in our life time. The program itself has done nothing to bring us any closer than we were in 1967.

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  8. I came across this post while googling various cast member names of finding bigfoot and I feel you've encapsulated my own views pretty well.

    When I first watched the show, I was immediately surprised at how there was just an overwhelming presumption of existence and that there were some, to say the least, interesting group dynamics between the cast members, at least compared to other 'hunting of things that may not exist'. I hesitate to say paranormal shows so as not to imply anything supernatural, but I think you know what I mean... but I digress.

    If you've ever looked into behind the scenes or where are they now type stories of your favorite 'reality tv' stuff, there is ALWAYS a prevailing theme of 'the story is created by the editing' and this show seems to be no exception. Hell, if the cast itself complains about the editing you know that it must be heavy. (A great example are false dramas heavily implied by the teaser trailer for the next episode where they take two totally separate events and cut them to tease something completely different.. hells kitchen looking your direction)

    There's something... weird about this show. The best way I can describe it is a lack of group cohesion, or least it seems that way from the editing. I think it's a combination of a few things. Firstly, the interpersonal dynamics of the group on here are just awkward to watch. it seems to me that there is a certain level of follow-the-leader going on, again either by the desire just to get along with what seems like a hammer-dropping leader or created in editing, that really limits the often disparate or skeptical views by the cast members. Remember the scene where one guy very reasonably objected to just traipsing about the woods 'without a plan' and the main dude just was like, in perhaps different words 'this is my investigation!' and they resided to just going along. I saw a youtube vid from the music dude whose name escapes me at the moment who basically said the whole 'running through the woods with a torch' was entirely the producers idea for the sake of 'good tv' and would get them a lot of flack from the BF community. I also recall a moment where one of the believers said 'it's a coyote' and basically was overruled despite probably knowing damn well it was a coyote. Can you imagine them fighting about it on camera? That first tiff was awkward enough.

    In an environment like that, one I know I have experienced at work, if I were the resident skeptic, I would be taking a similar diplomatic approach even if it allowed room to be edited that I was somehow becoming a believer, if only for the sake of the tense car ride out of the state park and keeping my job on the show.

    This may not be the best analogy, but as an Atheist, I do find it hard to even have discussions about the existence of a higher or power with people who presume that is not only the case but use their particular belief system as a source rather than, say, scientific evidence. Because of the emotional aspect of personal conviction, it's just not easy to explain how incredibly wrong someone could be without it seeming personal and all that.

    Not that I want it to end, but I would when it does, there will be a lot of interesting things coming out about it in regards to how it all really went down, to say the least.

    regards,
    Chris

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  9. Nadia,
    The evidence collected supporting that such a creature exists is non-existent. Evidence presented so far points more towards hoaxes, misidentification, and delusion. None of the evidence has been peer reviewed and the only study presented was returned for lack of a testable hypothesis. More over, the consensus of the scientific community is that the existence of such a creature is highly improbable. Until verifiable and testable evidence is presented, why suspend critical thinking and believe?

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  10. Renae needs to put her foot down and say what she really thinks,she needs to stand up for herself and challenge the non-senscical babbleings of Mr Moneymaker,this guy is a fool that seeks to inflate his own ego and more probably his bank balance!! Some of the things he comes out with are laughable and to be honest sometimes i find myself cringing when he talks,every time she starts to question things and with good reason,she is hounded down by him and moreover the others seem to jump on the band wagon!!The whole programe is laughable and the evidence collecting is a joke!!
    It makes good telly though i suppose,it's worth watching just to for a giggle and the comedy factor!! lol
    Bobo is almost incoherent,he mumbles and i can't understand a word he says,i't seems like hes stoned to me!lol
    Cliff,well i can't see what he has to contribute,he's just there if you know what i mean,he seems a good bloke though!
    As for Mr Moneymaker,he looks like he'd be none the worse for a good washing!!!,his hair is greasy and he looks like he's wearing smudged fake tan,seems to me that he just can't be bothered to make the effort!!
    None the less,i like the show,it won't win any awards and they won't find one,but like i say,it's worth watching just for the total ineptness of everyone and the comedy factor!!!

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  11. Saying that,Renae hasn't really got a chance,she is surrounded by blinkered believers who will shout her down at every chance,especially Matt and on top of that she has a production team to deal with who are only interested in ratings when all said and done,man up Renae and tell them how it is,don't back down and from now on stick to your guns!!

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  12. I have a few things to say about the article and what Scott said. First I found that this article was all over the place and one time praising Rena and the next saying she only wish is to be one of the guys. Come on what a load of crap (I am keeping this pg) its one way or another but not both so please Clarify your statements. And all you are going by is what is on TV not what is really happening with the group. I am sure that she is trying to voice her concern but most likely being shut out by the produces and crews and editors.
    Scott I do agree with you about Matt Moneymaker he is a BIG mouth and a hot head and is really bad for the group he really needs to be replaced. Next I do have a hearing problem and I can understand BOBO just find I have a name of a good hearing product that you should try out. And as far as making fun of the way people look I would like to see a pic of you so we can take some shots.
    Any way I had some real problems with this article most have been very good on this sight thank you.

    Lee

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    1. Thanks for your comment Lee. This post was written on my request by Sharon Hill who runs http://doubtfulnews.com/.

      The intention was not to necessarily be critical of Ranae, it was more to see if she was accomplishing her self-defined role as a skeptic. I felt another self-defined skeptic could answer the question better than I.

      I agree, Sharon Hill never comes out and gives a complete thumbs up/thumbs down regarding Ranae, although it is the typical even-handed treatment I would expect from a well-disciplined skeptic.

      Thank you for your kind words and please continue to share your thoughts on various posts. Readers like you make this site better everyday.

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  13. Yes, Nadia, very funny comment regarding Anon's sentence: "I remain skeptical that anyone with a financial interest in Bigfoot, Lauren Coleman perhaps especially, is to be trusted on the subject."

    Of course, beyond the mythical stance that Bigfoot gives me any financial gain at all (I have spent much more money on pursuing and supporting my research than anything returned), I would also like to point out the weakness of this "statement" of Anon.

    Merely replace the word "Bigfoot" with any topic, profession, or pursuit, and note how it sounds.

    For example:

    "I remain skeptical that anyone with a financial interest in anthropology is to be trusted on the subject."

    Or "I remain skeptical that anyone with a financial interest in dentistry is to be trusted on the subject."

    Humm.

    And so forth....

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  14. You can read a book from space but can't photographically prove Bigfoot from Earth. It appears to be a cottage industry Monsterquesting and finding Bigfoot. All the drama is getting old.

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  15. @ Barry
    I am a sceptic, however I do realize that many species are yet to be discovered, much less photographed. I feel most people vastly overestimate the power of scientific endeavor. As mentioned above, it is only through arduous effort that any non-trivial hypothesis can be established as the most likely reflection of actual reality. None of that sort of effort has been expended in "Finding Bigfoot."

    Scientist will not search for what they do not believe is there. They can't get funded for that.

    I would like comment on this issue:

    The most problematic things about the bigfoot issue, for most people, seems to be the lack of physical, photographic, and first-hand reports of sightings.

    However, according to the data put forth on the BFRO website there are: hundreds of photos/videos of varying quality, literally thousands of (even recent) first-hand reports, and some physical evidence (although lees than may be desired). If this data is genuine, it seems to me that if we were talking about some nocturnal rodent-like creature (that is so rare and reclusive that one is much more likely to get struck by lightning than ever directly encounter it, even if you live in it's habitat) it's existence would be commonly accepted.

    I wonder if the modern-day westerners have the same prejudice as their eighteenth-century counterparts did concerning reports of large, man-like creatures in the forests -- only then the forests were in Africa and the creature whose existence scientists were skeptical about was the mountain gorilla.

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  16. Bigfoots, if they exist, would be rare (on the verge of extinction, perhaps), very reclusive and apparently nocturnal. No scientist will ever gather conclusive evidence for its existence without expending a ton of time, energy and research dollars. Any evidence put forth in non-academic forums will not be acknowledged or investigated by professional biologists, zoologists, or primatologists. They just don't get paid to do that.

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  17. Re:skepticism

    When is it really science
    and when is it just scientism?

    "Scientism,
    in the strong sense,
    is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful,
    which is not a scientific claim and hence,
    if true...
    not meaningful.

    Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless.

    This view seems to have been held by
    Ludwig Wittgenstein in his
    Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (1922)
    when he said such things as
    "The totality of true propositions
    is the whole of natural science..."
    -The Skeptic's Dictionary

    The word "scientist" stems directly from "scientism"...
    and only indirectly from "science".

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