Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Vanished into the wilderness

As I've said many times before: I'm not saying that the paranormal is impossible.  I would really like it, however, if people would consider all of the natural possibilities before jumping straight to the supernatural ones.

This comes up because of a claim over at UFO Sightings Hotspot sent to me by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia, where much is being made about the alleged disappearance of people (hundreds of them, apparently) in parks around the world.  The article comes along with a 24-minute video, which is worth watching if you have the time and don't mind doing a few facepalms, but this passage from the post will give you the gist:
The mystery of hundreds of people vanishing in national parks and forests is possible linked to a strange and highly unusual predator that is living in the woods and forests all across the world and is able to overpower someone in an instant. 
People disappear in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, Mount Kailash in Tibet, the Markawasi Stone Forest of Peru and in national parks and forests in U.S.A. 
While paranormal researcher Stephen Young described Markawasi as a dimensional portal and suggested the strange energy visitors have described feeling there is possibly caused by a confluence of ley lines or the piezoelectric properties of granite,  Glenn Canady from BeforeItsNews reported that David Paulidis, a former cop began investigating a story about the hundreds that vanished from National Parks and forests in U.S.A...  David began making his own list and discovered there were over 30 cluster sites where most of these vanishings were happening.  He noticed that the people that vanish often do so right under the noses of others in the area.  The missing also shed their clothes right away and they are folded neatly.  One of the Park Rangers said it was like you were standing straight up and you melted away, that’s what it looked like!
So that's the claim.  People are vanishing by the scores, and the only possible explanations are (1) a huge and vicious predator, with apparently worldwide distribution but completely unknown to science, (2) ley lines, (3) dimensional portals, or (4) the "piezoelectric properties of granite."

Let's consider for a moment a couple of other explanations, shall we?  Then I'd exhort you to weigh them along with the supernatural ones, and see what seems to you to be the most likely.

There are two things about hiking in the wilderness that people often fail to take into account.  My perspective from this comes from a long personal history of back-country hiking, starting when I was a kid and my dad and I used to go to the canyon country of Arizona every summer to hunt for rocks and fossils.  Later, after I moved to Washington state, I used to go out in summer for weeks at a time up into the Cascades and the Olympic Range, relishing the silence and the open space after spending the rest of the year in the bustle and noise of Seattle.

If you've never done this yourself, the first thing you need to realize is that the wilderness is freakin' huge.  And empty.  On my trips into the Cascades, there were times that I'd go a week without seeing a single person.  The place is a big expanse of mountains, glaciers, and trees; if I'd gotten lost and gone missing, perhaps been hurt, the chances are very much against my ever being found again.  I ran across a comment on a website about hiker disappearances that seems appropriate, here:
We were out rockhounding in the desert and followed some tank tracks.  Turns out they were WWII tank tracks, and in one gully we found a long dead US Army Jeep, upside down.  We were likely the first people to have seen it since 1940 or so.  We took the shovel.  That's how we know - it hadn't been stripped.  A Jeep - lost for 40 years.  So - yes, a body would be easy by comparison, especially since animals would eat most of it. 
Once you get off a trail, it's not hard to be on ground that hasn't been trod for decades.  And get lost.
Add to that the fact that there are countless false trails, some made by animals, some simply natural open spots, that could lead a hiker astray.  This is one reason why hiking manuals recommend always going camping with a friend (not that I listened, of course).  Having two people there doubles the chances that you'll both come back alive.

And the "not that I listened" part highlights the second thing that a lot of people don't think about, and that's the penchant for people to do dumb stuff. Again, I have some personal experience in this regard.  Despite my "be careful if you're out in the wilderness" message, I was known to make seriously boneheaded choices back in my young-and-stupid days.  I recall being by myself up in the Cascades, and after a hot hike I decided to strip naked and jump into a little crystal-clear lake I'd come across, not noticing that the lake was fed by melting glacial ice until I was already mid-swan-dive.  I think on that day I may have set the world record for fewest milliseconds spent in the water.  I've also loved to climb since I was a kid, and have scaled many a cliff and rock face and tree -- all, of course, without any climbing equipment.  Any of those escapades could have resulted in my being seriously injured or killed.  That I wasn't is more a testimony to dumb luck than it is to skill.

Look at the moronic stuff people will do in front of witnesses, often while right next to gigantic "caution" signs.  A couple of summers ago, my wife and I went to Yellowstone National Park, and we saw many members of the species Homo idioticus doing things like walking right up to bison, elk, and bears, stepping off of boardwalks in order to get up close and personal with hot-enough-to-melt-your-skin-off hot springs, and climbing on crumbling rock formations.  At least here, if something bad happened, there were people around to help (not that in the case of the grizzlies or hot springs, there'd have been much we could do).  But out in the middle of nowhere?  You're on your own.  And I can use myself as a case-in-point that even in those much more precarious circumstances, people still do dumb stuff.

So you don't need to conjecture predators, ley lines, or anything else supernatural to account for disappearances.  The immensity of nature, coupled with natural human stupidity, is certainly sufficient.  Add to this our penchant for imagining stuff while alone or in unfamiliar surroundings, and you can explain the data, such as it is, without recourse to the paranormal.

And trust me.  Whatever the explanation, it has nothing to do with the "piezoelectric properties of granite."


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week should be in everyone's personal library.  It's the parting gift we received from the brilliant astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who died two years ago after beating the odds against ALS's death sentence for over fifty years.

In Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Hawking looks at our future -- our chances at stopping anthropogenic climate change, preventing nuclear war, curbing overpopulation -- as well as addressing a number of the "big questions" he references in the title.  Does God exist?  Should we colonize space?  What would happen if the aliens came here?  Is it a good idea to develop artificial intelligence?

And finally, what is humanity's chance of surviving?

In a fascinating, engaging, and ultimately optimistic book, Hawking gives us his answers to the questions that occupy the minds of every intelligent human.  Published posthumously -- Hawking died in March of 2018, and Brief Answers hit the bookshelves in October of that year -- it's a final missive from one of the finest brains our species ever produced.  Anyone with more than a passing interest in science or philosophy should put this book on the to-read list.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


  1. I find it curious people think the piezoelectric granite would fold its victims’ clothes. Or that the victims would fold their own clothes while in the process of melting or being eaten or whatever. All those things sound too distracting for the people undergoing them to be worrying about whether their garments are left untidy.

  2. In regards to doing dumb things, going beyond barriers and jumping into lakes, it reminded me of a Windows Spotlight image I saw of some gorgeous mountain lakes, in Indonesia.

    You would not want to break past the barriers at these lakes and jump in as they are volcanic and extremely acidic. One of the lakes has a pH of 3.2, one has a pH of 1.8 and the third has a pH of .4.

    Here's a link to the wikipedia page, but I found the references section of great interest for more information.