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.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The wolves of Skinwalker Ranch

One of the problems that crops up in discussions of cryptids is that a lot of people consistently fall back on arguments based upon the number of alleged sightings.  "It's been seen hundreds of times," they'll say.  "It's got to be real.  All those sightings can't be wrong."

This argument is backwards, and the reason why has to do with a misunderstanding of statistics.  Let's consider two species, a common one and an extremely rare one.  It's no stretch to assume that the common one should be sighted more often than the rare one.  But you'd also surmise that if you set out to do so, hard evidence of the common one should be way easier to come by.  If you set out traps, you should catch more of the common one than the rare one.

So far, nothing very surprising.

A cryptid -- or, in fact, any paranormal phenomenon -- with more anecdotal reports should also leave behind more in the way of hard evidence.  If the Omaha Weasel Man has only ever been seen once, okay, maybe it's not so surprising we don't have any proof of his existence.  But if there are hundreds, or even thousands, of sightings, shouldn't there be something in the way of scientifically-admissible evidence?  A bone, a tuft of hair with DNA not from any known species, something?

Zero hard evidence along with lots of anecdotal reports strongly suggests a different answer -- gullibility, misinterpretation of what witnesses have seen or heard, or outright fraud.

Which brings us to the infamous Skinwalker Ranch.

The Skinwalker Ranch is a 512-acre plot of land in a remote region of Uintah County, Utah.  It gets its name from the Navajo legend of the yee naaldlooshii (which translates to "it goes on all fours"), which is an evil magician who can take the shape of a non-human animal at will.

Skinwalker Ranch has been the site of literally hundreds of bizarre claims, including:
  • UFOs (lots of these)
  • vanished or mutilated cattle
  • glowing orbs hovering over the ground/"ball lightning"
  • invisible objects emitting sparks and powerful magnetic fields
  • large animals with glowing red eyes that are alleged to be unharmed by gunfire
The last one is what gave the place its name, and comes along with a legend of uncertain provenance -- that the Navajo who lived there were attacked and enslaved by Ute warriors, and the Navajo cursed the place, saying whoever settled there afterward would be plagued by an evil spirit who could take the form of a wolf.  Several successions of modern owners of the property have claimed to have seen this thing, most notably Gwen and Terry Sherman and their family, who owned it from 1994 to 1996, and Robert Bigelow, who bought it from the Shermans in 1996 and owned it until 2016.  The Shermans are the first ones who made a big deal about bizarre happenings on the place, including seeing strange, wolf-like animals, and a sighting of an "orb filled with a glowing blue fluid" that supposedly killed three of their dogs.  Bigelow, a prominent businessman, is deeply interested in UFOs and other sketchy phenomena, and bought the ranch because of the Shermans' stories; he can be credited with bringing the site to national attention.

So, naturally, people have tried to figure out what's going on there, with some of the more scientifically-minded saying that the strange animal sightings, at least, have a natural explanation -- they're a surviving population of dire wolves (Aenocyon dirus).  There are two problems with this, of increasing difficulty: first, that the most recent dated remains of dire wolves is from almost ten thousand years ago, and second, if there is an extant population somewhere in the Uintah Basin, they've left exactly zero evidence.

Artist's reconstruction of a dire wolf [Image is in the Public Domain]

In fact, that last bit is the sticking point about Skinwalker Ranch in general.  Robert Bigelow founded a group he called the National Institute for Discovery Science, whose sole raison d'ĂȘtre was to find evidence for claims of the paranormal, and after a long investigation of the claims from Skinwalker Ranch, they concluded -- and this is a direct quote -- they had "difficulty obtaining evidence consistent with scientific publication."

Which is a euphemism for "we found fuck-all in the way of proof."

So the problem here is, we have a place that -- to listen to the hype -- has UFOs out the wazoo, strange meteorological phenomena, and wild animal sightings that are (depending on who you believe) something like a werewolf, or a ten-thousand-year prehistoric holdover.  And despite all that, there has not been a single piece, not the tiniest shred, of hard evidence.  To me that argues strongly that the whole thing is a publicity stunt.  It may well have started out with some odd observations that were misinterpreted -- the Shermans certainly seem to have been earnest enough -- but after Bigelow got involved, it's become one tactic after another to keep people's attention on the place.  UFOlogist Barry Greenwood, who investigated the ranch earlier this year and also came up empty-handed, said Bigelow was "always in the business of selling belief and hope."

Belief and hope aren't the only things he's selling.  It's telling that in 2020, Bigelow, filed for -- and was approved for -- a trademark on the Skinwalker Ranch name, for the purpose of "providing recreation facilities; entertainment services, namely, creation, development, production, and distribution of multimedia content, internet content, motion pictures, and television shows...  cups and mugs, shirts and short-sleeved shirts, sports caps and hats."

Gullibility is, as always, big business.

So once again, we're faced with the difficulty that just the sheer quantity of anecdotal reports doesn't mean there's anything real behind it; in fact, without hard evidence, it can actually argue for the opposite.  The wolves of Skinwalker Ranch are very likely to be nonexistent.  As much as I, like Fox Mulder, "want to believe," this one appears to be a non-starter as anything but a way to make money.


1 comment:

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