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.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Bear with us

A paper appeared last week in the Journal of Zoology that has elicited a good bit of self-satisfied chortling amongst the people who think cryptids are abject nonsense.  It was written by a data scientist named Floe Foxon, and is entitled, "Bigfoot: If It's There, Could It Be a Bear?"

Foxon's conclusion was, "Yeah, it probably is."  Foxon writes:

Previous analyses have identified a correlation between ‘Sasquatch’ or ‘Bigfoot’ sightings and black bear populations in the Pacific Northwest using ecological niche models and simple models of expected animal sightings.  The present study expands the analysis to the entire US and Canada by modeling Sasquatch sightings and bear populations in each state/province while adjusting for human population and forest area in a generalized linear model.  Sasquatch sightings were statistically significantly associated with bear populations such that, on the average, every 1000 bear increase in the bear population is associated with a 4% increase in Sasquatch sightings.  Thus, as black bear populations increase, Sasquatch sightings are expected to increase.  On average, across all states and provinces in 2006, after controlling for human population and forest area, there were approximately 5000 bears per Sasquatch sighting.  Based on statistical considerations, it is likely that many supposed Sasquatch are really misidentified known forms.  If Bigfoot is there, it could be a bear.

While this certainly is a suggestive correlation, it's not the slam-dunk the scoffers would like it to be.  There are no known black bear populations in Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, but all of those states have had significant numbers of Bigfoot sightings; Illinois, in fact, is fifth in the nation for the number of sightings (exceeded only by Washington, California, Florida, and Ohio).

This may seem like an odd stance for a self-styled skeptic to take, and don't interpret this as saying more than it does.  My point is that it is a significant jump (and Foxon himself is clear on this point) from saying "many, perhaps most, Sasquatch sightings are actually black bears" to saying "all Sasquatch sightings are actually black bears," which is the reaction I'm mostly seeing.  My issue is with not with Foxon and his analysis, which is excellent, but with the doubters who are saying, "Ha-ha, we toldja so" and thinking this settles the question.

It's precisely the same reason I agreed with controversial physicist Michio Kaku when he said that even if only one in a hundred credible UFO sightings are unexplainable as natural phenomena, that one percent is still worth looking into.  For myself, both Kaku and most Bigfoot aficionados go a lot further into the True Believer column than I'm willing to; but in my mind, an abject statement of disbelief is no better than an abject statement of belief given that in both cases there are plenty of data left to explain.

So the whole thing leaves me pretty much where I was.  We don't have any convincing hard evidence either of Bigfoot or of alien visitation, so my opinion is they're both unlikely to be real phenomenon.  But "unlikely" doesn't mean "certain," and my opinion is just my opinion.  In neither case should we stop looking, nor close our minds to the possibility that we doubters could be wrong.

The burden of proof, of course, still rests on the ones making the claim.  You can't prove a negative, Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence, and all that sorta stuff.  So Foxon's paper gives us a good reason to be cautious about accepting Bigfoot sightings as conclusive -- but then, we really should be cautious about accepting damn near anything without due consideration of alternative explanations.


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