Thursday, May 10, 2007

Famous hoaxes info shared by GnomeXGurl

Famous Paranormal Hoaxes: Crop Circles, Loch Ness, and Bigfoot

Prof. Matt McCormick, Philosophy, CSUS

Many people believe that we are surrounded by paranormal, supernatural, mysterious, and unexplained phenomena. The majority of people believes in ghosts, psychic powers, clairvoyance, and an immaterial afterlife. We often hear in the news, on television, or elsewhere that a group of church goers have witnessed an apparition of the blessed virgin Mary, that a local house is haunted, that someone was saved from a horrible accident by the providence of a guardian angel, or that someone possesses psychic abilities. In Elk Grove in 2005, members of a local church found what appeared to be blood dripping from the eyes of a stature of the Virgin Mary. The tears reappeared for several days. Many enthusiastic and faithful believers flocked to the site, placing flowers and observing religious rituals in deference to the event. The prevalence, popularity, and frequency of these stories about paranormal events seem to lend some credibility to them; how or why would so many people be lying about such a thing? And when so many normal people believe with such conviction it is difficult to see how they could be mistaken or deceived.

What we often do not hear about in these paranormal cases is what is revealed in the follow up or additional investigation of the phenomena. Finding out that one of these spectacular stories is in fact a hoax does not capture the hearts or minds of viewers and readers, and the media have much less interest in reporting that there was actually nothing exciting, unusual, or inexplicable about a phenomena that was alleged to be extraordinary.

But in fact, a number of the most famous cases of alleged paranormal or supernatural events have been demonstrated to be hoaxes, and we can learn some valuable lessons from the follow up on those stories. As appealing as stories of the paranormal are, there is a natural explanation to be found for those with clear, careful minds.

In the 1970 and 1980s, farmers around Southhampton, England began to find enormous, complicated patterns stamped down in their wheat fields.

The patterns were remarkably regular and striking to the eye, particularly from the air. The wheat was bent over in neat, even waves to form nearly perfect circles, lines, and other shapes. The local news stations, citizens, amateur paranormal investigators, and many other people became very excited about the phenomena. People argued that the patterns had been formed by formerly unknown weather vortices, landing alien space ships, gravity field fluctuations, unusual tornadoes, and a host of other extraordinary phenomena. Over the years, patterns of increasing complexity and beauty continued to appear in fields in the region.

In 1991, two men from Southhamption, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, publicly announced that they were in fact responsible for the crop circles that had been occurring for 15 years. While drinking glasses of stout in a local pub and discussing UFO reports which they thought were fabrications and mistakes, they dreamed up a method for making the crop circles using ropes and a board with a loop of rope for a handle. Their goal was to illustrate just how gullible people are and how eager they are to believe in paranormal phenomena. To stamp out a circle, one of them would hold the rope at a center point while the other one held the other end and rotated in a circle. By stepping carefully, and working outward from the center, they were able to create swirling patterns that hid their tracks and seemed to be beyond any human abilities. They attached a small wire sighting gauge like a gun sight to the brim of their baseball hats and by spotting a distant landmark such as a barn or tree, they could stamp out remarkably straight lines to compliment their circles. As the years progressed, their skills improved, their patterns got more complicated. Doug and Dave were delighted when numerous paranormal researchers insisted that the patterns were far too regular, large, and elaborate to have been created by any humans. The craze caught on and people all over the world began imitating Doug and Dave’s nocturnal art projects. There is now even an annual competition in England to see who can construct the best crop circle pattern. Despite Doug and Dave’s confession, believers have still insisted that there are too many crop circles, in too many places, and that many of them are beyond human ability. The enthusiasts are reluctant to admit it, and many people still insist that the phenomena is paranormal, but it would appear that crop circles are a hoax.

The persistence of belief in many people in the paranormal explanation is significant; even after Bower and Chorley confessed and publicly demonstrated how they made crop circles, lots of believers invested a great deal of time and effort into arguing that the crop circles still must have a paranormal explanation. Going to such lengths to salvage the paranormal explanation over the natural one indicates that the desire to believe in spooky, supernatural, unusual, or extreme causes is often more powerful than our ability to reason clearly.

Consider another case. In 1933, a surgeon and colonel, Robert Wilson, was visiting a remote loch in the Scottish highlands when he took a now famous picture of a mysterious shape on the lake. When enlarged, the picture seemed to reveal a creature’s head rearing up from the cold, dark waters of the deep lake. In the years that followed, this pictured spurred a flurry of activity in Loch Ness, stimulating expeditions, sonar surveys, film projects, scuba investigations, and countless visits to the lake in search of the Loch Ness Monster, or Nessie as it became known. Wilson's picture seemed to spawn a host of other sightings of nessie. More blurry photos came to light. Lots of visitors began testifying that they too had seen the monster. In fact, many people went to Loch Ness with the sole purpose in mind of seeing the monster. They arrived at the lake excited and primed with powerful expectations that there was a monster lurking in the waters, and not surprisingly many of them went away claiming to have experiences that fulfilled those expectations.

In 1993, two Loch Ness researchers, David Martin and Alastair Boyd tracked down a lead on the picture to Christian Spurling, who was now 90 years old and dying. Spurling admitted that he had collaborated with Duke Wetherall 60 years earlier to construct a plastic and wood head over the body of a toy submarine. Wetherall was pursuing a vendetta to embarrass the British newspaper, The Daily Mail. The neck on the toy monster was a mere 8 inches long, even though other Nessie investigators had insisted that it must be over three feet long. They also discovered that Wetherall was responsible for stamping fake Nessie foot prints in the mud on the bank of the Loch with a baby hippo foot that was probably part of an umbrella stand. One of the most celebrated and allegedly sound pieces of evidence for the existence of the Loch Ness Monster was also a hoax.

Consider another case: In 1967, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin went into the northern California woods of Bluff Creek, armed with film equipment and planning to gathering photographic evidence for the existence of Bigfoot, a legendary 7 feet tall hairy biped that was alleged to live in the woods of the Pacific northwest. Their expedition appeared to be a success when they returned with film footage of the creature walking across an open glade. In the jumpy and brief piece of film shot from about 100 yards, the creature takes several large strides away from the camera, pauses to look back, and then disappears into the woods. Again, paranormal enthusiasts and Bigfoot researchers embraced the film, proclaiming it to be definitive authentic evidence that Bigfoot exists. Sightings of Bigfoot soared as did the flagging sales of Patterson’s previously published book on Bigfoot. A few doubters suggested that it was a man in a monkey suit. Patterson died 5 years later of cancer

In March of 1992, Bob Gimlin admitted that he might have been fooled. He said it was possible that Roger concocted the whole thing and Bob was an unknowing eyewitness to an elaborate hoax. Another rumor that has circulated for years, and been corroborated by John Landis, the famous movie director, was that a special effects man named John Chambers, of the Planet of the Apes movies fame, designed the suit for the hoax.

Another man, Harry Kemball, has come forward and confessed that he was present in the film editing room when Patterson and his friends put together the Bigfoot film. Kemball says, “they all laughed and joked about the rental of the gorilla costume and the construction of the bigfeet. One of his extra tall buddies played the role of Bigfoot. They carefully chose muddy ground so that the footprints would expand.” Kemball says that they shook the camera, filmed out of focus, and subjected the film to processing that would add to the mystery and deception of the hoax.

In 1999, the Associated Press reported that a Yakima, Washington man claimed to be the one who wore the fur suit in Patterson-Gimlin movie of the sasquatch. Fearing legal reprisals from the owners of the film or others because of the hoax, the man remained anonymous and spoke through a lawyer, Barry M. Woodard, to the Yakima Herald-Republic. The 58-year-old man contacted the lawyer and passed a polygraph test to verify his story.

While none of these testimonials are decisive, they are highly suggestive that the famed Patterson Bigfoot film, which has been the cornerstone of the case for Bigfoot’s existence, is also a hoax

A brighter light has also been directed at another famous part of the evidence surrounding Bigfoot. In August, 1958 in Humboldt County, a bulldozer operator named Jerry Crew found prints of huge bare feet in the mud surrounding his bulldozer. Crew worked for Wallace Construction. The local newspaper, The Humboldt Times in Eureka, California ran a sensational story about the discovery and came up with the name, "Bigfoot." Contrary to popular mythology, there had been no stories about a giant ape-like creature lurking in the woods of the Pacific northwest until this story ran. After that report, just like the Loch Ness case, similar stories began to pop up everywhere. Other people found prints in the mud, saw Bigfoot, heard Bigfoot, took pictures (always blurry and indistinct) of Bigfoot, and even filmed the hairy monster. In 2002 when Ray Wallace, the owner of Wallace Construction, died, his family came out with a shocking revelation. Wallace had faked the original footprints with huge fake feet that strapped onto his boots. And after the story took off and became a popular urban myth, Wallace would go regularly to make more prints. Taking great pleasure in the hoax, he even offered huge cash rewards for a captured Bigfoot. His family had known about the hoax for all those years, but had remained silent and enjoyed the flurry of paranormal "investigations" that surrounded the lie. And apparently, Wallace's hoax caught on, just like crop circles. In 1982, a retired Washington State logger, Rant Mullens, claimed he contributed to the legend of the Bigfoot of Mt. St. Helens by walking in the woods with huge wooden feet strapped to his shoes to leave large footprints.

After the Wallace family revealed their secret, enthusiastic believers were quick to argue their case. Like the crop circles, they argued that no human could have made the prints, there were too many footprints, the features of the prints couldn't have been faked by a person, and so on. Again, enormous effort was devoted to rejecting the natural, simple, and un sensational explanation in order to salvage the more exciting paranormal explanation. Again, the desire to believe in the paranormal eclipsed people's capacity to reason clearly and objectively. The paranormal has a powerful influence on our hearts and minds; we are reluctant to give one of these beliefs up, even when the truth is obvious. So when there is a case of something unexplained and we do not yet have a simple, obvious natural explanation it is not surprising that the urge to believe that something supernatural has occurred is overwhelming. If we are willing to insist on a paranormal explanation even when an obvious natural explanation is available, imagine how strong our convictions in the exotic explanation are when we don't yet understand the phenomena.

It's not entirely clear why, but humans clearly have a strong propensity to find meaning, or patterns, or important events where there are none. The urge to believe in the supernatural is so strong in us that we find miracles in a bag of pretzels. In 2005, a 12 year old girl, Crysta Naylor found this pretzel in a bag of snacks while watching television. A casino paid the family over $10,000 for the pretzel because of the notoriety, excitement, and interest that it generated. A grilled cheese sandwich with burn marks that resemble Jesus caused similar excitement, as did a Jesus fish stick.

In some cases, the phenomena is not a deliberate hoax, but a simple mistake. From time to time, reports of statues "drinking" surface. Recently, in India, millions of the faithful rushed to Hindu temples to see statues of the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha drink milk. Huge crowds formed as people held spoonfuls of milk up to the trunk of the statue and watched the milk disappear. The phenomena was widely accepted as a miracle. Scientists examined the case and concluded that the milk was being siphoned down the surface of the statue in a thin film that wasn't easily visible. As more people made offerings, pools of milk formed at the base of the statues. The Press Trust of India wrote, "the phenomenon of idols "drinking" milk could be explained scientifically by the theory of capillary action or the movement of liquids within spaces of porous surfaces due to surface tension, adhesion and cohesion." Once again, believers denied that there could any explanation besides the miraculous one. Similar stories appear from time to time in the west surrounding statues of the Virgin Mary. Different types of porous stones that are used to make the statues have the capacity to absorb and wick a great deal of fluid.

What lessons can we learn from these famous cases? First, people have a powerful desire to believe in the paranormal. Natural explanations are boring, they rarely make the front page, they aren't worthy of being repeated over the water cooler, and they don't excite our interest or our memory. You won't remember hearing about the Wallace family confessing to Ray Wallace's career of faking foot prints all over the Pacific northwest because it's not on the front page, and it's just not as fun or entertaining to believe as the possibility that there is a giant hairy ape creature that embodies so much mystery, fear, excitement, and imagination. Second, these cases strongly suggest that once an urban myth gets started by a hoax, it takes on a life of its own. And the power of suggestion, expectation, and the desire to believe spawn many more comparable stories from people who think that they saw it too. Are these additional stories lies? Some are, some are not. Sometimes copycat hoaxers pick up on the gag and they help the sightings and stories to proliferate. In other cases, people may genuinely believe that they experienced something, but in fact they were primed, influenced, suggested, and otherwise carried away by an exciting story. Psychologists have demonstrated that people will readily confabulate elaborate stories when prompted in the right ways and the will insist with all sincerity that what they are saying is the truth. So it would seem that it takes very little to start the ball rolling, and very soon we all have what looks like a huge body of evidence--hundreds of Bigfoot sightings, for instance--supporting a phenomena that is a complete mistake. Third, these are only a few of the 1,000s of testimonials, pictures, stories, and other items that have been presented as evidence for paranormal phenomena. And these three fakes do not show conclusively that all of the other cases are deceptions, mistakes, or the products of over active imaginations. But these fakes strongly suggest that many, many other paranormal phenomena that are part of our cultural lore are also mistakes. People are highly suggestible. After these famous pieces of “evidence” were produced, the number of crop circles, and Nessie and Bigfoot sightings soared. And people’s urge to believe in paranormal phenomena is so strong that they will often refuse to abandon their beliefs even in the face of powerful counter-evidence. Stories of paranormal phenomena are entertaining and popular. The news about the original sightings in the cases were picked up by major new services and spread rapidly. But news about their refutations is much less entertaining and interesting; the hoax confessions described above were scarcely reported, and when they were, they were relegated to the back page or to a much more obscure source than the original news. It seems likely that many more confessions and hoaxes have been made public, but we have not been exposed to them. People have a variety of motives for perpetrating hoaxes, and when they do, they are remarkably creative in pulling them off, making them seem that much more believable. It should also be clear that when we are faced with allegations that something supernatural, extraordinary, or paranormal has occurred, even if we cannot immediately find a natural or alternative explanation, we should be very reluctant to conclude that there is no natural or non-paranormal explanation for it. And finally, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. We should approach such claims with a degree of skepticism that is proportional to how much they defy common sense and what we know about biology, physics, history, and human nature.

We might ask, "What's the harm in believing in these stories?" No one is hurt by them. We all find them entertaining and exciting. And after all, it would be better to be open-minded to the possibilities than to be skeptical and cynical.

These are good points. We should be open minded. Some of the most important discoveries in history came from people who were willing to consider absurd or outlandish possibilities that turned out to be true. But the purpose of being open-minded is not simply to avoid being skeptical, it's to better facilitate our finding the truth. We need to know what's true in the world and what's not. Our survival, our health, and our futures depend upon our being able to accurately and reasonably assess the facts in front of us. When we tolerate or propagate paranormal stories we foster an environment of sloppy, supernatural, and spooky thinking. We implicitly or explicitly endorse people's forming false beliefs on sketchy evidence. And that kind of attitude about truth and evidence leads to our being sloppy about other more important things. Superstitions proliferate about spirits, supernatural forces, demons, and a host of other non-natural phenomena. Our worldview gets filled with all sorts of mysterious and medieval entities. And the inroads that we have made with hundreds of years of the growth of science get lost in an environment of fear, superstition, and fuzzy thinking. The urge to believe in the paranormal is so powerful that it takes constant vigilance to keep ourselves from slipping into a backward, dark age.

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