I would like to turn the clock back, if I may, to a few years before I had ever heard of such a thing as skepticism, back to June of 2001. One of my responsibilities was as Technical Editor for the database publication FileMaker Advisor magazine, and I wrote a companion editorial column called Browse Mode. In one such column, I wrote about the exploits of one Bill McClintock (last name changed at his request), who used FileMaker Pro software to manage his own database of Bigfoot sightings – quite the colorful topic for a publication that could easily run on the dry side.
Tucked in the back corner of a woodworking shop in Portland, Oregon, Bill managed his database with great care and hunted for patterns in his database of reported sightings. One of his nuances (and I’ve since gathered that this is endemic in the Bigfoot community) was a virulent hatred of competing Bigfoot researchers. Of the best known Bigfoot organization, Bill said:
Organizations like BFRO (Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization) list anything and everything, no matter what joker reports it. So it’s impossible to glean anything statistically useful out of their databases.
Bill used a clever relational structure in his database that, rather than going for full data normalization, broke up different data types into different tables, permitting some innovative views. In plain English, he took all the Bigfoot characteristics like size, color, and weight, and cross referenced them with sighting information like the time of year, altitude, time of day, latitude and longitude, weather conditions, speed of movement, apparent demeanor, type of activity observed, a whole long list that I can’t begin to list. Bill’s passion was to arrange this data in myriad different ways, hoping to eventually find some conclusive prediction that could be testable: Something like “In a dry June, you can always find a Bigfoot on the shady side of a mountain eating blackberries.” It was a clever approach.
Now, my article was in no way critical of Bigfoot research, it was only about Bill’s use of the database. The only statement that could be called a jab at anyone or anything was Bill’s remark about the BFRO, which I merely quoted. The article sat for a couple of years, until one day, apparently, someone in the Bigfoot community came across it, reposted it, forwarded it around, and I fell under the microscope (not Bill, me).
First I received a couple of emails from Bigfoot aficionados, of the obscene and anonymous hotmail variety. Surprised, I went back to the old article, checked it over, and verified that it didn’t say anything inflammatory. It did not.
And then I got another email. This time it came from a little too close to home — about two miles away from my house, to be precise — and it said “I’m Matt Moneymaker, head of the BFRO.”
Somehow he interpreted my database article as a deliberate libelous attack against the BFRO. He told me to retract it and publish an apology (I did neither, of course). Simultaneously, and this was kind of entertaining, he kept me posted over the space of two or three days as my article was being discussed in committee. Evidently he and some of his BFRO associates were reviewing evidence in the jury room and passing judgement over me personally; whether I was an instigator, an obsessed anti-Bigfoot nut, just a crank, or what. The option of “merely a disinterested reporter in a database publication” never seemed to be on the table. It was like Scientologists debating what to do with a captured member of Anonymous. I inferred that I was meant to feel like I was in the holding cell waiting to learn my fate. Would it be the noose or the firing squad?
When the verdict came, it was — well, interesting. Moneymaker informed me that they had concluded I made the whole thing up, and was just a harmless prankster. And then — hold onto your socks — he invited me to meet him for a drink! In a move that will probably shock you, I politely declined.
So the next time you find yourself out in the murky woods of the northwest on a dark night with only a flickering flashlight, worry not so much about giant hairy monsters. Worry a little more about those who pursue them.