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Scientists Baffled – By Yeti?

by Steven Novella, Mar 02 2009

The classics are classics because they touch our basic human nature. They tell a tale we like to hear told. Even as a hard-nosed skeptic I can appreciate the wonder that stories of ancient civilizations, mysterious beasts, and strange visitors can evoke.

Last week I wrote about Atlantis, a classic story that is so much a part of our shared cultural psyche no amount of debunking will cause it to fade. This week none other than the abominable snowman is back in the news.

In an interview with BBC TV, Sir David Attenborough is quoted as saying:

“Very, very convincing footprints have been found,” at 19,000-foot elevations, he said. “Nobody goes up to 19,000 feet just to make a joke.”

Attenborough, now 82,  is famous for his nature and animal documentaries. Unfortunately, being a nature documentary host does not necessarily prepare one with the skeptical tools necessary to deal with the fringe.

Nature may be complex, but it does not actively try to fool you. Attenborough’s observation may seem perfectly reasonable to an elderly gentleman, but should strike a skeptic, magician, or hoaxer as hopelessly naive. People do strange things for their own reasons. For example, if you’re going to go through the effort of hoaxing a Yeti footprint in the snow, 19,000 feet is exactly where you would do it.

Also, Attenborough fails to properly consider the role of opportunism. He assumes that someone climbing to 19,000 feet just to create a hoax is the only option. However, a mountain climber could certainly have decided – hey, while I’m here let me leave something interesting for the next guy to discover.  There may also have been an unusual chain of events that would be impossible deduce – or one piece of missing information that would put the story into a completely different context.

The same is true of most magic tricks. The magician knows one piece of information their audience does not know, and this transforms a completely mundane act into the illusion of magic. Of course, when you know the trick the illusion is broken and you slap your forehead with how stupid you were. It’s all so obvious, once you know the answer.

I doubt David Attenborough’s reputation will be much affected by this episode, beyond a single news cycle. He has a legacy of outstanding nature documentaries that I’m sure mean as much to many people as they have to me. They are classics in their own right.

Besides, I don’t think many people will take much notice, beyond a few skeptics who have their own fascination with the classics.

37 Responses to “Scientists Baffled – By Yeti?”

  1. Jeff Wagg says:

    Actually, 19,000 feet is exactly where people would play a joke. If you’ve gone to the effort to get there, you may desire to leave your mark, or at least take advantage of an opportunity you’d otherwise not have. The idea of climbers faking footprints seems very possible to me.

  2. Scott C. says:

    No one would go to 19,000 feet to play a joke? Why would anyone go up there? Did the Yeti also pee his name in the snow?

  3. cuggy says:

    “A ‘hopelessly naive” ‘old man’?


    Knowledge in one area does not mean you can’t be utterly naive in another.

  4. tmac57 says:

    I know that if I had climbed to 19,000 ft, that’s what I would be tempted to do! Of course the idea that I could ever climb that high is more unlikely than Yeti!
    Also, as Randi likes to point out, any of us, including scientists,and skeptics, can be fooled.

  5. Ben,

    I did not say that Attenborough was hopelessly naive, I said his observation was naive. I was very deliberate in stating it that way, because cuggy is correct – and this is a point I also specifically made – being adept as a naturalist and educator does not necessarily make one a skeptic. The skeptical tool kit includes knowledge of deception, being a scientist does not.

    However, I’m sure Attenborough has some skeptical chops. For example in the same interview he dismissed Loch Ness monster claims on the grounds of plausibility. This is a legit argument, but still not dealing with deception.

    His Creationism quote is also solid reasoning, but has nothing to do with deception.

  6. JonA says:

    “Nature may be complex, but it does not actively try to fool you.”

    Would you consider camouflage abilities in animals and plants as nature trying to fool us?

    • Wrong says:

      No, since if we found abundance evidence of the animal, and searched for it, we would likely eventually find it. There’s no reason why we should find multiple different contradictory forms of evidence and never a specimen.

  7. Cambias says:

    People don’t go to 19,000 feet to play practical jokes. But they do go to 19,000 feet to, for example, make nature documentaries. And people on the crew may decide to have some fun with the boss…

  8. Ben says:

    Just so I know if I was misquoting you – which is likely – did you change ‘old man’ to ‘elderly gentleman’?

    Do you think his age is salient here?


  9. Ben – No, I did not change the text. I specifically chose “elderly gentleman” to refer to his generation and disposition. His age specifically is not very relevant.

  10. Sean G says:

    If the Loch Ness monster is implausible, how plausible is a yeti? If he’s talking about yeti he must be referring to the Himalayas. I’ve never been there but I have been over 14,000 feet in Montana and Colorado. That’s above the tree line and there’s not much up there. Scattered marmots, mice, ravens, and occasionally mountain goats in small groups. I wonder if it’s even possible for a large mammal to live at 19,000 feet unless he eats sno-cones like the yeti in Monters, Inc.

  11. Hoaxing is far from the only cause for mistaking a mark in the snow as a yeti print and to say a hoaxer isn’t likely to scale 19,000 ft for a hoax only means so much, rules out very little. For example, sometimes footprints in snow become enlarged due to sun melt but still hold their basic foot shape and end up looking impossibly huge, bigfoot huge.

    As for elderly gentlemen, it would require evidence to put this on Attenborough of course, but the fact is some older folks get a little scattered in their thinking as they age. For example, towards the end of his life the venerable Arthbur C. Clarke voiced his opinion that advancing and receding colorations near the Mars poles were evidence of the seasonal ebb and flow of Martian vegetation.

    Skepticism is an essential tool to pick up, but it may also be laid right back down, and any one of us is capable of making errant skeptical assessments of a given observation or claim. For example, my daughters think me smart and handsome and I accept it as fact uncritically, without skepticism.

    The history of woo is replete with otherwise good, skeptical scientists who, for whatever reason, went off the deep end on a particular woo subject or claim. Percival Lowell and the Martian ‘canals’ come to mind, though that’s not quite ‘woo’. I think Dr. Novella is familiar with a certain practicing neurosurgeon who is also a card-carrying creationist. Many a research scientist was fooled by trade magic sleight-of-hand passed off as ‘psychic’ abilities until Randi and others provided guidance.

    In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that everybody is skeptical, varying only in degree of application. Even the worst woo-meister out there would succumb to skepticism if the airplane he was about to board was leaking oil from all engines, the tires were flat, and the pilot who greeted him reeked of alcohol but claimed all would be perfectly fine. He would exercise skepticism about the pilot’s claim and likely get on another plane only to accept without question the new plane stewardess’ claim to be able to talk with ghosts. It’s often the perceived risky consequences of abandoning skepticism that decide whether to apply skepticism or not. I would suggest that every skeptic has some vulnerability, some circumstance, some situation where he or she might abandon skepticism. Perhaps Yeti is Attenborough’s skeptical Achilles’ heel.

  12. Max says:

    Arthur C. Clarke’s first law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

  13. Paul Caggegi says:

    If I got to 19,000 ft, I would have forged Slarti Bartfarst’s signature.

  14. tmac57 says:

    Paul Caggegi:”If I got to 19,000 ft, I would have forged Slarti Bartfarst’s signature.”
    With all the fiddley bits?

  15. tmac57 says:

    It could be argued that believers in things supernatural are skeptical of reality.

  16. Kieron says:

    Has anyone been able to view the video clip on the original Sun article? It doesn’t seem to want to play for me, and, given that it’s the Sun, the chances of them having taken Attenborough out of context is pretty high…

  17. Fuller says:

    I was disappointed when I saw that he said this, cause I love Attenborough. LOVE.

  18. Max says:

    Kieron, it was a BBC interview. Don’t know why the Sun has the video.

  19. MadScientist says:

    I don’t know what Attenborough’s age or generation have to do with anything. There have been great skeptics before him (for example, Houdini) and later generations are not necessarily more skeptical. It’s an unfortunate comment for him to have made; had he really looked into this ‘evidence’ or was this just a mistake and he went by hearsay.

    At any rate I loved most of his shows but I can’t say I believed all the narrative – I mainly watched to see all the strange things I don’t have in my back yard. I suspect that if the older shows were revisited, some of the commentary would now be considered incorrect thanks to evidence from later studies.

    I might rile him about the yeti comment, especially since I used to be one of those horrible people who spent a lot of time (and often a lot of money) playing tricks on people (not for a long time now – I just don’t have the time or money – I’m still a troublemaker though).

  20. llewelly says:

    “Nobody goes up to 19,000 feet just to make a joke.”

    Jon Krakauer, in his book Into Thin Air makes vague references to some sherpa villages being at altitudes of near 19,000 feet (5800 meters). However – using google I can’t find anything above about 5000 (16,400) meters. I cannot find altitudes for most of the villages in the Rolwaling valley, where many of the sherpa villages are. (This valley has terrain ranging from about 4000 meters to about 6000 meters.) In any case – there are a number of people who make a living as porters carrying gear up and down Mount Everest. For many of these people, 19,000 feet (roughly the altitude of Everest Base Camp) would not be a big deal.

  21. Gulling tourists is a favorite pasttime of locals all over the world. If I were a less than rich Himalayan native I might be tempted to place some, ahem, yeti tracks ahead of some expedition I knew was coming. But, as I commented earlier, you don’t need a hoaxer to produce what the less than critical might consider to be yeti tracks.

  22. Shahar Lubin says:

    I’m waiting on the headline – “news reporters baffled by scientists’ well reasoned simple explanation”

  23. Maxx says:

    “Attenborough’s observation may seem perfectly reasonable to an elderly gentleman…”

    Steven…seriously? Is Mr. Randi aware of this?

    This story confuses me. Not sure I see what the big deal is. Saying that he finds the topic abominable snowman fascinating because of the footprints is very different from saying he believes it to actually exist. I feel some skeptics have really jumped to conclusions on this one.

  24. Maxx, Attenborough didn’t say he found the topic of yeti interesting because of the footprints. He said:

    “Very, very convincing footprints have been found,” at 19,000-foot elevations, he said. “Nobody goes up to 19,000 feet just to make a joke.”

    Don’t you think that’s just a tad more than what you’ve described Attenborough as saying?

  25. Max says:

    Randi is not a gentleman, he tricks people :-p

  26. Maxx says:

    You have to take into consideration Attenborough’s background. This not just your average elderly chap making naive observations. This is a man educated in zoology with a list of awards that are a mile long. He has no history of talking from his butt. Given all that I must at least give him the benefit of the doubt and take his words at face value…which did not say he thought Yeti exists. Steven’s quote is preceded and followed by other comments that lead me to believe he is far from decided on the issue.

    “I am absolutely baffled by the Abominable Snowman … **then Steven’s quote** …I think there is an unanswered problem there.”

    That’s entire quote with context.

  27. Robert W (Manchester, England) says:

    And dont forget the Friday Night with Jonathan Ross is pretty poor low-brow programme, and he often bates his guests into saying things they maybe shouldn’t. Such as getting the David Cameron leader of the concervative party (main oppositon party is the UK) to admit to taking drugs which was quite funny. But he also asked if he had a w**k over Margaret Thatcher?
    In his comeback show after being suspended from the BBC for a short time he had on the nutbar himself Tom Cruise.

  28. Mastriani says:

    “The skeptical tool kit includes knowledge of deception, being a scientist does not.”

    Sorry there Dr. Novella, Ima hafta steal that one. That’s a juicy bit for the brain meat.

    Don’t sue me for it though, it’s being stolen with good intent.

    Yeti huh? Hrmmm, I’m going to wait for the little green men to show up before I start believing in a white, super-furry Big Foot.

  29. SionH says:

    I think that Sir David has a pretty good understanding of the odds of the Yeti/Sasquatch actually existing. A life spent searching for and filming natures most amazing wonders must have given him a pretty good insight into the realities of the animal kingdom. But asked if any cryptozoology intrigued him, he mentioned the Yeti.
    I suspect most of us reading this would probably agree with him that, of all the cryptids, the Yeti/Sasquatch is one of the most intriguing. Yes, the evidence is rubbish and no, I don’t think it exists, but I would be very happy to be proved wrong if convincing evidence ever came to light.

  30. Attenborough considers the footprint evidence for yeti to be “very, very convincing.” I fail to see how this may be spun to mean anything other than Attenborough considers the footprint evidence for yeti to be very, very convincing.

  31. The skepTick says:

    Attenborough is not alone. Dr. Jane Goodall has also said she’s absolutely certain>/a> the yeti/bigfoot exists, evidently based on the number of stories permeating a variety of cultures. But it is apparent that neither have done much more than read the headlines or contributions submitted by believers. Although Attenborough does say that for Nessie to be fact, there must be a family of creatures, he doesn’t apply the same logic to yeti. I just don’t think either of them have delved below the surface of this topic.

    Nevertheless, his comments were careless as evidenced by their wide dissemination on the interwebz, a classic argument from authority logical fallacy.

  32. The skepTick says:

    Oops…the Goodall link is here

  33. Ed Graham says:

    Probably just King Kong.

  34. Wow – so much debate over one comment. He is probably right no one goes that high for a joke…. but whilst you are there have some fun! As a kid we often looked at dog footprints in the snow and let our imaginations run wild about wolves and bears. The best part was to convince someone else….. it makes life a lot more interesting to pose doubt in someone’s mind about what you really belive.Perhaps Mr Attenborough was the one who went 19,000 feet and then enjoyed the joke…

  35. celestial elf says:

    Hi, thought my Deerhunter/Yeti film might help out here