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Why Bigfoot and Aliens Will Continue to Be a Focus

by Brian Dunning, Jun 07 2012

Appealing to the target demographic

Bigfoot and aliens — groooan — are so outdated. Right?

Yes and no. They’re outdated, so far as the amount of work left to do to educate the general public; almost nobody takes them seriously anymore. But they’re not at all outdated as far as being in the public consciousness. Almost everyone knows about them, and that’s critical to the mission of science education.

To make headway in critical thinking, we need to start with common ground from which it’s easy to see the reasons why a given subject is unscientific. It’s easy to talk about Bigfoot with almost anyone and have them agree to the low value of anecdotes, logical red flags, and (thanks to the current TV show) the unreliability of ideologically motivated proponents.

Finding this common ground is not always easy. One reason is that people fall into many demographics. Old, young; rich, poor; urban, rural. Marketing’s “prime demographic” (young white males age 18-35) is only one such group. When we plan a campaign of critical thinking education, it’s crucial to know the target demographic.

I do a lot of speaking in college classrooms, and during the Q&A I often like to take the temperature of what the group’s current hot buttons are. I want to know what are the topics of pseudoscience affecting today’s prime demographic. This is important; we have to know where the low-hanging fruit is. I have limited resources, and I want to get the best bang for the buck when I choose topics.

I would probably create three categories of pseudoscience relevant to this discussion:

  1. Stuff that seasoned skeptics love to talk about, but that the prime demographic is unaware of. This is where we waste our time talking about subjects that our target audience is not interested in. It mainly includes things that are old or outdated and no longer in the public consciousness. Examples are Uri Geller, Betty and Barney Hill, the Amityville Horror, and even Roswell. I’m often surprised at how subjects I’ve thought are so well known are not at all among the prime demographic. (Translation: I’m older than I think.)
  2. Subjects that all demographics are aware of, and know to be pseudoscience. This is our gateway drug. From a shared base of common ground, we can then proceed to deconstruct the truly harmful things that today’s young skeptics are buying into. About the only subjects that I’ve found all demographics know about and know to be pseudoscience are Bigfoot and aliens (referring specifically to humanoid aliens visiting the Earth). This makes them a great starting point for a discussion about how we tell fact from fiction.
  3. Pseudoscience that today’s prime demographic of self-described skeptics is totally into, yet does not consider to be pseudoscience. These subjects are the ones on which we have potential to make the most relevant, useful progress. I find this is usually trendy stuff. Today it includes a lot of foodie-ism (raw, organic, paleo, gluten-free) and alternative health fads (detox & cleansing). Tomorrow it will be something different.

I can go into any audience in the world and explain why Bigfoot and aliens are pseudoscientific, and they’ll agree with me, and know that I’m not nuts; and can then move on into more relevant subjects. But many other topics would not at all receive a warm reception. Go into a northern European audience, even a skeptical audience, and talk about 9/11 being caused by Islamic terrorists and they’ll laugh you out of the room — them Euros love their conspiracy theories. Go into a US college audience of skeptics and talk about gluten-free diets being worthless, and they’ll assume you’re a paid shill for the pharmaceutical industry. But both audiences are on board with Bigfoot and aliens.

Topics that cut through all demographics are the best allies of an educator hoping to reach as wide an audience as possible. So, while Bigfoot and aliens are silly, they’re sooo 1970, and nobody believes them anymore, they’re still going to remain on special on my menu of skeptical topics.

38 Responses to “Why Bigfoot and Aliens Will Continue to Be a Focus”

  1. ThatLibraryMiss says:

    “Go into a European audience, even a skeptical audience, and talk about 9/11 being caused by Islamic terrorists and they’ll laugh you out of the room”

    Pray explain to this Euro where your evidence for this claim comes from? I was under the impression that the 9/11 truthers were mostly USian.

    • Personal experience speaking. Note that I just edited it to northern European, which I think is more accurate.

      • Karolus says:

        Hm. Northern European meaning primarily Scandinavian ? In that case I can’t judge, but here in Belgium (Western Europe, I guess), I don’t think many people will laugh you out of the room.

      • Iida says:

        Hmm, I live in Finland (that’s in Northern Europe ;)), and I don’t think anyone here believes in those 9/11 conspiracies, so much so that we tend to find it amusing how popular they are in the US. :D So at least in here the stereotype goes the other way around. :)

      • Kari says:

        I have to back Iida. Here in Finland I have yet to encounter someone that thinks 9/11 is a conspiracy.

      • Neil Jones says:

        Can you elaborate on ‘personal experience’ please, Brian? My jaw dropped when I read your sentence about being laughed out of the room – here in the UK I struggle to think of a single person who thinks 9/11 was anything OTHER than an islamic terrorist attack (and we’re also able to differentiate between Al Queda and Iraq as well).

        We thought the truthers were just US nut jobs – are they really not only in Europe as well, but also in the majority? References, please.

  2. Daniel says:

    Something that might seem outdated, but which might actually be a worthwhile endeavor on college campuses is debunking JFK assassination conspiracies. It’s one of those things that has some superficial plausibility, especially for people who don’t understand physics (“back and to the left”, “magic” bullet).

    Young and impressionable, I saw Oliver Stone’s JFK, and it was CIA conspiracy in my mind, case closed. It was only by chance that I ran into something debunking the film on TV, and then I got interested in following-up on it. Maybe some kind of seminar, that goes through the film, with a point-by-point examination of it’s many flaws. (On the other hand, maybe, that seminar would last for about a week to go through everything). It would be a good exercise to teach high school and college students to look at superficially plausible theories with a critical eye.

    People who believe in Bigfoot, UFOs, Ancient Aliens just want to believe in them no matter what. I say the same thing about 9/11 conspiracy theorists. If you see a giant planes crash into a building, but still come to the conclusion that there was some kind of controlled demolition, Skeptic Magazine isn’t going to help you.

    Anyway, just my two cents.

  3. Donald Prothero says:

    Bigfoot may be passé for your audiences, Brian, but the Baylor Religion Survey and a bunch of other recent polls show that a LOT of people still believe in Bigfoot in this country. Wait til you see what Daniel Loxton and I wrote about it….

    • The salient point, I think, is that it’s something everyone is familiar with.

      • That familiarity is the key for the gateway drug argument that you offer here. I don’t disagree with that argument (I’ve often used it myself, especially in the 1990s) but in recent years I’ve tended instead to make a more direct argument: the paranormal is an area of public interest that is neglected by scholarship. Skeptical research into neglected topics like Bigfoot and aliens has its own value (as Don and I argue again in the book).

        As an aside, it amuses me how fashions can change among skeptics. In past years I often used homeopathy as my go-to example of a topic ignored by skeptics as too passé to bother with, yet nonetheless demanding attention from skeptics. Today, homeopathy is one of the few paranormal topics grassroots skeptics widely affirm as worth paying attention to (and poor old Bigfoot is everyone’s whipping boy, even though a whopping 29% of Americans affirm in 2012 that Bigfoot is “definitely” or “probably” real). Tomorrow, something else will seem relevant, and bunch of other stuff will seem old hat—and yet millions of people will believe those things either way. Whether popular among self-identified skeptics or not, hundreds of paranormal topics wait for deeper and more robust skeptical scholarship.

      • MadScientist says:

        And most skeptics will remain uninterested because it’s the same old stuff over and over again. Must we really re-investigate old claims? Why not just point out the previous work?

      • Must we really re-investigate old claims? Why not just point out the previous work?

        Several reasons. To begin with, the idea that skeptics have already done all needed critical research is an illusion; in general, the previous work is best thought of as preliminary.

        Think of it like any other field of research—chemistry, say, or art history, or folkloristics. New practitioners come in all the time who must learn the old material, both because it is still relevant, and because it is necessary to learn the old material in order to understand the new material. New audiences come in all the time who understand neither, and have a need to understand both. The claims themselves evolve constantly, requiring new research. The old claims resurface, requiring us to turn back to the old research, learn it—and then to ask, which questions remain unanswered?

        There are many, many, many mysteries left to solve. It’s ridiculous that I should be able to make any meaningful contribution to the critical literature on paranormal topics (a literature that is in some cases centuries old) from a standing start, in a matter of months, weeks, or occasionally even days of research. Yet I do sometimes do just that. That speaks to a weakness of the skeptical literature. We still face the exact gap in scholarship that skeptics organized to address in the first place. Here we are, decades later, and it remains true that skeptical scholarship not only is incomplete, but significantly lags behind where it should be in timeliness, depth, and reliability.

  4. Max says:

    Many UFO hoaxes these days are computer generated and posted to YouTube, like the Jerusalem UFO.
    I bet skeptics are so used to digital manipulation by now, that an old-fashioned hubcap UFO could fool some of them.

  5. BobM says:

    I think the psycology of belief – well, that sort of belief – says that actual evidence to the contrary can strengthen it rather than dispell it. Might pay to check :-).

  6. Max says:

    You can also focus on classic examples of denialism, like Holocaust denial and the tobacco industry’s campaign to deny that smoking causes cancer.

    Conspiracy theorists want to direct all attention to their list of anomalies. Instead of playing their game, beat them over their heads with the mountain of evidence. If they ask why a witness described a missile hitting the Pentagon, then you ask why another witness described an American Airlines airplane. If they ask why the wings didn’t make a hole, then you ask what toppled the utility poles and light poles in its path.

  7. Max says:

    Each group has its list of examples. Skeptics point to proven hoaxes like the captured Bigfoot and crop circles. Conspiracy theorists point to MKULTRA and COINTELPRO. Alarmists point to the tobacco and asbestos industries denying that their products cause cancer. Denialists point to the Simon–Ehrlich wager. Pharma shills point to Ephedra. Alt Med shills point to Vioxx and Thalidomide babies.

    In the skeptical community, almost everyone can agree on the theory of evolution, but not so much on anthropogenic global warming or peak oil, predictably split along ideological lines.

    • Interesting. I might argue it’s even more fractured than that. First, my own observations constantly remind me that every group of people includes all kinds of people; and second, my own observations of conference attendees is that they’re drawn by a wide array of different belief systems.

  8. Max says:

    The problem with going from investigating Bigfoot hoaxes to commenting on science and medicine is the same problem affecting Creationist engineers, the Dunning–Kruger effect. Common sense may be sufficient to understand “guy in a gorilla suit,” but it’s not sufficient to really understand a science, so you have to quote scientific authorities.

  9. Marc Barnhill says:

    Here in New York City, I’ve had the most success in my Critical Thinking classes by starting with ghost photographs, UFOs, and astrology. Far more of my students have heard of chupacabras than of Bigfoot, and often they have only the vaguest notion who JFK was.

  10. MadScientist says:

    “even a skeptical audience”

    But what does that mean? What sort of ‘skeptic’ are we talking about here – the kind who just say “I don’t believe it” or the kind who say “I’ll look into that claim before I believe it or dismiss it”?

  11. BillG says:

    Bigfoot and aliens outdated? A classic in skepticism, “Fads and Fallicies” by Martin Gardner was published in 1952 and with a few exceptions, could have been written yesterday.

    I find it ironic that some science books become obsolete after a few years, and 60 years hence, a book on bogus science is still relevant!

  12. Karolus says:

    I think there a 2 reasons for the continued belief in Big Foot, The Loch Ness monster, UFO’s and the like. First of all, they’re fun. I agree they’re pseudoscience, of course, but I would LOVE for a bigfoot to step out of the woods or ET to descend from the skies to ask for my cell so he can phone home. Second, there are always new recruits. Being a juvenile fiction writer (with little success) on the side, I used to be amazed at a collegue who had moderate success with novels that rehashed the same old ideas (Mad Max for kids, the eternal time paradoxes…). The thing is, for the kids all this is new, they don’t know Mad Max, and the guy’s writing was good. So even if “believers” age and perhaps turn to scepticism on these subjects, out come the young guys and gals who read or see or hear about this for the first time, become fascinated and fall for the excitement that radiates from the believers.

  13. Kawillem says:

    Where did you get the idea about the northern Eoropeans? I am from Norway, the northest there is in Europe, and have never heard a Norwegian claim George W. Bush or the CIA or whoever as responsible for 9/11.
    We have our own date now, and I am ashamed of it. 7/22 last year a deranged Norwegian killed 77 mostly young people because the government did not want to expel all muslims from our country. We have managed to rule all conspiracy theories out of that atrocity as well. So please keep us out. But you are welcome to visit our beatiful country, give me a call and we can have a good talk between sceptics.

  14. Kawillem says:

    Please amend my comment to: whoever besides muslims

  15. Chris Howard says:

    Wait! My free-range, all natural, gluten free organic gluten, ring ding homeopathic, aroma therapy, goat cheese pizza is bunk?!

    • MadScientist says:

      Absolutely – it’s obviously GMO because you didn’t say it was GM-free. It fails the Purity of Essence test.

    • Tom says:

      Not to get all serious on an obviously tongue-in-cheek comment…But.

      Brian has mentioned a few times that “gluten-free” is hocus-baloney. That is not true. I have two family members who have coeliac disease. They require a gluten-free diet. It is absolutely essential to their health. 3 million Americans have the same condition. I’m sure Brian realizes this…I just wish he would be more careful about castigating the diet.

      Admittedly, there is a lot of new-age fad-ism surrounding the diet right now. In a crazy way, that actually makes it much easier for my family to find gluten-free foods.

      • Chris Howard says:

        I’m pretty sure the Brian has stated, in the past, that if you have a gluten sensitivity then it isn’t woo. It was not my intent to offend anyone, but ultimately it is impossible to predict, much less control, what others take offense at.

      • Tom says:

        I didn’t take offense. I thought I made that clear by noting that I understood you were writing tongue-in-cheek. I was just pointing out, for people who may not know better, that gluten-free Bigfoot. That’s what Brian always implies when he brings it up.

      • Tom says:

        I put the sign for “not equal to” in there between gluten-free and bigfoot. Apparently I accidentally stumbled upon some HTML script or something.

      • laursaurus says:

        Obviously you didn’t listen to the Skeptoid episode on the topic.

  16. terry the censor says:

    Dunning’s observations seem to be substantiated by my google alerts and where they lead me.

    September 19 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of the Barney and Betty Hill sighting. I had been reading every available document for the six months preceding. My google alert had a few hits about the historical plaque and a weekend hosted by Kathleen Marden…but that was about it. Even the venerable UFO Updates discussion group had zero posts on the subject for all of September (and the month before and after, for that matter).

    I hang out at fringe believer blogs (that’s where the juice is). My own observation is that informed old timers still take seriously Bigfoot, UFOs and Roswell, though there is a divide between true-believers (Stanton Friedman, David Jacobs, Leslie Kean and a cast of hundreds you never heard of) and believer-skeptics (James Moseley, Kevin Randle, Loren Coleman, Martin Shough, Jenny Randles, Kathleen Marden, and the fusty Jerome Clark to some extent) who spend a lot of effort weeding out the nonsense. The young middle-agers are well-informed, very tolerant of skeptics, merely amused by nonsense (though abductions raise their ire), and are not emotionally committed to literal belief — believer-skeptic is too strong a term for them, as they from time to time mock their own field (Chris Rutkowski, Paul Kimball, Greg Bishop, Nick Redfern come to mind). Some don’t seem to really believe any of it, they just don’t want to ruin their publishing opportunities (Nick Redfern to some extent, but most egregiously Nick Pope, who is turning into ufology’s rent-an-expert).

    And here is my point: The younger people might be true-believers, some might be believer-skeptics, but both groups tend to be horribly uninformed — and blithely unconcerned about it. Their interest is curiously ego-determined: fringe belief is edgy entertainment or spiritual commitment. That is, fringe claims are a kind of consumer product, akin to rooting for a favourite baseball team, or choosing a moisturiser that suits your skin type. There is no concern for facts or a shared external reality — it’s merely personal preference.

  17. terry the censor says:

    To follow up on my point that “fringe belief is edgy entertainment”:

    Billy Cox has the only UFO blog supported by the mainstream media. He recently previewed National Geographic’s upcoming *ahem* reality show “Chasing UFOs.”

    “Chasing UFOs, however, is gunning for drama and suspense, and goes the extra mile to manufacture it…Yes, every breathless stagey step of their sojourns is taut with menace as they split up into teams, communicating in hushed voices by radio as even the moo of a nearby unseen cow becomes something potentially sinister…”

    In the comments, old-timer ufologist Frank Warren says: “Sad that Ufology just seems to be evolving into nothing more then caricature type entertainment…I had hoped that with the demise of UFO Hunters, perhaps we had seen the last of these follies. Alas, we (so-called Ufologists) are our own worst enemy….”

    • tmac57 says:

      Shows like that and ‘ghost’/cryptid hunter shows are the new professional ‘wrestling’.They are staged,and choreographed entertainment,aimed at the young and naive,or generally credulous (low-information) audience.

  18. mark says:

    ammended word… approach.