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Abominable Attenborough Controversy

When Sir David Attenborough remarked last week on the possibility that the ‘Yeti’ exists, it was pretty obvious what a favourite thread on skeptical blogs would be this week. Here’s what Sir David is reported to have said:

Speaking on Friday Night With Jonathan Ross, the revered wildlife expert said: ‘I’m baffled by the Abominable Snowman – very convincing footprints have been found at 19,000ft.

‘No-one does that for a joke. I think it’s unanswered.’

Now, to me, it sounds as if Sir David is casually mentioning a mystery that intrigues him. He’s not saying the Yeti is for real – in fact, he explicitly says “it’s unanswered”. However, to Evan Bernstein at the SGU blog, the famed naturalist had become “a new and reputable ally in trying to convince the world that he/she/it has jumped out of folklore, and into reality”. Indeed, it would seem that Sir David’s loose lips could sink ships:

Attenborough is allowed to explore his fantasies and speculations just like the rest of us, but skeptics are very aware of the law of unintended consequences. The Bigfoot believers of the world will cling on to Attenbororough’s words and wield them high up in the air for everyone to see. If the history of incidents of famous people having lent their credibility to pseudoscience is any indicator, then the damage has been done.

That’s right Sir David, you’ve done some serious damage this time! Er, what?

At SkepticBlog, Dr Steven Novella used the news as an opportunity to ram home the point that even legendary scientists can be fooled (I do believe, reading from the Book of Randi 2:21):

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.

…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.

I should hope his reputation will survive – decades of educating the world about nature and science, versus a casual comment about something he finds interesting? I vote for the former.

Meanwhile, turning our gaze to the Yeti’s American cousin, Anomaly Magazine have a new online article worth checking out: “The Patterson-Gimlin Film: An Analysis, by Noah David Henson. The author is a professional illustrator and student of physical anthropology, and uses his knowledge of primatology to dissect the (in)famous footage of an alleged Bigfoot:

My conclusion, after analysing the film footage countless times, employing a degree of expertise in human and primate anatomy, and examining critically the analyses of forensics expert J. Glickman of NASI, among others, is that the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film does not and cannot depict a human being in a costume. It is a real, as-yet uncatalogued animal, most likely a primate of either pongid (ape-like) or hominid (human-like) taxonomic classification, that resides, or once resided, somewhere in the millions of square miles of human-uninhabited forests of the Pacific Northwestern United States and Canada.

The article includes online video footage which is referenced by Henson during his article, to point out the intriguing aspects. Still looks like a guy in a suit to me, but good to see this type of analysis being done…and I guess he’s more qualified than me on this particular topic. One to mull over.

  1. Nature may be complex but it does not actively try to fool you..
    Of course it doesn’t.

    Except for those insects that evolved to disguise themselves as sticks, and all of those wild animals that evolved, often sophisticated, camouflage techniques to hide themselves and fool us and others into thinking they’re simply another part of the savannah, or the jungle floor.

    And we probably shouldn’t forget about those pesky sea dwelling creatures that have fantastic colour changing and mimetic abilities.

    There’s also those infuriating butterflies that evolved ‘eyes’ on their wings to fool us into thinking that they’re larger animals, or the myriad other creepy crawlies that evolved to look like other things.

    There’s also any species of plant or flower that has evolved to look or smell like insects (like the Ophrys ciliata) or a more appealing plant.

    But, other than that enormous section of the natural world, I think Dr Steven Novella’s absolutely correct.

    I really must invent a sarcasm punctuation mark….

  2. Novel thoughts by Novella
    Stephen Novella’s thoughts did make me laugh.

    “Attenborough’s observation may seem perfectly reasonable to an elderly gentleman, but should strike a skeptic, magician, or hoaxer as hopelessly naive.”

    When presented with natural phenomena, my first is always ‘what does a magician think’? On a recent visit to Bristol Zoo, I recall being amazed by the lions and the way they interacted with each other and I kept thinking ‘what does a magician make of this”

    “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.”

    Really? Why does one lead to the other? How many people would see it at 19,000 feet?

    1. 19000
      You would put the evidence where nobody will go check it? Such as in some place that is not easily accessible?

      I am sure that there are plenty of Yeti foot prints on the far side of the moon too.

      It is not how fast you go
      it is when you get there.

      1. I agree, earthling!
        You could (if you could be bothered) climb to 19000 feet, fake the footprints, photograph them and climb down again saying “Wow! Look what I’ve just found up there.”

        After all the wonderful contributions Sir David has made to the world of nature and the education and entertainment of people, it seems very sad to me that some halfwit is rude enough to dump Sir David’s natural curiosity into the category of the senile ramblings of an antique person.

        I wonder what they’d think of some of mine!! (No – don’t even go there!)

        Regards, Kathrinn

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