When is a hoax not a hoax?

It’s funny – I started this post out with entirely different intentions, but as I was researching the details, it had to change, yet I could still keep the same title. Bear with me a second.

This post topic came up when I was reading an article in Skeptical Inquirer that dealt with the curious progression of the ‘Bigfoot’ legend, from the badly-mangled interpretations of Native American mythos to the outright hoaxes that had been shown to exist. And let’s face it: within topics such as Bigfoot, or UFOs, or ghost legends, or any other such fringe/paranormal concepts, the opportunity and impetus for hoaxes remains remarkably high. Any time that we have a lot of attention paid to astounding stories with little to no corroboration other than oral accounts, we have a ripe opportunity for a hoax to occur – the combination of wide effect and low critical examination is supremely inviting to those inclined to play such games.

The article touched briefly on the part that hoaxes play in the collective consciousness, but it’s something worth a little further attention. In the case of Bigfoot, one of the most prominent and compelling bits of evidence was the Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin film clip of a bipedal humanoid looking at the camera as it walked away – you’ve seen it, everyone’s seen it. Released in 1967, it is the most popular representation of the topic that exists, and cemented the idea in a significant percentage of the population that such a being could be real. And it was a hoax.

Or at least, it most likely was, for numerous reasons. The funny part, and the reason that I ended up changing direction with this post, is that the things that would make anyone most likely to accept the hoax explanation aren’t actually all that strong; there have been several claims from various people that they had some part in the hoax, which would normally be enough. But in this case, it’s not only possible, there’s a certain likelihood that the admission of the hoax is a hoax itself – in other words, they’re lying about their involvement. Chief among these is the significant amount of time that has passed before their admission, long enough for any corroborative efforts to be nigh impossible and for the principle characters to be unable to comment. Second, unsurprisingly, is that there’s money and fame/notoriety to be garnered from the claim of a hoax itself, which should be enough for anyone to cast a critical eye upon the situation. And finally, lots of little details regarding the claims have inconsistencies or problems.

Now, it’s worth noting here that, even if the claims of a hoax turned out to be a hoax on their own, this doesn’t mean that the Patterson-Gimlin film isn’t a hoax by itself. Was that confusing? Let’s try again: even if someone was lying about their involvement in faking the film, the film could still be faked. As believers are often happy to proclaim, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, and we simply may not have found the proof of the initial hoax yet. Even if we never find it, this has no bearing on whether or not it actually occurred. Believers often seem to accept the standpoint that lack of evidence to the contrary is proof of the phenomenon or whatever, but this is like saying that in all of the cases where we never found a murderer, the murder must not have actually taken place.

The change in approach and tone of this post was caused by a simple thing that I’m a bit frustrated to have found: that many of the skeptical accounts of the Patterson-Gimlin film and the subsequent claims of hoax involvement were given a lot more weight than they warranted, often considered a dead lock. “Look, we have an admission of a hoax – that solves that case!” [I’m paraphrasing melodramatically here but you get the idea.] What started out as simply confirming a few details for the post turned into a rabbit-hole of wildly conflicting information and more than a few loose ends, which should have been enough to give pause to anyone attempting to be unbiased. And yet, too much of the skeptical literature was more certain than seemed warranted, at least to me.

The whole point of skepticism, of critical-thinking, is to try and destroy bias and personal favoritism and to see things as openly as possible. The opposite side of the coin, the thing that we often warn against and point out mercilessly, is the weighing of certain factors more than others; when a believer considers a single eyewitness account as much stronger than another, solely because it confirms their own predispositions, that’s bias – we see it constantly, and damn near every media portrayal of this or that phenomenon practices this to astounding levels. But when skeptics do it, that’s not just hypocritical, it damages the entire practice as a whole. How can we be urging critical and unbiased consideration when we’re failing to demonstrate it dependably ourselves?

In all honesty, the evaluations of the film clip fall all throughout the spectrum, with a lot of professional opinions weighing in; there’s no real consensus on whether it’s demonstrably faked or not. It says a lot about ‘professional’ evaluations when the professionals cannot even come close to agreement – you have to ask, who’s incompetent, and how do you arrive at that conclusion? And the lack of quality of both the film stock and the camerawork prevent much more from being derived. There are, as yet, numerous reasons to doubt the existence of such a creature, and more than a few to doubt the veracity of the film and the sources: Patterson was a known schemer with lots of unhappy dealings behind him, who set out to a remote area to film a Bigfoot and did almost immediately – what luck! Curiously, he chose that area precisely because of the tracks that had been found – tracks that have lots of support for being hoaxes themselves.

For the original post idea, I was going to talk about how, all too often, when something long considered to be great evidence is revealed to be a hoax, the fervent believers may simply refuse to accept it, and claim that the reveal is a hoax itself; it was an examination of the need for belief outweighing the bare facts. Except that in this case, it’s not unwarranted or irrational – there are lots of problems with the hoax admissions. And also in this case, it’s some of the skeptics who are ignoring the possibilities and being more confident in the admissions than is prudent. It’s ironically circular: in a lot of cases, one receives a lot of impetus towards skepticism precisely because of hoaxes, of someone believing but then discovering how they’d been snookered – basically, “That shit ain’t happening again.” And yet it’s possible to be biased towards cynicism and disbelief as well, ignoring the aspects that either weaken the idea of a hoax or fail to weaken the idea of a cryptid humanoid (the phrasing is deliberate: we’re a long way from proof, or even strengthening the idea – right now what we have are evaluations that only say, “we haven’t ruled it out.”) While there are countless people who feel that skepticism is synonymous with cynicism, that’s not really how it’s supposed to work. Skepticism is, to be brief, the demand for adequate supporting evidence, and should require a confluence of factors for any position away from completely neutral.

All that said, the case for Bigfoot remains pathetically weak, with the overwhelming majority of evidence being trivially easy to fake, and the accounts resembling nothing more than folklore. We have no remains, no plausible scenario for such a species to develop, much less remaining almost entirely hidden, no biological support for a tiny population of humanoids to continue in such a narrowly isolated circumstance, and on and on. The film, in fact, created a convergence on the appearance of the supposed creature; accounts before then, including the Native American folklore that is quoted as supporting the whole idea, range all over the place in size and physiology. The entire concept falls someplace between ‘farfetched’ and ‘utterly impossible.’

But here’s the point that gets missed the vast majority of the times when any such discussions take place, for any paranormal, cryptid, extra-sensory, or extra-terrestrial topic: there’s no value to debate, and no ‘winning’ or even ‘correct’ position. What we want, scientifically at least, is a fait accompli – we want a species we can study at length, we want aliens we can communicate with, we want something solid. Just like the various archaeological finds such as Australopithecus afarensis and Homo floresiensis, actual remains and artifacts are just the start. We’re after knowledge, not self-satisfaction.

And in the fifty years (the actual anniversary of the supposed filming date comes up in a few days) since the Patterson-Gimlin clip, we’ve found nothing better or more indicative of such a being. That’s not really any use to us.