Wednesday, July 29, 2009

MONSTERQUEST: Critical Evidence

History Channel -- Original Air Date: 7/8/2009

Guess what?  Another bigfoot episode of MQ!  I'm sure none of us saw that coming.  (And just when I thought this season was over.)  Okay, getting over that shock, you may be surprised to find that I share the opinion that Dr. David Begun (paleoanthropologist) expresses on this episode: "We don't have anything against the idea of bigfoot ... It's just that as scientists we require reliable, reproducable evidence, and that just doesn't exist right now."  Among the show's "best evidence" the Freeman Blue Mountain Footage (1995), the Cripple-foot cast (1969), the Mid-Tarsal Break tracks, Sighting Density studies, and the (in)famous Patterson film (1967).  The show will examine all of these, mixed in with the usual compelling eyewitness stories and recreations.  Makeup man Bill Munns will examine the Patterson film.  He uses scene measurements, the camera lense, and distance to subject to solve the figure's height -- and immediately gets questionable results (a 4' bigfoot).  Clearly, some site measurements are not accurate.  So the MQ team goes to the original site to re-measure using a 3d digital scanner.  They take Bob Gimlen, the surviving "eyewitness," to help find the correct area -- but they're foiled when heavy snow prevents their helicopter from landing.  So, it's back to the studio and more math.  David Murphy, a Patterson biographer, believes the film is real.  He claims Patterson passed a polygraph (according to Wildlife Magazine).  The show mentions Patterson has been vilified, but doesn't mention any anti-Patterson details, undercutting their attempt at "balance."  A film expert looks for signs of hoaxing on MQ's high-quality print, doing the usual enhancement stuff.

As that goes on, the show looks for sighting hotspots in relationship to annual precipitation - predicted to be crucial for survival of a large primate.  Surpisingly, there are a lot of sightings in the east central as well as the west (usually associated with Bigfoot).  As theorized, there seems to be a correlation betweein sightings and rainfall.  Jeff Meldrum believes that, being a great ape, bigfoot tracks should have a mid-tarsal break, which human feet do not have.  He uses lasers to scan prints and create models to see how the creature would walk.  Meldrum also talks about the Freeman footage (which looks completely fake to me), which he clearly believes in. The footage is low quality, and resists serious enhancement (due to pixilation).  Meldrum's "tarsal break" demonstration fails to convince me, too; it looks like the same kind of bend you'd get in someone wearing a big, fake foot.  An MD opines that the Cripple Foot cast seems realistic and very difficult to hoax.  (People have been saying that since my childhood, when the print first surfaced -- so nothing new there.)

Back at the Patterson film, re-creator Munns decides that the lens is different from the one reported because of calculation (he figures 15mm).  He then re-creates the scene, re-calculates the creature's height at 7' 4", and then begins analyzing the proportions.  To determine the head shape he builds 5 different heads to try and recreate the look of the film using what he believes is the actual camera and lens (not the reported one).  Anthropologist Begun insists that the Patterson creature walks like a human, not an ape.  (I don't even think he's seen the guy who walks like this in Is It Real?)  But Munns opines the suit looks more real than materials at the time would allow.  The film analyst ehnances the image, revealing what he believes are breasts as well as some face details -- but he is not willing to say whether the thing is a costume or not.  Because of his mask recreation and his attempt to fit a (standard) human figure into the filmed figure, Munns believe the thing on the Patterson film is not human.  So, in the end, scientists remain skeptical, analysts split, and belivers believe -- but we have little more light shed on the subject than before.  All of the analyses done on this show have been done previously, with similar results.  Even the new "evidence" of the camera lens size is educated guesswork, at best.  So like most bigfoot "science," that analysis is based on hopes or guesses rather than anything truly reproducable.  Of course, no matter on which side, opinions are not facts, and on MQ we routinely get opinions masquerading as more.

Sadly, again, none of the analysts ever compare the Patterson footage to footage of Bob Heironimus, who claims to have played the creature and can be seen on Is It Real?  Failing to consider "best evidence against" means that "best evidence for" remains, at best, unconvincing.  Why can't these shows build on each other's finding rather than recreating the same findings?  MQ, like most shows of this type, is too interesting in selling commercial time to really dig deep and jeopardize a good story.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

MONSTERQUEST: The Last Dinosaur

History Channel - Original Air Date: 6/24/09

MQ goes to Cameroon, Africa, to search for the Mokele-Mbembe, a supposed throwback to the dinosaur age -- like a brontosaurus.  The show features the usual compelling eyewitness accounts and supporting animations.  Dr. Roy Mackal has spent a long time looking for the beast, but other scientists point out there is no fossil record to support the ongoing existence of such creatures.  Mackal tells stories from explorers of three-toed tracks three feet across.  Because of eyewitness reports, Mackal is convinced the creature is real: a living dinosaur.  In 2004, Peter Beach returned with pictures and casts of supposed footprints.  He says the local foliage, too tall for any known animal to reach, had been stripped.  The prints and photos are taken for analysis.  MQ sends a team to Africa to investigate, but -- already, at the start -- one of them says they're more interested in the eyewitness reports than in the opinions of western scientists as to whether the animal can exist.  This does not bode well for scientific inquiry. The remoteness of the region makes just getting to the area in question difficult (especially in the rainy season).  Locals draw a dinosaur-like picture in the sand, but the show's claim that these people have little contact with the outside world seems undercut by their western wardrobes.  They do, however, pick a dinosaur out of a "mugshot book" of possible local animals.

Theorizing that the creature may hole up on local caves (15' across) during the dry season, the MQ team sets some camera traps and boats out looking for lairs.  (At this point, we seem to be into speculation.)  They find a deep hole, but the earth is too hard to excavate and discover what's inside.  So they decide to use sonar to check the river bed, and seem to find some crocs, snakes, and perhaps tree branches.  But they get no video, and most of their "discoveries" are mere speculation based on sonar blips -- especially when they seem to think they've found something with a big body and long neck.  Surely this would have been worth further investigation, even if starting the motor might have scared the beast.  (Maybe especially if.)  Yet, they keep drifting and trolling the river, finally motoring down to the deeper headwaters.  They think they may have found something here, too, but they drift too close to the Congo, on the other side of the river, and have to turn away to avoid political trouble.  Their camera traps, as usual, turn up nothing out of the ordinary.  The sauropod expert says that the toes on the casts are placed wrong for a dinosaur, and pictures of dino tracks bear this out.  "Who knows?" one researcher says at the conclusion, "the next time we might get some film."  Yes, that would be nice.

I'm a sucker for dinosaur stories, and the legend of this beast is fascinating to me.  The witness stories are interesting and compelling, but the researchers seem to be entirely too invested in the reality of the creature and it being some kind of dinosaur.  That's not a very scientific POV.  And, I should point out that a recent episode of Destination Truth concluded that the beast was merely legend and misreporting of encounters with hippos.  Sadly, another strikeout for MonsterQuest.  By my count, that's no real monsters found (and only a couple of large animals).  Better luck next season.


History Channel - Original Air Date: 6/17/09

MQ sets out to find the biggest killer crocodiles, beasts the show claims (in its opener) are growing larger and threatening humans.  1000-2000 people worldwide are killed by crocs each year.  Naturally, the show has the scary croc attack stories -- which sound a lot like shark attack stories, and leave similar scars.  Crocs have been around since dinosaur times, and their growth seems only limited by age (they never stop growing) and food supply. As humans encroach croc habitat, encounters grow more frequent.  Crocs and aligators are often confused in the US south, the only place where they coexist -- though experts seem to think crocs are more dangerous.  The show has plenty of stories of historical large crocs, and goes to India to see the skull of a giant man eater.  As one team goes to look for crocs in the US, another takes on India's backwaters.

The teams get a lot of pictures of crocs, and find some big tracks/slides.  The Florida team measures a croc, by distance, between 16 and 18 feet long -- the largest recorded in the US.  The Indian team (from a distance) measures a well-known killer at 20 feet.  The "legendary" croc skull turns out to belong to a 20+ footer, but not the 30' of legend.  Clearly, there are some big crocs out there.  But I can't help wishing that Steve Irwin were still with us to "bring 'em back alive."