Saturday, May 03, 2008

Explain This: How Can People Believe That Normal Things Are Unexplained?

Well, my subjects, I'll have the Easter Island post I promised up and running whenever my research material arrives. (I actually had to order it, and it's taking a long time to get here.) For now, please make an attempt to let this monstrous post (pardon the pun) make up for it.

April 22, 2008:

Ashamed a thing as it is, I admit that I have recently been surfing through YouTube, only to find several 'mystery-mongering' videos. What do I mean? First, take a look at this photo, which initially gave me the impression that the darn Coyote had met an untimely demise during one of his schemes to roast the Roadrunner alive:

In actuality, this X-coyote had apparently been afflicted by a painful and itchy mite infestation called 'mange'. The animal's almost total lack of fur and thick, blue, scabby skin are two typical symptoms of the parasitic disease.

And yet, what do you think I saw being promoted as a mystery on a TV news program? One of the mangy canines killing Texas rancher's Phylis Canion's kittens and chickens. Neighbors of hers suggested that it was a mythical, red-eyed, green-skinned human-like creature (usually covered in spikes) called El Chupacabra. Don't ask me what they were smoking. Please.

Update, May 3: Here's a Chupacabra sketch I did about seven years ago, lifted from an art post of mine....

therealchupacabra Wow, they're so similar aren't they? Not.

This news story is not really about chupacabras, it is about the fact that even big game hunters and ranchers can be utterly incapable of recognizing canines once their fur is displaced by the blue scales so characteristic of mange.

Unfortunately for this news story, this is hard to see through the sensationalism! I invite you to watch and then read my analysis, if you could be so brave.

How's that for shoddy reporting? It saddens me to see this amount of hype and exaggeration found in most news broadcasts these days. This is partly due to the fact that, if there is not enough excitement in a particular news story, the journalists will create a controversy to draw in viewers for the giant popularity contests between networks.

In any case, much of the content of American network news programs is purely for shock value entertainment. That's why American television is one of the worst sources of news. Period. ...Unless you're watching PBS news, which is simultaneously about the most accurate and low-key source of TV news, barring news programs from Britain or Canada.

Indeed, the people at PBS are not commercially motivated to distort information for profit because they get their money from 'viewers like you'!

Besides just plain popularity stunts, there is a more specific reason for massive quantities of hype. I believe I've written about it before: Basically, it amounts to the fact that enough people in America do not want to be told what the truth is. Instead, they would like to be given a topic that seems controversial - even when there is no controversy - so they can 'decide for themselves'.

Thus, 'the other side' of an issue may be highly contrived, simplified down from three or more different 'sides', or worse, fabricated out of whole cloth. Sure, it's a great exercise for someone who is training their critical thinking skills, but most Americans don't seem to know what the term 'critical thinking' actually refers to. That's why it's supposed to be the journalist's job!

In this instance, we see the wildlife expert John Young - the one who is familiar with every mammal species in the area - saying that he thinks it is a gray fox with a 'typical' case of mange. For one thing, I'm sure that Young sees this exact thing on a regular basis - and yet, his opinion is being held at the same level as someone who says she is so unfamiliar with the animal that she calls it the 'Texas Tasmanian Devil".

Can't you hear the alarm sirens going off? Warning! Warning!

Of course, I'm not just taking the guy's word for what he says it is. As someone who has had a bit of journalism training, I've learned that one of the most important parts of a journalist's responsibility is to check your facts using independent and reliable sources. And, also having a bit of training in recognizing wildlife, I have already had input from independent sources.

I'll tell you right now, it is a member of the dog family, Canidae. Notice how the 'Chupacabra' looks... well, pretty much exactly like the photograph at top? It may be a diseased gray fox, although to me it seems to be a bit too large and its tail seems to be a lot shorter.

So, I did a little bit of research to figure it out. Thank goodness the teeth were visible - I checked them against this gray fox skull, this coyote skull, and the skulls of medium-sized dogs. Right away, I could see that the animal's teeth matched the dogs and coyote more closely than they did the fox.

I also noticed that the teeth also looked very rounded. Like they were badly worn. Is that what they meant by saying it had 'strange teeth'? And what's with the dent on the canine tooth? Was that there before the animal was struck by the car? Either way, I can see that it had some serious dental issues.

Also to my great surprise, the segment did not mention the fact that the dog's front legs had been seriously twisted and deformed. Considering all the hype, I'd think that would be one of the first things mentioned - though perhaps not pointing out certain details is another sensationalist tactic.

The first few times of looking at the footage, I thought that perhaps its leg tendons had dried out after it had died, causing the front feet to curl underneath. Then, I noticed that its back legs, nor any other part of its body, were not similarly bent. I thought a minute about what that might mean. Maybe its legs had been mangled by the car? But both of them, in the same way? Not likely.

Then I realized; that explains why it was attacking helpless animals! A canine with crippled legs and bad teeth would scarcely be expected to hunt for itself!

Doesn't that make sense? However, the journalists involved in this story evidently had decided to not go the 'fact-checking' route and simply refer to the animal as a 'beast' instead of a 'canine' in order to leave the question as wide open as they possibly could.

Accordingly, the wildlife expert is given a short amount of time to give his two cents, and after that his observations are downplayed. That includes the clever trick of bringing up the point that he 'admits there are undiscovered species'. Yes. Of course there are. There always are undiscovered species in every country on earth! You're always going to get that answer from a wildlife expert.

That's probably why they asked.

Of course, in Texas he says that most species being discovered nowadays are typically cave insects, fish, and other inconspicuous animals that live in places where humans do not usually venture - certainly he does not expect that such a large and obvious land animal would be found anywhere near humans, much less raiding someone's ranch!

Nevertheless, at the end of the segment we see Canion saying that clearly the canine is a 'cross between' two different species - and it's so baffling to her that she was sending some tissue to a lab for genetic analysis!

I'm willing to bet - just like all alleged 'dog-like Chupacabras' whose DNA is sent off for testing, it will turn out to be a dog species we already are familiar with, though sometimes with a disease that causes deformities or hair loss.

Update - April 30, 2008:

Since this was an old story, I decided to look for a follow-up on the DNA report. Though the 'Chupacabra' had turned out to be a coyote, I was horrified to also come across some of the massive amounts of hype that had been built up around it in the previous four months before the test results had come in.

The first thing I found was an online San Antonio news article which said;

"The DNA sequence is a virtually identical match to DNA from the coyote [already in the database]," Mike Forstner, a Texas State University biologist, said in a news release Thursday night. "This is probably the answer a lot of folks thought might be the outcome. I, myself, really thought it was a domestic dog, but the Cuero chupacabra is a Texas coyote."


"Folks fear what they don't understand, and a big part of the goal in science is to explain the natural world," Forstner said.

You can read the whole thing and watch the accompanying news segment on KENS, which - unlike the article - I was utterly disgusted at.

First of all, the intro of the news segment showed many artist's representations of green, devilish Chupacabras flashing in rapid succession. I got the impression that this story had been hyped all to hell for the past four months, but I wasn't prepared for this:

First of all, the news anchor is listening to Canion talk about her 'Chupacabra' head, which she has displayed, and she is still saying that she doesn't think the animal is known to science. Then the anchor briefly speaks to Forstner, referring to it as 'maybe a mythical creature' and then they move off to a taped segment.

The first thing we see is the animal's body and music with the words "Heeeyyyy Chupaaacabraaa!" and then some shots of the DNA lab. Then we hear about the different opinions coming from viewers as to what it is. We see a hallway in a school with two teenaged girls - one modestly suggests it is a 'manged up' wolf and the other rolls her eyes condescendingly and says "it's a Chupacabra." (Later on, the first girl says, "Yeah, Chupacrazy. That's you!")

I don't care whether or not a couple of teenaged girls disagree on what it is - just get on with the results!

Then, we get a couple of sound bites from Forstner, who is saying that they have taken something unknown and made it known. This is, he points out, the object of science.

After that, we see the extent of the sensationalism created by one dead dog: Jimmy Kimmel, host of his own national late night talk show, is poking fun of Canion's chupacabra. We see that this hype is a worldwide phenomenon and Canion has sold four thousand Chupacabra T-shirts to countries all over the globe. On top of this, hundreds of students at the local Cuero high school wore them for Chupacabra Day!

Chupacabra day? They have Chupacabra day now? Because of a dead coyote? (Then again, stranger things happen on a regular basis.)

Even worse, the images on the shirts do not even look like the coyote corpse! Instead of showing what it was in life - an ill and deformed canine that was probably suffering and too sick to hunt wild animals - it is depicted as a fierce and able-bodied super-beast standing on two legs, looking so much like a dog version of the Velociraptor in Jurassic Park!

I am just blown away by the amount of utter empty fluff produced by this one very non-mysterious incident!

After a recap of the original news story, they finally come back for some more live footage with Canion and Forstner. Come on, this is driving me crazy! Why don't they just tell people what it is right away so that we can skip this nonsense?

(The reason is, of course, that they're trying to make sure that people stay tuned to their station and don't change the channel, in hopes that the answer is revealed.)

...But they don't! After five minutes of largely sensationalistic footage, they take a break, leaving the viewers hanging in suspense.

And to think that none of this crap would have happened if the journalists had actually tried to be journalists and figure out what it was in the first place (the old-fashioned way) instead of implying that the animal is a complete mystery without a DNA test!

Instead, these people promoted the idea that, well, maybe it's a normal canine with a skin disease like the expert says, or maybe it's really a mythical beast. We aren't going to actually investigate this for ourselves, so it's up to you to decide!

And then they promoted the mythical beast idea for the next four months, spreading the idea that there is some kind of mystery, and setting a bad example for the viewers! ("Oh, news journalists think it's a mystery? It must be okay to think that there's something weird going on!") Not only is that irresponsible journalism, it insults the intelligence of the public!

Finally, after the weather, they find that... "It's a coyote." Great! Now the segment can finally end!

But first, Phylis wants to know why it had no hair, why its front legs were shorter than its hind legs, why its ears were so small and why it was missing teeth. I'd like to note here that they could have already discussed this for several minutes by now instead of reinforcing the idea that a dead dog is the corpse of some paranormal being!

Forster explains that the animal was very old, which is obvious from the skull. (It probably had arthritis, too!) Its DNA matches that of coyotes, so it's definitely a coyote, and the cause of its skin condition will be determined at yet another lab.

Here's my question; why wasn't the skin tested in the first place when Young said it had mange? Because the object was to keep it as much of a mystery as possible; you don't want to hear that your ferocious dinosaur-dog has no hair because it's sick. You want to hear that it has no hair because it's an undiscovered species!

Then the guy promotes the news website in case the viewers, including biology students, would like to "figure out for yourself if you in fact believe it's a coyote". Figure out if you believe? Sure! The identity as to what species it is may have been conclusively revealed, but you're still given the idea that it might not be.

Is the animal that looks like a coyote really a coyote, or does its DNA just match coyote DNA exactly? Those DNA tests may well be worthless! For all we know, it could be a green-skinned, red-eyed, ape-like creature that comes from alien spaceships! (The popular definition of El Chupacabra.) You decide!

On top of that, I searched for news on the results of the skin tests and could find none. Perhaps, after the 'mystery' was revealed, no one wanted to hear about it anymore. Typical.

Back to April 22:

If you haven't gotten enough of the bass-ackwards Chupacabra craze, I have a few more videos for you to look at - and this time they're not done by journalists so I won't nit-pick at length about the utter lack of criticality.

Here we have a video featuring several different depictions of El Chupacabra. Back when I first heard of them, they were crouching little humanoids with green skin and red eyes and sometimes white things along the spine.

Since then, - as with all mythical creatures - the descriptions have changed over time and become more various. This particular video shows different versions - one with a dog-like snout, one looking like a dinosaur-like monstrous baby with bat wings, and the other more typical of earlier interpretations. Even better, this video promises 'proof' of a real chupacabra. Oh boy! I can't wait to see....

Awww! Poor puppies! These are actually mangy foxes, instead of coyotes - you can tell from the long tail. Also, one has a bit of bright orange-red fur in the midst of its blue scabs, which indicates it must have been a red fox.

I'll get back to El Chupacabra shortly, but first, how about being cheered up by this video of a very much living ratel, better known as the honey badger (Mellivora capensis) as it... well... kills and eats a deadly cobra:

Please note that after the cobra is dead, the honey badger takes a nap, exposing the thin fur on its underside - and its enormous testicles! Please note that I am also pointing out the testicles for educational reasons.

Now look at this next video - the first half of it is a text story that alleges a Saudi Arabian shepherd was terrified by three creatures he mistook to be human - at first. It says he shot one of them and the other two 'flew' away. It also encourages people to save this video on their computer because it's the clearest video yet of a 'chupacabra'.

The second half is footage of a dead honey badger - portrayed as the purported chupacabra that has been shot - being poked with a stick. Note the thin fur, large testicles, long claws, flat ears, sloping shoulders, light-colored 'cap' on the head and other features you saw on the animal in the previous video.

I think (or at least hope) that my readers will agree that this is the same species. But what does the YouTube user presenting this video have to say about the matter?
"A chupacabra is a hybrid animal from PLANET EARTH people, its not a space alien, please do your research first.
I understand people who were expecting an alien like species, but this is IT, its an animal that lives in hot areas all over the world.
This is not a badger, please watch the video carefully and compare it to a badger
This is not a dog, Please focus on the paws, they are no dog paws"
Unable to create a YouTube account so that I could correct him (the website kept repeating that I was 'ineligible', whatever that means) I was glad to see that several people had commented that it was a honey badger, and one person said that they actually had one as a pet!

Undaunted, the YouTube user was evidently not impressed because he found no photos of the underside of a honey badger, which is lighter in appearance than the topside and pinkish in color, though note that in a dead individual the skin would be grayish from lack of blood flow

"Id would like to challenge any viewer to find me a photo of the same animal,, a GREY one please, with the same features. If anyone suceeds to prove this animal being a badger or dog, I will remove this video immediatly. Please watch this critters features closely, its not a dog, and badgers are not grey, not even if they have mange. This is a hybrid animal."
Oh, so even though it has the right body characteristics and markings, it can't be a honey badger just because it looks too 'grey' in the video! How is that for logic? And as for the assertion of a hybrid between a dog and a badger - I'm sorry, that's biologically impossible.

For one thing, two animals from different families - such as the weasel family and the dog family - cannot breed, no matter how hard humans try to make them. Today, we know the reason has to do with the fact that chromosomes from two drastically different species are so different from one another that they cannot swap genes and are otherwise incompatible.

There is sometimes the possibility of hybrids between two animals in the same genus - like the mule (horse-donkey) and the liger (lion-tiger) - and occasionally hybrids between animals in the same family - the cama (camel-llama) and the wholphin (orca-dolphin) - but as far as breeding two animals as distantly-related as dogs (dog family) and honey badgers (weasel family), it's improbable that this could ever happen, even if gene-splicing biologists were on the job!

So, no matter how they try, this badger and this dog could never have puppies together. Yes, even if they are of the opposite sex and managed to become attracted to one another.

The honey badger is not a hybrid. Like its cousin, the wolverine, it is a distinct and unusually fearless species of the weasel family. While the wolverine terrorizes wolves and even bears across the Northern Hemisphere, the honey badger goes nose-to nose with many animals in Africa, the middle east, and much of Asia.

Behold its amazing ability to eat baby African honeybees while the adults sting it in the face!

Yes, honey badgers are not mysterious animals in the least! Neither are foxes, even if they are disfigured by legions of tiny arachnids! We know all about them! Enough mystery-mongering! Now raise your right hand and repeat after me: "Some people just need to be shaken!"

Ah, but I'm not done yet. While I was still on YouTube, I also saw video of a dead Regalecus fish - with the title, 'Oh God, we saw a dead dragon in China!' Really it is - contrast and compare with these many photos of oarfish and ribbon fish. The largest species grows up to 50 feet long - the longest bony fish on record!

Doesn't it look, like, I don't know, exactly the same!? After a few minutes of scanning the comments, I noticed that other people have noted this as well. Good for them!

Oh, but there's more than just dead dogs and dead fish and dead honey badgers... some videos just whack you over the head with an entire montage of stuff with no explanation at all! With no explanation for any of them, I figure, it's not worth doing research on - even so, I can actually recognize what most of them are just from previous knowledge!

For your benefit, I have compiled a list of what thoughts went through my head while viewing this next video. These are just my casual observations this time. The point of this list is to demonstrate how unimpressed I was with this video.

People make crop circles all the time. This is no different. Perfectly normal. Moving on.

A joke picture of a giant human skeleton being dug up, thanks to the wonders of Photoshop. It was originally meant to be funny, not mysterious.

I see some sea monsters that are known fakes and paintings.

The baboon-head fish is actually a sculpture and is part of one of those 'weird animal' art exhibits like the freaks of nature made by by Patricia Picinini.

The photo of the guy holding the 'sea serpent' is another oarfish - a brown one instead of a white one.

The shark with the wide-open mouth is a perfectly normal basking shark - a shark that is known for catching plankton with its enormous, cavernous mouth.

The viperfish? Yes, that's a normal animal, too.

There's also a shark that's apparently missing the sensory part of its snout region, perhaps due to rotting or mutation.

Wow. A lobster! I never saw one of those before!

And there's a mermaid sculpture made by an artist, as well as some more... taxidermied mermaid hoaxes.

Lumped in the same category is a perfeclty normal... mutated baby with fused legs! That happens sometimes.

I see a fossilized fish-amphibian. Perfectly normal fossil find, might I add.

The long, scaly white thing with arms is a normal, everyday lizard-like animal called an amphisbaen. Ironically, I've recently read a satirical blog post about them, and it used the same photo!

Gee, an alligator with white skin, like I've never seen one!

The thing that says 'Sasquatch' is actually a dead, but otherwise normal, spider monkey.

The thing that says 'Bigfoot' has been determined to be a normal Bob Heironimus in a suit.

Pigzilla, a farm-raised hog, was not really quite as big as it was portrayed, and the giant cat I know for a fact was very not secretly a product of digital manipulation. As for the very fat orange cat, I've seen it on the humor website Can I Has Cheezburger?

I see a dog with an obvious rubber mask that has a crudely-painted open mouth, as well as some models of fake animals.

Sphynx cats? Gee, a popular cat breed! What a mystery!

If I had not already known what the 'winged cat' photo was, I may not have seen that anything was unusual about it. Luckily, I read all about it on this web page and recognized the photo - apparently cats can develop skin flaps on their backs from certain skin disorders.

Cyclokitten -yes, it is a real mutation called cyclopia. Happens to many animals, including humans. Here are some photos, but I'll give you warning that they may be disturbing!

Alien autopsy- well-known to be a fake. This is most obvious in that the hoaxers didn't even know how to conduct an autopsy. Also, there are some alien puppets.

There are also some reconstructions of extinct animals - the one labeled 'moon head lizard' is actually a model of a prehistoric amphibian called a Diplocaulus.

The dead pterosaur not only is particularly fake-looking, but it resembles drawings of pterosaurs from long ago when the photo was probably taken.

Wow, it's a fish with a mutated jaw. Like that's supernatural or something.

And... a perfectly normal elephant shrew, which isn't weird at all. (Correction: It's a perfectly normal solenodon, which has teeny-tiny eyes and is considerably less cute than an elephant shrew.)

On top of that... a perfectly normal frilled lizard, which is also no secret.

A joke ultrasound of a demon, created as a joke, not a hoax.

What my point is here is that all those images, one after another, of normal animals, extinct animals, hoaxes, and creative artwork of fanciful creatures, are all shoved into the same category, thus blurring the lines of what is actually strange or not. Yes, the truth is out there. They're all different things and none of it is particularly unusual.

If you think you can take another slew of mystery-mongering photos, I've done one more:

The first two shots I recognize from a 'time traveling' nature program called Chased by Sea Monsters - that's the host, Nigel Marvin, messing with one of them!

I recognize another photo as a really icky piece of art, but art nonetheless.

Oh, a cyclops pig! Yes, that's real, just like the kittens!

I see a group of seals. What is so unusual about this group of seals? It appears that the adults are protecting the young pup who is standing behind them. I don't get it. Perhaps the seal pup, which is circled in red, is supposed to be a monster or a strange growth from the back of one of the adults?

A two-headed calf? Well of course it's real - they are technically two individuals, conjoined twins.

Of course the chupacabra that says 'FAKE' really is fake - it's clearly a statue made ofut of fiberglas or plastic! (Notice how its eyes are the same texture as the rest of it.)

Another sea repitle underwater! ROTFL indeed, it was a toy submarine and it was very small, not an elephant.

Hey it's the elephant shrew again!

Wow, it's a bat!

Conjoined kittens? Blugh!

It's a squid!

It's a seal!

It's the extinct and famous marsupial, the thylacine!

Wow, it's a liger!

Ha! This bat with a bird's face I actually saw on a manipulated animal photo website. (Yes, there are websites full of photoshopped animals with the body of one animal and the head of another. It's meant to be humorous.)

I see a kinkajou-like or coatimundi-like animal on the forest floor - it's hard to say what it is because its head is obscured.

If you're still with me, I commend you. Personally, it's too much for me to take in one bite - that's part of the reason it took so long for me to finish this post. Now I'm going to go back to the nice, orderly world of non-confusion.


Callalilly said...

Wow! You certainly have done your research! Frankly, I love crop circles. They are beautiful from the air and I commend anyone who can work as hard as the folks who create them all in one night. Maybe longer, as one never knows until someone takes a flight over the field. Some of those geometrical designs are fabulous. Well, Mad Scientist, keep introspecting. Frankly, I like to know the truth. As I am not a scientist, I am not acquainted with most of the unusual species of life in this world, but I do like learning. Keep it up.

Galtron said...

Damn, girl! You really know your weird animals! I'm not surprised, though. You probably have half of them in your lab!
Maybe you ought to be a news consultant?

S E E Quine said...

` Thanks, Callalilly, glad to be of usefulness! And yes, Galtron, I have a few of them here and there. You know, to scare trespassers. Indeed, elephant shrews are quite terrifying to many mystery-mongers! ;)
` Indeed, if the news anchors would only consult me - and take my advice for further consultants - and I could actually tell them what to put on the news (because they really don't listen to you even if you thoroughly debunk something for hours on end and have as much documentation as you can carry) then the news world would be a better place.

KB said...

I'm impressed with your research girl. No wonder you have been MIA so long.

S E E Quine said...

` Well, I suppose it did. :) That, and the fact that it otherwise took me a really long time to write wittily!
` They always do. That's one reason that this blog is not updated often - the posts are frequently sizeable, and also my plans are frequently interrupted.
` Luckily I got my Easter Island material!

Monado said...

Slightly off-topic: how would you like to take on Creationists in Seattle?

Emil Johnsen said...

Great post, read the entire.

Nothing better then a neutral, yet concious and non-confused.

YES, i believe in so-called supernatural species (although, if they are discovered, they exist, and are not supernatural. If they however don't exist, they are nothing at all), but some pieces of "crucial information about cryptozoological creatures" is just plain pathetic.

"common sense" does not exist anymore.

Great job, however.

xEruption @ MySpace

S E E Quine said...

` Indeed, if they're discovered, then they aren't really supernatural. Well, why would they be?
` By the way, have you seen Wonkyfoot? That's my own creation, and it fooled... well, a complete kook, so that's not even surprising.
` Anyway, of course, if there were some kind of giant animal in Loch Ness, then well... it's an animal.
` However, I think it's funny that Scottish people did not hear anything about a monster in Loch Ness until Americans started making up stories for... entertaining other Americans.
` People have scanned the Loch several times with better and better sonar and still haven't found anything. Eh, no, I'd say that's nothing at all.
` Wondering if anyone will find any so-called cryptids at all, ever?

snooze said...

I'm really enjoying reading your page. Quick note: the critter at 4:22 in your video is a Solenodon, not an Elephant Shrew.

There are two species of this intriguing, primitive, highly endangered creature. The Cuban Solenodon is nearly extinct. I think the one in your video is a mounted specimen, sadly.

snooze said...

argh, let's try a proper link.
Cuban Solenodon photo

S E E Quine said...

Nice, thanks! You're right. I'll change it....

innerwisdom said...

I came across your blog while searching for a photo regarding the find in Texas. Which you have written a lot about. I think you should help them out there. Apperantely two chupacabra were just killed there or they question if they were coyotoes.

S E E Quine said...

Schweet! Ben Radford's on it, too! his favorite always was the chupacabra....

I don't think they need my help. Good to know people are still going to my old blog posts, as long and incoherent it had been written back then, despite most of the pictures having disappeared, etc.

S E E Quine said...

Oh yeah, durrrrr, thanks for pointing it out! I appreciate it.