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On credulity

It should come as a surprise to nobody that the much-hyped "discovery" of a Bigfoot corpse in Georgia was revealed today to be a hoax. A common, cheap Halloween costume, some opossum entrails, a cooler, and a whole lot of overheated gullibility combined to form a perfect storm of stupid. Profitable stupid, to be sure, but stupid nonetheless.

The man who orchestrated this hoax, incredibly, has been caught doing Bigfoot hoaxes in the past...and yet, people still took him seriously.

Now, I don't give a toss about Bigfoot. But I do think there's an interesting lesson in here.

Folks want to believe in things like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster and astrology and UFOs and the divine love of Our Savior Jesus Christ and a whole lotta other unlikely and sometimes downright nonsensical things. And in fact we may even be hardwared to believe them. Human knowledge is a history of two steps forward, one step back; we no longer believe that solar eclipses are caused by gigantic marauding dragons pursuing the sun across the sky, but we do believe that our office mates are snippy and the coffee maker is on the fritz because of the motion of a tiny, tidally locked ball of rock with a large iron core.

All these things, from Bigfoot to psychics, are woven together by the common thread of irrationality. And no matter how many times a conman gets caught with an ape mask and a handful of animal guts, folks can predictably be relied upon to say "Well, this particular guy was a shyster, but Bigfoot still exists!"

But I didn't actually come here to talk about Bigfoot.

Instead, I came here to talk about physics.

How are the two related? Through the common languages of money and credulity.

The hottest area of venture-capital investment in the US right now is alternative energy. Solar power, wind power, thermoelectric power--if it involves getting energy without burning stuff, people will invest in it.

And it's in this environment that anyone with a scientific-sounding yarn and a pair of brass balls can score millions.

The problem with the Georgia Bigfoot hoaxsters is that they set the bar too low. You might make a few thousand dollars duping folks who like to believe in big, hairy ape-men running around upstate Georgia, but if you really want to score the dough, you need to think bigger. And the notion of limitless power from tap water is not a bad place to start.

This is an old-school scam, of course--I remember reading a plot in the newspaper comic Gasoline Alley a couple of decades ago that centered on one of the main characters being scammed by an elaborate con involving a car that could run on water. And today the Web is littered with Web sites offering to sell gizmos, usually for hundreds of dollars, that promise you can boost your mileage by running your car on water.

Still small potatoes, though.

Oh, no. To score for real, you gotta aim your sites not at average consumers, but at venture capitalists themselves. And what better way than by claiming to have discovered that all of modern physics is completely wrong, and that you can get limitless power from tap water by creating an entirely new state of matter?

That is exactly what a guy named Randell Mills has done, and he's scoring big. A while back, he claimed that he has discovered a new state of hydrogen, which he calls the "hydrino," that involves moving the electron closer to the nucleus than the laws of physics permit. It makes no difference that the math doesn't work, nor that the book he wrote on the topic appears to be equal parts flawed math and text plagarized from other textbooks. What's important, as any good Bigfoot "researcher" knows, is that it sounds good--and more importantly, that it talks about things that people really, really, really want to believe in.

The second part can make up for a lot of flaws in the first. We really, really want to believe that the world has meaning and purpose, and to that end we are willing to accept a great deal, and not look too closely at things that support what we've already decided we'd like to be true.

And a great many people want this notion of the "hydrino" to be true.

Randell Mills has been talking about hydrinos for quite some time now. Nearly twenty years, in fact. And he's proven to be remarkably skilled at piggybacking his notion onto whatever other ideas happen to be getting attention at the moment.

When "cold fusion" was all the rage, he proposed that it worked because the hydrogen in the water was being converted into hydrinos, and the hydrinos were what was fusing. No real explanation for why this should be, mind you; but that's a minor matter. The publicity is what's important.

Now, with the price of oil high and alternative-fueled cars in the news, he's proposing that fuel cells that work on hydrinos could provide limitless energy from tap water--and he's scored fifty million dollars of venture capital funding to that end.

Never mind that in nearly two decades he's never made this idea work. Never mind that current models of the behavior of hydrogen atoms have been verified experimentally over and over again. Never mind, even, that he's been promising a major breakthrough since 1991, a breakthrough that's always just a little bit of money away.

He keeps bringing in the money because investors want to believe.

And not just for obvious reasons.

Yes, it is true that the lure of owning the one invention that will bring an end to the era of Big Oil is powerful. Yes, it is true that anyone who wins on alternative energy is likely to win in the billions, at least. And yes, it is even true that the next big invention is likely to be surprising and to come from an unpredictable place.

But there's another reason that Mills is so successful at scamming folks, and it has to do more with sociology than with technology. We all want to believe we can run our cars on water, but we also very much hate and fear science, and we all want to be able to laugh at those pointy-headed, superior scientists in their white lab jackets and say "Ha! You were WRONG! Ha, ha, ha!"

Randell Mills doesn't exist in a vacuum. His success is very much a product of anti-intellectualism. We simply don't like science, we don't like the people who do it, and we want to give a giant "fuck you" to the people we hate so much. What better way than to buy into a gizmo that lets us drive cars on water and also proves all those complicated scientific theories are wrong?

And it's not a stretch, really. Most folks are only dimly aware of hat an "atom" is, and haven't the faintest idea of what a "ground state" is. Why not believe that it's possible to shrink a hydrogen atom way down smaller than it's supposed to be? And as long as we're believing that, why not also believe that you'll get a whole lot of power to run your car by doing it? Hey, it could happen, right?

Fifty million dollars in venture capital later, the math still doesn't work and the idea is still bunk, but when you start with investors who don't have the background to understand why the idea is bunk, but are itching to be able to say they helped knock a lot of know-it-all eggheads off their pedestals...well, the result really shouldn't be surprising, I suppose.

I spend a lot of time talking about credulity and gullibility. Sometimes, people ask me why I, or anyone else, should care. What's the harm in folks who believe blindly in Bigfoot? Who cares if people believe in things without evidence?

Randell Mills is the answer to that question. Credulity has a price. Sometimes, the price is financial; gullibility and anti-intellectualism allow people to be manipulated into parting with cash; they make for easy marks. Sometimes, the price is in human lives. Anti-intellectualism is what lets people believe that chlorinated water is bad.

All these things are related. And in the rush to believe what we want to believe, in the desire to be seduced by someone who will tell us the things we really want to hear, we sometimes forget to check our facts.


( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 19th, 2008 10:33 pm (UTC)
Thats funny!

now you must pardon me so I can go give myself MS by eating nutrasweet.
Aug. 19th, 2008 10:50 pm (UTC)
There's a thing about Bigfoot, though, that bothers me.

Obviously it's a scam.

BUT! I do believe there are still species that haven't been discovered yet. I mean, the gorilla was believed to be a myth until there were systematic studies in the 1920s. Similarly, the giant squid wasn't seen in the wild for a very long time. There's also the okapi and the coelacanth, once thought mythical and extinct respectively.

And we're still discovering new adorable furry lobsters and shapeshifting octopuses to this decade.

So, I have not even a little bit chance of believing in Bigfoot, but I think there are still undiscovered and wondrous species out there. Mostly underwater. People are still researching the Mokole-Mbembe but none has been found, so that one's probably a myth.

Now, the people who discover these things are going to be deep-sea divers, explorers and scientists, not hoaxsters and flim-flam artists looking for a buck. And I'm pretty confident that Bigfoot and the Chupacabra are the result of fertile imagination.

But I'm not ready to dismiss every undiscovered animal as a fake. I'm just going to view them very skeptically.

Oops! I forgot that this post isn't about Bigfoot. Sorry!

Edited at 2008-08-19 11:03 pm (UTC)
Aug. 20th, 2008 03:18 pm (UTC)
And that's exactly the point, isn't it?

There's plenty of surprising and unexpected stuff left to discover in nature. Every time we think we've reached the floor of the Mariana Trench of weird, we discover some new species of life that sets a new threshold. Including,just to monkeywrench conventional ideas of biochemistry, organisms that have metabolisms based on hydrogen sulfide.

And when we put our imaginations to work inventing new monsters, what do we come up with? A half-man, half-ape.

The human imagination is so feeble compared to the reality of the physical world that it's almost embarrassing. We come up with little more than funhouse projections of ourselves, boring old variations on the same simple theme, when the real world all around us is far, far weirder. The reality is better, more colorful, and stranger than the make-believe!
Aug. 22nd, 2008 07:29 pm (UTC)
Gosh! Wonderfully put!
Aug. 19th, 2008 11:00 pm (UTC)
God damn fucking morals. I want fifty million dollars.

You know what would be awesome? If someone pulled a hoax like this, got a shit ton of money, and donated it all to worthwhile research that's underfunded. And did it publicly to raise awareness. I'm sure it's unthinkable and would never happen, but it would be fucking awesome! Why is it that the ppl with the money are the idiots?
Aug. 19th, 2008 11:04 pm (UTC)
Wired did an article recently about an electric car company that was a big hoax.

And the shyster electric car company called them up and said, "Hey, we're the good guys! We're an electric car company! We're green! Can you revise the article to be nicer please?"
Aug. 20th, 2008 05:17 am (UTC)
Oooooh! Who was it?
Aug. 20th, 2008 03:19 pm (UTC)
That WOULD be awesome! What a brilliant idea!
Aug. 20th, 2008 06:51 pm (UTC)
I know, I AM brilliant :-D

Also, since you're nerdy and whatnot, do you happen to know if my reasoning on this is scientifically sound?


it's short, I promise.
Aug. 19th, 2008 11:06 pm (UTC)
i'm still trying to figure out if "Sasquatch" is Bigfoot's name, or if that's the name of his species
Aug. 19th, 2008 11:17 pm (UTC)
It's an Indigenous Canadian term for the creature.

(Am I a Believer? Nope. I'm an Agnostic -- I don't believe in electrons, either. Is there some damned good evidence for the possible existence of Bigfoot? Yup.)
Aug. 20th, 2008 03:09 pm (UTC)
Re: *Plug bell ding*
Meh. There's an issue of having a breeding population of very, very large primates in close proximity to human populations without even so much as a decaying corpse or a pile of dung to show for it.

By way of comparison, the Florida Everglades are much more sparsely populated than Oregon or northern Georgia, panthers are much smaller than Bigfoot, they don't live in social groups, and the population has fallen to below sustainable levels, and they're notoriously shy and avoidant, and we still run across them all the time,.
Aug. 20th, 2008 01:54 am (UTC)
no Sasquatch is what I call my 13 yr old son who has size 11 feet and is already 3 inches taller than me.

did I mention the shoulder length hair and the earring? lol
Aug. 20th, 2008 12:39 am (UTC)
Profitable? Really? What was Step 2?
Aug. 20th, 2008 12:38 pm (UTC)
Find gullible people with money.
Aug. 20th, 2008 03:02 pm (UTC)
Immediately after announcing the "find," they started selling "Bigfoot expeditions" in northern Georgia ($499 per person per day), a Web site selling Bigfoot souvenirs (T-shirts $19.99, private treks through the woods in the same Land Rover that hauled the corpse, $5,000), and so much traffic from inbound links from CNN.com and Time.com that the Web site fell over for an afternoon.

The most amazing part is that they actually sold the corpse for an undisclosed sum (allegedly $50,000) to Las Vegas promoter Tom Biscardi, who has in the past ben involved in other Bigfoot hoaxes.
Aug. 20th, 2008 01:18 am (UTC)
I'd say "Amen!" but....

I've mentioned this before:

Aug. 20th, 2008 08:05 am (UTC)
*Plug bell ding*
http://skeptic.com/ and their magazine,

and of course Sagan's classic The Demon Haunted World

Wonderful work. Did you know James Randi has his own convention every year?
Aug. 20th, 2008 10:13 pm (UTC)
Re: *Plug bell ding*
I wanted, very badly, to go to TAM this year. Two or three of the podcasts I listen to had people there, so I've been listening to interviews from it for the last couple of weeks.

On the plus side and closer to home, James Randi, Phil Plait (who just took over as the president of the JREF), Steven Novella, Michael Shermer, and a host of other notable skeptics will all be at Dragon*Con this year (less than 2 weeks!). D*C has a new skeptic programming track this year, and I suspect that it's going to be a huge hit! Definitely long overdue.
Aug. 20th, 2008 01:35 am (UTC)
Did you listen to This American Life a couple of weeks ago? Really good episode called "A Little Bit of Knowledge." There's an interview with one of those earnest physics crackpots who think they've disproven Einstein. I started out admiring the guy, in a weird way; he wasn't a trained physicist, but he had a do-it-yourself ethic that touched me. But it turned out that it was just anti-intellectualism at the bottom. Bah.
Aug. 20th, 2008 03:03 pm (UTC)
I didn't! I'll have to see if I can find that episode.

And also, icon win.
Aug. 20th, 2008 02:30 am (UTC)
Really if you want to scam a lot of money out of folks, you're better off targeting the government. Venture capitalists, if they are going to be any good at it, kinda have to pay attention to where the money is going. The government, on the other hand...


A 25 year old (when he was indicted, he was younger when he set this up) convinced the Pentagon to hand over hundreds of millions for him to buy former soviet and chinese weapons to provide to Afghanistan.

Aug. 20th, 2008 03:05 pm (UTC)
Good scam. The only down side is the prison sentence when you get caught. Better, I think, to make scams that are harder to prove as outright fraud. After all, if you set up a privately funded VC company, all you need to do is say that developing the product turned out to be harder than you thought. And spirit mediums, well, they're not responsible if the ghosts aren't feeling cooperative, right?
Aug. 20th, 2008 07:05 pm (UTC)
He was just too greedy. If he'd gotten out sooner or done a better job bribing the right reps he'd have been golden :)
Aug. 20th, 2008 04:55 am (UTC)
Arg! You've presented one of my two serious pet peeves about the way astrology is presented by most astrologers; one is that it's a science (it's not, it's statistics) and the other is that it causes things (it merely correlates them).

Hm. Maybe it's time for the astrologer's rant on misconceptions in my own LJ...

Aug. 20th, 2008 12:26 pm (UTC)
Outstanding post. Thank you!
Aug. 20th, 2008 05:21 pm (UTC)
Folks want to believe in things like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster and astrology and UFOs and the divine love of Our Savior Jesus Christ and a whole lotta other unlikely and sometimes downright nonsensical things .... like transhumanism?

*grins, ducks, runs*
Aug. 20th, 2008 06:12 pm (UTC)
Y'know, in all seriousness, when people ask me "Do you think this cryonics thing will work?" I say "no." Then, of course, they get all baffled, and I say "No, I don't think it will work, but I think there's an outside chance that it might work. And since it's the only game in town, well..."
( 29 comments — Leave a comment )