Follow by Email

Search This Blog

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Cryptids for the beginning skeptic

Hello Folks. It looks like, for now, I'm keeping a regular schedule on the posts. I'm as surprised as you are.I felt it was time for another edition of my world famous "Woo for the beginning skeptic" articles. Today, I'm going to discuss one that I have had an interest in for many years. We're talking cryptids, also known as monsters or unknown animals. Before you roll your eyes and say "Cryptids are stupid. There is no reason any self respecting critical thinker should waste their time on them.", just keep reading. Not only are they interesting in their own right, but many times, they are what initially brought people into skepticism and critical thinking. Just look at Blake Smith and Daniel Loxton. Both are well respected members of the skeptical community. (Blake hosts the Monster Talk podcast and Daniel is the author and illustrator of Junior Skeptic in the back of Skeptic magazine, as well as the Tales of Prehistoric Life trilogy and Abominable Science.) Both of them came to critical thinking via cryptids. Now for the main feature.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a cryptid is "An animal whose existence or survival is disputed or unsubstantiated, such as the yeti" Therefore cryptozoology is the study of unknown animals. It comes from the Greek word Krypto (also the name of Superman's dog) which means "hide". So basically, it's an animal that people can't find, but as soon as someone legitimately finds one, it can no longer be considered a cryptid.

Throughout human history, we have always told stories about fantastic creatures, You have Enkidu and Humbaba from the Epic of Gilgamesh. You have Grendel from Beowulf. You have the gods in corporeal form in pretty much every culture. The Leviathan in the bible would count as a cryptid. There have always been stories of sea monsters and river creatures. Of course, there is the Loch Ness Monster, Yeti, Bigfoot, Bat-Boy, Chupacabra, Leprechauns, and MothMan. People have always used mysterious creatures either as a way to explain a natural phenomenon or as a way to make people behave. An example of the former is saying that some large unknown creature creates whirlpools that pull down ships. An example of the later would be that a vicious animal lives in the woods, so you kids shouldn't go in them, lest you get killed by it. Today, a lot of the stories seem to be driven by an honest curiosity mixed with either a poor or misguided understanding of science, or wanting to make a few bucks off of a costume full of roadkill. I know that this is an extremely short history of cryptids, but just going back to Gilgamesh, that's around 4000 years of monsters. That's not including some of the possible stories that were told around  the fires of our hunter/gatherer ancestors. One of the most amazing things about this is that people still report some of the same creatures that their ancestors did thousands of years ago.

The Cast:
I honestly had a hard time trying to decide where to start. Should I go chronologically, geographically, culturally, type, or just do it randomly? I'm going to try and break down the huge variety of cryptids by their type. There are serpents, humanoids, avian, and some that seem to be an amalgamation of several other animals rather than a single type, more like a chimera that any single animal. I'm not going to list all of the various cryptids, there are way too many. Each type could be an individual in depth article, let alone all of the various cryptids that people have claimed to exist. These creatures are as varied as the cultures they sprang from. Also, areas that are relatively close to one another may have different names for the same thing, or the same name for very different creatures. As well, I'm not going to include aliens, ghosts, or demons. These will probably have their own write-up sometime in the future. So, to get started lets see who the cast of players are.

Humanoid: This group is possibly one of the most diverse, as well as the one of the oldest. Enkidu from the Epic of Gilgamesh was a wild hairy man. Included in this group, you also have Yeti, Bigfoot, the Kappa, the Orang Pendek, reptilian humanoids, Mothman, GoatMan, and so on. Odds are, if man is in the name, it's probably a humanoid cryptids. Most of these creatures have a generally human appearance in that they walk  upright, have 2 arms, with the exception of Mothman who has a pair of wings, 2 legs, though not always human legs,  a torso, and a head. Some are covered in hair, others have scales or smooth skin. Most of these are probably misidentified native wildlife such as a bear or an owl in a tree. A sandhill crane is a common explanation for Mothman. Sometimes, they are possibly just people out trying to pull a prank. As I said, these seem to be some of the most common creatures that get reported. A major problem with the existence of these creatures is that the locations they have been reported in are fairly well explored, and most of the native fauna are well known, with the exception of the Orang Pendek in Sumatra and the Yeti in the Himalayas.

Sea Serpents: Some of the proud members of this group include Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, Champ, the Lake Champlain Monster, The Kraken, and all those cool looking monsters on ancient maps. When looking at Nessie and Champ, you have to consider their size and the habitat they supposedly inhabit. Even Loch Ness couldn't support a breeding population of very large creatures. There simply isn't enough room or food. And for being a plesiosaur, their respective bodies of water were actually under glaciers when plesiosaurs were alive. Now for the actual sea serpents.Out of all the cryptids, I think that an unknown, large deep sea creature would be the most plausible. (coelacanth or the mega-mouth shark anyone?)There is still a lot of the oceans we haven't explored, and unlike a terrestrial creature, there isn't as much of a hindrance in their movement. Instead of being locked into a specific location, it is much easier for an aquatic animal to travel. That being said, I really think that most reports of sea serpents are previously known animals. Most of the time, these are possibly misidentified animals such as the oarfish, big-mouth shark, or the giant squid. And of course, there are the dead, bloated, and decaying carcasses that occasionally wash up on shore, which spur reports of "Dead Sea Serpent Found Washed Up On Local Beach." I have seen pictures of a variety of animals, ranging from oarfish to sharks and from raccoons to half eaten tuna being portrayed by the media as some sort of unknown sea monster. At some point, a marine biologist will say what the carcass belongs to, but by that time, the media is off to the races on the next fear inducing headline.

Avian: These are pretty odd, and very interesting at the same time. You have creatures like the Thunder Bird of Native American lore, the Roc from the Middle East, and stories of pterasaurs surviving into the modern era. Mothman could have possibly fit into this category, but I felt he (or is it a she?) is more humanoid in appearance. There are also stories of extremely large bats and bat-like creatures in various parts of the world, and I feel that they would probably fit into this category the most. There was a bird called the Elephant Bird, which like an emu, an ostrich, a moa, or a cassowary, was a large flightless bird,  Of course there are legends about this creature also. Looking at present day reports of large avian creatures, I am of the opinion that most are, once again, misidentified. Some birds, especially the raptors, can get pretty damn big. Have you ever seen a great horned owl? Huge bird. Vultures or condors? Very big birds. Many time, when people are reporting that they've seen something like a Thunder Bird (not the car), they are looking up and see a bird shape in the sky, which makes determining the size very difficult. Or they see it flying by tree, in front of trees, or over the tops of trees. Once again, people normally aren't very good at recognizing when one object is directly over another, which makes trying to determine size or speed difficult. Plus, if there were super large creatures flying around, with all the flights that go on everyday, don't you think someone would have hit one with a plane by now? (I think that the "If it existed, wouldn't someone have hit/killed one by now" argument is a valid one. There are so many vehicles moving on the planet now that surely, someone would have struck some of these creatures.)

Animalistic: I am making this category to lump a lot of cryptids together. These would be animals that, in general, look like other animals. The main difference would be in their size, aggression, or intelligence. I am also going to include animals that are supposed to be extinct, and have somehow survived. Alligators or crocodiles in the sewers, which are supposed to be larger and more aggressive than other crocodilians, would be a good example, Large aggressive swine, Dire Wolves, 50 foot snakes, and wooly mammoths are all good examples. So is the infamous chupacabra. Often, these seem to be animals with greatly inflated dimensions, sometimes well beyond what biology says they could ever be. Sometimes, they are real, abnormally large animals, but not to the size that the witnesses make them out to be. For fun, just google Hogzilla. With the reports of a wooly mammoth roaming the Russian tundra, those are normally hoaxes, plain and simple. and not even good ones. The chupacabra is an interesting beast. Ben Radford actually managed to trace it back to the first report in Puerto Rico in his book "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore".The interesting thing about this creature is that the description of it has changed drastically. Originally, it was bipedal, more reptilian, and had glowing red eyes. (Why the hell do so many of these creatures have glowing red eyes? That's going to be the name of my book!) Since coming to the U.S., it has changed into a quadrapedal animal with almost scaly skin, and may or may not have small tufts of hair. They are also unique in that specimens have actually been caught! At least animals that people claim are chupacabras. They almost always end up being a raccoon, a dog, or some other animal that is suffering from an advanced case of mange. I say almost because there have been a few captured that no one has ever been allowed to do any sort of analysis on the poor creature. The animals in this category either do exist, or have at one point existed. For the extant animals, their size isn't as great as the witness reports would have you believe. For the extinct animals, they are either another case of misidentification or a hoax. And in the case of the chupacabra, it is a real animal, at least in the U.S., but not only is it a case of mistaken identity, but the poor critter is suffering.

The Fae: These are the fairies of old. Leprechauns, fairies, banshee, and many of the other supernatural monsters from old legends would fall into this category. The reason that I'm even mentioning them is that there are still occasional reported sightings. Think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies.

Chimeras: These are the hodge-podges of the cryptid kingdom. These creatures are normally described as having attributes from several different animals. Some of the more famous ones would be the Sphinx, the Manticore, the Griffin, the Chimera, you get the idea. The reason that I've decided to include these types is that they are the grand-daddies of all the cryptids that we have today. These are the original monsters that people told stories about. And there is, once in a great while, a report of one of these beasts, Most likely, these are either hoaxes or someone wanting a bit of attention.

Oddballs: There are a lot of creatures that really don't fit into a category. That or else I would have to spend a lot more time sub-dividing and sorting everything out. Some examples of these would be the Mongolian Death Worm, Inkanyamba, and Mokele Mbembe. These are, like so many other cryptids, culturally based. They are most likely related to legends that have been told in the areas for untold years. Given the range of their abilities, and the characteristics of these creatures, it is once again, highly unlikely that they actually exist.

Even though every culture, region, and religion has at least one story of fantastic creatures, with a little critical thinking, it is fairly easy to demonstrate how doubtful it is that they are real. Most of these are probably the result of a combination of humans being natural storytellers and pareidolia. As I said at the start, these monsters can be an easy way to begin talking to someone about critical thinking. If they believe strongly in some form of pseudoscience, such as naturopathy, homeopathy, vaccine denial, or climate change denial, you can use a discussion about cryptids to show them how to look at evidence. It's also a great way to introduce kids to critical thinking and skepticism. As a matter of fact, I am reading "In Search of Sasquatch" to my son right now. We are going to go through the book and look at what the author presents as evidence. Should be interesting.

You would think that with all the people walking around in the woods, someone would have found one by now. Seriously, and 8 foot tall hairy creature in the United States? In New Guinea, they found a frog that is .3 inches (7.7 mm for the metric crowd)
(From Wikipedia)  The frog is standing on a dime!
From Thailand and Myanmar, we have the Bumblebee Bat, which weighs 2 grams and is about 1-1.3 inches (2.54-3.3 cm)

(From Wikipedia)
In Indonesia, they have the Paedocypris, a fish that is .31 inches (7.9 mm) long.
Of course in Cuba and the Isle of Youth, there is the Bee Hummingbird, which weighs in at 1.6 grams and is about 2-2.4 inches (5-6 cm) long.
If animals that only a few centimeters in size can be found in some pretty rough and unexplored areas of the world, then why can't anyone seem to find any of the cryptids that have been reported over the years?

This has been a fairly long article, so I'll just say, if you want to contact me, leave a comment (Please leave a comment. I'm lonely for internet company),

Until next time, Be Good, Be Fair, and Be Skeptical.

The Skeptical Okie

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Calling Bigfoot! Bigfoot, the BFRO, Finding Bigfoot and the evidence. (now with sounds!)

Hello folks. Recently, C-Webb, host of The Paranormal Skeptic Academy podcast did a show on an episode of  Finding Bigfoot. Episode 19 of PSA, to be precise.  He did an excellent job of breaking down the episode, and showing the mental gymnastics that true believers will go through for their beliefs. He also provided natural (and more reasonable) explanations of what the crew experienced, as well as their victims. Oops, I meant their witnesses. Yeah, witnesses, that's the ticket. You can find the episode here. You really should check it out. Like I said, it's really well done. Plus, he's funny as hell. At the end of the episode, he even gave me and the blog a shout out, which I greatly appreciated, and I owe him a few beers, or other drink of choice.

Something C-Webb mentioned got me to thinking, and as we all know, that's dangerous. He spoke about how it's more than likely that the BFRO crew was confusing cattle calls for Bigfoot calls. I have had an idea for a while to do a write up on the Bigfoot calls. These have become a very popular form of "proof" in the bigfooting community. If you've ever seen the Finding Bigfoot show on Animal Planet, you've probably seen the green night vision scenes where everyone is howling like a mad man. These are supposed to be imitations of the infamous bigfoot calls, which I still don't understand how you can imitate something that you don't have evidence for it's existence. Might as well imitate a unicorn. That actually sounds like more fun. But I'm going to take a look (a listen) anyway.

Bigfoot Calls
For a long time, castings of barely distinguishable blobs or extremely detailed footprints were the best proof of Bigfoot. Then came the blurry photos and shaky videos that were considered the pinnacle of Bigfoot evidence. Now, it's the seems that the mysterious calls that are supposedly made by Bigfoot are the hot new evidence. You can find them all over YouTube. Or if you're like me, you have people send them to you on Facebook. And e-mail. And Google+. And in real life. And everyone wants me to explain them. One of the main issues with trying to figure out these calls is that the video and audio recordings are normally lacking a lot of context I would need to make a reasonable identification, such as time of the year, the geographic location, or even the time of day. For full disclosure, and for those of you that are new to the blog (yes, I do this kind of thing a lot) I am not a biologist, botanist, chemist, physicist, or any other sort of -ist. My main qualification to discuss cryptids is my many years of tracking wildlife, and the occasional person. I do hunt, not for sport, but to supplement feeding my family and to protect my family's livestock. I have tracked everything from rabbits and skunks to wolves and cougars, and if I want to brag a bit, I'm pretty good at it. I have spent a lot of time out in the woods and wilds and I am fairly familiar with what goes on. With that said, a lot of the noises that the Bigfoot researchers claim are from a mysterious humanoid ape are mostly normal woodland animals. If they aren't just pranksters messing with them. These calls, for the most part, seem to consist of low pitched growls and grunts, and the occasional scream. I have also seen them yell "That's a Squatch!" when it's obviously a cow lowing. Seriously, something is going Mooooo, and they think it's Bigfoot. Which makes me think of:

Your typical Bigfoot aficionados tend to mistake a lot of noises for Bigfoot. I'll get into the main issue about this in a moment. First for your listening pleasure, here are some animals that may be commonly mistaken for Bigfoot. I am unable to post the sounds directly in the blog. Instead, I'm going to link to the noises. Enjoy, but as a warning, don't have the volume maxed out on your computer. Some of these are pretty damn loud.

Here is a good example of some of the odd noises that elk make. Notice that a lot of the deeper noises are very similar to the ones that a lot of bigfooters claim are made by the elusive Sasquatch.

Here are some vocalizations made by black bears. Notice the similarities, again, to some of the noises that almost made Moneymaker and crew pee their pants in excitement.

Here are some cute noises made by mule deer.

Here are a variety of noises made by pigs. once again, some of them could easily be confused for a larger animal.

Here are some examples of the sounds made by cougars (No, not those cougars, I meant Mountain Lions!)

Here are a bunch of videos with a variety of noises made by whitetailed deer. Noisy bastards, aren't they?

And of course rabbits, squirrels, wolves, coyotes, pack rats, skunks, opossums, raccoons, and everything else that lives in the woods makes some sort of vocalization.
(As a side note, I have often wondered why Ranae hasn't pointed out more natural explanations, then I realized that 1) the episodes are probably edited that way, and 2) she seems to have journeyed to the dark side in recent episodes, becoming more of a believer than a skeptic.)
Keep in mind that a lot of the BFRO investigations occur in rural areas, which means that there are cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, mules, donkeys, various sorts of fowl, rabbits, and other animals that make a wide variety of noises. If you're not familiar with all the sounds that these animals make, it can be easy to mistake them for an unknown animal. As well, a lot of their investigations take place in areas that are inhabited by all sorts of wildlife. If you look at my previous post, which you can find here, you will see where I found that many of the areas that have reported Bigfoot sightings are also areas that have a native bear population. I have been unable to find a map of the locations of the recordings of supposed Bigfoot calls, but given the areas of the sightings, which look like this:

(the map came from reddit. I am unable to determine an original source.)

and the areas that have, say elk populations, which look like this:

(map from
(there are pockets of elk living in Oklahoma and other states as well, so this map isn't definitive, but it's the best I could find)
and here is an example of the territory of the territory of several large predators in the U.S.:
(Map from
(once again, there are pockets of these animal all over the country, so no map can be viewed as definitive. There are black bears, cougars, and wolves in Oklahoma and Northern Texas, for example)
and here is an example of the territory of the whitetail deer:

Map from

All these maps, I was able to find using Google and just putting in various animals and territory map.

You also need to consider wolves, coyotes, deer, pigs, rabbits, birds, and bears all have a wide variety of vocalizations that aren't normally heard on wildlife documentaries. (they still make those, don't they?) These sounds can be unusual if you aren't expecting them. Combine the unfamiliarity of the sounds with the need to prove that the creature exists, and presto! You have a Bigfoot call.

Another issue I have is the equipment that the various Bigfoot research crews use. (and there are a hell of a lot of these groups, some of them seem to be in direct competition with each other. It's kind of entertaining to watch the insults fly back and forth.) Much like the ghost hunter groups, these people have some pretty serious equipment (FLIR cameras, night vision, super sensitive microphones, audio enhancers, etc.) and a lot of the times, they don't quite seem to know how to use them properly. They aren't as bad as the ghost hunters in that they aren't using an infrared kitchen thermometer to measure the air temperature, but they're close. They have the sensitivity of the mics set to a point where some of the sounds they pick up and record are distorted. Same goes for the hearing enhancers that they use. They also don't seem to take into consideration that noises in the woods are going to be warped. Also, sitting there in the dark, expecting that a creature is prowling around can cause your imagination to run wild at the smallest sound, which when amplified, can easily cause someone to mis-identify the source of the noise. Or you will start to hear sounds that aren't actually there. I'll admit, it's happened to me on occasion while tracking something. I'll be sitting there, and after a while, I will have auditory hallucinations. The thing is, the rational part of my brain kicks in, and I realize what's happening.

If you've read my previous Bigfoot post or my poorly written one on cryptids in general, you already know what my major issue with these researchers is. How the hell do they "know" this is Bigfoot behavior? If you watch the show, or listen to any Bigfoot researcher, they will always make definitive statements that "such and such is how a Bigfoot acts". They have no way to substantiate these statements. There are no bodies to test, none of these creatures have actually been studied in the wild, and to be blunt, there is no solid evidence that they exist. Therefore, they can't claim that the sounds they claim are coming from a sasquatch are actually from a sasquatch. They ignore all the plausible explanations and jump right to the make believe. Instead of eliminating possibilities, they simply add another. No matter what, that's not how to science.

Yes, you do use calls to attract animals. If you're going after a predatory species, you primarily use the call of their prey. I.e., if you want a coyote, you make a sound like a rabbit in distress to attract them. When trying to attract prey species, such as deer and elk, you have several options when it comes to calls. You can use a female call to attract a male, or a male call to attract a male. This primarily works during their breeding season because the males are looking for a mate, and trying to chase off competition. (How do they Bigfoot researchers know when the breeding season is? Does Bigfoot have a season? What do the males sound like? The females? The juveniles? These are questions that I have, as of yet, to hear a consistent answer.) Sometimes it will work out of season because they will come out of curiosity, You can also use the call of a juvenile to attract the females, especially if they live in herds. (Once again, how does a juvenile Bigfoot sound?) With animals such as hogs, calls can work all year long, and in a variety of conditions. But they are a cautious animal, so you have to be pretty damn convincing in order to attract them. (And just standing out there yelling  Sooouieee will not work) Calling is a viable tactic to attract a wide variety of animals, but you first have to know about their life cycles, habits, if they are carnivores, herbivores, or omnivores, and you have to know what they actually sound like and be able to reproduce the sound. If you've seen the Finding Bigfoot show, you'll quickly notice that there is no consistency when it comes to the noises that they think the creature is supposed to make. They make a bunch of different howling and grunting sounds, and if anything happens to make a noise, it's confirmation that they are doing it right. The problem with the show is, you don't know know it's edited, so there could be a half hour or more between the initial call and what they claim is a response. Normally, when an animal responds to a call, it happens within a few minutes. Anything longer than that, and it's probably just a random vocalization.

Real quick, I would like to mention "The Knock", which in the Bigfoot community is another form of communication that sasquatch use. This sound seems to be a solid piece of wood striking a tree. I personally have never heard it, except when watching a Bigfoot show. I imagine it could be several things. The most rational ones would be :

  1. Something with antlers or horns hitting the side of a tree
  2. A squirrel or other tree based animal throwing a rock against a tree (yes they do that. sit under a tree with squirrels and eventually they'll start throwing things and dropping things at you.)
  3. A crow, raven, or other corvid type bird dropping a rock or hard bit of food
  4. Someone with a wooden baseball bat pranking the bigfooters.
  5. Random falling objects hitting a tree
If you watch these shows, you'll see that they never quite look for the source of these sounds. They just go running off in random directions, making a ton of noise, which will scare any animal off or warn a prankster that someone is coming. They should try and pinpoint the direction of the sound, carefully go towards it, and examine everything to see if they can find what might have made the noise. They might be surprised at what they find, and slightly disappointed. Something else that they never seem to take into consideration is that sounds can be misleading in the woods, especially at night. They may be farther off than you think they are, or they may originate from a slightly different direction.

It would be cool if Bigfoot and some of the other cryptids actually existed. I would love it. It would be a new avenue of study for biologists, conservationists, environmentalists, and other fields of study. But unfortunately, the evidence isn't there. It sucks, but that's the truth.

So until next time, Be Good, Be Skeptical, and Be sure to eat your veggies.

The Skeptical Okie

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Homeopathy and the Hound

Hello everyone. No long rambling preamble this time, but I am going to ask a favor. If you enjoy this post, or any others I have written, please share it on Twitter, Facebook, or print it out and hand out copies to strangers on the street. Everyone will thank you for it. Now for todays topic. And as a quick aside, I've been working on this for quite a while. I keep getting so frustrated I have to leave it, and later come back and edit out most of the swearing.

Homeopathy and animals.
Most of the time, when I see articles about alternative medicine, they normally relate to the U.K. or central Europe.  This time, it was Oklahoma's Channel 9 news that did a story on people using alt med to help their pets.  You can find the article here.   What really gets me is that the people interviewed claim there was an immediate improvement when they began the treatments.  I do understand the use of the placebo effect on a human when it's end of life care and all other options have been utilized. But as far as I can find, there are no reputable studies that show the placebo effect has any benefit to animals.   I think this is more for the relief of the owners than the animals.  Alt med hasn't really been shown to have much of an effect on an animals level of stress, which is about the only way to determine pain in an animal that is unable to talk.  If the pet isn't responding well to science based medicine, and the owners decide to go down the alternative medicine path, the owners feel better, because they feel they are doing everything they can to help the animal, which in turn will reduce the stress levels of the pet.  So I guess, in a round about way, a placebo does have an effect on pets, just indirectly through their owner.  At the end of the article, it says that the dog has the energy of a dog half her age.  In an ironic twist, I am going to use an anecdote.  I have 3 dogs, all are stock dog varieties, 2 Heelers (which are stock trained) and 1 Australian Shepherd. The oldest is around 15 years right now, (and the 7 dog years to every 1 human year is just an old wives tale.)  and occasionally suffers from arthritis.  The symptoms come and go.  For a couple of days, the dog hobbles around the yard, barely mobile, and then he's running and playing with the others.  This is normal, though most of your standard alt med practitioners won't tell you this. Most of these treatments tend to rely heavily on the fact that most symptoms will come and go as the condition continues. And before anyone starts saying "You skeptics have never worked with a homeopath!", I have worked with a homeopathic/naturopathic vet. She was nowhere near as effective at treating the animals in our care as any of the other vets I have had the pleasure to work with.

I, like most other people in the blogosphere that could be called skeptics, have written on homeopathy, folk medicine, acupuncture, and naturopathy. (click the words to read some of my previous articles.) We are fairly familiar with these alternative medical modalities, and the placebo effect, and are aware of the fact that they most likely don't work.  But I think there is more at work here than just the placebo effect that you normally find in alt med. I really think that the Clever Hans effect is involved. Just in case you aren't familiar with this fallacy (and it's pretty interesting), I will try and give a brief overview of what is.

Clever Hans
In the later part of the 19th  and early 20th century, a German math teacher named Wilhelm Von Osten tried to teach a horse to do math. I have seen a couple of reasons for this. One was that he was trying to show that his teaching methods were so good that he could even teach an animal to do math. Another one I've seen is that he felt that animal intelligence had been greatly under estimated, so he was trying to prove that animals were smarter than people thought they were. Either way, he worked with a horse named Hans, and eventually was convinced that the equine scholar could answer math questions by stamping out the sums. During the training phase, the horse received praise and a treat when he answered correctly. (standard animal training/Pavlovian response) Von Osten began showing off the horse, and of course people were amazed. There was an investigation of the animals abilities, and when they brought in the psychologist Oskar Pfungst, he found that the horse wasn't actually doing math. Instead, he was picking up on subtle body cues and responding appropriately. When his tapping would reach the correct number, his owner would minutely shift his body, and the horse would stop. They even tried having other people ask the questions. His accuracy dropped a bit, but not by much. But if Hans couldn't see the questioner, or if the questioner didn't know the answer ahead of time, he got the answer wrong. Still an impressive ability, even if the horse can't do your taxes. There are quite a few articles on this, including The Skeptics Dictionary, Wikipedia, and Damn Interesting and they go into a lot more detail.

So what does the Clever Hans fallacy have to do with alternative medicine and veterinary medicine? Quite a bit actually. Pets can't talk and tell you how they feel. An animal could be in pain and a human wouldn't be able to tell because their body language is different from ours. We can tell if they are limping, not eating, or whining, but minor changes in their body language are difficult for most people to pick up on. Domestic animals, namely dogs and to a lesser extent cats, will normally respond to a humans body language, however. If you're happy, they'll act in a manner we interpret as happy. If you're sad or upset, their behavior will change. When you take your dog to a vet, quite often, you're nervous and anxious, which will affect how the dog is acting. Afterward, if you think the treatment is working, you'll be happy, and your pooch will respond to the change in body language. Combine this with the fact that most ailments wax and wane, and you can see why some people feel that alt med can be effective for treating animals. That's may be why the people claimed that there was an immediate change in their animal. Of course, they are possibly biased towards alternative medicine (it doesn't come out and say it in the original article, so I am making a supposition here) and to prevent cognitive dissonance, they have to believe it's working and they see results, sort of like prayer. That also may explain why they felt that actual vet care wasn't working. Vet medicine, just like human medicine, isn't fucking magic. It can't treat everything, and when it works, it will sometimes take some time before any sort of improvement is noticeable. Whereas alternative vet medicine is just like magic. It's an illusion that is designed to make you feel better about yourself, take your money, and isn't real.

 So, before spending a large piece of your money on acupuncture, homeopathy, and chiropractic treatments for your furry friend, do some research, preferably through reputable sources (avoid Natural News at all costs!) and determine 1) If the treatments are actually for you rather than your pet, and 2) Will they really give your animal a marked improvement in the quality of life. To be frank, these alt med treatments don't work. All they do is empty your wallet, and possibly prolong the suffering of an animal.  Finally, whenever you are contemplating using alternative medicine, either for yourself or for your pet, remember what Mark Crislip of Science Based Medicine says:

I'll end here before I go off on an expletive filled rant. As always, until next time, Be Good and Be Skeptical.

The Skeptical Okie.