A few months ago, I heard Thom Powell on a paranormal radio show hosted by George Knapp, and Powell said he was a middle school science teacher in Portland, Oregon, and also a Bigfoot investigator. I was at work while listening, so I was only half-able to hear the show, but I thought reading about a science teacher who was looking into Bigfoot might be interesting. And the fact that he only lives about an hour from my house was a bonus. He might even talk about places that I’ve visited myself! His book was fairly inexpensive (for the digital download), so I grabbed it!
Thom Powell – Edges of Science (2015)
In the interview, and in the early chapters of the book, Powell discusses his concept of “intelligence gathering.” He says that, with strange topics like Bigfoot or ghost research or U.F.O. investigation, situations where one does not have regularly repeatable phenomena, the best that researchers can manage is gathering “intelligence,” in the same sense that a spy or perhaps an investigative journalist gathers clues. These clues can include interviews and stories, rumors, newspaper reports, and any physical evidence, like photographs and audio recordings, that may not PROVE anything, but can SUGGEST a direction for further investigation. Other similarities between paranormal investigation and spying are a need to evaluate evidence for intentional falsehood (hoaxing or espionage), being forced to make conclusions based on fragmentary or missing evidence, and the possibility that the subject of your investigation may be actively working AGAINST your efforts to investigate the case.
I felt like this was an interesting take on paranormal inquiry. I lean pretty heavily towards the “skeptic” category, but I understand the concept he’s getting at here. If you are spying on a secret agent or a Bigfoot, and they KNOW you’re watching, they can EVADE you. (If you think they are at least as intelligent as cats, who do hide from people and other predators—especially if they’ve knocked over a vase full of flowers, and it spills all over a stack of books…but I digress…) Or if what you’re trying to understand is a freaky occurrence, like an encounter with a “ghost” or “shadow person,” these don’t happen all the time—in my case, just once. (At the time, I was terrified, but I have since come to understand what “sleep paralysis” is, and it fits all of the elements of my “encounter” exactly. I could STILL choose to believe that I was visited by a REAL ghost, but the psychological explanation seems more likely to me.) Some weird events only happen once, and there’s no way to construct, execute, and repeat a set of experiments for that ONE-TIME event. Powell says, in cases like these, all you can do is “gather intelligence.” So far, I’m with him…
But at some point, fairly early in the book, my ability to go along with Powell on his ride hit some serious bumps and, finally, slid off the rails. Powell discusses his TWENTY YEARS as a paranormal researcher, and he explains how his exploration into these topics led him to believe in the reality of a number of subjects that most people, and a majority of mainstream science professionals, refuse to accept as real. (If only WE could see what he’s seen!) Collecting interviews, going on field investigations, and reading countless pages of “lore” surrounding his chosen field, plus his own personal experiences, have convinced Powell of a number of (what I would call) “strange” things. In this book, he makes the following claims:
1. Bigfoot really exists, not just a single creature, but entire families of the creatures, roaming all over the Earth. 2. The Bigfoot creatures are not only AS smart as humans, but probably more intelligent. In fact, they are so intelligent that they also have psychic abilities. 3. U.F.O.s are real, are piloted by extraterrestrial creatures, and that the Bigfoot creatures are probably also (most likely) extraterrestrial. 4. That there are several different races of extraterrestrial beings on this planet right now, they have been here for thousands or even millions of years, and they have influenced how life on Earth has evolved. 5. That interdimensional “portholes” or “wormholes” exist, and Bigfoot either guard humans from falling into them OR the Bigfoot use them to travel between realms in the multiverse (or they might just live in underground caves.) 6. Crop circles, or “crop formations” as he prefers, are sometimes hoaxed, but more often are intelligent communications from extraterrestrials who are trying to tell humans to be kinder and more ecologically minded. 7. E.T.s kidnap humans and use them to harvest “genetic material.” 8. That the governments of Earth KNOW that aliens are here, have even signed treaties with the aliens ALLOWING them to take some humans to experiment on, and in exchange the aliens have provided advanced technologies to us, and additionally, the governments of the Earth are actively suppressing this information. 9. That some humans have psychic abilities and can communicate with Bigfoot creatures. 10. That many of the gods of our religions and legends were aliens, especially the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, but most likely Jesus as well (that’s why he’s always painted as a blonde haired, blue eyed figure—he’s of the “Nordic” type race of aliens (not because the painters were Eurocentric and wanted their holy guy to look like them.)) 11. That some Native American tribes, like the Anasazi, were not only in contact with alien races and capable of interdimensional travel themselves, but that they might have also BEEN aliens. 12. That Native American glyphs and rock art show Bigfoot creatures, aliens, dimensional travel, and so on…
Although I’ve heard almost all of these theories before, I have a hard time believing most of them. To have them all promoted in ONE TEXT (usually EACH of these would be its own book) was something else… The problem I had with Powell’s book is the GLUT of paranormal credulity. Each of the topics mentioned here has been covered to DEATH in the skeptical literature, so when he starts talking about Native American rock art, Dr. Ken Feder has covered it. When he mentions the Bigfoot evidence known as the “Skookum Cast,” Monster Talk has done an entire episode on it. Crop circles? Skeptoid has covered it. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “He only believes the skeptics! He’s drunk the Kool-Aid! His mind is completely closed!” And to these claims, I can only say this: While Powell boasts about his 20 years as an investigator, I’ve been researching paranormal topics since the late 1970s. At eight or nine years old, I was already checking out and reading every book on Bigfoot, ghosts, U.F.O.s, the Loch Ness Monster, and weird science that my schools and the local public library had, and as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I moved around A LOT, and spent most of my lunches in libraries reading (since I didn’t make friends very easily and preferred to read books to getting my hands dirty out on the playground. Plus, I got beat up a lot for being a smart ass.)
By my teenage years, I was experimenting with seances and ghost investigations, even going so far as to draw a Ouija board in blood with my friend, Kent, (we cut our fingers to get the blood), assuming that a BLOOD-based Ouija board would be a stronger conduit for the “spirits” than a Parker Brothers game board. We tried chanting, casting spells, and contacting entities through meditation, magic, and extreme concentration. I tried taking psychic “vibes” off people with my cousin, Shane. I watched the skies for U.F.O.s from the time I was five until last night. And I’ve read books… many, many, many books… I’ve read everything from Charles Fort to Reader’s Digest’s Mysteries of the Unexplained to Anton Le Vey, Ralph Waldo Emerson to Mrinal Pande (Devi – Tales of the Goddess is BRILLIANT), Robert Anton-Wilson to Alan Moore, Christian mystics and apologists from Swedenborg to St. Augustine to Michael Polanyi, psychologists and scientists and cognition experts from Tor Norretranders to Roger Penrose to Julian Jaynes to R.D. Lang, modern psychological explorers like Carlos Castaneda and Douglas Rushkoff and Terence McKenna, and other folks like Whitley Stieber, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell, and I’ve read ABOUT interesting personalities like J.B. Rhine, Arthur Koestler, and Aleister Crowley. I’ve done a BIT of research myself and participated in my own investigations—more than three decades worth—and I am LESS likely to believe in strange things today than I was when I first became interested in the topics.
Why? How come MY investigations led me towards skepticism, while Powell’s, he says, took him FROM skepticism about most phenomena TOWARDS belief? My guess would be CONFIRMATION BIAS. (There are a number of other logical flaws in the book, straw-men to kick around and unwarranted assumptions for MILES, but confirmation bias is a persistent bugger!) I guess I got lucky and was introduced to Michael Shermer and Stephen J. Gould and Karl Popper pretty early in my investigative career, thanks to a Critical Reasoning course I took right after high school. Confirmation bias is a tricky wicket, which can often lead well-meaning investigators astray, and we can see in this very book how Powell evaluates a materialist argument versus his treatment of a paranormal assertion. In one chapter, he discusses a large earthwork, a giant mandala that “appeared” in the Mickey Basin of the Steens Mountains in Oregon, which Powell suggests was probably created by E.T.s. However, one particular artist, Bill Witherspoon, came forward and claimed the work, despite the fact that the land the work was made on was protected government property, and he could have gotten into serious trouble for trespassing and scratching the quarter-mile wide mandala into the ground.
Powell wrote to Witherspoon to ask him to PROVE that he made the artwork, and Witherspoon wrote back, (Powell includes Witherspoon’s letters in the book), saying that there is film footage of himself and some assistants making the art, photographs of the artwork, the assistants who helped him and one guy who lived in the area and knew they were making the artwork were witnesses, and there is another video of him making a similar artwork a year later (although with different tools, which Powell found suspicious), and Witherspoon was even fined by the government for making the artwork after he confessed…but all of this “evidence” is less than convincing to Powell. Photographs, video, witnesses, and government action…all suspicious and not believable. However, in a previous chapter, Powell said he contacted a psychic to help with an attempt to find a missing hiker. The psychic told him that the Bigfoot people told her that the hiker was abducted by “the green ones,” which Powell is sure meant Reptilian aliens. THIS he believed.
Another example of dubious reasoning is in one of the chapters on crop circles. Powell makes a big deal about a rectangular formation discovered next to a radio tower in England (the Chilbolton Glyph). He writes, “The idea that this crop formation was hoaxed does not stand up to careful scrutiny” (p. 319). A laser sight, used for producing straight lines over long distances, was found at the site, but to Powell, the laser sight was obviously planted there by British Intelligence to cover up the fact that the formation was made by aliens. Any evidence that refutes his belief becomes evidence of a conspiracy to cover up the truth. This is common in conspiracy thinking. No evidence can disprove a cherished belief. It’s just “fake news.” If anthropologists WON’T believe that rock art is a depiction of Bigfoot, it’s because they are either too ignorant to SEE it properly or the KNOW it’s real and are just part of the cover up. (And yes, he brings up Erich von Däniken, and yes, I’ve read Chariots of the Gods, too.)
I feel like I’m being overly critical of this book, and I should probably mention a few of the positives. The text is well written, and Powell comes across as a good-humored and diligent fellow. There were a few typos, but nothing serious. (Most people, who aren’t editors, probably won’t notice them.) But the GIST of the book, the part that makes Edges of Science PRETTY DANG GOOD are the personal stories. Powell repeats accounts from people living all over the Northwest, from Mt. Hood to Mt. Rainier to the Olympic Peninsula, and some of their experiences are pretty cool. Powell’s adventures trying to set up camera traps and tromping through the woods at night are also interesting reading—the first half of the book was great. It’s not until he starts getting heavy into alien abduction and crop circles that I started to lose interest. (Due diligence, I DID read the book cover to cover. I’m not going to write a review of a book I didn’t finish.) And, again, I think part of the reason I started to lose interest in the second half of the book is because I’ve heard most of these stories before, or at least stories that were very similar. Same plot points, different names. Some of the book, I found to be very fun and entertaining. Other sections, I PERSONALLY, found to be a slog. I really, REALLY had to force myself to keep reading.
I’m not trying to be mean to Powell or to ANY paranormal researcher or experiencer, because as Michael Shermer said in Why People Believe Weird Things, (I’m pretty sure it was that book,) if you’ve had a personal experience, you have every right to believe in what you lived through. HOWEVER, you can’t expect anyone else, who didn’t have that same experience, to believe in the reality of that experience if you can’t prove it to them. A story or personal experience might make interesting “intel” for your investigation, but it’s not proof. It’s anecdote. I would love for there to be MORE to the world than material science suggests (and I like Alan Moore’s very psychological approach to magic, particularly as it pertains to creativity), but I guess I HAVE drank too much of the skeptic’s Kool-Aid, and now I’m brainwashed into believing that the world is freakishly fascinating and complex and frightening and bizarre and wonderful—just not particularly paranormal.
Still, if you want to read about some of the paranormal investigations going on in the Pacific Northwest, Powell’s book is pretty entertaining, and it’s possible that some people might find it more convincing than I did. As I mentioned, the writing is solid, the narrative voice is humorous and mostly warm (except when talking about skeptics and disinformation agents), and the “plot” of the book moves pretty far BEYOND the “edges of science,” but that might be part of the appeal for some folks. If you are going to read this book, I’d also recommend picking up one of Michael Shermer’s books or maybe one of Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid collections as a pallet cleanser for when you’ve finished. It’s important to know the opposing view point, no matter which side of the debate you’re on!
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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