by Tim Sommers
When I was 15 years old I volunteered at a paleontological dig in Barnhart, Missouri. A car dealership expanding its parking lot had discovered a treasure trove of mastodon bones in the empty lot right next door. Mastodons are woolly mammoths’ smaller, less glamorous, cousins. Furry elephants, basically. They roamed the Americas until about 10,000 years ago. And Jefferson County, Missouri has more than its fair share of mastodon bones. It’s because of the clay. It seals them in airtight. And so we pulled out bones not fossils. We had to coat them with plastic soon after we exposed them to the air, before the decay set in, otherwise they crumbled like vampires exposed to the sun. But slower.
Most of us were amateurs. And we bent some rules. We dug under part of the road, propping up the black-top with bits of wood. Something I wouldn’t have thought possible if I hadn’t seen it. One day a semitruck rode over the propped-up bit of road while a guy was so far under you could only see his feet. He came out pale and shaky and that was the end of that.
It was a nerd’s paradise. For example, we held a 24-hour dance marathon to raise money for carbon-dating.
And I learned a lot. The most important thing I learned was that working at an excavation is a horrible job. Horrible.
It was slow and hot. Or slow and cold. So, slow. And wet. Mostly you dug up useless fragments of bone. If you found anything interesting, someone more experienced took over immediately. The holes – clay pits, really – filled up with water when it rained and had to be bailed out. Once I left there, I never thought about digging anything up ever again.
Anyway, there was one volunteer there who I was told, by the supervisor of the dig, was a retired NASA scientist. Which seemed odd. “Why does she work at an excavation?”
“I think her Ph.D. is in paleontology.”
“And she worked for NASA?”
As it happened, once after a torrential rain, she and I were there alone. What can I tell you? We were amateurs. Sometimes nobody showed up. Especially after rain. Anyway, I was bailing, she was watching me bail. When we stopped for lunch, she asked me, over sandwiches, what my plans for after high school were. I told her I was interested in space. Then I said to her sarcastically, “You worked for NASA, right? What did you do, dig up bones on Mars?”
“What? What you did at NASA is classified?”
“Yes. All I can say is, if I were you, I would think more about Venus than Mars. I mean, if I were looking for evidence of life.”
Now, that is just crazy. The surface temperature of Venus is 800-900 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt lead, and it rains sulfuric acid. It’s also subject to periodic, catastrophic resurfacing. There are no bones – or life – on Venus.
(Fun fact. The fact that Venus was so unexpectedly hot, hotter than Mercury which is closer to the sun, was an early piece of evidence of global climate change. Why? Venus is covered in dense clouds of carbon dioxide.)
So, there we were. A respected elder had just told me that the classified job she did at NASA involved secret knowledge of life (or bones?) on Venus. This shut me up. And it drove me crazy for years. I assume she was just messing with me for some reason. Which is odd because she was probably 70 and I was 15 and why? Just why? But, you know, also, ‘What if’?
I used to love UFOs and alien life, the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness Monster, and Bigfoot. Anything, mysterious, but not magical, that could turn out to be real. I was maybe 12 or 13 when I discovered that the paperbacks and “documentary’s” I loved were just filled with lies. Not exaggerations. Lies. The number of people who have disappeared in the so-called Bermuda Triangle over the years is comparable to the number of people who have disappeared in any random section of the ocean. If you compare the photographs Erich von Däniken uses as evidence of ancient alien visitors in his “Chariots of the Gods?” (which has sold over 70 million copies in 60+ languages) with other photos of the same sites, you can immediately see he’s deliberately distorting what he shows you. The guy who faked the original Loch Ness Monster photo (a local doctor, can you believe it?) admitted to it long ago. The reason? To encourage tourists who would otherwise visit the larger, more beautiful and accessible Loch Lomond to come to Loch Ness. Obviously. Have you seen the original Bigfoot footage? Please.
What do I have left? Life on Venus was my Bigfoot for a while.
Years later, 30 years later, actually, this friend of mine tells me he believes in Bigfoot. More than believes, he’s seen Bigfoot. In Florida. “Okay. Let me have it,” I said to him.
Him: “My friend and I were getting drinks at the gas station. Just sodas. We were 17, maybe. We decided to take a short cut through the woods. We smelled something funny. Then I felt like we were being watched. We paused. I heard breathing. Then something was moving. Something big. We ran. But as we did, I looked over my shoulder and saw a huge furry manlike creature just watching us go. Its feet were enormous.”
Me: “So, let me get this straight. You were a freaked out high school kid, in the dark, in the woods, running from something, and you looked over your shoulder and saw it had big feet?”
Him: “You can’t deny I saw Bigfoot.”
Me: “Well, first of all. It wasn’t Bigfoot. Bigfoot lives in like Washington State. It smelled bad and you were in Florida. That’s the Skunk Ape. Look it up.”
Him: “I’m telling you what happened to me. You can’t deny my experiences.”
I’ll quit pretending to remember this conversation in that much detail, and just say that I said something to him like this.
I am not denying your experience in any way. I mean human observation is not that reliable, and eye-witness testimony is not really scientific evidence all on its own, but I take you at your word about what happened. It’s just that, by far, the least likely explanation is that it was large, ape-like creature that’s only been seen a handful of times in all the time that people have inhabited the area. It was dark. You were young. Maybe, it was a person, trying to freak you out. Maybe, it was a dog. Maybe, it was a racoon riding on a dog. Or maybe you just freaked each other out. I take it as a given that you had this experience, that there was something there. The question is how to understand what it was an experience of.
Compare the recent spate of Air Force videos of UFO sightings. First of all, yes, they are UFO sightings. Which just means that whatever’s in the videos is not yet identified. Secondly, you don’t have to deny what you can plainly see, that there’s something in the videos, to still be skeptical that these are alien spacecraft or the like. Just be a Bayesian. What is your prior estimate of how likely it is that any given, anomalous dot in an Air Force video is a space ship? Very, very near zero, I should think. Now, here’s the dot. Revise the prior probability, what do you get? Very near zero. At best.
Bigfoot and UFOs are theories. They could be true. It’s just much, much more likely some other theory is true in the relevant cases. Or even that there’s no theory at all that connects all the individual dots. Maybe, it’s just all dots.
But that’s not my point. Bigfoot is fun. I like Bigfoot. And I want there to be a government conspiracy hiding the existence of alien visitors or life – or fossils – on Venus.
But what do you make of this example?
There’s an anonymous person (or persons) who posts cryptic information on the internet based on their inside knowledge of the government, which is secretly controlled by a vast conspiracy of Satan-worshiping pedophiles, who run basically everything, and, oh, they also molest and drink the blood of tortured children to stay young. Appearances to contrary, Donald Trump is still leading a resistance movement which will one day (the Storm!) defeat this evil cabal. (And, also, of course, it’s funded by rich Jews.)
More than 50 million people believe this.
I don’t know what to do with that information. I can’t even write about, except obliquely.
Look, there are many people who believe that cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americas will actually increase the revenue taken in by the Federal Government and so, essentially, that tax cuts will pay for themselves – and stimulate the economy. The economic arguments for this position (starting with the “Laffer Curve”) seem weak to me (even if the Curve is analytically accurate, how to you ever know where on the curve you are?) But I am not a macroeconomist. This view also seems to me to be undermined by empirical evidence from the last 40 years of actual policy making. To oversimplify, when Clinton and Obama raised taxes the economy did better, when George W. Bush and Donald Trump cut taxes it increased the deficit without substantially stimulating the economy. But, again, what do I know? A reasonable person examining these issues conscientiously might come to a different conclusion. Then we vote, I guess.
But if you say to me, the government is trying to trick us into taking the COVID-19 vaccine to inject us with a tracking chip developed by Bill Gates or to make us suspectable to being killed by 5G Phone Cell Service when it comes on-line (both real theories), how do you “debate” about, or vote on, that?
Is Bigfoot to blame? Probably not, but Bigfoot is definitely ruined for me. And I’ve even given up any hope for life on Venus.