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Stephen Wagner

Mothman and the Silly Debunker

By February 20, 2010

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I finally got around to watching the recent MonsterQuest episode about Mothman last night. Now, I'll preface all of this by saying that it's very difficult to know what to make of the information presented on such reality shows because of the way they are put together: pieces are edited in such a way that you often can't know in what context or order something was said or done. For now, however, I'll have to go with the information as presented.

This episode featured people who claim to have seen a large creature of a description that has been collectively labeled a "Mothman" -- 6 to 8 feet tall, large bat-like wings, man-like but with bright, red glowing eyes. We have no way of knowing exactly what these people saw, but the show brought in renowned skeptic Joe Nickell, who believes they misidentified a barn owl. And to prove that they probably mistook a 2-foot owl for a 7-foot creature, he made 3 plywood cutouts of a Mothman shape in 3 sizes -- 2 feet, 4 feet and 8 feet tall -- and fitted them with red bicycle reflectors for eyes. He then asked several test subjects to drive by the cutouts at night, which were set at various distances from the road and illuminated by a search light. After, they were asked to report their estimations of the sizes.

Now, here is where Joe the skeptic reveals his bias (should we say dishonesty?). First, he admits on camera that the data he collected showed that for the most part the witnesses did a pretty good job of judging the size of the 3 cutouts. With a big "however" and a smirk, he then concludes that because 3 of the witnesses were way off in their judgement that people are not good witnesses. Huh? A bit later in the show, the narrator repeats that Nickell's experiment proved that people are not good at judging size in those situations. But didn't Nickell say the data showed they did a pretty good job?

To downplay his data even more, Nickell then said that if these figures were moving that the witnesses would do an even worse job of judging size. Oh, really? What do you base that on, Joe? Actually, I think the opposite is true. If a figure is moving, it has more perceived 3-dimensionality and a witness can better place it in the context of its environment and better judge its size.

Again, let me emphasize that this review is based only on the show as presented. I haven't seen the actual data Nickell collected or how many test subjects were involved (an Internet search did not find anything). On the face of it, however, it appears that Nickell had his conclusions beforehand and that the data didn't really matter. So who is really unreliable? Eyewitnesses... or biased debunkers?

More Mothman reports: Encounter with "Mothman" | Mothman in Texas | Mothman in Ontario


February 21, 2010 at 12:08 am
(1) Ingrid C. says:

I noticed the same thing while watching that episode as well. If only two people out of the 15 people (I think I remember) that were done, than the data means that the people are a reliable source. If you do the math it means that 13.3% of the test population were unreliable. Making 86.7% reliable. Of course a better indicator is if there is a larger group to test. Statistics baby…as much as I hate it, it’s quite useful.

February 21, 2010 at 9:53 am
(2) Brad says:

One thing that must always be remembered is these types of shows are edited for entertainment and passed off as research or investigation.
While he tried to show the results in “his” preconceived ideas (which he couldn’t effectively do) The test it self was set up in a bias mannor. By progressively displaying the cut outs from small to large the witnesses would base the 2nd and 3rd size in accordance to thier preception of the 1st. (btw: I thought they said ther were 2′, 4′ and 8′ ) So, in effect if they could get the witnesses to misjudge the first it would inflate and “prove” their idea that people could not judge size. It would be nice to see multipal cut outs randomly mixed and multipal witnesses with real numbers of results.
Oh well, it is pretty much what I have come to expect from phenomena tv shows.


February 21, 2010 at 10:40 am
(3) paranormal says:

Brad — I think you’re right about the sizes. I have corrected them in the blog. I also changed the wording in the title and text from “skeptic” to “debunker,” since that is clearly what Nickell’s role in this show was. There was no real skepticism involved, just an attempt at debunking, which actually failed.

February 22, 2010 at 12:54 pm
(4) Art Champoux says:

Just buy the book by John Keel. He was there and went through the whole ordeal……everything. The movie did not do him justice. Read the book…….that will answer all your questions, period. Why all the TVS do not mention him is a mystery to me. He was THERE AS IT HAPPENED!!!!!! ART C

February 22, 2010 at 9:58 pm
(5) carol says:

I gave up on MonsterQuest a long time ago. I watched it, 2x’s even, because I love the paranormal, but his shows just leave me, well, just as you felt when you watched it. It’s illogical.

I agree with Art. If you want to know about mothman, READ THE BOOK!! -Carol

February 22, 2010 at 10:49 pm
(6) Jeff says:

That’s the problem with professional skepticism, it’s a belief system. They believe in materialism and typically only believe in what is already known and ‘established’. They are instantly skeptical of anything that differs from the the ‘norm’ or is ‘established’ and immediately try to think of another way to explain it as something known. It’s rather irrational. I wrote about this type of stuff on my blog a while back in a post titled ‘The Irrational Rationalizers’.


January 10, 2014 at 5:44 pm
(7) Rj says:

I agree, Joe Nickel must be irrational. I mean who hasn’t had an 8 foot tall moth like batman with red eyes living in their barn?

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