fake news

Not yeti — at least, not yet.

I shared an elevator not so long ago with Matt Moneymaker. In a Beverly Hills hotel. He saw my TV Critics Association name badge, looked at me quizzically and said, “Didn’t you write about me?”

Moneymaker, the Finding Bigfoot guy, had seen something I had written at the time for the local paper in Vancouver — the wilderness surrounding Vancouver in southwestern BC is Bigfoot country, or said to be, at any rate —  and this was his way of saying he hadn’t appreciated my tone in the article. That tone was not so much skeptical as, well . . . satirical. I saw his lifelong ambition — well, nine seasons and counting  of Finding Bigfoot — as parody, and had decided that  while Finding Bigfoot was rousingly good TV, it was not exactly good science.

I thought about Moneymaker when I came across a recent heading in The Guardian: “DNA sampling exposes nine ‘yeti specimens’ as eight bears and a dog.

Huge, ape-like and hairy,” the Guardian science correspondent Nicola Davis wrote, “the yeti has roamed its way into legend, tantalizing explorers, mountaineers and locals with curious footprints and fleeting appearances.  Now researches say the elusive inhabitant of the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau has been unmasked.”

@Topical News Agency

@Topical News Agency

It turned out that scientists studying nine DNA samples of hair and teeth, ostensibly from yetis, found the samples belonged to bears. One sample, though, proved to be different — the exception that proves the rule? — and not just because it had been taken from a stuffed yeti, as opposed to a yeti that had been hit by a car on the Alaska Highway or shot by a fat dentist from Minnesota.

The sample in question turned out to be a genetic mélange consisting of the hair of a bear and the teeth of a dog. Bear bites dog, or dog bites bear: take your pick.

©BBC/Doctor Who

©BBC/Doctor Who

Either way, the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the yeti was decidedly a ‘no.’

Darn scientists. Ruining everything with their, ahem, facts.

“It demonstrates that modern science can . . . try and tackle some of these mysteries and unsolved questions we have,” spoilsport-in-chief Dr. Charlotte Lindqvist told The Guardian, Lindqvist, a trained biologist, specializes in bear genomics and was co-author of the study at State University of New York at Buffalo, a public research university formerly known as the University of Buffalo. SUNY Buffalo counts NASA astronauts Ellen Baker and Gregory Jarvis and CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer among its alumni, and is the largest public university in the state of New York. The school’s motto is Mens sana in corpore sano — “Sound Mind in a Sound Body” — and academic standards are high. We’re not talking about Trump University here, so any research findings have to be taken seriously.



Dr. Lindqvist herself studied at the University of Denmark in Copenhagen and conducted her postdoctoral research at University of Oslo, Norway, specializing in “speciation processes, polyploidy and hybridization in animals and plants, particularly marine mammals.”  Her current projects include the study of polar bear evolution — critically  important now, considering the effects of climate change on Arctic polar bear populations — and microbiata in marine mammals.

It seems the yeti of myth and mountain lore owes more to the Tibetan and Himalayan brown bear, genetically speaking, than the Abominable Snowman first hinted at in mountaineer B.H. Hodgson’s account of journeying through northern Nepal in 1832, as published at the time in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

Closer to home, there have always been suspicions that Bigfoot is a distant cousin of the yeti, in the same way the North American grizzly is a distant cousin of the Himalayan brown bear.

The skeptics may be a dime-a-dozen, but Moneymaker is having none of it. Skepticism, that is.

4. finding bigfoot banners.png

“Actually there’s every kind of evidence that these things exist, except bones, except a carcass,” he told TV critics in Los Angeles. “There’s sound recordings, there’s videos, there’s photographs, there’s footprint casts, there’s hairs. There’s everything except a carcass. And they’re very rare. They’re not everywhere. And animals, when they die out in the woods, usually they’re in places where people aren’t going to stumble across them.”

Moneymaker is a real name, by the way. Or so he says.

“It’s actually a translation of the last name ‘Geldmacher,’ which is very common in Germany. It was translated in 1789. It means coinmaker in the Middle Ages.”

Meanwhile, back in the world of science, Lindqvist’s findings may have temporarily dashed cold water on a tantalizing “what if” tale, but they’ve provided plenty of fodder in social media chat rooms.

Hikers in Tibet and the Himalayas need not fear the monstrous yeti, goes one salient piece of advice, but they’d l better carry bear spray if they do.

As for Finding Bigfoot — in which the lads search far and wide, but never actually catch up to one — one skeptic on YouTube asked, somewhat pointedly, “How come everybody sees a Bigfoot except them?” 

©Animal Planet

©Animal Planet

“Shouldn’t they at least have found a dead one?” another doubter wanted to know.

“We asked the hosts of Finding Bigfoot why it’s taking them so damn long,” the science-technology website Gizmodo said of Moneymaker and Bigfoot “evidence analyst” Cliff Barackman, back in 2016, when Bigfoot was in its eighth season.

That answer should be self-evident, one doubter groused on the site’s message board.

How is this show still alive, another demanded to know.

Well, that part’s easy.

If Bigfoot — or the yeti for that matter — doesn’t exist in real life, surely the show can last forever.




When seeing is not always believing.

Fake news is all the rage today, even though what’s fake to some isn’t fake to all.

Fake photos, though, also have their place in the conversation, even if they’re not mentioned nearly as often.

A recent study by the psychology department at the UK’s University of Warwick made the news headlines this past week after published results showed four in 10 of 707 test subjects couldn’t spot a doctored photo even when told ahead of time than an image had been faked.

The bottom line: Many people aren’t very good at telling real images from fake ones.

More interestingly, in an age when nearly everyone thinks they know everything about, well, everything, people think they’re much better at spotting doctored images than they really are.  

If there’s a silver lining to the study results, it’s that the six in 10 who guessed right is slightly higher than the five in 10 that would be expected to guess right if the results were decided entirely by chance. Heads or tails.

Test subjects were shown a number of real and fake images, and told to choose. Researchers created a photo bank of 30 fake photos and 10 real ones, all sourced from Google Images.

The flaws ranged from changing the direction of a shadow to distorting the angle of buildings. In a handful of cases, the researchers applied more subtle flaws, such as airbrushing a person’s appearance.

Tellingly, when subjects were asked to pinpoint what they thought was wrong with an image they thought to be fake, they spotted the actual flaw just 45% of the time.

The study was originally published in the July issue of the trade journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications. It was quickly picked up by media, ranging from online sites like Live Science to traditional media outlets like the Daily Mail and Washington Post.

Sophie Nightingale, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Warwick University and the study’s lead author, suggested the results show that, if nothing else, people aren’t perfect.

While that’s hardly news, it is troubling when it comes to telling fake from real — right from wrong, in other words.

“This has serious implications [for society] because of the high level of images, including possibly fake images, that people are exposed to on a daily basis through social networking sites, the internet and the media.”

Study co-author Derrick Watson, noted that even when people know something is wrong with a photo, they can’t reliably identify exactly what.

“Images have a powerful influence on our memories,” Watson told reporters. “So if people can’t differentiate between real and fake details in photos, manipulations could frequently alter what we believe and remember.”

In other words, anyone seeing the faked black-and-white photo of Lee Harvey Oswald holding a rifle in the Oliver Stone movie JFK might well believe Oswald was framed for theKennedy assassination. Perhaps it was Ted Cruz’s father who did the deed, after all.

faked lee harvey oswald.jpg

The challenge now, according to Nightingale, is to help people improve their ability to spot fake images and hopefully tell the difference between false and real.

The implications for society are more serious than simply being able to tell whether a Sasquatch is real or fake.

According to study co-author Kimberley Wade, a doctor of psychology at Warwick, there are worrying legal ramifications for court cases.

“People’s poor ability to identify manipulated photos raises problems in the context of legal proceedings where photos may be used as evidence,” she told the Daily Mail. “Jurors and members of the court assume these images to be real, though a manipulated image could go undetected with devastating consequences.

“We need to work to find better ways to protect people from the negative effects of photo manipulation. We’re now exploring a number of ways that might help people to better detect fakes.”

Fake news is an even more serious matter: A 2016 study in thew U.S. suggested that nearly 80% of college-age students can’t tell the difference between an actual news story and “sponsored content.”

The content in this blog item is not sponsored, nor has it been altered in any way. The names and identifying details have not been changed to protect the privacy of individuals named.

Now you know.



When fake means fake: the hidden underbelly of faked nature photography.

Fake news, fake views. One is so common, it has practically become part of everyday conversation.

The other isn’t so obvious, but for anyone interested in nature photography — or nature, for that matter — it’s fast becoming a burning issue. No pun intended.

At first glance, a photo of a frog riding a turtle looks like fun. It’s funny, cheerful and uplifting, and heaven knows we could all use a little more of that these days.

The photo below was posted on PBS NewsHour’s Photo of the Day showcase, the U.S. public broadcaster’s equivalent of National Geographic’s popular — and prestigious — Your Shot series.

©Yan HidayatGetty Images, via PBS NewsHour

©Yan HidayatGetty Images, via PBS NewsHour

PBS News, like National Geographic, is a credible, proper news organization, unlike say some of the UK tabloids, and so it wasn’t long before someone on PBS News’s science desk flagged concerns that the photo may have been staged — or, worse, faked, using Photoshop or Lightroom or any number of the growing number of user-friendly, less expensive photo-editing apps that are becoming as common as smartphones themselves.

In case you’re wondering, as one science expert noted, frogs don’t normally ride turtles, for recreational purposes or for any other reason.

The resulting controversy, minor as it might have seemed at the time, highlighted the increasingly cloudy lines that demarcate nature photography, animal welfare and creative licence. All of a sudden, a fun, whimsical photo was starting to look a lot less whimsical.

It didn’t help that an infamous 2015 photo that went viral, of a frog riding a beetle, was later found to be staged, and discredited.

In PBS’s case, suspicions were further raised when the caption accompanying photo — from Getty Images, and identified as having been taken in West Sumatra — identified the frog as an Australian tree frog, and the turtle as a sulcata tortoise.

There’s just one catch. Or two, if you want to get picky about it: Neither species is native to the region.

It was as if someone had photographed a crocodile wrestling an anaconda in the Florida Everglades, which would have been some catch as neither the croc nor the snake are indigenous to South Florida. (Florida crocodiles are called alligators because, in point of fact, that’s what they are.)

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

PBS dutifully posted a science story on the channel’s home page, fessing up to any deception, intentional or otherwise, while tracing the photo’s origins (Getty, by way of a contractor called Barcroft Media, by way of a subcontractor called Riau Images, based in Indonesia).

No harm, no foul. At least not in hindsight.

Ironically, though, just days later, another series of frog images ran on the UK Daily Mail’s website Mail Online, showing a pair of snails perched on either side of a frog’s head, looking remarkably like Princess Leia’s cinnamon-bun hairdo from the original Star Wars film.

No one at Mail Online seemed to care that much, though a handful of visitors in the comments section noted that the photographer in question has previous, as the English say, in this area.

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

The photographer Yan Hidayat, when asked to explain the photo’s original in an email exchange with PBS NewsHour, was perfectly forthcoming: He purchases his frog and turtle subjects in a pet store in Jakarta, then stages the photos. The snails he digs up from his garden. When the juveniles grow up to become adults, he releases them, Hidayat told NewsHour.

Hidayat added that Riau Images never asked him how he took the photos; Barcroft assumed they were legit, and Getty followed suit.

Animal-rights advocates and ethicists worry that, regardless of how well these particular animals may or may not be treated, in our present-day selfie culture, there are always morons who’ll go to virtually any length to snap a pic of themselves with a wild animal, even if that animal is torn away from its natural element and harassed and abused to strike a good pose.

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

More and more, nature-photography competitions demand signed affidavits to the effect that the animals in submitted photos are wild, and not captive. Photoshop manipulation raises the stakes to a whole other level of deception, and is tantamount to fraud in many adjudicators’ eyes.

It may seem harmless enough — the hybrid word “non-troversy” has been used — but the whole issue of faked nature photos has spawned at least one Facebook page, Truths Behind Fake Nature Photography, which features such lively comments as, “Excellent exposé of these highly staged photographs with their accompanying bullshit stories.”

Well, not bullshit exactly. More like frog shit. But you get the point.