On the hill behind my yard where I grew up, there was an Arborvitae tree in the shape of Sasquatch -- small pointy head, huge shoulders and massive long body.
The outline of this monstrous Bigfoot looming in the darkness caused me a little anxiety as I rushed from the car to the house. I grew up fascinated by monsters, ghosts and strange things. They seemed real, out there in the woods, in the cemetery, or just beyond my senses. I checked out every book about monsters, haunted houses and UFOs from my school libraries. I learned about Loch Ness and psychic powers on In Search Of... with Leonard Nimoy. I can't really explain why I was interested in these things or why I still am. But I'm certainly not the only one. Ghost hunting and monster tracking is a popular hobby these days thanks to cable TV programming.
My views about the paranormal and the mysterious have radically evolved since childhood. My opinion has swung like a pendulum from belief to disbelief and I progressively ended up in the center. I learned how to apply scientific skepticism. Skepticism is a process of evaluating things by emphasizing evidence and the tools of science. It's an approach that I personally adopted and practiced. Why? Because I didn't want to be fooled. I didn't want to swallow a comforting story when I would rather have the truth.
The younger me, the Bigfoot believer, assumed that Bigfoot is out there. Why not? I mean, hundreds of people tell of their experiences of seeing, smelling, hearing or otherwise experiencing something that they attribute to our popular description of Bigfoot/Sasquatch. Books are filled with stories. Stories are a gift to humanity but they are far from being hard data. Pictures of footprints and dark blobs are questionable. There's hair here and there. There is also that famous film -- named for those who captured the images, Patterson and Gimlin -- taken of a large hairy creature striding rapidly across a California creek bed only to glance back and reveal her face for a moment.
I don't have enough information to make a pronouncement on all the evidence. But it's a logical error to say "why not?" when we really need to ask "why?" Why should I believe in this extraordinary creature? In the 50 years after that iconic film, the evidence for Bigfoot still consists of mainly lots of stories that can't be double-checked. The rest of the evidence remains questionable -- possible mistakes, misinterpretations, and a slew of hoaxes. After 50 years, we are no closer to finding Bigfoot. There is no body. The clues do not converge on a solid explanation. As much as I want to think that the creature is out there, strong evidence for it is still lacking.
Skepticism is a valuable thing to practice in proportion -- not too much, not too little. This approach can be highly valuable when you are dealing with medical treatments, consumer products or investment. You can apply the same approach to other questionable claims like UFOs or psychics.
Sure, there is a downside. When you dig into the mysteries, they become less mysterious -- the world is now less certain to me, people were more unfathomable. My skepticism grew out of my discovery that the world is more complicated than we imagine. Paranormalists like to say there is more in this world that we haven't discovered, but I say invoking some neat, speculative entity as an explanation is closed-minded. There are so many variables and missing pieces at play that we might not ever be able to explain that thing we saw in the sky or some other strange experience we had. It does not mean a person did not have an experience; it likely means we do not have adequate information to figure out just what that experience was. It might be fun, but it's not reasonable to jump to a paranormal conclusion. Sometimes, we are left with "I don't know" and I'm OK with that.
For Bigfoot and other subjects I loved, I dared to look at the critiques. It was a side not often seen, as humans tend to look only for evidence that supports what we want to be true. If you love a topic, you must understand the problems with as well.
In my spare time, I'm a writer and skeptical advocate. I encourage people to question their assumptions and consider they may be wrong. Easy to say, tough and uncomfortable to do.
Is Bigfoot out there? I don't know. As of our current knowledge, it does not appear so. I want it to be there. Instead, I've observed that Bigfoot and other fringe subjects live and evolve via the people who love them and wish for them to be real. The evidence does not point to one physical thing but something more complicated.
For as much as I tricked myself into seeing that huge shape on the hill as a Sasquatch, I always did know it was something else. I had made the vision into the shape I wanted it to be for that time -- it was a reflection of my wishes. When I grew up and took a clearer look, it was a tree - interesting in its own right.
For more on the practice of skepticism, I wrote a handy guide here.