Friday, July 31, 2009

Sound Reasoning And The Lake Champlain Monster

Ever read an article that leaves a bit of confusion lingering in your mind?

I’m trying to get a handle on how bioacoustics researcher, Elizabeth von Muggenthaler, regards the existence of a lurking monster in Lake Champlain.

For those who aren’t familiar with this region, up here in the North Country Lake Champlain divides New York State from Vermont. I’ve live on the NY side in Plattsburgh; it’s just a ten-minute to the lake from my door. On the east side is Burlington, Vermont. Burlington is home to an alternative weekly, Seven Days, that recently profiled von Muggenthaler in an article entitled “Making Sound Waves” in its July 15-22, 2009 edition. (Online version here.)

Six years ago von Muggenthaler was hired by the Discovery Channel to do some bioacoustical research in Lake Champlain. She made recordings of an unknown critter or critters echolocating. She has ruled out sources such as beaver, otter, and other animals including man. The recordings are a puzzler.

But when it comes to the existence of a cryptid in the water that has appeared on occasion, creating sensational reports, Muggenthaler comes across as a skeptic in the article. Here’s one excerpt:

Let’s get something straight: Von Muggenthaler isn’t interested in “Champ,” the beast of Lake Champlain lore. She has no tolerance for the legends that have swirled over the years of a water-dwelling reptile/whale/dinosaur. She’s a serious scientist — a bioacoustician who studies animal communication and cognition — and serious scientists don’t trade in monsters or other figments of fanciful imaginations.

Later it’s stated she isn’t interested in a “monster quest.” But in the article she talks about the areas where her recordings were made, places thriving with salmon, the same spots where Champ had been spotted. (After all, a big lake monster has to eat.) Von Muggenthaler thinks that whatever was echolocating was hunting food.

Then there’s this statement:

While locals indulge the legend of the monster, [von Muggenthaler] points out few scientists and skeptics consider that there could be a less camera-ready undiscovered animal or completely new species living in the lake.

That sounds like something that hardly ever surfaces, an animal that stays hidden deep in the lake, implying that reports of Champ are cases of misidentification or even lies.

But go to a Website operated by von Muggenthaler and her partners, Fauna Communications Research Institute, and on the page devoted to the Lake Champlain research, you’ll find this item:

About the recent article in the Burlington Free Press

2 years ago we found echolocation in a fresh water lake. A very novel discovery. The research trip and all about the bi-sonar or echolocation we found is described below. Pete Bodette's video demonstrated much of what we found by listening, namely the size of it and the activity of the fish in the area. Because of Pete Bodette's video we felt it was vital for people to stop considering this a "monster", a "myth" or an intoxicated illusion of those that visit the lake. This creature is unique, possible severely endangered, and needs to be studied scientifically. Those that witness something strange on the lake, please don't be worried anymore about people thinking you are crazy, e-mail us.

The statement was unsigned, so I don’t know if it was by von Muggenthaler or one of her partners. But unlike what I’ve cited in the Seven Days article, this seems to be a very pro-Champ view, especially when considering an unknown creature that pops up to the surface and is spotted by the locals.

So how skeptical is von Muggnethaler about Champ? Is what she detected something akin to Champ?

Like I said, a bit of confusion.

I did email von Muggenthaler and maybe she will have the time to respond and clear up this matter.


X. Dell said...

Why confusion? Her comments to the paper were edited by someone, and could have been taken out of sequence, and contrary to context. It's also customary for savvy researchers (especially academic ones) to be a bit more conservative in media they can't control. I would say that what she has on her site (provided it is her site) is what she intends to say. The nay-saying was probably contextualization, or due-skepticism misinterpreted or misplaced.

Then too, if she's associated with a research institution (i.e. university) the organization could have influenced the weight given specific phrases. I'll take a look into this.

X. Dell said...

Actually, now that I've read both the newspaper report and the website, I'm convinced of three things: (1) that is von Muggenthaler's website (who else undertook research of this type?); (2)her statements in the article and on the website do not conflict; (3) there does seem to be something out there.

I'm guessing that her belief that the creature isn't land-based stems from her belief that this is most likely some form of cetacea, because those are the only animals currently known to make echolations. This might not be true. Still it doesn't represent deception or coyness on her part, but rather (if she's wrong) an entrenchment in paradigm. After all, since cetacea are mammals, what's to say that an unknown species can't locomote on land (thus validating both her research in large part, and the traditional reports of a creature in full).

I did notice that her upcoming research partners are the University of Maryland and Northrup. Interesting company, don't you think?

Ray said...

You raise one point that I didn’t include in my post: that what von Muggenthaler said might have been misinterpreted by Seven Days. That does happen with news stories. But what I’m trying to do is find out exactly what her POV is.

The comments in the Seven Days article -“no tolerance for the legends” and “serious scientists don’t trade in monsters or other figments of fanciful imaginations” – sound like those of a typical skeptic. It implies she can’t be bothered at all with any reports or legends about Champ, that she isn’t encouraging anyone to share their sightings with her.

But on the Fauna Communications Research Institute website the comments “Because of Pete Bodette's video we felt it was vital for people to stop considering this a ‘monster’, a ‘myth’ or an intoxicated illusion of those that visit the lake” and “Those that witness something strange on the lake, please don't be worried anymore about people thinking you are crazy, e-mail us” gives the opposite impression. Mixed signals, at least to me.

Now here’s my confusion. Was von Muggenthaler misquoted in Seven Days? Or, like you said, she was giving a more conservative view for that outlet but on the FCRI website she wasn’t as conservative? Or did one of her partners who isn’t as conservative write that statement on the FCRI site?

X. Dell said...

I would suspect a mixture of both. In some respects, the article does put words into her mouth. I think it's totally consistent that she doesn't see this as some type of monster, with all the loaded meaning that term entails, instead of a newly discovered species. I think she's also speculating that it is some sort of whale or dolphin-like creature, and not land-based.

That she's encouraging people to tell their story is something a decent scientist would do, for a number of reasons. First you would always have to question your own hypotheses. If you're thinking a water-based creature, but enough people see it acting on land, with two, three, or four legs, then she has to consider that in her stategy of finding the creature, and her thoughts on what that might be. She also has to account for the sightings, even if she eventually concludes that reporters all have poor vision, or bad memories.

And a decent academic would always have to admit that their premises can be wrong until they meet a standard of academic proof (which is much more stringent than the reasonable doubt standard used by courts). For example, as much as she champions the notion of false memory syndrome, and as much as she depicts alien abuctee claimants as suffering from FMS, Susan Clancy nevertheless stops short of definitely ruling out the possibility that people might actually be abducted by aliens.

I guess I've read so many of these papers that academic speak makes sense t me almost instinctively now. It's not that I agree with the conclusions or methodology all the time. Nevertheless, I understand it. Here, the statements in the paper and on the website didn't strike me as contradictory. A reporter trying to put "sizzle" in the story colored her position to the point of misrepresenting it. On her website she clearly lays out an understanding of this animal that is far more nuanced than some hack reporter's representation of it. I would say where there's conflict between the article and the website, I would say the more accurate view of Muggenthaler's opinion is her own unmediated website. I would thus be inclined to dismiss the more sensationalistic or narrative constructions of the article. After all, Muggenthaler cannot control what that reporter writes. She can, however, control the conten of her webpage.