Oz Skeptics set up for Video Fraud?

A news item that Australian skeptics are considering video evidence of a “Bigfoot” sighting for a $100,000 prize should alarm all who have offered money for evidence of paranormal activity. I urge all NZ skeptics who have risked part of their fortune; if you have not already done so, insert a clause insisting that photographs, films or video will not be considered as evidence.

You probably realise that special effects can now achieve apparent miracles, but TV ads do not set out to be convincing. The obviously fake is part of the appeal. You probably do not realise that the equipment to achieve the kind of effects you see in Toyota adverts is now available to amateurs. With a digital video camera, a state-of-the-art PC, some extra hardware, and specialist software you could make one of those adverts. Total cost of the equipment is under NZ$15,000. For a possible return of around ten times that it is not a bad investment.

What kind of tests will the Australian skeptics use to evaluate the video they have received? No objective tests are available. Experts could be assembled to check that “bigfoot” had not been added to a scene during editing. Scaling, direction of lighting, breeze effects, impressions on surrounding vegetation, a halo effect on the inserted object are some of the clues that have identified fake film in the past. All these can be readily controlled by digital editing.

Modern software makes all this easy. But a meticulous faker could take a frame and adjust it pixel by pixel, for a small area this is a reasonable proposition. Software then allows subsequent frames to be adjusted to match. With large sums of money at stake it is inevitable that this will be done. To make it worse, analogue tape or film can be converted to a digital signal and processed in the computer. Output to analogue tape is child’s play; output to film easy, though a little more complicated. There is no longer any such thing as identifiably “original” tape or film negative.

Does this mean that film and video evidence is completely worthless? It means that spontaneous offerings of evidence should not even be considered. Cameras are still important for investigating claims, but it is essential that skeptics develop protocols that allow complete control of equipment throughout the investigation. For example a digital video camera with the lens disabled, containing a blank tape in a sealed compartment, can be connected by a wire. A data stream could then be inserted to give audio and visual record of a complete encounter with aliens onto that tape.

Do not believe anything you see on TV.

Jim Ring

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