How the 'Bigfoot effect' blew up in Iraq's face

There is no such thing as Bigfoot.

But as an article by feature writer Casey Phillips in Monday's Times Free Press proved, that doesn't stop people from believing that sasquatch exists. In fact, Phillips profiled an area woman who will soon join a bunch of other Bigfoot believers in walking through the woods in search of the creature - an activity that people without the delusional hope of finding a fictional, mystical being refer to as "hiking."

No verifiable scientific evidence has ever indicated the existence of Bigfoot, despite what the beef jerky ad would have you believe. Still, plenty of people are convinced that Bigfoot is real.

An April survey by Public Policy Polling found 14 percent of Americans believe in Bigfoot. A shocking 35 percent of respondents to a Times Free Press online poll think Bigfoot exists, even though it doesn't.

Believing in something that isn't real doesn't make Bigfoot enthusiasts bad people. After all, there's something comforting about having the faith to believe in something you can't see and no one can prove. Until, that is, bad things occur as a result of a reasonable lack of skeptical thinking.

That's exactly what happened in Iraq.

The Iraqi government purchased $85 million worth of bomb detectors to search for explosives at hundreds of police and military checkpoints. Iraqi officials replaced bomb-sniffing dogs, which have been proven effective at locating explosives and saving lives, with the faster and supposedly more precise hand-held machines.

Unfortunately, the bomb finders - small portable wands with a telescopic antenna on a swivel - were bogus. Hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent civilians have been killed as a result of explosives missed by the sensors.

The bomb detectors were nothing more than replicas of gag gifts; golf ball finders given with a smirk to weekend hackers whose errant drives often wind up in the woods.

The product's plastic case, which appears to house sophisticated electronics, is actually empty. The antenna that supposedly steers the user to the location of the golf ball (or the explosive) isn't connected to anything. In fact, it's just a souped-up version of an old-timey dowsing rod, the type used in hopes of finding water or black gold. The rod is moved by the ideomotor effect, the unconscious movements that lead us to spell out words on Ouija boards.

Even though the bomb detectors were completely fraudulent, Iraqi soldiers and police officers thought they worked, so they never asked any questions. Thankfully, some British and American scientists and military leaders did. As a result, last week, a British judge sentenced James McCormick, the man who made $78 million selling the sham bomb detectors to Iraq and 20 other countries, to 10 years in jail for fraud.

Hucksters like McCormick that use pseudo-science to trick the public and make a quick buck cause a great deal of harm. But that harm is only possible because otherwise intelligent people are unwilling to ask questions, do a little research and think rationally.

One scientist invented data linking autism with certain vaccines after being bribed with $600,000 by attorneys hoping to bring lawsuits against drug companies based on the phony research. As a result of the fabricated vaccine fears, more than 100,000 children across America have been infected with diseases such as mumps, measles and whooping cough - all once declared eliminated - because parents didn't have their kids vaccinated.

A number of devious companies are lining their pockets selling homeopathic medicines with ingredients such as Echinacea, zinc, oscillococcinum, cinnamon, elderberry, garlic and probiotics that have no scientifically-proven health benefits. All homeopathic remedies have one unfortunate side effect: separating consumers who haven't done enough research from their cash.

A few hucksters even lead expeditions that take poor suckers who believe in Bigfoot on expensive tours in hopes of finally spotting the non-existent creature.

When safety, health and hard-earned dollars are on the line, blind faith isn't a good enough reason to believe in something. We must all take it on ourselves to search for truth, embrace science, research facts and make wise decisions for ourselves and our loved ones.

It may be fun to believe in something that isn't real. It may even make us feel good. But in the long run, it always does more harm than good.