| In the natural world, where there’s smoke there’s normally fire. But in the world of the paranormal, filled with extraordinary claims of UFOs, poltergeists, demons, and other weird phenomena: where there’s smoke, there’s often only mirrors.
These mirrors only serve one purpose: to focus your gaze on a shiny new extraordinary claim that makes you exclaim Wow! Ooh! or Ah! Meanwhile, the claimant hopes that with your attention on the novelty and the mystery of the claim, you won’t notice that the corroborating data is non-existent, made up, or baselessly correlated as proof.
By James Carrion
Most TV shows making extraordinary claims are clearly just about the entertainment value, but now we have a TV series that is alleging true science investigation of their high strangeness stories. Factor in that the series will still live or die based on viewer ratings, and it now has the basic ingredients for a pseudoscientific menagerie that can be best described as “science gone wild”. This in a nutshell is the 18-episode-two-season self-proclaimed “scientific docuseries” known as The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch.
From the very first episode, unsubstantiated assertions are flung at the viewer, starting with the biggest whopper of all, that “Skinwalker Ranch has been a center of UFO and paranormal activity for 200 years.” Never mind that the paranormal tales of the ranch can only be traced back to when the Sherman family moved on the ranch in 1994.
Or that the ranch is “downwind” from nuclear testing in Nevada, with ranch crewmember Thomas Winterton baselessly stating that “the Uintah Basin was a hot spot for the downwind” radiation and that “some of the highest concentrations measured were just 30 miles from here.”
This is at odds with what is reported officially here. with the southern part of the state getting the highest nuclear fallout readings from the 100 nuclear tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site.
Downwinders, those exposed to nuclear testing fallout, can be compensated via the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), if they live within one of the Utah affected areas as shown on this map. Note that the Skinwalker Ranch in Uintah County, in Northeast Utah, is not included.
I am not proposing that Uintah County received zero radiation from the prolific Nevada nuclear testing, but the true downwind hot spot is the southern part of Utah. By failing to accurately state this, the series starts off on the wrong scientific foot.
The ranch is likely affected by one known environmental source of ionizing radiation. This article describes how although Utah has one of the lowest smoking rates in the country, it has a high incident rate of lung cancer, most likely due to Radon exposure. Uintah County is one of seven counties in the state with the highest Radon concentrations. Now, Radon gas may kill you after years of exposure, but it is not going to suddenly strike you down like a lightning bolt nor cause the strange manifestations allegedly occurring on the ranch.
Yet, despite there being no real reason to bring up the radiation angle to begin with, Dr. Travis Taylor describes in the first episode how radiation exposure could cause people to have strange symptoms including hallucinations and then suggests digging a hole for radiation measuring. It is at this juncture that science gets reality checked by the paranormal.
Because of the ranch lore that digging on the ranch causes bad things to happen, Taylor’s idea is shot down. Exhibit A is Thomas Winterton who allegedly experienced a life threatening and strange brain injury after digging on the ranch. Exhibit B is Dr. Travis Taylor himself who in a later episode claims he received a high dosage of ionizing radiation that caused immediate medical effects to his body, not while digging, but taking a cover off a cistern.
So, despite showing no direct repeated observations that digging on the ranch causes bodily harm, the “no digging” theme is emphasized until it falls way to “cautious digging”. And when the digging finally does occur with a drill rig going to depths of 100 feet, no discernable bodily injuries occur. This is unscientifically explained away as the ranch choosing the time and place when it decides to mete out human punishment for daring to disturb its dirt.
Another example of paranormal lore taking a front seat to science is the unsubstantiated statement that exposing the ranch to new people triggers strange stuff to happen. This is tested by a constant influx of experts brought on to the ranch including radiological surveyors, thermal imaging surveyors, rocketeers, soil resistivity and ground penetrating radar experts, LIDAR and laser experts, magnetometer surveyors, veterinarians, a petroglyph expert, an oncologist, and a tesla coil expert. To supplement the technical experts, a Ute tribal elder and a Jewish Rabbi are brought in.
Also paraded on to the ranch are Uintah basin UFO investigator Junior Hicks’ family, an extended member of the Sherman family, as well as others who claimed to have had firsthand high strangeness experiences on the ranch. Finally, paranormal investigator Ryan Skinner (Mormons are anti-UFO) and investigative journalist Linda Moulton Howe (she of a 1000 unsubstantiated claims) show up for good measure of “science”.
Despite this constant influx of new human subjects, not to mention “biosensors” in the form of a new herd of cattle and a couple of alpacas, no interdimensional portals open up, no monsters crawl out, no cattle are mutilated, no metal rods materialize unexpectedly, and no dogs get evaporated into gooey puddles within the two-year period that the series is filmed – roughly the same length of time that the Shermans lived on the ranch. Ditto for the three-year period that Brandon Fugal owned the ranch prior to TV cameras setting foot on the property.
What takes the place of the very high strangeness as documented in the George Knapp/Colm Kelleher book Hunt for the Skinwalker are very unimpressive blobs of light in the sky, strange lights on the mesa, cattle running scared, alpacas being attacked by “some animal”, suddenly discharged batteries, cell phones randomly acting strange (inexplicably called hacking) and a myriad of geiger counters, trifield meters, lightning detectors and other instrumentation recording “crazy” anomalous readings while beeping away for the cameras. In other words, the ranch showed its most impressive side from 1994-2016 and for the last five years appears to be hibernating in low-activity mode. Perhaps at season 3 or 9, it will rear its paranormal nastiness back to bio-level 5 once again.
The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch is part Jurassic Park (we spare no expense), part Ghostbusters (anomaly detectors at the ready), part Paranormal Activity (cameras pointing in every direction), part The Keep (strange room keeping something in), mixed in with what seems to be every sci-fi/horror movie theme known (aliens, werewolves, bad spirit tricksters, mysterious energy sources and time-space warps).
When science can’t explain the bad things that the ranch may conjure up, and the armed guards carrying AR-15s and shotguns appear to be the most skittish and fearful of the group, then it’s probably best to throw in a Mormon prayer, a native American blessing, and a Jewish rabbi’s chant for added protection, as seen in later episodes.
Is it entertaining? Absolutely! Is it science? Not in the least. It has taken on the mantle of science but without following the scientific method of coming up with hypothetical explanations for what has been directly observed, instead relying on past unsubstantiated observations. This reverse logic is seen throughout the series as we are reminded of the high strangeness that Native American lore, the Sherman family, and the Bigelow NIDS and BAASS studies allegedly observed on the ranch and using these stories as the basis for formulating hypotheses. When a blob of light is seen in the sky, and ground instrumentation pick up anomalous energy readings, the narrative immediately turns to underground alien bases and interdimensional portals.
It takes this reverse approach by “poking the hornet’s nest” to see what can be observed, without first defining what the hornet’s nest is or even why it’s being poked to begin with. If the poking results in something that seems to confirm the past unsubstantiated observations, that is presented as proof of a correct “scientific” approach. It is upon these unsubstantiated past and not current direct observations that predictions and experiments are conducted.
This can be seen when Dr. Travis Taylor proposes that the sum of all the observed strange phenomenon can be explained by a wormhole bending time and space, without first considering other more mundane and less exotic possibilities. It is the deductive equivalent of the ancients dropping a virgin into a volcano to appease the gods, hoping to ward off a drought, failed crops, and a famine. If the drought never comes, then it must have been that human sacrifice that was the cause to the effect.
The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch is a never-ending paranormal roller coaster ride of uncorrelated observations to prove preconceived beliefs about a place whose best thrills are long past their heyday. In one of the most memorable lines from the series, as the Skinwalker crew towers above a dead cow that per a local veterinarian died of natural causes, but somehow still manages to get a paranormal explanation, Dr. Travis Taylor exclaims: “It’s just dead.” “It’s hard to kill a cow.”
And I predict that this cow of a series will be just as difficult to kill off and will be with us for some time. Perhaps, even as many seasons as The Curse of Oak Island where I fully expect the Lagina brothers to pop through to China in season 20, or perhaps as many seasons as Ancient Aliens, with its incessant faux history lessons.
If you are open-minded and curious about the paranormal, yet long for real science to solve the mystery of what’s really going on in the Uintah Basin, you will probably feel exasperated by The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch. If science is not your thing and you are only here for the thrills, then hang on and enjoy the ride.
Avi Loeb, if you are reading this, we are sending out to you a science SOS! Please rescue us from this televised land of science ignorance and smoke and mirrors.