Thursday, May 14, 2020

Missing 411: North America and Beyond

Missing 411: North America and Beyond

Finally got my hands on one of the Missing 411 books.  In brief, the books cover mysterious disappearances of hikers and campers in the wilderness, with an implication that they are connected.  Based on the publicity around the books, I theorized that the author has no hypothesis and just insinuates that "something" is going on.  Let's see how wrong I was.

I wanted to see what the selection criteria was, seeing as I'm assuming we won't be dealing with urban missing persons, non-custodial parental kidnappings, lost at sea, etc.  Quickly on we're given the "criteria for inclusion", which is anything but.  Instead of criteria (things that must exist to be included), we get random elements which may or may be included: disabled persons, bad weather, the involvement of berries.  Some criterion are just assertions, for example, that most disappearances happen in the late afternoon or that many are unconscious when found.

So right out of the gate we've got problems.  Not only do we not know what the selection criteria is, the author doesn't know what the concept is.  Looking at the cases at random, there's a very mixed bag.  The State and National park system gets a lot of coverage, but the books aren't limited to that.  We've got other wilderness areas, children wandering away from their rural homes, and at least one missing from a college campus.  Most seemed to be unsolved disappearances, but several involve people being rescued or finding their way back on their own.  Some of these have an element of missing time or children unable to account for what happened, but in others the survivors have a completely reasonable accounting of what happened.

The real selection criteria are accounts of people getting lost which David Paulides thinks are weird.

From Paulides' interviews and promotions, I was expecting things a lot more inexplicable, something like:

For the last century, every seven years, always on May 2nd, a five year old blonde boy disappears from a camp in Yellowstone National Park.  A search party is called, only for the boy to be found six hours later in the Australian outback.  He remembers nothing of his experience, and has somehow developed a French accent.

Instead we get stuff like:

A sixty five year old man in poor health started a ten mile hike at sundown in his sandals.  He was caught in a snowstorm and his body was never found.

I'm paraphrasing, but the additional details in the actual accounts just further explain how explicable it was for these people to get lost.

I read the first three entries, all of which were pretty standard "lost in the woods" scenarios.  The first had a guy camping for weeks alone in Alaska.  The second was an overweight man in his 50s with poor eyesight and medical problems who got lost on his four wheeler.  The third was a man his 60s running a marathon up a mountain without his glasses.

David Paulides is a man who is as easily impressed as he is baffled.  In Paulides' world, everybody knows where they are at all times, should easily be able to find their way back to civilization, never panic or get disoriented, and if they are lost they should be easily found.  Therefore, those that aren't found is evidence that something else is going on.

In reality, people get lost, when you get lost it's hard to find your way back, people get dehydrated, suffer exposure, and experience panic.  FLIR doesn't always work, especially with thick foliage or winter coats, and you can step three feet from a body under some brush and never find it. 

I read a couple of news accounts of forest rescues, and the running theme is: finding people in the woods is hard, they're lucky to be found, and usually the lost have to do most of the work.  I read one account of a helicopter with FLIR finding a woman in the dark, ten yards from a search party, and the helicopter radioing in directions, and they still had trouble finding her.

Mundane events have hidden significance.  Things like lost shoes, children who are able to walk a mile an hour, or people walking uphill.  He finds connections based on the loosest threads.  Two incidents involve children lost in the rain.  Two people get lost at different times twenty miles from each other.  Coincidence?

Paulides gives a summary of each case, each of which is along the lines of "this person shouldn't have gotten lost", "this person should have been found quicker", and "this case has similarities with another case".

There is a lot of references to clusters - the selection criteria for these aren't explained in this volume and are probably the same as cases in general.  As a frame of reference we have Sequoia National Park.  Out of the 1.5 million visitors a year to the 631 square mile area, four got lost over an eighteen year period.  Two were found alive, two found dead, none are unsolved.  Skimming through google there are many, many more missing person cases in the park not covered here.  Paulides doesn't explain why these four are special or connected aside from him declaring it so.

There's a section on coeds, which is an outdated term for female college students, though here used to describe men and women.  Again he describes four college students disappearing over an eight year period as a "cluster".

Another section on "multiple disappearances", which is even more ill defined than a cluster.  He gives the example of three people disappearing over two years in New York State as being clearly nefarious - without looking it up, I'd wager many more than three went missing over that time period in one of the nation's most populous states.

I thought I was being too hard on this book, until I came across this line:  "I believe that the fact people are alone when they fall is counter to human behavior. I know when I am alone in the woods I take fewer chances than when I'm with a partner, for the obvious reasons. I'm not sure what to make of falling deaths in the woods, but it is another cause of death that is troubling."

In Paulides' world, accidents don't happen.  Why would somebody get lost when they could simply choose not to?  This ties into the conspiratorial theme of the book - the FBI knows more than they're telling, the park services are covering up, etc.

I say theme because there is no fully formed conspiracy.  I would applaud the intellectual honesty of not forming a full conclusion, except that he teases too many things without spelling it out.  In the conclusion section he literally says he used to think one way, now thinks another, and has heard six good hypothesis explaining things.  He does not share these theories, but does call for a Congressional investigation.

There is no "there" here.  This is just a collection of people getting lost, sometimes in parks, sometimes from their homes, sometimes never found, sometimes they come back on their own.  While most are technically mysteries in the sense that we don't know where the bodies are or what exactly happened, technically what I ate for lunch yesterday is a mystery because I've already forgotten.

It has the logic of a conspiracy theory, but lacks the conviction.  It has the vibe of unexplained phenomena, except it is incredibly mundane.  It's also poorly written, poorly formatted, and as dull as dishwater.  I can fall into missing person rabbit holes on the internet all day, but I can't imagine finishing this book, much less reading all the other ones.  I do not understand the following this series has when there are so many better conspiracy theories you can latch onto out there.

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