Bigfoot DNA! Click Here! Click Here!
November 29, 2012
Oh, bother. Have you heard about the Bigfoot DNA?
I was poking around on the Huffington Post yesterday and noticed this hyperbolic headline: Bigfoot DNA Tests Prove Hairy Creature Exists, Genetic Researcher Claims. "Prove," eh? How could I not click the link?
As it turns out, the story was based solely on a splashy press release put out by a scientist claiming that she has sequenced Sasquatch DNA. The press release says that it was "conducted by a team of experts in genetics, forensics, imaging and pathology, led by Dr. Melba S. Ketchum of Nacogdoches, TX." The release says that Ketchum "is a veterinarian whose professional experience includes 27 years of research in genetics, including forensics." It does not list an affiliation with any University or nonprofit research body; instead, she is the director of DNA Diagnostics Inc., a for-profit DNA sequencing service located in Texas.
And who put out the press release? If you guessed DNA Diagnostics, you win an Internet cookie.
The release notes that the manuscript is "currently under peer-review" and "will be presented in the near future when the study manuscript publishes." But under peer review by whom? Published where? If it has been submitted to a scientific journal, then they should be able to tell us which journal. As it stands, I suspect "peer-review" here isn't an actual pre-publication review by a journal staff, but instead a solicited peer-review by persons unknown but likely friendly to the study's conclusions.
Not surprisingly, this has all the telltale signs of bad science. An unaffiliated researcher making her announcement via press release and prior to any serious peer review? Definitely not the way science is supposed to be done.
That didn't stop this story from getting some major attention. Though the release is dated November 24, in the last 48 hours the story has appeared not only in the Huffington Post, but also in such widely read news sources as Time Magazine, FOX News, and the Times of India. And why not? "Bigfoot DNA discovered" is a great way to get people to click through to a story.
Part of the press release's wide reporting may have to do with its outrageous secondary claim: that the DNA is "a hybrid cross of modern Homo sapiens with an unknown primate species." In other words: inter-species primate sexy time! It's perfect for some link-baiting headlines like the Register's "Boffin claims Bigfoot DNA reveals BESTIAL BONKING." Enjoy those extra ad dollars, Register editors.
Luckily, the scientific and skeptical communities are already all over this claim, and it will likely go nowhere in the long term. When actual geneticists get hold of the actual data, they will likely find major flaws in either the process, the findings, or the interpretation of the findings (or maybe all three). The study is probably dead in the water.
I just wish that the mainstream press would be more skeptical before splashing stories like this across their front pages. Far too many people will read these stories uncritically and then never read a word about it again. "Bigfoot DNA Study Discredited By Real Scientists" is never going to get the same front-page placement as "Bigfoot DNA Proves They're Part Human," and even if it did it wouldn't get the same click-throughs. Instead, this DNA story will lodge itself in the vast, shallow reservoir of public conscience, and we who are skeptical will be annoyed by it floating to the surface for years to come.
@Skeptoid Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit