Killing Bigfoot with Bad Science
Sometimes the skeptics' perspective on Bigfoot is just as unscientific as that of the believers.
by Brian Dunning
December 3, 2006
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Also available in Japanese
Today, we're going down a dark forest path on the trail of Gigantopithecus americanis: the North American Sasquatch. I see many cases on both sides of the Bigfoot debate where bad arguments, bad science, and just plain weirdness is being put forth, doing great disservice to their own side of the argument. There are intelligent and productive ways to explore a subject and present a case, but all too often, I see these being abandoned on both sides of the Bigfoot question. I'm going to present what I consider the top three ways that each side of the Bigfoot claim is shooting themselves in the foot, beginning with the skeptics.
1. Saying that the guy who confessed to making tracks disproves the entire thing.
In 2002, a Washington logger named Ray Wallace died, and his family produced the carved wooden feet that he used to make Bigfoot footprints all over the Pacific Northwest, beginning in 1958. The newspapers and TV tabloids lapped it up, reporting that the entire Bigfoot phenomenon was now proven to be a hoax perpetrated by Wallace. Well, I feel the time has come for me to come clean about something that I've wanted to get off my chest for decades. When I was a kid, I once made some fake Bigfoot footprints too. The cat's out of the bag. Bigfoot is now doubly proven to be a hoax.
Obviously, anyone who has any kind of basic understanding of logical thinking can't accept that Ray Wallace's hoax story proves that all Bigfoot reports are hoaxes. Sure, he made fake prints. So have a thousand other guys. They were doing it before Ray Wallace was born, and they're still doing it today. Anyone can be making those tracks. Anyone...
2. Saying the Patterson-Gimlin film is "the worst fake ever."
I'm not a Bigfoot believer, but I will give credit where credit is due. The Patterson-Gimlin film looked like a real animal to me. The Discovery Channel's "duplication" of it looked ridiculous. It looked nothing like a real animal, and certainly didn't remotely resemble the subject shown in the Patterson-Gimlin film. Chewbacca looked more real than the Discovery Channel's Bigfoot suit. Hollywood's state of the art in gorilla suits in 1967 were Planet of the Apes and "The Galileo Seven" episode of Star Trek. Two loggers with no previous gorilla suit experience made a suit that was better than today's state of the art, and certainly light years ahead of the 1967 state of the art. I'm not saying the film's real, I'm saying give credit where credit is due, and admit that if it is a fake, it's astounding. If you disagree then go through a stabilized version frame-by-frame as I have.
The half dozen or so Hollywood special effects artists who have since "come forward" to claim that they were responsible for the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot suit, and the dozens of guys who have "come forward" to claim that they were the guy wearing the suit, are no more evidence against the film than Ray Wallace's wooden feet are evidence that no real Bigfoot footprints exist.
See the full Skeptoid episode on this film to learn its true history, which has since been established. - BD
Critics of the film also say that the creature's behavior is unrealistic. I have no knowledge of what a real Bigfoot's behavior might be, but I have encountered bears half a dozen times, and they acted exactly like the Patterson-Gimlin creature: just walked away, unconcerned, with maybe only a look or two back.
3. Criticizing good scientists like Jeff Meldrum.
I've read old and new criticism of Dr. Jeff Meldrum of Idaho State University, and I'm only mentioning his name in particular as one example. There are several prominent tenured professors at legitimate accredited universities who have done Bigfoot research. They are far outnumbered by professors who have done psychic or other paranormal research, but let's stick to the subject.
Dr. Meldrum is not the obsessed Bigfoot guy who lives and breathes it 24 hours a day, and exhorts his students to become believers. Rather, he has a long list of publications and edited volumes, none of which pertain to Bigfoot; he teaches six courses, none of which pertain to Bigfoot; he's an Associate Professor of Anatomy & Anthropology; he's an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Occupational and Physical Therapy; and he's the Affiliate Curator at the Idaho Museum of Natural History. He's not the Professor of Bigfoot. He carries as great a load of academic work in non-Bigfoot related studies as any professor. He's a real scientist doing real work. On top of all of this, he studies casts of Bigfoot footprints.
Dr. Meldrum is responsible for drumming up his own grant money from private donors to fund any Bigfoot research that he chooses to do. In some cases, he has received small amounts of matching funds from the university. If you feel this was a bad expenditure, then criticize the university regents who decided to write the check; don't criticize the applicant they awarded the funds to. The work of responsible scientists like Dr. Meldrum is exactly what true skeptics should be demanding from the Bigfoot community.
Here is the way for a responsible skeptic to handle the Bigfoot claim. It's to say "You're making an extraordinary claim. Show me extraordinary evidence, and I'll believe it. Until then, I'm not convinced." Occasionally candidate evidence has come forward, like hair and stool samples, or the skull cap from Tibet. This evidence has been properly tested, and so far no new great ape species has been proven. A responsible skeptic's obligations do not extend to poking fun at the people who are looking for evidence properly, considering the lack of evidence to be proof of no evidence, or making personal comments about people. That's not good science either. In some instances, Dr. Meldrum, and other scientists like him, are being better skeptics than the skeptics.
And now, I'd like to say a few words to those who mean to support Bigfoot but do themselves more harm than good with bad arguments. The wrong ways to support Bigfoot:
1. Stating that Bigfoot is an extraterrestrial, or comes to us from another dimension.
If Bigfoot claims are going to make any headway into mainstream science, it will be through zoological channels, not supernatural channels. Such claims are the most extreme form of counterproductivity, setting Bigfoot claims backwards all the way into the Dark Ages.
2. Being delusional: Seeing detailed Bigfoots in a blurry photograph that shows no such thing.
Half the Bigfoot websites out there show numerous photographs of bushes and wooded areas, with certain areas circled. There's nothing within the circled area except other bushes; maybe a shadow, or a dark branch. But wait! Here's a detailed sketch of what's hiding inside that shadow. Informally, we call these photographs blobsquatches. Formally, we call the perceptual phenomenon of wrongly seeing things in random photos or random data apophenia. Proper research methodology seeks to eliminate faulty data — such as that produced by apophenia — rather than letting it stand unchallenged. Presenting a blobsquatch as data succeeds better at raising concern for the claimant's acumen than it does at proving Bigfoot. If all you have is bad evidence, you're better off not presenting it.
3. Doing science backwards: Seeking to support a preconceived conclusion.
Science doesn't work by starting with the goal of proving something and then assembling whatever evidence you can find that supports it. That's doing propaganda, not science. Start with a repeatable observation, form a testable hypothesis to explain the observation, and then form a theory based on the evidence revealed by the data. Of course, following this method is going to make it pretty hard to come up with a theory that's supportive of Bigfoot, but that's what it's going to take if Bigfoot supporters hope to prove their point.
Some of you may listen to this and conclude that I'm a closet pro-Bigfoot guy. I'll admit to being a Bigfoot hopeful (a hope based more on emotion than on any actual likelihood), but certainly not a believer. My point is simply that both sides of every debate contain a lot chaff along with the wheat. Both sides of every skeptical issue believe that they're right, but even those on the side that is right (and by that, I mean whichever side you're on) can probably stand to clean up their act a little, no matter what the issue is.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Killing Bigfoot with Bad Science." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
3 Dec 2006. Web.
22 Oct 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4011>
References & Further Reading
Alderman ,Jesse Harlan. "Bigfoot studies render academic an outcast." MSNBC. MSNBC.COM, 3 Nov. 2006. Web. 5 Nov. 2009. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15548356/>
Autumn Williams. "Bigfoot Photo and Picture Gallery." OregonBigfoot.com, The Legend Lives. Autumn Williams, 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 18 Nov. 2009. <http://www.oregonbigfoot.com/gallery.php>
Daegling, David J., and Schmitt, Daniel O. "Bigfoot's Screen Test." The Skeptical Inquirer. 1 May 1999, Volume 23.3: 3.
Davis, Marlon K. "M.K. Davis' frame by frame rendition of the Patterson Film." Bigfoot Encounters. Bobbie Short, 1 Dec. 2005. Web. 15 Nov. 2009. <http://www.bigfootencounters.com/files/mk_davis_pgf.gif>
Eagan, Timothy. "Search for Bigfoot Outlives The Man Who Created Him." The New York Times. 3 Jan. 2003, New York Edition: Section A, page 1.
Meldrum, Jeff. Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. New York: Forge Books, 2006.
Napier, John Russel. Bigfoot: The Sasquatch and Yeti in Myth and Reality. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972.
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