Killing Bigfoot with Bad Science
by Brian Dunning
Filed under Cryptozoology
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
Americanus: 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 I don't see it being done very
often on either side of the Bigfoot debate. 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
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 research methodology
can't accept Ray Wallace's story as proof that Bigfoot is a hoax. 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
"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.
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 probably far, far outnumbered by professors
who have done psychic or other paranormal research, but let's stick to the
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 person they gave the funds to. The
work of responsible scientists like Dr. Meldrum is exactly what true skeptics
should be asking the Bigfoot community for, not criticizing him for it.
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 (and if I'm wrong about that, I invite your comments
on the web site). A responsible skeptic's obligations do not extend to poking
fun at the people who are looking for evidence, considering the lack of evidence
to be proof of no evidence, or making personal comments about people. That's
not good science. In some cases, 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
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 web sites 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. I'm not a psychologist
so I won't presume to affix a label to this phenomenon; but seeing things in
pictures that aren't there, and then obsessing over it, does not strike me
as healthy. It's certainly more effective at raising concern for the claimant,
than it is at convincing anyone that Bigfoot exists. If all you have is bad
evidence, you're better off not presenting it.
3. Doing bad science: 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 testable hypothesis, 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
I know you're going to listen to all of this and conclude that I'm the 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
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Killing Bigfoot with Bad Science." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
3 Dec 2006. Web.
29 Nov 2015. <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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