Science vs. Pseudoscience: Bigfoot Teaches Us the Difference

After a brutal family engagement Saturday evening, I decided to plop down on the couch, pop a couple cold ones, and find some mind-numbing entertainment.  Bigfoot shows never disappoint.  Destination America, a Discovery Channel station, brought me a delicious delight named “Southern Fried Bigfoot,” an independently produced documentary on the Sasquatches seen south of the Mason Dixon line, such as Florida’s Skunk Ape, Louisiana’s Honey Island Swamp Monster, and the Boggy Creek Creature of Arkansas, the last of which inspires stories so silly as to be lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  You can’t expect much scientific rigor on these programs, and this tasty treat was no exception, as the evidence presented encompassed recalled anecdotes recorded (for some reason) with night vision cameras, and the irrefutable proof of the smell of a wet deer (in the woods!  Impossible!).

That’s good fun, but what really twisted my yambag came near the show’s conclusion, during the required “why we still believe” segment that always seems to bookend these things.  The quote may not be exact, as my mind had been partially muddled by a 9% Sierra Nevada stout at this point, but the music swelled and one guy said something to the effect of, “No one can prove that it doesn’t exist, so that gives me a leg up in believing that it does.”  Sorry hoss, but that’s not how it works.  You’re right; it’s virtually impossible to prove something’s nonexistence, that’s why the burden of proof is always placed on the person making the claim.  In science, one typically starts with the null hypothesis, the idea that nothing strange or different is going on, a stance that can only be rejected when sufficient evidence to the contrary is obtained.

The so-called best evidence for the beast’s existence has been refuted innumerable times, perhaps no more succinctly than in Daniel Loxton’s two part summation in the pages of Junior Skeptic, of all places, so I won’t rehash it here.  It’s the lack of answers for certain questions that expose the endeavor as a field that is simply not concerned with determining the actual truth.  Why is there no fossil evidence of apes in North America, and why are Bigfoot carcasses never found?  What about scat?  Are mommy and daddy Bigfeet curbing their kids?  Considering that, as super skeptic Ben Radford has pointed out, there must be tens of thousands of individuals to provide a sufficient breeding population, why are they not seen more often?  Why has a rabid Bigfoot, not in control of its faculties, never broken the treeline and wandered into a neighborhood?  In a country where wolves were nearly wiped out due to their impact on livestock, why has a starving Sasquatch never been caught nabbing a farm animal?

“He knows that’s our food.”  Hand to God, that was the answer of Matt Moneymaker, head of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) and star of Animal Planet’s ratings juggernaut Finding Bigfoot, when asked that last question by the program’s token pseudo-skeptic, Ranae Holland.  Even she rolled her eyes at that one.  The group’s official website further betrays them, as it asserts the BFRO to be “the only scientific research organization exploring the bigfoot/sasquatch mystery,” while claiming in the “About” section, “It has always been the policy of the BFRO to study the species in ways that will not physically harm them.”  You can’t presuppose the existence of something unverified and call yourself “scientific.”  You can’t dismiss the null hypothesis with way-out, illogical answers and substandard evidence like a few eyewitness reports and potentially misshapen or fabricated footprints.  There’s an old aphorism in science about doing everything you can to sink your own ship, so that you know it’s sturdy.  Bigfooters prefer to ignore the gaping hole in the hull and play on like the orchestra of the Titanic.

 WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Despite the purported desires of the people involved and the use of technical sounding jargon and fancy instruments to lend a feigned air of sophistication, Bigfoot “research” is simply not science.  “But what about the Melba Ketchum DNA study released in February?  That was published in a scientific journal!”  Yeah, a journal CREATED by the author because no one else would accept it!  (Sharon Hill at Doubtful News has been all over this one)

Bigfoot teachesEven Harry knows it don’t add up.  Awesome image from drawception.com

A “pseudoscience” is defined as a claim, belief or practice which is presented as scientific, but does not adhere to a valid, scientific method.  You can spot a pseudoscience by its lack of openness to testing by other experts (as with the Ketchum paper), an absence of progress (still no body?) and, as seen in the examples here, an over-reliance on confirmation rather than refutation.  “He knows that’s our food” and other similar, bonkers assertions show that folks who follow the ‘Foot are not looking to find out *IF* it exists, but are out to prove *THAT* it exists.  Real science fits the theory to the evidence, not the other way around.

Keep these things in mind the next time “UFO’s Abducted My Grandma” or “The Bermuda Triangle Causes Global Warming” comes on the tube late at night.  With a strong nightcap, those shows can be entertaining, but the trappings surrounding them are anything but scientific.

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