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The bigger the Bigfoot claim, the bigger the need for evidence

Forget blurry pictures and casts of big foot-prints. A Texas veterinarian, Dr Melba Ketchum, and her collaborators have published an article, in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, proving the existence…

New claims for the existence of Bigfoot appear to have been greatly exaggerated. JD Hancock

Forget blurry pictures and casts of big foot-prints. A Texas veterinarian, Dr Melba Ketchum, and her collaborators have published an article, in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, proving the existence of Bigfoot.

It’s not the first peer-reviewed Bigfoot DNA paper. In 2004 an international team of geneticists, led by Michel Milinkovitch, published an analysis of “clearly identified … [yeti] hair”. They concluded the yeti, though genetically closer to ungulates, looks remarkably similar to primates.

The yeti exhibits an amazing piece of convergent evolution. Milinkovitch et al.

A similar tongue-in-cheek paper, authored by Dave Coltman and Corey Davis from the University of Alberta, was published in a 2006 issue of TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution. And similar to the Milinkovitch paper the identification of the sample was not in question:

In July 2005, nine residents of Teslin, Yukon, witnessed through a kitchen window a large bipedal animal moving through the brush. The next morning, they collected a tuft of coarse, dark hair and also observed a footprint measuring 43 cm in length and 11.5 cm in width.

Coltman and Davis concluded that though Bigfoot, from eyewitness accounts, looked like Harry Henderson, genetically it was more closely related to bison. Of course, there is another explanation – the eyewitness account could have been wrong.

The yeti might be closely related to a horse, but Bigfoot is more closely related to bison – go figure. Trends in Ecology & Evolution

The problem with Ketchum’s paper? It’s not tongue-in-cheek. The authors are claiming to have sequenced not one but three Bigfoot genomes, concluding Bigfoot is a human hybrid. They even include HD footage of a sleeping Bigfoot (see below):

Sleeping Beauty … or sleeping Bigfoot?

As you might guess, I’m not convinced. Why?

With such a claim having gone through the peer-review process you would expect the paper to appear in Science or Nature.

When the remains of the saola, a large deer looking mammal, were discovered in the early 1990s it resulted in a paper in Nature. Similarly, when an African monkey (kapunji) representing the first new genus of primate to be discovered since 1923 was discovered in 2003, an article in Science was the result.

So where was Ketchum’s paper published? “Denovo – Accelerating Science”. You shouldn’t be ashamed if you haven’t heard of it; after all, it was only registered in early February 2013, to none other than … Dr Melba Ketchum.

I guess there is nothing inherently wrong with someone publishing in a journal they own. Ketchum claims that she had to go down this route because of scientific bias. On her Facebook page Ketchum states:

Trying to publish has taken almost two years. It seems mainstream science just can’t seem to tolerate something controversial, especially from a group of primarily forensic scientists and not “famous academians” aligned with large universities … So, rather than spend another five years just trying to find a journal to publish and hoping that decent, open-minded reviewers would be chosen, we acquired the rights to this journal and renamed it.

Science is done by humans, so obviously there is an element of politics and ego in the science world, but as Dr. Lee Smolin articulated so well in the 2011 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate:

Science isn’t about what is true or what might be true, science is about what people with originally diverse viewpoints can be forced to believe by the weight of public evidence.

And there is the problem in all this – the evidence does not look good.

Still, every cloud, silver lining, and all that.

I recently read Paul Willis’ article defending pseudoscience and couldn’t help but agree. I have always been interested in pseudoscience.

As a kid, I would consume books on unexplained mysteries. It didn’t matter what was in them. Bigfoot, aliens, ghosts, spontaneous human combustion – these were just mysteries waiting to be solved.

And this wasn’t to the exclusion of “real” science. “Unexplained mysteries” sat next to other books on space travel and dinosaurs. I even had a pictorial magazine on the female human anatomy (secretly stashed under my bed).

Infidelic

But as a communicator and scientist, my interest in paranormal phenomena has changed. When I hear extraordinary stories now, rather than scoff or attempt to debunk them, they are invitations to start talking about science.

It’s like the Bat-Signal for me.

If you start talking to me about mermaids, I will tell you a story about whale and seal evolution. You have a claim about strange things in the sky; I have a story on high-altitude jet streams.

Communicators and scientists shouldn’t shun those making incredible claims. For the most part, if someone is claiming to have seen some weird creature, it is because they have experienced something and are just curious. Curiosity is intellectual capital, so use it.

Nevertheless, some people making claims of the extraordinary are deliberately being flexible with the truth.

With the latest Bigfoot paper, I have no idea what the motivation was. But we do have a great example to show the public how not to publish supposedly paradigm-shattering science.

The old adage is as pertinent as ever: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Join the conversation

28 Comments sorted by

  1. ernest malley

    farmer

    So glad that I haven't acquiesced to the urgent demands of my PC for an Adobe update thingy as it meant that i was spared skipping the videograffik evidence.
    When you wrote that previous DNA pointed to an ungulate origin, I noticed that the one word you kept avoiding (so, like Sherlock's unbarking dog, it became significant) was "BULL".
    Any particular reason?

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  2. David Clerke

    Teacher

    Is this the same level of peer reviewed proof as for CAGW?

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    1. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to David Clerke

      @David Clerke (aka John Coochey)

      I glad that you brought climate change up. It gives us a chance to discuss crank magnetism again.

      John Mashey points out the claim (repeated by Steve McIntyre in his attack on the hockey stick graph of Mann) that an unnamed climate scientist said "We have to get rid of the Medieval Warming Period.", comes originally from a David Deming article in the "Journal of Scientific Exploration." Deming was on the editorial board of the august publication.

      Here are…

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    2. Ron Chinchen

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to David Clerke

      Elementary my dear Watson. Something singularly big is afoot.

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  3. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    I recently read an article - I think it was on the Conversation but may have been elsewhere (I am getting old) that suggested that, given the proliferation of HD cameras in recent years, we should have far better proof of UFOs than the standard fuzzy and grainy images of yesteryear.

    I think I will put Bigfoot in the same category.

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  4. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    Bigfoot or its Yeti cousins are unlikely to be found in the northern hemisphere. They were all kidnapped decades ago to work as beasts of burden in the secret Nazi UFO base in Antarctica. I therefore scoff at this sort of 'proof' sourced from tissue samples in the USA.

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    1. Geoffrey Edwards

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Don't be silly Mat, there are no bases in either arctic region.

      The UFO bases are at the centre of the Earth. It is only the openings to the access passages that are at the poles.

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Exactly - lighten up.

      let the woman have her 15 minutes of fame.

      I'm sure Denovo is the "MAD' equivalent of the scientific world.

      I think I read an article saying cigarettes are good for you, in the last edition.

      I cant wait to get my copy each month. Next month's issue contains an article on the Top Ten Sexiest Scientists.

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  5. Tim Scanlon

    Debunker

    I find it hard to believe that in America, the home of guns and shooting, that no-one has shot and killed a Big-Foot or Yeti.

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  6. Ron Chinchen

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    Bet tourist sales just sky rocketed again. As a publicity stunt it would be worth its weight in tourist dollars. There's gold to be had in them their hills

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  7. Patrick Stokes

    Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

    "I guess there is nothing inherently wrong with someone publishing in a journal they own."

    - Oh, absolutely. In fact I offer definitive proof of this assertion in Stokes, P. (2013) "Starting Your Own Journal To Get Your Otherwise Unpublishable Paper Published Is Totes Legit, You Guys", Journal Of Stokes Studies 1(1):1-10. [reprinted in Stokes P. 'New Horizons in Stokes Studies: Stokesian Perspectives' (Pat's House: Stokes University Press, 2013).] Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I must…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      Dr Melba may be developing a theme park as we speak, on the land where the yeti was sited - and which she owns (maybe).

      She's obviously milking this for all its worth.

      And why not - Scotland's done alright out of the Loch Ness monster.

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    2. Stephen McCormick

      Ph.D. Candidate at School of Mathematical Sciences, Monash University

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      Charging $30 for a self-published paper claiming to have direct evidence of something that is believed by many people without proof does seem like a good idea for some quick cash though.

      Next she's publish El Chupacabra results in Mexico then Nessie in Scotland. "Check it out, an alien crashed into my garage and I have sequenced it's DNA too"

      Then again, this is just the other side of the vanity publishing coin. Vanity purchasing?

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    3. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Stephen McCormick

      In theory it'd be a good money spinner, but in practice I doubt it. In academic publishing as in every other area of publishing, the internet cares about respecting people's copyright in much the same way it cares about sparing their feelings and covering up their nudity. But given domain registration and hosting for a year probably only cost her $50, she only has to see two copies and she's ahead.

      Apparently she considers what she's going through to be the 'Galileo Effect':
      http://bigfootevidence.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/dr-melba-ketchum-explains-why-she-self.html

      Remind me to pull that out next time I get some bad referee reports.

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    4. Stephen McCormick

      Ph.D. Candidate at School of Mathematical Sciences, Monash University

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      You're probably right there, but really that's the only justification for the $30 that I can think of. If you just wanted the fame, surely you'd make it freely available.

      Actually this is a little reminiscent of how http://vixra.org/ was formed. As I understand it, some physicists had some pretty out-there ideas that the usual online preprint repository (arxiv) wouldn't touch, so they started their own; now it's a haven for these wannabe physicists claiming the everything we know about science is wrong and that they have the answers.

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    5. Sean Manning

      Physicist

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      She's probably just trying to claw back the huge publishing fees she had to pay herself.

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  8. John Pickard

    Eclectic naturalist

    Nice piece Dustin.

    I'm a completely unreconstructed empiricist: want to convince me, then show me the evidence. And not some blurry photo.

    However I was mightily amused by the following paper in a refereed journal proving the existence of that most-feared predator in Australia (and no, I don't mean our appalling politicians). It's the dreaded drop bear that has terrified countless and brainless American and European tourists. Seems that it's actually real.

    http://eprints.utas.edu.au/15881/1/2012_Janssen_AusGeog_journal_version.pdf

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    1. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to John Pickard

      Aw, heck! I just tried to access the PDF and received the dreaded message "2013-02-23 10:03:08 ERROR 403: Forbidden". I could do with a good laugh ... "8-/

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  9. rory robertson
    rory robertson is a Friend of The Conversation.

    former fattie

    Thanks for a fascinating piece, Dustin. Good on you. Actually, it was not the American Bigfoot that occupied my thoughts when I trekked through the bush as a kid growing up in country Queensland, but our own home-grown Yowie, it's genuine existence now firmly documented in the form of a yummy chocolate for children.

    In my opinion, this latest "peer reviewed" confirmation of the existence of Bigfoot seems akin to the "peer reviewed" confirmation of the existence of the "Australian Paradox…

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  10. Tim Traynor

    Rocket Surgeon

    I'd like to see a thorough point-by-point debunking based on the contents and conclusions of the paper by a suitably qualified geneticist rather than just on the dodginess of the DeNovo story.

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    1. rory robertson
      rory robertson is a Friend of The Conversation.

      former fattie

      In reply to John Crest

      So Bigfoot lives on! Good on him/them. So too, the Australian Paradox is alive and well in the public debate on nutrition, via a self-published yet "peer-reviewed" article in a pay-as-you-publish E-journal: http://www.australianparadox.com/ Readers, what is the latest on the Loch Ness Monster and the Australian Blue Kangaroo? (Slide 44 in #18 on the LHS of the link above)

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