Could Having More Bigfoot Skeptics Help Cryptozoology? Maybe So.
“I have a long-term, unshakeable interest in Bigfoot, and I’ve thought about the subject quite a lot,” wrote Darren Naish in June of last year. Naish is a British palaeontologist and science writer, who authors the Tetrapod Zoology blog over at Scientific American.
The post featuring this quote, titled “If Bigfoot Were Real“, discussed the pros and cons of making a credible case for the existence of Bigfoot, where Naish summarized his conclusions thusly:
I do not think that the data we have at the moment – this includes tracks, hairs, vocalisations, photos, and the innumerable eyewitness accounts – provides support for the notion that Bigfoot is real, and have come to the conclusion that it is a sociocultural phenomenon: that people are seeing all manner of different things, combining it with ideas, memes and preconceptions they hold in their minds, and interpreting them as encounters with a monstrous, human-like biped.
Darren’s current assessment of Bigfoot may fall unfavorably among many of the proud advocates of cryptozoology today. However, if cryptozoology is to be taken seriously, it’s going to require more like him–the “hopeful skeptics”–who are willing to lend a sound-minded, scientific approach to this area of study.
This is not to say that there aren’t researchers in the “Bigfoot advocate camp” doing good research too, as we’ll see a bit later. However, cooperation between the reasonably skeptical (which includes this author) and those willing to accept belief in the creature, paired with quality research, may finally lift the folkloric veil, and reveal any biological existence behind the world’s most elusive, alleged biped.
That is, if anything of substance does exist behind the legends.
With the study of supposed remnant hominids, there will inevitably be controversy, even when serious science is involved. Perhaps most notably in recent years, in 2015 Professor Bryan Sykes of Oxford University attempted to gather samples and conduct a DNA analysis, aimed at ascertaining whether creatures like Bigfoot could be scientifically proven to exist. The study, however, was wrought with problems from the beginning, and while Sykes found no evidence of mystery primates, he nonetheless came to the conclusion that an unrecognized species of bear might have turned up in some of the study’s results.
Two subsequent studies challenged this claim, finding no evidence of the “Himalayan polar bear” Sykes believed his study might have uncovered. Further controversy ensued once questions were raised about Sykes’s own organization, the Institute of Human Genetics at Wolfson College, Oxford. Apparently, although Sykes is indeed a fellow of Wolfson College, by his own admission, “The journal required some sort of additional address in the college and, hey presto, I became an institute!” Officials at the university also said that while his book, Nature of the Beast, described him as having been a professor of human genetics since 1997, he actually had not held the position there for close to a decade (for more on the book Sykes wrote, as mentioned above, a very thoughtful and in-depth review by American cryptozoologist Loren Coleman can be found here).
Things got even more complicated once Sykes began seriously entertaining the 19th century story of an alleged “ape woman” called Zana. Some members of the scientific community, most notably biologist P.Z. Myers, found it appalling, arguing that treatment of the Zana claims with any degree of seriousness was tantamount to racism.
As Myers wrote at his blog:
“Sykes unquestioningly accepts the accounts of 19th century racists who regarded this woman as an animal to say that the evidence of West African ancestry somehow supports his contention that she was an ‘ape woman’ who was descended from some relic population of a Homo sub-species that had been hiding in the Caucasus Mountains for millennia, giving rise to legends of yetis and bigfoot and other beast-men in the wilderness.”
Let’s be clear: the probable scenario is that Zana, rather than being a relic “ape woman”, was indeed a woman of African descent who was horribly mistreated, back during a time when this sort of thing, regrettably, happened all-too-often. In fact, that’s precisely what the genetic study ended up showing of Zana’s origins (no big surprise there, either).
In cases like this, even the most hopeful cryptozoologist must be sensitive to circumstances that, especially during the mid-19th century, would have greatly differed from those in our world today. In other words, Zana’s story isn’t representative of anything strange or unrecognized by science: it is a story of a human being that, as Myers correctly asserts, was regarded as no more than an animal… and that’s pretty awful.
Bringing things back to cryptozoology, my intention here is not to condemn Bryan Sykes. In equal measure, I think it is only fair to note that P.Z. Myers is one of the most vocal (and confrontational) critics of pseudoscience, creationism, and religion today. Hence, at times even fellow skeptics consider his attitudes overtly abrasive (I have met Myers and spoken with him on a few occasions, and once even bought him a coke; he’s been pretty reasonable to me during our interactions… for the most part). Whatever one chooses to think of Myers, I’ll also point out that it was also he who announced his decision to leave the skeptic movement a few years ago, because he felt that “negative skepticism” does very little to advance science; I couldn’t agree more, and would further say that there are few statements I would find more commendable to hear coming from a skeptic with Myer’s background and skillset. Good on him.
But looking at the Sykes situation more broadly, I think that, despite the controversies that arose from his attempts to apply science to the study of Sasquatch, this affair might still be seen as instructive, in that it brings attention to the ways future research into Bigfoot might be carried out more responsibly.
That is, if people are willing to accept that studying Bigfoot–in any capacity–is scientific in the first place.
At the heart of the issue, it is one thing to attack a scientist, who carries out scientific research, if the research they do is lacking in quality; the same can be said if such studies might in some way lend justification to unacceptable stereotypes (and as we have seen, it’s been argued that either of these issues might apply to Bryan Sykes’s choice in taking interest in the Zana narrative). However, to say that studying Bigfoot in and of itself is unscientific is another matter entirely.
Jeffery Meldrum, Ph.D., is an example of someone who gets it from both sides of the Bigfoot debate. His staunch advocacy for the existence of Bigfoot, supported mostly by his study of footprint castings, and other more scant physical evidence, has made him a paragon in the field of Sasquatch research. In equal measure, his pursuit of such a fringe subject has drawn criticism from his colleagues, due to its “pseudoscientific” nature.
Nonetheless, there are skeptics that recognize the merit of his work. A few years ago, Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid podcast said of Meldrum that, “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.” Indeed, should we instead prefer that the only Bigfoot researchers in operation be unqualified individuals, with little or no science training? We need scientists that are willing to take the subject seriously enough to evaluate any claims that might warrant serious inquiry.
Also, one must ask whether it is necessarily pseudoscience if the fringe subject in question is being studied by an actual scientist, who applies actual science in his or her work. Coming back to Darren Naish, it would be difficult to argue that having maintained an interest in Bigfoot and cryptozoology makes him a “pseudoscientist” (though granted, he makes it clear that his interest is not enough to justify belief on his part, a position similar to that which I have adopted over time).
Blogger Sharon Hill has also remained a diplomatic skeptical voice on the Bigfoot subject. Providing commentary on a 2013 edition of Naish’s Tet Zoo Podcast, in which he outlined many positions similar to his Scientific American piece, Hill wrote that, “Darren makes some very pithy comments about skeptics and those who particularly will be ‘rejectionists’. I’ve heard lots of those. I’m not one of them. Neither is Darren. He gives all evidence a fair examination. THIS is what I say is the best method for examining Bigfoot, through skeptical scholarship.”
Sharon also provided commentary on the famous Patterson Gimlin film, stating that, “while certainly impressive on the surface and has not been completely debunked to my satisfaction, does suffer from some serious problems surroundings it’s documentation and history.” I am again in agreement with Sharon that, while suffering numerous credibility problems, perhaps the book hasn’t been completely closed on the Patterson Gimlin film. I would go further, though, and say that since it has failed to offer any kind of reliable, indisputable evidence for the existence of Bigfoot, we need to move on, and stop touting it as “the best we’ve got” (for more on this, have a look at this blog post at my website).
Somewhere between the extreme “rejectionists” that Darren Naish describes, and the full-blown believers who are mostly informed by reality television, rather than scientific literature, there must be common ground to be had. Hence, rather than being a field populated solely by advocates, folklorists, writers, and the passionate (though in many cases, admirable) “weekend warriors”, would it help to also have a few more dedicated, but diplomatic Bigfoot skeptics willing to work within the cryptozoological community?
Yeah, maybe so.
As I’ve mentioned throughout this post, I consider myself a reasonable skeptic (like Darren Naish, and a few others mentioned here). This position is one that I have come to over time, and not by way of “being taught” to be a skeptic within academic institutions or social groups, but through consideration of ideas, the accumulation of knowledge, and yes, critical thinking over time. While I have indeed become more skeptical over the years, I also recognize this as a logical progression, rather than being an attitude I chose to adopt, and then went about validating by seeking information that simply caters to my views. Hence, my willingness to defend, when warranted, skeptical arguments, as well as the notion that some unexplained phenomena, on at least a few of occasions, might have some basis in fact, has drawn criticism from the more “negative skeptics”, to once again borrow P.Z. Myers’s terminology (keep in mind that Myers was also attacked for his critique of negative skepticism, and for leaving what he began to recognize as a social movement built around popular skepticism, rather than a constructive way to further human knowledge).
I would even go so far as to say that I remain hopeful, despite the current lack of evidence, that there will one day be proof to substantiate the Bigfoot mystery. However, until that proof is found, it is extremely difficult for me to just go along and accept the existence of these creatures, despite the fascinating narratives that have been spun around their existence over the last few decades (and, in truth, for centuries before that, in the legends and cultural mythologies from around the world).
If a balance between extreme views can be reached, along with responsible science, careful research, and a willingness to listen, there may yet be hope for the scientific search for answers to the Sasquatch mystery.