Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bigfoot Research: Pseudoscience, Pathological Science, or Something Else?

Rather than looking at cryptozoology as a whole, let's take a look at what is probably its most familiar example:  Bigfoot research.  Based on my previous post, does it meet the standards of either pseudoscience or pathological science?

B5bugerbear, by Lizard King at en.wikipedia [GFDL ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

It's pretty clear that it cannot be pathological science.  In particular, Langmuir's talk went a long way towards defining pathological science lists 6 symptoms:  
  1. "The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.
  2. "The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability; or, many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results.
  3. "Claims of great accuracy.
  4. "Fantastic theories contrary to experience.
  5. "Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.
  6. "Ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50% and then falls gradually to oblivion."
Symptoms 4 and 5 may fit some Bigfoot research, but the rest do not fit at all.

But what about pseudoscience?  For that, we can look at the list of "defining characteristics" from What Science Is And How It Works, by Gregory N. Derry:
  1. Static or Randomly Changing Ideas
  2. Vague Mechanisms to Acquire Understanding
  3. Loosely Connected Thoughts
  4. Lack of Organized Skepticism
  5. Disregard for Established Results 
The problem with trying to apply this list to Bigfoot research as a whole turns out to be ... that it's not at all clear there is such a thing as Bigfoot research as a whole.

So, for instance, it is possible to find websites that claim that Bigfoot are some kind of space alien, or that they are some sort of interdimensional beings, or whatnot.  Those are pretty much a home run for pseudoscience and require little further comment. On the other hand, there are more moderate claims that bear more scrutiny.

What about the idea, popularized through shows like MonsterQuest, that some sort of large, bipedal ape migrated across the Bering land bridge and established a small but persistent population in the Americas?  Let's go through the "defining characteristics" of pseudoscience one by one. 
  1. Does this kind of Bigfoot research exhibit static or randomly changing ideas?  Not so much, in my opinion.  The ideas have not changed much since the 1970's, but that's due to the one overwhelming problem -- not enough evidence.  Still, those who subscribe to the ape theory of Bigfoot tend to keep tabs on developments such as the discovery of fossils of the Flores "hobbit" and archaeological studies piecing together the arrival and spread of man in North America, and they use these developments to tweak their own theories.
  2. Are the methods used to acquire understanding vague?  Again, not really.  Most adherents of the ape theory really want hard scientific data; many of them actively look for hair samples, feces, or footprints, set up trailcam traps in hopes of a photo, etc.  There's nothing wrong with that from a scientific point of view.

  3. That's not to say that some of the analysis doesn't strike me as rather far-fetched -- for example, attempts to see details in the Patterson-Gimlin film that seem to be too near the limit of the image's resolution.  There also seems to be some cherry-picking with data, among other procedural issues.  These are problems, but they still don't amount to "defining characteristic #2".
  4. Are the thoughts loosely connected?  This may be more of a real problem.  Elaborate theories abound, but the connection to solid evidence and/or mainstream scientific literature tends to be tenuous at best.  Again, the real problem is that there is very little concrete evidence to begin with. 
  5. Is there a lack of organized skepticism?  Yes, because there is a lack of organization.  Anyone who occasionally reads Cryptomundo will know that there are plenty of people in the cryptozoological community who are quick to pounce on a hoax or point out possible misidentifications.  Since cryptozoology has few if any peer-reviewed journals, though, it really does lack the kind of safeguard enjoyed by established sciences.

    A more serious problem along these lines is the emotional attachment to both their data and interpretations. Cryptozoologists may be willing to criticize each other's work, but they too often fail to exhibit the cautious approach that comes with self-criticism, and they too often lose their tempers when criticized by others. This is a very normal and human behavior, but there is no formal structure to hold it in check. Cryptozoology suffers because of it.
  6. How about disregard for established results?  I think this is less of a problem than might be expected.  It's nearly impossible to prove a negative, so the non-existence of Bigfoot is not really an established result.  Unlike the interdimensional Bigfoot theories or the space alien Bigfoot theories, the Bigfoot-as-an-ape theory does not require violating the laws of physics, nor does it necessarily require violating the established results of biology.  Creatures that may have looked very much like smaller versions of Bigfoot once existed in Africa, but there is no evidence that they moved out of Africa before going extinct. And yes, Gigantopithecus was a large ape living in east Asia not more than 1 million years ago, but it probably was not bipedal, since
    1. there is no evidence about how it walked, 
    2. walking on two legs the way we humans do is a complicated stunt that seems unlikely to have evolved multiple times, and
    3. Gigantopithecus does not appear to have been closely related to humans.
How about the characteristics mentioned in my earlier post?  I think it is a fair assessment that the more theoretical a study of Bigfoot is, the more likely it is to exhibit all the characteristics of pseudoscience.  I also think that many people accept Bigfoot as a physical reality not due to the evidence, but because they really want it to be true.  A world with a Bigfoot in it would just be way cooler than a world with no Bigfoot.  Also, it does display the warning signs of a nearly constant minority of adherents while being rejected by the preponderance of professional biologists.

On the whole, then, I would say that some Bigfoot research is clearly pseudoscience, but that the best of it, though usually falling short of the standards I would expect for good science, is at least not pseudoscience.

By the way, please note that whether something is pseudoscience or not depends entirely on its structure and methodology, not whether its conclusions are right or wrong.  Personally, my guess is that there is about a 1% chance that there is some sort of American ape that is responsible for the Bigfoot sightings.  On the plus side, this does not appear to be physically or biologically impossible, and there are a lot of sightings.  On the minus side, the sightings data are not consistent enough to be sure they represent anything real, there is the lack of convincing concrete evidence, and yarns about a creature halfway between man and the animals are so compelling to any storyteller that I would expect similar tales to be told all over the world -- and they are -- regardless of whether any real animal lies at the heart of these stories.


  1. I think bigfoot is cool. Can you give some easy examples of pathological sci, psuedoscience and junk science? Also, since you are a physics professor, can you tell me about meta-physics?

  2. Pathological science is not very common, but probably the most well-known example would be the "canals of Mars". Many astronomers saw and tried to map them, but they simply do not exist, as the many missions to Mars have now demonstrated. It appears that they were due to a combination of scientists working with equipment pushed to its very limit, an optical illusion, and the strong desire for there to be canals on Mars.

    As for pseudoscience, there are plenty of examples. Pretty much anything involving "ancient astronauts" is pseudoscience.

    Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of being. Materialism (only matter exists), nihilism (nothing exists), dualism (spirit and matter are the two different kinds of things that exist), monism (only one thing really exists, and everything we see is part of it), and idealism (only ideas exist) are all examples of metaphysical theories.

  3. Big foot rocks.