Is that a sasquatch loitering by the river? (Source: Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization)

Why The Bigfoot Genome Is Good For Science

What would it take for you to believe in bigfoot? Grainy footage of a Sasquatch spying on campers? Or one streaking across a dark highway? A ruddy footprint in the mud? Not good enough?

How about a genome sequence?

Well, now one exists. Allegedly.

This has to be one of my favourite science stories of the year. But not for the reasons you might think.

This whole bigfoot saga, the claims, the counter-claims, the scepticism, the independent verification… the whole lot says volumes about how science works. And just reinforces that it works well.

Let’s recap. Here we have a practising geneticist, Dr Melba S. Ketchum, claiming to have been beavering away for five years on a Sasquatch genome. And, failing to have it accepted in any established scientific journals of repute, she has launched her own and published it as the sole paper in the first issue.

And we have the rest of the scientific community scratching their heads wondering if this could even be real. But – and this is where the science-is-amazing bit kicks in – not all scientists dismiss it out of hand. That would be unscientific.

Richard Gibbs is quoted on Houston Chronicle saying that he’s willing to give the claims a go and let them stand on their own two big feet, i.e. the evidence:

As a scientist I would consider anything. The currency of scientific advance is keeping your skepticism at bay. You have to approach these things incredibly agnostically. As I read the paper I asked, is the evidence here compelling? I don’t know. Is there clear evidence of fraud? That’s not apparent. It’s an intriguing hypothesis. One would need to view more sequencing information before supporting the conclusions.

Then, the second science-is-awesome bit fires up: the peer review. Unlike the many websites and blogs that populate the wild expanses of the webs, claims of extraordinary magnitude are not accepted or rejected by virtue of them conforming with our predilections or expectations – or wistful hopes.

Instead, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Or, as that other paragon of empiricism put it:

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact which it endeavours to establish. -David Hume

And that there exists a human-primate hybrid, with ancestry including European, Middle Eastern, African and American Indian haplotypes, that exists with sufficient concreteness to yield DNA samples, but is sufficiently scarce that not a single clear photograph has yet been taken, well that’s what I’d call an extraordinary claim.

Does the evidence stack up? It seems doubtful.

But even the rather bizarre subject matter, the suspicious route taken to have it published and the apparently flaky evidence provided to date, science won’t write this paper off until the evidence has been thoroughly examined.

This way, if the claims really are too extraordinary to be (likely to be) true, then we’ll actually have confidence in that conclusion.

This is what makes science special. Our intuitions, our hopes, our ‘common sense’ – they’re all garbage when it comes to reliably determining the state of the world around us. It is rigorous evidence, replication, scrutiny and scepticism that are the most reliable route to the facts.

And what I really love about this bigfoot story is that those who normally dwell in the shady paranormal fringes have stepped into the bright light of scientific day. When they do so – when they choose to play the game by the highest standards of reason and evidence – then everybody wins.

If their claims are found true, then it truly is a marvel. If their claims are found false, then they ought to be rightly scrapped, no matter how much they want to believe.

We should welcome this bigfoot genome paper. It is science at its best. Even if it’s proven false.

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