Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bear-ly Bigfoot

My brain and I have a deal: I keep it occupied, and it does its best not to get me into trouble. However, my brain has its own ideas of what it considers proper entertainment. One would think museum work would be enough to keep that cerebral scamp from causing mischief, but this is not always the case. Here’s an example. I am in the midst of taking photographs of Late Cretaceous theropod teeth for an upcoming paper. I get to look in great detail at teeth of some of the coolest dinosaurs known. Is my brain content? Parts of it are, but I have a section of my brain whose attention span is akin to that of a hyperactive 6 year old after gorging on Halloween candy. It can’t focus on one task for long durations…unless I trick it. One of two tactics seems to work in my Battle of the Brain. I can play a TV program or movie in the background, distracting Hyper Brain with the flashy lights and colours. I can also play audiobooks, and Hyper Brain responds by settling down under its mental blankie for story time.

Right now I’m listening to Orson Scott Card’s “Ender” series. I enjoy that all the students in “Ender’s Game” have portable computer desks through which they have instant access to educational material. Were the story written today, I’m sure these desks would be called laptops. So far, his characters use their instantaneous connection with their version of the Internet for useful, productive, or at least purpose-driven tasks. I do not think that O. S. Card had memes in mind when creating this system. My point is that we have a seemingly vast pool of potentially accurate and useful information on which to draw. Unfortunately, for every accurate website there are countless that contain the intellectual equivalent to the insides of a sorely used hanky. This is coupled the apparent lack of fact-checking this digital drivel. For fun, check out the website for the Pacific Tree Octopus, and then check out University of Connecticut’s research on Internet literacy in society.

Our culture (in general) has very few skills in distinguishing between fact-supported interpretations and anecdotal opinion. The Internet is used for disseminating information. Period. Not high quality information, not accurate information, just information. It is up to the distributor to impose whatever quality control they feel is necessary, and up to the receiver to separate the wheat from the chaff. When I was teaching undergraduate labs, I refused to accept websites as part of citations - “.edu”, “.gov”, and open access journals were the exceptions - but any other web citations were verboten. Why? I told my students that any person with a computer and an Ethernet cable can post a seemingly reputable looking website that states Bigfoot is alive and well in the woods around Campus, complete with seemingly credible data, and that there is no group that checks the accuracy of such claims before they are made available. In short, there is no pre-publication peer-review system for websites. Why am I seemingly picking on Bigfoot and its followers? A couple of days ago, this news article came across my screen about a researcher wanting $300,000.00+ for a blimp and thermal camera to search for Bigfoot. Bigfoot also made an appearance in Nunavut as recently as October.

As no one has ever caught a Bigfoot in the act of making a big footprint, there are four explanations for the source of these vaguely humanoid-looking tracks: a) there actually is a stable population of large, North American primate with no documented fossil record or physical evidence in North America, b) there are a lot of people roaming around the wilderness interpreting everything they see through their Bigfoot-Decoder glasses, c) there are guys wearing ape-feet and gorilla suits that happen to have a buddy with a camera and a penchant for seeking attention, or d) a combination of b and c.

I do love cryptozoologic lore, but not because I view it as a reliable source of scientific data. I love it for the cultural perspective, and to witness how people incorporated their lore into their interpretations of the surrounding world, and also how people attempted to explain events that, at the time and given their information pool, defied explanation.

I find the legend of Sasquatch/Bigfoot particularly fascinating for two reasons: a) I grew up in Bigfoot country and spent most of my pre-18 years crawling over the woods of northern Washington and southern BC (I was the odd geeky girl. A social life was not open to me, so I retreated to the woods), and b) most of the North American Bigfoot “evidence” is footprint-based. There are even repositories of supposed Bigfoot track replicas and associated data.

I can give you this ichnologist’s perspective on the ichnological data attributed to Bigfoot. One issue I have is there are only certain surfaces on which an animal can walk which will accurately record the shape of the animal’s foot. The consistency of the surface (substrate) plays just as important a role in recording foot shape as the shape of the foot itself. Think about the differences in footprint shape when you walk on dry sand, firm wet sand, and mud. Your foot is not going to change shape. Your footwear may change, unless you do this kind of experiment in bare feet for fun (yes, I do this for fun). The differences in footprint shape are completely substrate dependent, from the way the substrate settles after you withdraw your foot, to the way you alter your step length and foot placement. Paleoichnologists see this phenomenon in dinosaur footprints all the time.

In checking out a few Bigfoot and cryptozoology websites (if you're brave, I dare you to Google "Bigfoot inbreeding"), I noticed that most insist that Bigfoot prints are NOT the prints of a bear. This needs to be stated because of the similarity in both size and shape of many purported Bigfoot prints to both grizzly and black bear footprints. One identifier for bear tracks is the presence of claw marks, as bears do not retract their claws. Bigfoot prints are supposed to consistently lack claw marks. However, what if the claw marks are not preserved on the substrate? What if the bear’s hindpaw (or pes for my fellow ichno-geeks) steps on the print left by the forepaw (manus)? What about track surface degradation, or a myriad of other factors that can alter the shape of a footprint between the time it is made to the time of discovery? To an eye unfamiliar with surface-based ambiguities, and to an eye looking at a print through Bigfoot-coloured glasses, the discovered print might appear suspiciously humanoid.

The biologist in me also knows that, for the number of sightings that have occurred (this map only shows the USA, but Canada is not immune from Bigfoot Fever) there would need to be fairly healthy population numbers of Bigfoot. I should have to take Bigfoot bangers into the woods instead of bear bangers. There are two animals in these regions that have healthy population numbers: humans and bears. Lozier et al. (2009) (follow the link to their paper) found a very strong correlation between the supposed ecological niche of Bigfoot and the presence of black bears (Ursus americanus). Also, just two species of bear can make several different looking prints. Check out these images of bear tracks made in a variety of substrates: This is the most primate-looking one, but it's in the worst substrate to preserve details like claws, front and back prints, etc.

I chose these images of bear tracks because they show a variety of preservation types. Some look unmistakeably bear. Others resemble the Bigfoot-style tracks. Bears have five oval-shaped toe pads, and the toes are arranged in a pattern similar to that of humans. As you can see, sometimes claw marks are imprinted, while in other prints claw marks are either missing or not obvious.
The second issue I have with the available pool of Bigfoot track data is that there is an apparent preponderance of single, isolated footprints. This is a problem if you want to thoroughly document a track phenomenon. Finding (or only collecting) one footprint is the ichnology equivalent of only collecting one bone from a skeleton. The information needed to interpret the hip height, stance, and gait of the track-maker is recorded in a series of footprints. Photographs of Bigfoot prints seem to only reveal one isolated footprint. Perhaps the Bigfoot researchers are keeping all their long trackways hush-hush for a big reveal. Is there a trackway that goes with that one print? What to the rest of the prints within that trackway look like? If the footprint is not shown within the context of a trackway, I (or anyone else) cannot rule out the possibility that the photographer is just showing me the most humanoid looking print out of a series of rather typical bear prints in order to gain support for their belief.
Belief is the correct term, and critical thinking tends to fall by the wayside on the path of belief. Once belief takes hold, it is difficult to not interpret information through the filter of said belief. It becomes easy, even desirable, to ignore contradictory data. Cherry-picking information that only supports a certain belief is the bread-and-butter of pseudoscience. People go out into the woods with the idea of Bigfoot (or any other creature from lore), and they present information that supports a Bigfoot-only interpretation without supplying alternate explanations, reinforcing their preconceived goal of proving the existence of Bigfoot. It is circular reasoning at best, deception at worst, and the people conducting research on Bigfoot are presenting their information to a public with atrophied critical thinking processes. It’s the Pacific Tree Octopus on global scale. If the evidence is so strong for the existence of Bigfoot, show me the peer-reviewed publications. No, a newsletter from “Bigfoot Quarterly” is not a peer-reviewed publication. A book published commercially by a Bigfoot scientist is not a peer-reviewed publication. A book with a high sales volume means it’s a good story, not an accurate story. If high readership were the only criterion needed for accuracy of an idea, sparkly, annoyingly morose vampires would run amok in society.

“But Strange Woman”, you may ask, “you are presenting your views through an anti-Bigfoot filter. How is that any better than the pro-Bigfoot view?” Good question. Here is my answer. Critical does not mean anti-anything. When you deal in any data-based discipline, you have to be very, very careful to separate what you know (speculation) from what you can support. Speculation is a healthy, active mind at work. It’s useful to let your brain travel down all of the “What if…” paths. However, much like our canine friends, that brain needs to be kept on a leash or it will make a mess of your neighbour’s lawn. I might believe, deep down in my core, that a certain small theropod tooth was produced by a certain species of theropod. I cannot just publish that belief without supporting data. I must also provide all of the alternate explanations possible, along with the data that supports those explanations. Even that is not sufficient. I must then send that idea out to my peers so THEY can provide all of their alternate explanations, as well as tell me what data they would like to see in order to be convinced of my idea. That’s the peer-review process. It can be slow, it can be frustrating at times, but it is ABSOLUTELY necessary to retain the objectivity required for interpreting data-based ideas.

What does all this have to do with Bigfoot? There are still too many alternate explanations for the phenomenon of humanoid-looking footprints and sightings of large dark hairy things in the woods that do not require the presence of a never-before documented North American primate. In the Nunavut Sasquatch sighting article, one of the researchers comments on the disparity between the reported sighting of the creature and the reported length of the footprint. The creature seemed too large to make a footprint of a certain size. Their comment was “...but that happens, people exaggerate.” Anecdotal sightings of wildlife phenomena are too subjective and too fluid to be considered concrete data. They are stories that get better with the telling. This is not the fault of the people reporting these encounters (these people did see something that surprised and perhaps scared them): it’s the inherent flaw of the information, and our brains naturally like to be entertained.

Speaking of which, I think there are some humorous cat-themed memes I need to surf.

Strange Woman out.

Update 10/05/2013: FINALLY fixed the formatting issue for this post.
Update 17/12/2014: Another format fix. I prefer this layout

1 comment:

  1. I am having some Internet issues right now, so I hope to fix some of the layout and font issues once this is resolved. Many apologies!