Sunday, November 4, 2012

Bigfoot or Big lies?

Bigfoot is arguably the most iconic myth in North America. Documentaries have been made, movies have parodied, books have been written, and careers have been centered around this 7 foot tall ape. Today I'd like to address three main points in Bigfoot mythology - The Patterson-Gimlin film, The Ray Wallace hoax, and the odd distribution of sightings.

The Patterson-Gimlin Film
If you've ever heard of Bigfoot before you've probably seen this video, known as the Patterson-Gimlin film. In case you live under a rock, here it is: 

You're first criticism of the film may be that it's shaky and you can't really see what's going on. Fortunately we can use science to fix that problem. This gif changes the film so that Bigfoot is always in the center of the frame.

The bulk of the commentary on the Patterson-Gimlin film centers around whether it is video of a new species of ape or video of a man in a monkey suit. I'm with the monkey suit crowd. Many documentaries show a scientist studying Bigfoot's gait (the way he walks) in the Patterson-Gimlin film. They attempt to recreate this gait using all sorts of interesting looking technology, each time coming to different conclusions. The truth is that all of that analysis is useless. Roger Patterson failed to take note of the film speed setting of his camera (a Cine-Kodak K-100). The film speed could be anywhere from 16-64 frames/second. Knowing the film speed is essential to understanding the gait. To understand why think of the difference between watching someone pretend to walk slow and watching a slow-motion video of someone walking. You know instantly which is which. It's difficult to fake your gait. However, if we assume 24 frames/second (a setting Patterson claims he usually used) the gait is supposedly the same as a human in a bulky suit.

There is a lot of uncertainty that surrounds the Patterson-Gimlin film. Patterson defended his position until his death in 1970, and Gimilin hold to his story to this day. Although I'd like to believe their personal accounts, that's not how science works. We've also mentioned before that photographic evidence shouldn't be trusted as the primary source of evidence. The Null Hypothesis in this case is that no new species of ape has been discovered. The Patterson-Gimlin film fails to reject the Null Hypothesis.

Ray Wallace: Expert Hoaxer

In 1958 Jerry Crew, a Californian logger, presented the local newspaper with a cast of an enormous foot print they had found while working.  Several other prints were found in the area. While this wasn't the first "evidence" of Bigfoot, it did start a frenzy in the area. These footprints are also where Bigfoot got his name. For many years Bigfoot seemed like the only possible explanation of the prints. That was until 2002, when a man named Ray Wallace died. Ray's brother managed the logging crew that originally found the footprints. When Ray died, his children came forth with the story behind the footprints. Ray had made large wooden feet and made the prints around the logger's work site (supposedly to scare away thieves interested in material on the site).  When the story of Bigfoot took hold Ray also made samples of hair and feces for researchers to find.
Bigfoot skeptics often point to Ray Wallace as proof that Bigfoot isn't real. However, as far as scientific practice goes, this is pretty bad. Just because one man came forward as a hoaxer does not itself prove the entire Bigfoot story is a hoax. I could create a hoax that wolves were traveling through my neighborhood at night. If my hoax were discovered it would not mean that wolves don't exist or even that wolves don't travel through my neighborhood at night. It would only mean that whatever evidence I created is not valid proof of wolves in my neighborhood. Similarly, the Ray Wallace foot prints do not  prove that there is no Bigfoot. It only invalidates all the evidence that Ray Wallace brought forth.1

Sightings of Bigfoot by geographical area
The Distribution of Sightings
One compelling bit of evidence against the existence of Bigfoot is the distribution of Bigfoot sightings. Bigfoot is not contained to just one geographical area. He's found mostly on the Pacific Northwest, but Ohio, Texas, and Florida all have a substantial amount of sightings. For any species to be found in so many places you would either need:
  1. A large population
  2. A migrating population
Both of these make Bigfoot unlikely. A large population would be necessary to keep extinction from happening. If the population is spread out over the entire United States, the population size must be much greater. The other possibility would be a smaller, migrating species. They would be found sometimes in Alaska and sometimes in Florida. If a species of large, ape-like creature had migratory patterns throughout the United States, sightings of this creature would be common.2,3

A more recent Bigfoot sighting!
As I finished writing this article my wife pointed me to a more recent Bigfoot sighting. Hikers in Provo Canyon near Provo, Utah saw what they thought was a bear. However, the monster seemed to stand up and look at them. At this point they run away scared.

To me this video shows...nothing. I can just barely make out something that seems to have black hair. It could be a bear. The hikers say that it wasn't a bear, but if they were really as frightened as they say I don't think you can really trust their account.4 It could be a man in an ape suit. It could be any number of  things. Bigfoot is by far the least likely explanation.

[1] I first heard this criticism listening to this Skeptoid episode. 
[2]  If Bigfoot were migrating through the United States you would expect to see more sightings in the central or southern states. Bigfoot would have to travel through areas like Nebraska or New Mexico where there would be little cover from trees. Their migration would become obvious through these areas. Interestingly enough, these areas are also the places where of fewer Bigfoot sightings. 
[3] Another thought: What would cause a Bigfoot migration from Alaska to Florida? Wouldn't a creature that has evolved to live in the tundra look a little out of place in the tropics? Imagine seeing a caribou in the Bahamas. That's how ridiculous Bigfoot migration would be.
[4] When I was young I was hiking with my brothers. We came upon a small cave and walked inside. I was the first to enter the cave and immediately saw two gleaming eyes and heard a roar. I knew I was looking at a mountain lion. I ran of the cave screaming and didn't stop running until I got home. Nobody else saw or head a mountain lion. Many years later I went back to the cave alone - to face my fear and see what was actually in that cave. As I entered the cave my blood ran cold as I saw the same two gleaming eyes. This time, though, I had a flashlight. As I shined it in the cave I immediately saw that the entire back of the cave was covered in moss. In the low light of the cave the moss seemed to glow like sinister eyes.
So why do I bring this story up? Because I was scared and that changed how my brain interpreted the incoming information. To this day I can see those eyes and hear the roar (even though the roar was most likely in my head the whole time). If the hikers really claim they saw it stand up and look at them (I don't think the video really shows that) their brain could just be fooling them. 

Did I get something wrong? Do you believe in Bigfoot? Do you have any experience with Sasquatch? Please, let me know. Head over to our Facebook page and let me know!