Pulling Our Foot:

The Sasquatch Museum

   By Ted Clay   
Last summer Oregonians for Rationality member Ted Clay visited his local natural history museum and wrote the following review of their Bigfoot exhibit.

The Pacific Northwest Museum of Natural History in Ashland, Oregon opened its doors on July 5, 1994, with fixed exhibits of Northwest ecosystems, a discovery room, a shop and a space for temporary exhibits. It opened with huge debts, had to charge high admission fees, and saw declining attendance over the following three years. The final temporary exhibit was called "Sasquatch: Fact or Fiction." Even after the museum officially closed at the end of August 1997, the telephone answering system continued to include the choice "... and press 7 to report a Bigfoot sighting."

This article is reprinted with permission of Lithiagraph in Ashland, Oregon, which first published it in their October 1997 issue.

A trail of large footprints led me to join the thousands of other curious folks who viewed the Sasquatch Exhibit at the Pacific Northwest Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, in spite of the popularity of the Sasquatch exhibit, the museum closed its doors on Sunday, August 31, the day that Princess Diana died. Like Diana, photos and stories of Bigfoot are a sure-fire attention grabber. Unfortunately, after getting our attention the museum treated this topic by the same rule it treated so many others: Avoid Controversy.

I am not one of those who criticized the museum for mixing Bigfoot and Science under the same roof. I found it fascinating. What I regret is that the museum did not take the opportunity to challenge people to use their eyes, ears and brains to their fullest. Join us as we proceed through the exhibit. Accompanying me on my tour of the Sasquatch exhibit were my 10-year-old son Paul and my 14-year-old goddaughter Emily, visiting from Madison, Wisconsin. While I slowly pondered the logic of hypothesis, evidence and conclusion, they quickly sized up one display after another with "That's so fake," "That sounds just like a person," or "Totally bogus." I encouraged them to examine the evidence closely before jumping to a conclusion. But I'm glad they did not come out of the exhibit like some other folks, thoroughly convinced that they had seen scientific proof of Bigfoot.

As you began, you encountered a picture of a Coelacanth fish which was presumed extinct until it was found in the Indian Ocean. This was background to tell us that it is not inconceivable that Sasquatch is out there waiting to be discovered. Next we read a description of the scientific method: Observation, Question, Experiment, Results, Conclusion, and a few words from the late Carl Sagan, author of The Demon-Haunted World, Science as a Candle in the Dark. No pseudoscience here. No siree.

Sightings

The first item to really draw me in was a photo of Bigfoot standing in a pool of water. My kids laughed at it and hurried along. I stood there a long time, studying it closely. It shows a hairy hulk of a beast, out of focus, standing in a pool or stream and looking into the camera. A tree on the opposite bank was reflected in the water. The reflection was in focus and also was perfectly straight. There were no ripples on the water. Let's see now - Bigfoot avoids human contact, but he is willing to stand still, posing for this photo long enough for the ripples in the water to die down. Hmmm. It pays to look and think, but am I the only person to see this? Couldn't the exhibit have given people even a hint that this was faked?

I would be excited to learn of some real physical evidence of a new species. In particular, with modern methods of DNA analysis we can determine whether some hair actually came from a known species. We were shown a photograph of a Bigfoot house, in which "hairs were found." An article on the wall mentioned that Paul Fuerst, a molecular biologist in Ohio, is conducting analyses of hair samples. The article, dated January 1996, says "the results should be completed by the end of the month." So the results surely are in by now, aren't they? What did they say? Did anyone follow up on this one? Another lost opportunity. Oh well, must hurry along. Kids are waiting.

Around the other side of the wall, people were sitting watching a repeating short video. I could hear the grandfatherly voice of Professor Grover Krantz of Washington State University in Pullman telling me, "I'm convinced these creatures exist, for a variety of reasons. First of all ..." I decided to save this for later.

The footprints

The real direct evidence of Bigfoot is ... big feet. They were in the form of plaster casts of footprints in a glass case along one side of the room. There they were. Either these were fakes, or there really is a big creature out there in the woods. We were shown for comparison other big feet, such as a bear's or a large human basketball shoe. Bigfoot sure does have big feet, and they sure are different from a bear's. The display addressed the question "Are these feet big?" Yes, but who made them? The key question is "Are these feet real?" The possibility that these are fakes was never mentioned anywhere.

The heart of science is curiosity. The rest is persistence and the desire not to be fooled, even by yourself. On these points the exhibit fell short. Apparently no one had done a simple literature search. If they had, they would have turned up an article in the Skeptical Inquirer, Fall of 1994, titled "Bigfoot evidence: Are these tracks real?" by Michael R. Dennett. Turns out things are not quite the way the professor says they are. Krantz claims to know "two sasquatch traits that I have never revealed to anyone." After Krantz certified as real a print from Bloomington, Indiana, the author of the Skeptical Inquirer article tracked down one J.W. Parker, the true Bigfoot in this case. Mr. Dennett writes:

"After an eight-month effort I was able to talk with Parker, then living on the East Coast. He told me the footprint was a fake ... "It took about twenty minutes to form the print in the mud," he [Parker] said. The dermal ridges came from his foot and hands, placed in areas where the "least amount of wear or abrasion would occur." What about the "two traits"? "Oh," Parker replied, "I wasn't sure about that. I thought they might be toenails and scars, so I added both." Parker also told me he made "the ball of the foot appear deeper near the inside of the foot to simulate the weight-bearing area during a light push-off." At the last minute, he embedded the shell of an American black walnut where the fifth toe would have been to make the print look more realistic."

How about a display in the exhibit under the title "Faked Foot Declared Genuine"? It would show a cast of the Bloomington footprint, a quotation by Professor Krantz explaining why it meets all his criteria for a true Sasquatch footprint, and the above paragraph, all in large, readable type.

Talkin' Bigfoot

Imagine being presented with a set of buttons labeled "Poor-will," "Cougar," "Elk," and "Sasquatch." Cutting right to the chase, I pushed the last button and got to hear the "Sound of Bigfoot Talking." It was a rapid sequence of grunts and higher sounds, some of which struck me as very human, and some which did not. Like Paul and Emily, I had the very strong impression that I was listening to a human being who was trying very hard to sound like something else and succeeding only part of the time.

However, up on the board in front of me was a computer-generated graph presenting an analysis of the sounds. It showed that the points representing the sounds lie outside, let me repeat, OUTSIDE, the 95% probability bounds of the voice of an ordinary adult human male. (Congratulations if you took in anything I just wrote after the word "outside." That's an example of "spin.") The logical flaw is that a normal human male could fake sounds outside the 95% range and would do so, without even trying, 5% of the time. The question is not "Does this sound like a normal human male?" but "Could this be faked?". Perhaps the buttons should have been "Joe Blow faking Sasquatch," "John Doe faking Sasquatch," "Fast-talking Fred faking Sasquatch," and "Sasquatch." Opportunity lost.

The tape is sold by Mr. Al Berry. Let's get back to using our ears. You could almost hear a conversation going on between two individuals, one with a higher voice, one with a lower voice, quickly alternating back and forth. It almost sounded like a domestic quarrel. "Hey did you invite this jerk with a microphone?" "Yes, you said he was cool." "No I didn't." "Yes you did." Ahhh, the opportunities.

A walk on the wild side

The last stop in this whirlwind tour allowed you to get off your feet and watch some TV. The video has a British-accented commentator - Revolution or no Revolution, they still have the voice of authority - and features Professor Krantz, the most famous expert on Sasquatch. But the star of the film is Ms. Bigfoot. In 1968, cowboy Bob Gimlin, with his buddy Roger Johnson, took a movie of Sasquatch walking along the far side of Bluff Creek in northern California. First she came out of the woods, then walked into full view, casting a backwards over-the-shoulder glance at the camera and continued to walk away until out of sight. The younger generation, Paul and Emily, summed it up with, "It walked just like a person." I agree. If you squinted closely at the wall to the right of the video, you could read that there is also a suspicious connection to a costume designer for Planet of the Apes. Also, biologists pointed out that male apes have the "sagittal crest," females have breasts, while this Sasquatch has both. But hey, Bigfoot could be, you know, different.

I would add my own perspective: If there were going to be a close encounter between cowboys and a slow-walking Sasquatch, what are the chances that the cowboy would be carrying a movie camera and not a gun? I would estimate that the ones carrying a gun would outnumber the ones carrying a movie camera by 1000 to 1. Maybe I'm way off - let's do a survey at the next rodeo. I know this isn't a polite thing to say, (ssshhh, we were in a science museum) but logic leads me to the conclusion that with high probability, Bob Gimlin, that wholesome-looking cowboy saddling up his horse while talking on the video, dog at side, friend to man and beast, is a flat-out liar.

The final vote

Meanwhile, back at the exhibit, on the way out we all had to walk through a man-made spooky dark forest of Sasquatch-land to emerge into the bright light of the museum lobby. There you are asked to cast your ballot. Is Bigfoot Real? Yes, No or Don't Know. The kids had no problem. As my eyes adjusted to the light, they focused on yet another quote from my mentor Carl Sagan, admonishing me that "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." To put that in lay terms, even if every bit of evidence in favor of Bigfoot turns out to be pure crap, that doesn't prove that he is not real. I am basically skeptical, but I have to respect logic. I voted "Don't Know." As it turns out, about 50% of the votes were for "Yes," 28% "Maybe," and 22% "No."

The museum staff were reportedly "shocked" at these results. I'm not. My son Paul and goddaughter Emily both voted a vigorous "No." In fact, they were quite upset when they found out that the "Yes" votes outnumbered the "No" by such a landslide. In this show of hands about the show of feet, the "Ayes" have it, but do the eyes and ears have it?

On another day, I came back to the exhibit and conducted quick interviews of a dozen or so people as they came out. If they voted "Yes," I was interested to know what evidence they gave the most weight. A group of kids came out and they chimed in that it was "the feet" that convinced them. They had never heard of footprints ever being faked. Another thought the video of the walking female Bigfoot was the most convincing. Another said, "There are so many sightings." For another girl, it was "the scat" (I missed this but there was a jar of "purported Bigfoot scat." Did she know what the "purported" means?). A man whose vote was "Naaah," when asked what evidence he found hardest to dismiss, said the "eye-witness accounts."

Getting real

The way we actually conclude that something does not exist is not simple. With all due respects for Carl Sagan, his statement "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" only works in a black-and-white world. Absence of evidence does increase the probability of absence. While presenting the hokey evidence, the Sasquatch Exhibit never made the following point clear: No DNA evidence for Bigfoot has ever been found, no hair, no head mounted on a hunter's wall, no tooth handed down by the Indians, no corpse, no bones. Perhaps such a bold statement of fact would have seemed rude, strangely out of place.

The "No Controversy" theme pervaded the museum. A video showed the Science Guy getting excited about protecting wetlands, while the enormous environmental issues of this region, the protection of old-growth forests, was avoided. "Wilderness" was presented as a snowy mountain top with not a single marketable tree in sight. That's playing it politically safe, isn't it? So safe, in fact, that the "Natural" in the Pacific Northwest may eventually be "History," with nothing left to protect or appreciate.

Wishful thinking can be pleasant. We would love to believe that there is a huge hunk of virgin forest out there, supporting a viable population of gigantic apes. My family and I recently returned from a trip around much of Washington and Oregon. When you peer beyond the narrow "scenic" strips of the trees that line the road, you see that the national forests are in terrible shape. I didn't see Bigfoot, but I did see Jack the Big Ripoff. Perhaps the myth of Bigfoot is like a scenic strip, protecting our minds from unpleasant realities.

We all want to see a new science museum emerge from the ashes of this one. I hope it will be more willing to be controversial, more flexible and changing, more skeptical, and staffed by more scientists. Perhaps it will live up to the museum slogan which blared from the billboards along I-5: "Get Real."

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 2000 Oregonians for Rationality