DNA Study says Bigfoot is real – but not so fast


It's a rare joy when I get to do a classic double-take, and today's homage to classic comic theatre came from this National Post headline: "Bigfoot real and the result of human women mating with an 'unknown hominin,' claims U.S. study."

Upon reading further, I was relieved to discover that this apparent inter-breeding happened around 15,000 years ago, so I could banish the thought of lonely women, despondent over the lack of suitable men these days, going out into the arboreal forests to find love.

According to the original press release about the study:

A team of scientists can verify that their 5-year long DNA study, currently under peer-review, confirms the existence of a novel hominin hybrid species, commonly called 'Bigfoot' or 'Sasquatch,' living in North America. Researchers' extensive DNA sequencing suggests that the legendary Sasquatch is a human relative that arose approximately 15,000 years ago as a hybrid cross of modern Homo sapiens with an unknown primate species.

That's quite a claim, especially coming from research that is still under peer review. Peer review is a method of self-regulation that the scientific community uses to examine the research and determine if there are any problems with the underlying theory that supports the research, the methodology used to test the researchers' hypothesis, the results that were obtained, or the conclusions the researchers' drew from their results.

The reviewers usually offer suggestions for any problems they find, and give a specific recommendation for the editor of the publication the research has been submitted to, which is usually one of the following four options: 1) unconditionally accept the paper, 2) accept it if the authors improve it in the recommended ways, 3) reject it, but ask for it to be revised and resubmitted, or 4) reject it outright. The system isn't perfect, but it's very good.

This paper hasn't undergone this process yet, so we haven't heard from any other experts in the field, and we don't even know the identity of the authors except for the lead author, Dr. Melba S. Ketchum. Why are we even hearing about this right now? Typically scientists don't make press announcements before their paper is published, because there is no way for anyone to read the work and see it for themselves.

The original announcement that prompted Dr. Ketchum to issue this press release was made by Igor Burtsev, who runs the International Center of Hominology. Burtsev has a vested interest in these kinds of results, because he has been searching for the Yeti for years. This isn't even the first time he's made broad claims about such a story, which were much more enthusiastic than the researchers who performed the work.

It would be nice to have the research paper to read for ourselves, but we're denied that (for now, at least) — which only leaves us with pure speculation to talk about.

Putting aside the claimed results for a moment, there are still plenty of questions. Where did the DNA samples come from? Who collected them? Under what conditions where they stored until they were passed on to Dr Ketchum for her study? Was sample contamination addressed in the study? Are the claims of the people who had the samples credible? Is the research paper even written yet? If so, which journal has it been submitted to? Who are the other researchers involved in the study, and what are their credentials?

Then there are the purported results. As stated by Dr. Steven Novella on the NeuroLogica Blog, "human DNA plus some anomalies or unknowns does not equal an impossible human-ape hybrid. It equals human DNA plus some anomalies."

For me, I'm disappointed in Dr. Ketchum for issuing her press release in the first place. As far as I'm concerned, her response to Burtsev's announcement should have simply been "the research is under peer review, and I will discuss the results when the paper is published" rather than this equally sweeping proclamation:

Genetically, the Sasquatch are a human hybrid with unambiguously modern human maternal ancestry. Government at all levels must recognize them as an indigenous people and immediately protect their human and Constitutional rights against those who would see in their physical and cultural differences a 'license' to hunt, trap, or kill them.

This isn't how science is conducted.

If you want your research to be called science rather than pseudoscience, follow the rules of science.

What if it turns out that the research is rejected? That, no matter who they showed the study to, the other experts in the field saw no merit to the research or the results? Well, it's already in the public consciousness, with no supporting evidence, and that's exactly where pseudoscience loves to be.

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