Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bigfoot is your cousin! Or how to make "news" out of nothing

I generally enjoy reading Time magazine because they usually provide thoughtful commentary on serious news. That's why I was rather taken aback when I read a recent article with the sensationalistic title of "Bigfoot Is Part Human, and Here Are the DNA Tests to Prove It, Claims Researcher". The "researcher" in question claims that she somehow obtained DNA from an honest-to-god Sasquatch, ran some fancy tests and came up with the amazing conclusion that Bigfoot is one of our long lost relatives, part-human and part some never before heard of hominid. Oh they do eventually get around to explaining that the so-called researcher is basically a crackpot who cannot back up her claims and then go on to say why no-one is taking her seriously. But that is after spending two paragraphs treating her claims as if they deserve some sort of serious consideration. 

Let's take stock of what this piece of "news" actually contains. Melba Ketchum, a veterinarian, claims that she has unambiguous "proof" that not only does Bigfoot exist, but has modern human ancestry. But the thing is Ketchum refuses to share this "proof" with anyone - she will not share her data, will not explain her methods, and, critically, refuses to explain how she obtained these supposed DNA samples belonging to a creature that no-one has ever been able to even photograph, let alone prove exists.

So, in other words, Ketchum has proved nothing at all. 

The Time article then goes on to explain why respectable scientists do not believe her. Funny that. But does one really need a Ph.D. to realise that when someone makes far-fetched and outlandish claims without providing any reason to believe a word she says, that one should not take her seriously? 

Is this what passes for news now? "Crackpot announces amazing discovery she can't prove, scientists go 'Meh.'" 

Perhaps more concerning than the lack of newsworthiness of this folderol, is the potential for spreading misinformation. There is research evidence that misinformation tends to be "sticky", that is, it remains in memory and tends to influence what people believe. This may be because believing information, even stupid information, is easy, whereas evaluating its credibility and rejecting it takes more effort. What the Time article has done is to present a bold headline that implies that Ketchum's claims are somehow credible. A "researcher" has "proof" - this is what stands out and is easy to remember. The fact that she expects people to take her on her word that her "proof" is real and that she has not allowed anyone to even examine it, is buried in the middle of the article and easily overlooked, especially by busy readers. 

An even more egregious example of Time presenting misinformation as having credibility it does not deserve is a link on the same page as the Ketchum article to a story with the ludicrous title "Scientists ‘95% Sure’ Bigfoot Lives in Russian Tundra". Ooh, now we have "scientists" who are quite positive they have found Bigfoot/the Yeti, how amazing! This tall tale is over a year old, yet there is no mention at all of the rather important detail that one of the scientists on this particular expedition has publicly expressed the opinion that this whole event was carefully staged for publicity and that there was no corroborating evidence they had found anything. The interesting thing here is that this particular scientist, Jeffrey Meldrum, is not even a Bigfoot sceptic  but someone who has seriously searched for evidence of the existence of this elusive creature. Yet anyone reading the Time article only would go away with the impression that there was in fact virtual "proof" that Bigfoot is real when even a Bigfoot enthusiast thinks it was a hoax. 

There are plenty of important real discoveries going on in the world. Stories like this just lend undeserved credibility to pseudoscience and foolishness in my opinion. 

Further reading
Here is an amusing article that provides much more detail about the publicity surrounding Ketchum's claims. 

Update, July 2013: Apparently an independent geneticist has been allowed to analyse the "Bigfoot" sample and guess what? Melba Ketchum's claims turn out to be complete nonsense!
“Bigfoot” Samples Yield Opossum DNA
Funnily enough, the Time article still contains no mention of this important information...

1 comment:

  1. I agree I found an inposed picture of this and zoomed in and found a zipper