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Sham Science

by Donald Prothero, Oct 30 2013

In a previous post, I discussed the saga of the infamous “Bigfoot DNA” study by Melba Ketchum, a Texas veterinarian and staunch believer in Bigfoot. There was lots of gossip about it in the cryptozoology community for several years, then it was officially announced to the press (long before any supporting evidence was published) last fall. When it was finally “published” last spring, it was raised all sorts of red flags with the absurd claims that her Bigfoot samples were uncontaminated (yet all the evidence showed that it was), the lack of evidence that the hairs and tissues truly could be proven to come from Bigfoot, and the claim that Bigfoot was some sort of weird hybrid between modern humans and prehistoric populations. The study was highly suspect, because Ketchum self-published it in an online journal that she secretly owned, and there was no peer review. Her samples were finally analyzed by an independent genetics lab last summer, and the results were clear: her original analysis was completely incompetent, and she made all sorts of fundamental mistakes and false assumptions that no well-trained geneticist would make. After all that fanfare, her specimens  only showed a mix of  modern human hairs and tissues, along with those of other North American mammals, especially opossums.

Sharon Hill has pointed out that lots of pseudoscientists and followers of the paranormal try to act “sciencey”, or practice what she called “sham science”: they mimic the trappings of science (white lab coats, fancy lab equipment and glassware, exotic toys like night-vision goggles and camera traps), yet the fail to follow the basic methods of science. They are akin to the “cargo cults” in Polynesia at the end of World War II, whose islands became military bases and airstrips in service of the war effort. When the war ended and the military left, the islanders built imitation wooden  “airplanes”, “control towers” and even “radio masts”, thinking that if they reproduced the shape of these objects, they would magically bring back the military planes and all their cargo full of goodies. In the case of cryptozoology, there are many instances where these pseudoscientists fail to follow the basic methods of science, but the most obvious is that if an object is not yet explained, it is not necessarily paranormal!  The basic assumption in science is that the unexplained is not unexplainable, just not yet fully explained—but eventually these unexplained phenomena are explained by natural processes. We see this every time another object is claimed to be “Bigfoot hair” (rather than just hair that is not yet identified) or an image is touted as “an unexplained black shape that may be Bigfoot” (rather than “an unexplained black shape whose identity cannot be determined”). They jump to the conclusion and assume what is to be proved, rather than following the scientific method and reserving judgment until something is fully investigated. When they hear a strange sight or sound, they say “It’s Bigfoot!”, when the scientist would say “What is it? Let’s investigate all the possibilities.”

The same is true of creationists, who argue that if science hasn’t explained something yet (at least to their satisfaction), then it can’t be explained, and therefore God did it (the “God of the gaps” argument). They never seem to realize that as science explains more and more, their God becomes less and less useful, and the argument is ultimately a loser–as well as being unscientific.

But back to Melba Ketchum. As of last summer, her “Bigfoot DNA” has been shredded by the scientific community, and her work is now a laughingstock among scientists who follow such things. So did she slink back to her cave and lick her wounds? NO! Like any good pseudoscientist, she doubled down on the stupid. Last week she made a big announcement (in conjunction with some blurry photos claimed to show Bigfoot in Pennsylvania) about her DNA study, as if there were no previous scientific debunking out there. The press, ever eager for a headline and too lazy and gullible to do research, bought her silly claim and gave her lots of free publicity without even bothering to do the simplest web search to find out if her “results” had even been evaluated by scientists. (It’s easy enough to do: just search “Bigfoot DNA Ketchum” and the critical studies pop up near the top of the list).

Her latest announcement is so bizarre, it makes you suspicious that it’s a Poe (a parody of an argument so weird that it’s hard to tell the parody from the original). But no, she’s dead serious. She thinks her crummy “Bigfoot DNA” (never substantiated) is good enough evidence to give Bigfoot a scientific name! Talk about sham science! Once again, the pseudoscientists think that if they try to do something that imitates the scientific method (e.g., name their cryptid as a new species), it  somehow gives their lousy data more credibility. But just like the cargo cults, they reveal their complete lack of understanding of the rules of classification by botching the procedure as completely as one could imagine. She and her co-authors have just put in a request to reserve the name “Homo sapiens cognatus” for her Bigfoot finds!

As I’ve pointed out in several previous posts, the rules of taxonomic nomenclature are very strict and very specific. One of these rules is the principle of priority: the first name applied to an organism is the proper name, and all later names are junior synonyms. Ketchum needs to get in line, because Bernard Heuvelmanns, one of the founders of cryptozoology, had already applied the name Homo pongoidis to the non-existent Bigfoot, based on even poorer material. Several others have also proposed names for “their” Bigfoot “evidence”.  Ketchum is so unfamiliar not only with the rules of taxonomy, but even the history of her own field of cryptozoology, that she didn’t realize that there already was a name in the literature, and her name becomes invalid as a junior synonym. But more crucial than this: the rules of taxonomy require  that any new named taxon be based on real material, including a “type specimen” preserved in some museum where future researchers can study it. Sorry, Melba, but a handful of hairs that are genetically identical to modern humans or opossums doesn’t cut it. For the scientific community to take the name seriously, she would have to produce a carcass or at least enough body parts so that the species could be distinguished from other living primates.

This is not the first time cryptozoologists jumped the gun, and proposed names for animals that don’t exist (and therefore are not recognized by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature). The alleged British Columbia sea monster was formally “described” as Cadborosaurus willsi, but the entire study is invalid since there is no type specimen. The Loch Ness monster was named “Nessipteras rhombopteryx” based on a single blurry photograph of bubbles underwater that (with lots of photo enhancement and increased contrast) some people thinks looks like a flipper.  The Code even cites this example as a demonstration of bad practice:

Names are not available for hypothetical concepts, teratological specimens, hybrid specimens, generally for names below the rank of subspecies (see also Article 10.2; 45.5-6), temporary names, and after 1930 for the work of animals (e.g. nests and tracks, see also Article 13) (Article 1.3). E.g. the name €œNessiteras rhombopteryx€ coined for the mythical Loch Ness Monster by Sir Peter Scott and Robert Rines in the journal Nature (vol. 258, pp. 466-468) is unavailable because it is a hypothetical concept.

As many people have noted, the taxonomic name Nessipteras rhombopteryx is also an anagram for “Monster hoax by Sir Peter S”!

So Ketchum’s new name for Bigfoot joins a long line of useless names that are already consigned to the taxonomic wastebasket as nomina nuda, or “naked names”—names which are missing some required attribute (such as a real specimen of the creature). And once again, the cryptozoologists demonstrate their complete incompetence in the basic principles of biology, something that any undergrad biology major should know. Clearly, they are just aping scientific ideas and practicing “sham science,” not real science.

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11 Responses to “Sham Science”

  1. Joel says:

    If the associated cryptids actually existed, would /Homo pongoidis/, or /Nessipteras rhombopteryx/ or whatever really get priority, given that their descriptions were invalid?

  2. Rob says:

    You know, giving it a species name might be a good idea, especially if widely publicized.

    I vote for Ketchum moronii

  3. tmac57 says:

    Is the name ‘Gottaketchumal’ taken?

  4. Antonio Paris 9Aerial Phenomena) says:

    Great article – the same can be told about many UFO groups claiming “the scientific study of UFOs”. For example, pointing a night vision camera at some secret military base and yelling “there’s something fishy going on in there” is NOT an investigation.

  5. Loren Petrich says:

    That’s Nessiteras rhombopteryx. No first p. I’ve checked it and the anagram does indeed work.

    As to Melba Ketchum, why hasn’t she gotten a DNA test? I would not be surprised if much of the human DNA in her alleged Bigfoot samples was hers.

  6. Peter says:

    From that quote
    “Sharon Hill has pointed out that lots of pseudoscientists and followers of the paranormal try to act “sciencey”,”

    It looks to me that it’s pretty much the same as the Cargo Cult Science Richar feynman described. I prefer the wae Feynman describe it because he adds something that is the uttermost important for me, morale that goes with science. Science goes implicitly with honesty and trying to not lure yourself and therefoe the people you’re are in contat with.

    But just read what he wrote :

    http://www.lhup.edu/~DSIMANEK/cargocul.htm

    “Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing.
    But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea
    Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some
    wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling
    them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one
    feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science.
    That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying
    science in school–we never explicitly say what this is, but just
    hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific
    investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now
    and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity,
    a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of
    utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if
    you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you
    think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about
    it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and
    things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other
    experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can
    tell they have been eliminated.”

  7. Peter says:

    From that quote
    “Sharon Hill has pointed out that lots of pseudoscientists and followers of the paranormal try to act “sciencey”,”

    It looks to me that it’s pretty much the same as the Cargo Cult Science Richard Feynman described. I prefer the way Feynman described it because he adds something that is of the uttermost important for me, moral that goes with science. For example, science goes implicitly with some kind of utter honesty and trying to not lure yourself and therefore people you’re are in contat with.

    But just read what he wrotes :

    (Full text can be found at) http://www.lhup.edu/~DSIMANEK/cargocul.htm

    “Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing.
    But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea
    Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some
    wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling
    them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one
    feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science.
    That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying
    science in school–we never explicitly say what this is, but just
    hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific
    investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now
    and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity,
    a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of
    utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if
    you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you
    think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about
    it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and
    things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other
    experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can
    tell they have been eliminated.”

  8. Peter says:

    Sorry for the double post, the second has fewer spelling issues :D

  9. Jerrold Alpern says:

    The prehistoric, artistic, intelligent giant kraken has resurfaced: http://www.nbcnews.com/science/kraken-rises-new-fossil-evidence-revives-sea-monster-debate-8C11507013 ! Perhaps you could include a chapter on cryptopaleozoology (paleocryptozoology?) in the next edition.

  10. The idea that Bush, not Obama, was responsible for putting these programs in place came up time and again.