Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Ketchum study redux, and why peer review isn't a conspiracy

Well, the peer review is complete on Melba Ketchum's paper claiming she had isolated Bigfoot DNA, and the verdict is:

Fail.  [Source]

No details were released on why the paper failed to pass peer review, but almost certainly it is for the same reason that all failed papers are rejected; flaws in the methodology, data, or inferences, or all three.  The peer review process is there to keep scientists honest; all papers have to be evaluated line-by-line by other scientists in the same field, to make certain that everything is what it seems to be.  Now, to be sure there have been times that flawed papers have slipped through.  Scientists, after all, are only human, and can miss things, make assumptions, make outright mistakes.  But as a process, peer review works pretty damn well at winnowing the grain from the chaff.

Of course, that's not how a lot of Bigfoot enthusiasts see it.  The first to respond was Ketchum's ally, Russian cryptozoologist Igor Burtsev (this is long, but worth reading):
We waited a couple of years the scientific publication by Dr. Melba Ketchum. But scientific magazines refuse to publish her manuscript which deserves to be published. And I want to remind some facts of the destiny of scholars in our field.
Before the First World War our zoologist Vitaly Khahlov described the creature, named it Primihomo asiaticus. He send his scientific report very circumstantial, thorough to the Russian Academy of Sciences. And what? The report was put into the box, and had stayed there till 1959, about half of century. Until Dr. Porshnev found it and published…

I don’t want the new discovery (not the first one, but the next one) to wait for another half a century to be recognised by haughty official scientific establishment!

That is why I broke the tradition, did not let this achievement to wait for near half a century to be recognised. No matter of the publication in the scientific magazine, people should know NOW, what bigfoot/sasquatch is...

Yes, the paper of Dr Ketchum is under reviewing. And it is worth to be published. Just the situation now remindes [sic] me the war between North and South in the beginning of USA history… There are a lot of her supporters as well as a lot of her opponents and even some enemies…

The problem is that some people absolutize the science. Unfortunately science now is too conservative. One third of the population of the USA believes in BFs existing, but academic science even does not want to recognize the problem of their existing or not, just rejecting to discuss this question. In such a condition this subject is under discussion of the broad public. We can’t wait decades when scientists start to study this problem, forest people need to be protect now, not after half a century, when science wakes up.

Re the paper: the reviewed journals in the US refused to publish the paper. That is why Dr Ketchum has sent it to me to arrange publishing in any Russian reviewed journal. And I showed to our geneticists and understood that it was a serious work. I gave it up to the journal, now it’s under reviewing.

Anyway, I informed public about the results of the study. The public waited for this info for more than a year, a lot of rumors were spreading around. And the public has the right to know it nevertheless “science” says about it.
And this was mild when compared with the reaction from the cryptozoological wing of the blogosphere.  Science, it's claimed, is one vast conspiracy, where the scientists who are in the Inner Circles suppress good science that is outside of the current paradigm.  "Smash the heretics!" is, apparently, the battle cry of scientists in general, and peer review boards in particular.  Nothing must be allowed to run against the current model -- and the existence of Sasquatch would overturn everything.  So, at all costs, scientists must squelch any paper that tries to claim that Bigfoot exists.

Reading all of this, my reaction is: do you people actually know any working scientists?  Because it sure as hell sounds like you've never met one.

First of all, the claim that the scientists themselves would squash a legitimate claim solely because it runs counter to the current paradigm is absurd.  In fact, the opposite is true -- the scientists I know are actively looking for new, undiscovered features of our universe to explain.  That's how careers are made!  No working scientist I've ever run into does his/her work with the goal of simply reinforcing the preexisting edifice.  As Neil DeGrasse Tyson put it, "If you're not at the drawing board, you're not doing science.  You're doing something else."  Can you imagine how many papers, grants, and projects would come out of studying a newly-discovered proto-hominid, especially one that in all likelihood would be the nearest living relative of Homo sapiens?  Do you seriously think that the world's evolutionary biologists and primatologists would try to suppress such a discovery just because they're so happy with what they're already doing?

Second, remember where the supposed "scientific edifice" came from.  Virtually all of the pieces of the main scientific model in any field you choose came from someone overturning the previous model.  Consider why names like Darwin, Mendel, Einstein, and Newton are household words.  In each case, it's because they did the scientific version of tearing the house down -- and then rebuilding it from the ground up.  Significantly, though, none of the giants of scientific discovery did so by playing outside the rules.  They used data and the process of scientific induction to show us that the way we were looking at things was wrong (or at least incomplete).  Scientists are not ignorant about their own history -- and the vast majority of them would be delighted to be the next Einstein of their field.

Third, and more specific to the case of Bigfoot; even if there was some sort of grand conspiracy amongst scientists to Protect the Dominant Paradigm, why would Bigfoot represent such a threat?  As I have said more than once in this blog: new species are discovered daily.  There is nothing particularly earthshattering about the idea that one of those as-yet undiscovered species is a near relative of ours.  If such a creature were proven to exist, it would be cool; as I mentioned earlier, my guess is that the zoologists would be elbowing each other out of the way to get dibs on studying it first, not running the other way shouting "la-la-la-la-la, not listening."  But as woo-woo claims go, Bigfoot is the one that would cause the least revision to our current scientific view of the world.  It would add a new branch to the primate tree; it would require some revisiting of humanity's evolutionary descent.  And that's all.  Proof of just about any other claim of this sort -- UFOs, ghosts, telepathy, even the Loch Ness Monster -- would force a far greater revision of our current understanding of natural processes.

Anyhow, I'd like to think that this is the last we'll hear from Ketchum et al.  Whether Bigfoot is out there remains to be seen, but apparently the Ketchum study isn't going to be the one to prove it, so it's to be hoped that they'll just bow out gracefully.  I know, unfortunately, that the conspiracy theorists won't do likewise.  They never run out of energy, more's the pity.

1 comment:

  1. Actually, the discovery of bigfoot would be much more revolutionary than your average large hominid, because it would also require an explanation of where it found food, how it had managed to exist for so long without ever one being killed by a hunter, or remains being found, or captured on a game camera, or...

    It would be like discovering that an elephant had lived in Grand Central Station since 1904 and somehow nobody noticed. The implications go beyond biology.