Brian Dunning, the entertaining and affable host of Skeptoid, has a great rant about cryptozoology over at the Skepticblog.  And, he's absolutely right that the way cryptozoology shows are presented damages scientific literacy in the public. 

It also reminded me of my personal favorite cryptozoology moment from the Discovery Channel series X-Creatures episode "Bigfoot and Yeti" in 2001.  For those of you not down with the Bigfoot debate, the so-called Patterson-Gimlin film is considered the most important evidence describing Bigfoot.  As a result, the authenticity of the video and its subject has been major source of debate between advocates and skeptics.

Advocates argue that, among other characteristics, that the gait of the video subject ("Patty"1 to those in the know) is not a human gait.  On that episode of X-Creatures, they interviewed the leading Bigfoot advocate at the time, physical anthropologist Grover Krantz.  Fortunately, I was able to find a transcript of the show here2.  Grover Krantz on the Bigfoot gait from the Patterson-Gimlin film:
The Patterson subject walks with the body leaning forward [Krantz is shown imitating the gait of bigfoot], and knees largely bent, so that when it takes a step it supports the leg with a bent knee--and keeps both feet on the ground for an unusual length of time. It also lifts the foot very high behind each step, like so [he demonstrates].

In addition to all those things, it also swings the arms, which is very difficult to imitate, like this [he demonstrates, as a child laughs off-camera].

Well, this is something I can do for a few steps, rather poorly, but the Patterson subject did it for over 300 feet. I doubt that any human being can be trained to do that.
While demonstrating the gait, Krantz is telling us that a human being cannot imitate the gait.  I like to imagine that it was this cognitive dissonance at which the child is laughing.  As for his inability to keep up the gait, bear in mind several things:

    1. It is difficult to estimate limits of human endurance until directly tested.

    2. The Patterson-Gimlin film contains no frames of reference to judge height, weight, or distance by.  So 300 feet is an extremely rough estimate.

    3. At the time of the interview, Krantz would have been around 70 and would die in 2002 of pancreatic cancer.  His own ability to maintain a gait for more than a few steps says nothing about the general plausability of walking any distance in that manner.

In fact, the Discovery Channel's Best Evidence tested Krantz's statement, "I doubt that any human being can be trained to do that."  Specialists at Stanford in gait analysis successfully trained an actor to recreate the gait from the film.  Oops.  Which brings us to the fallback position of the cryptozealots.  One with which an honest skeptic won't be able to argue.  No one has ever exactly duplicated the walk, the costume, etc. from the Patterson-Gimlin film.

The Skeptics set themselves up a bit on this one.  The focus on "debunking" - showing that a supposedly paranormal phenomenon can be recreated with entirely natural means - has implied that a failure to recreate a phenomenon is evidence that the phenomenon is real.  The truth is exact replication of a singular phenomenon is almost impossible.  In order to scientifically conduct a replication test, the detail of replication required for replication to have been achieved must be specified ahead of time.  Instead, Bigfoot advocates always fallback on any discrepancy that can be found, even if those differences are just the product of random noise.

Personally, I think it would be really cool if there was a Bigfoot, Yeti, and aliens in UFOs.  While it is a philosophical impossibility for science to prove that something does not exist, the existence of  cyptozoological creatures is amenable to the scientific method.  The scientific approach is to assume that there is no new phenomenon and that all the "evidence" is from known, natural processes.  The alternative hypothesis is that the "evidence" is from formally unknown creature.  The problem is that they assume the existence of the creature as the default (null hypothesis) and it becomes incumbent on the skeptics to prove that the creature does not exist.  

And that leads to advocates like Krantz making foolish spectacles of themselves in front of the camera.


1: It has been decided that the film subject is female, because it has "pendulous" breasts, which are not seen in male primatesa.

2: The blog author, Zoobie, does not appear to understand all the details about how blogging works.

a: Apparently, they have never seen an old boys loose-head prop with his shirt off.

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