Bigfoot DNA results are textbook example of being blinded by belief

This is a must read. It’s what I have been waiting for – an easy to understand, thorough review of the Melba Ketchum Sasquatch DNA paper. This will explain a good part of the problems with the science – the faulty methods, the issue of sham inquiry (having the conclusion fit the data), the hazards of working outside your area of expertise and, perhaps most damning, Ketchum’s disconnect with reality and extreme hubris.

How the attempt to sequence “Bigfoot’s genome” went badly off track | Ars Technica.

John Timmer, a former researcher in biology says:

Fundamentally, the scientific problems with the work seem to go back to the fact that some of the key steps—sample processing and preparation—were done by forensic scientists. As the name itself implies, forensic science is, like more general sciences, heavily focused on evidence, reproducibility, and other aspects shared with less applied sciences. But unlike genetics for example, forensic science is very goal-oriented. That seems to be what caused the problems here.

He describes how her conviction that no contamination occurred misled her interpretation of the results.

In this case, there was no need for careful examination; the results the team got from the DNA was a mix of warning signs that things weren’t right (internally inconsistent information) and things that simply didn’t make any sense. But Ketchum believed so strongly in the rigor of the forensic procedures that she went with the results regardless of the problems. In fact, it seemed as if almost everything unusual about the samples was interpreted as a sign that there was something special about them.

He also makes clear that the results clearly showed many red flags that she was on the wrong track but she didn’t see them. Was she was too blinded by her goals? The article contains quotes from an interview with Ketchum that reveal her encounters with the creatures and her desire to prove they exist and must be protected. She is CERTAIN that she is done that. No scientists should ever be certain – they should propose their idea and allow the world to critique it. In her misplaced desire to believe, Ketchum has instead steamrolled over ethics, quest for truth and the careful process of scientific inquiry.

After an hour-long phone conversation, there was no question about whether Ketchum is sincere in her belief that bigfoot exists and if her data conclusively proves that it’s worthy of protection. But, at the same time, it’s almost certainly this same sincerity that drove her to look past the clear problems with her proof.

Timmer also remarks on the obvious problem I also noticed with the results – how the creature’s genetics does not fit into an evolutionary framework. It makes no sense for an animal to not closely match things to which it is related. Because of its weirdness, we got that bizarre idea that this is “angel” DNA. Ketchum is supposedly a believer in the Nephilim idea. If this is the case, she could have religious motivations to show a very special being exists that DISPROVES evolution but bolsters the case for supernatural intervention.

He repeats the experiment done by David Winter (see this post) in checking the sequences himself and finding obvious issues. This, and his subsequent explanation for why the data likely looks the way it does seals the case for me that Ketchum probably had good intent but utterly failed at doing science here.

I expect Ketchum to have a suitable ridiculous response as she did with the other test that showed her results were flawed and also her silly response to the finding of hoax papers listed as references.

This incident is an interesting and VERY informative case of how not to do research. It also reveals that the Sasquatch field is anchored in a shifting, unstable, fantasy-based foundation of belief. This case should be used as a textbook example of sham inquiry and pseudoscience.

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  8 comments for “Bigfoot DNA results are textbook example of being blinded by belief

  1. Tulli Monstrum
    July 8, 2013 at 12:20 PM

    I’m not sure one can call this “pseudoscience”. I don’t think the Ketchum affair can be characterised as people pretending to do science who aren’t but rather people who did their science ignoring Occam’s Razor with more than a hint of confirmatory bias. So this is more (spectacularly) badly done science rather than “pseudoscience”.

  2. One Eyed Jack
    July 8, 2013 at 1:34 PM

    Critiques like this are vital to the continued health of good science. Poor science and sham inquiry need to be exposed for what they are. Sciences is hard. Science is demanding. That’s what makes it powerful. When standards relax and sloppy work is allowed, Science loses credibility.

    We’re already fighting politicians and corporate interests that are actively working to suppress and subvert scientific results. See Michael Mann’s new book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Hockey-Stick-Climate-Wars-Dispatches/dp/023115254X/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1373304630&sr=1-3&keywords=michael+mann

    We don’t need stuff like this muddying the waters as well.

    Thank-you for covering this so well, Sharon.

  3. July 8, 2013 at 1:48 PM

    Ketchum substitutes science with delusion. But then so do paranormalists, ufologists, etc.

  4. Scott auden
    July 8, 2013 at 2:02 PM

    I’m not convinced Ketchum Isn’t a simple con artist. She’s evidently made a fair amount of money already, positioned herself to make more, and made herself a celebrity. If she’s just a true believer misled by her convictions, why the nondisclosure agreements, the huge lead-up, and constant hype?

  5. Donald Prothero
    July 8, 2013 at 8:21 PM

    Great article, Sharon! My own comments on the topic appear on SkepticBlog on Wed. July 10.

  6. Michael
    July 10, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    I’m a ‘Believer’ (In Bigfoot as a real species of animal) But as this critique shows, the Bigfoot claim needs real effective science, done by scientists of recognized repute and expertise. One of the reasons Melba Ketchum was relied on, to assess the evidence given her, is that no such reputable scientists dare touch this. In my view, the skeptic attitude is partly to blame for this.

    To quote Sharon:

    “It also reveals that the Sasquatch field is anchored in a shifting, unstable, fantasy-based foundation of belief.”

    While I understand – and accept the truth – of this description of the Bigfoot scene, the downside of this attitude and description (because widely held) means that the simple straightforward claim – that an animal species unrecognized by science, exists – is not treated on the simple level of physical existence, but is clouded by the ‘fantasy based’ beliefs accusation.

    I wonder, what the outcome may have been, if reputable scientists had assessed the evidence Melba Ketchum was given Certainly, what evidence there is, should be so assessed. But, until this subject is taken seriously, by science, we will continue with this farce.

  7. Massachusetts
    July 11, 2013 at 11:26 PM

    One might argue that science triumphed here, because, in the big picture, standards weren’t relaxed: the article never made it to peer review and Nature rejected it. Certainly in the short term, Ketchum did drop the ball, so she failed. But the system worked!

  8. Massachusetts
    July 11, 2013 at 11:31 PM

    “I wonder, what the outcome may have been, if reputable scientists had assessed the evidence Melba Ketchum was given Certainly, what evidence there is, should be so assessed. But, until this subject is taken seriously, by science, we will continue with this farce.”

    Maybe I misunderstand, but it seems to me that the most likely outcome would have been that the samples would have been determined to be contaminated, and rightfully so. Isn’t that what these scientists have basically concluded, having reviewed Ketchum’s work? If she really had something, and had done things correctly, wouldn’t they have concluded otherwise?

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