When I saw the headline “Wanted: Bigfoot hair samples for European study,” I assumed that this was either a wild distortion of an actually serious study or the goal of some fringe professor.
Both kinds of stories regularly find themselves in the “Science” section of mainstream news sites far more often than they should. As I researched further, however, I found myself in the odd situation of being slightly alarmed that the various sources echoing the news had not distorted a thing and this wasn’t coming out of a fringe center. It was coming out of Oxford University:
The Oxford-Lausanne Collateral Hominid Project invites institutions and individuals with collections of cryptozoological material (cryptozoology: the search for animals whose existence is not proven) to submit details of the samples they hold, and then on request submit the samples themselves, particularly hair shafts, for rigorous genetic analysis. The results will then be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Professor Bryan Sykes, who is leading the effort, explains that modern techniques of DNA analysis offer an opportunity to test samples for their species of origin that was previously unavailable to those collecting “Yeti samples”… and this is where I become torn.
On the one hand, I think that real science has a necessary role in keeping pseudoscience and general insanity at bay. If testable evidence is being offered in favor of a claim that seems ridiculous, it would be irresponsible to not take the chance to disprove it — or, in a much less likely turn of events, accept it. This sort of testing is what lets us say without wavering that there is no link between autism and vaccinations, and that homeopathic medicine is ultra-diluted snake oil.
Some people will never be convinced, of course, but we owe it to those who can be convinced to put claims to the test and not give ammunition to conspiracy theorists who will take a refusal to test as a “sign that the mainstream scientific establishment is afraid of this.”
On the other hand, the mere sight of a press-release by the excellent Oxford University making serious reference to “cryptozoology” makes me cringe.
Yeti sightings belong in the realm of crackpottery. I wonder about the wisdom of wasting limited research funds on extremely unpromising research and whether putting the weight of a world-class university behind the Yeti myth — even if only to finally disprove it — will only contribute to its credibility.
When all the tests come back negative, I doubt a single believer will be convinced. But they will be able to add “Oxford has taken this seriously!” to their list of arguments in favor of this silliness.