One overcast Sunday morning in 1996, Jeffrey Meldrum and his brother drove to Walla Walla, Wash., to see if they could find Paul Freeman, a man renowned in Bigfoot circles as a source of footprint casts. Meldrum—who has followed Bigfoot lore since he was a boy—had heard that Freeman was a hoaxer, “so I was very dubious,” he recalls. The brothers arrived unannounced, Meldrum says, and chatted with Freeman about his collection. Freeman said he had found tracks just that morning, but they were not good, not worth casting. The brothers wanted to see them regardless. “I thought we could use this to study the anatomy of a hoax,” Meldrum says. Instead Meldrum’s visit to a ridge in the Blue Mountains set him firmly on a quest he has been on since.
Meldrum, an associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University, is an expert on foot morphology and locomotion in monkeys, apes and hominids. He has studied the evolution of bipedalism and edited From Biped to Strider (Springer, 2004), a well-respected textbook. He brought his anatomical expertise to the site outside Walla Walla. The 14-inch-long prints Freeman showed him were interesting, Meldrum says, because some turned out at a 45-degree angle, suggesting that whatever made them had looked back over its shoulder. Some showed skin whorls, some were flat with distinct anatomical detail, others were of running feet—imprints of the front part of the foot only, of toes gripping the mud. Meldrum made casts and decided it would be hard to hoax the running footprints, “unless you had some device, some cable-loaded flexible toes.”
To Meldrum, the anatomy captured in those prints and the casts of others he has examined as well as still unidentified hairs, recordings of strange calls and certain witness testimonials all add up to valid evidence that warrants study. He reviews that evidence in Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science (Forge, 2006). “My book is not an attempt to convince people of the existence of Sasquatch,” the 49-year-old Meldrum says emphatically; rather it argues that “the evidence that exists fully justifies the investigation and the pursuit of this question.”
To Meldrum’s critics—including university colleagues and scientists in his own field—that same collection does not constitute valid evidence, and Meldrum’s examination of it is pseudoscientific: belief shrouded in the language of scientific rigor and analysis. “Even if you have a million pieces of evidence, if all the evidence is inconclusive, you can’t count it all up to make something conclusive,” says David J. Daegling, an anthropologist at the University of Florida who has critiqued Meldrum and the Bigfoot quest in the Skeptical Inquirer and is the author of Bigfoot Exposed (AltaMira, 2004).
Neither side can win its case without a Sasquatch specimen or fossil or without the true confessions of a fleet of perhaps fleet-footed hoaxers. In the meantime, observers watch a debate that is striking in that both sides use virtually the same language, refute each other’s interpretations with the same tone of disbelief and insist they have the identical goal: honoring the scientific method. And the question of how science on the fringe should be dealt with remains open: some observers say that Meldrum, who has been lambasted by colleagues and passed over for promotion twice, should just be left alone to do his thing; others counter that in this era of creationism, global warming denial, and widespread antiscience sentiment and scientific illiteracy, it is particularly imperative that bad science be soundly scrutinized and exposed.
Meldrum is a tall, mustached man, relaxed, friendly and gregarious. On a recent summer morning in his office—rich in Bigfoot paraphernalia—he explains that his interest in the subject arose when he was 11 and saw Roger Patterson’s now famous film of an alleged Sasquatch loping into the forest. Meldrum listed cryptozoology (the study of hidden creatures such as yeti and Nessie) as an interest on his vitae when he applied for doctoral work. But Bigfoot as an active pursuit did not emerge until he arrived at Idaho State in 1993 and was back in the Pacific Northwest, where he grew up.[break]
Meldrum’s laboratory houses more than 200 casts relating to Bigfoot. As he pulls out drawers and talks about the casts, Meldrum shows ones with the hallmarks of hoax and others that intrigue him because of anatomy, hair striations, musculature and an apparent midtarsal break—a pair of joints in the middle of the ape foot that have less mobility in the human foot because of the arch. He brings out a particularly controversial piece called the Skookum cast that he thinks may be of a reclining Sasquatch and others think may be of a reclining elk. “There is a chance we are wrong,” he says. “But with the footprints, I feel more certain.” Discounting the unusual casts “isn’t scientific in the least,” Meldrum maintains, and “it is irresponsible.”
“He does bring more scientific rigor to this question than anyone else in the past, and he does do state-of-the-art footprint analysis,” notes David R. Begun, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Toronto. Todd R. Disotell, a New York University anthropologist, agrees: “He is trying to bring rigor to it.” Both researchers collaborate with Meldrum even though they do not accept his hypothesis that a large apelike creature exists. “If he hands me a feces sample or a bloodstain or a hair shaft, I am willing to do what I do with anything I get,” Disotell says. “I go along with this because I am either doing good science, finding alternatives or debunking, or I have the find of the century.” Disotell gets Bigfoot jibes over beers sometimes, but nothing similar to what Meldrum experiences: “I think what is happening to him is a shame.”
In his famous “Cargo Cult Science” lecture in 1974, Richard Feynman described scientific thinking and integrity as “a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards” to raise and examine every doubt, every interpretation. This kind of thinking, critics say, is missing from Meldrum’s Bigfoot work, whereas it infuses his fossil and primate gait research. Meldrum’s principal critic from his own field is Daegling, who concludes that the “evidence doesn’t look better on deeper analysis, it looks worse.” He adds that “this isn’t about Bigfoot—it is about how scientists go about doing their work and how we should be self-reflective and self-critical.”
Meldrum responds by saying that most people do not see him critically sifting through all the evidence that comes his way—and discarding most of it. But if he is at times frustrated and beleaguered by skeptics, it appears some in his community are beleaguered by his exhortation that more researchers accept his interpretations or become involved. In reviewing Meldrum’s and Daegling’s books in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Matt Cartmill of Duke University concludes that if the chances of Bigfoot’s being real are one in 10,000 (his admittedly wild guess), then having one physical anthropologist on the case seems a reasonable allocation of professional resources and that Meldrum does not deserve scorn or abuse. But Cartmill, who notes that he is “mortally certain” there is no Sasquatch, is irked by Meldrum’s trying to guilt-trip those who do not do Bigfoot work and his disparaging them as lazy or aloof.
The tension is inevitable for science on the fringe, says Trent D. Stephens of Idaho State who co-authored a book with Meldrum on evolutionary biology and Mormonism. As he puts it: “The stuff that is on the margins, the stuff that isn’t popular—we scientists are horrible at judging it. And we say our mistakes about the fringe are all historical; we claim we are not making those mistakes today.”
The fringe has produced wonderful science, and it has produced wonderfully abysmal science. It has never been a comfortable place to live.