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Jeffrey Meldrum, 48, holds a Ph.D. in anatomical sciences and is a tenured professor of anatomy at Idaho State University, a 12,700-student campus. His fellow academics are chafing at the fact that Meldrum is also one of the world's foremost authorities on Bigfoot. That makes him a pariah; his colleagues are embarrassed by what they call his "pseudo-academic" pursuits, to the point where they have called on the university to review his work with an eye toward revoking his tenure. Meldrum spends most of his days in his lab in the Life Sciences Building, poring over more than two hundred plaster casts of what he believes are Bigfoot footprints. For the past ten years, he has added his scholarly-sounding research to a field well known for fake videos and supermarket tabloid exposés.
Meldrum points out, as if to validate his field:
It used to be you went to a bookstore and asked for a book on Bigfoot and you'd be directed to the occult section, right between the Bermuda Triangle and UFOs… Now you can find some in the Natural Science section.
Professor, my own books – certainly none of them supportive of woo-woo – are found in the “Occult” or “Paranormal” sections of most bookstores. That hardly implies that I support accounts about the Bermuda Triangle or UFOs – or about Bigfoot. Those assignments of category are made by store employees, not by tenured academics. Frankly, I look favorably on this categorization of my works, since it places my books right where I'd prefer them to be; it's the believers that I'm trying to reach.
Bigfoot is known in various localities by different names such as Yeti, Abominable Snowman, Meh-Teh, and Sasquatch. It’s said to be seven to ten feet tall with feet twice the size of a human's, and to have a noticeably disagreeable aroma. It has been reported present in Tibet, Nepal, China, Siberia, Canada, and the U.S. Northwest, but no evidence – photographic, footprints, or fur samples – have passed simple tests to show that a new species has been established. The legend dates back centuries. North American Indian folklore includes tales of a man-ape that roams the hidden valleys of the land. “Sasquatch” is a Salish Indian word meaning “woodland wild man.”
Reader Eric Cline commented to me:
This [Bigfoot brouhaha] brings back bad memories of my own (liberal arts) graduate school days, when tenured faculty were able to pursue tiresome nonsense projects under the protection of the tenure system, doing little or no teaching and indulging their more ridiculous whims.
Eric, it still happens. In 1973, Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff of Stanford Research Institute – now Stanford Research International – wrote a report on the miracles that they thought magician Uri Geller was showing them. They were ridiculed widely, and now Geller’s routines are being done by kids and amateur conjurors. Look at Professor Gary Schwartz (www.randi.org/jr/040805how.html#1) and his thoroughly protected/tenured position at the University of Arizona at Tucson. Certainly, his conviction that there are TV scammers out there claiming to speak to dead people, is a “ridiculous whim”? Mr. Cline continues:
Of note: This article says Professor Meldrum has devoted the past 10 years (!) to Bigfoot research, and also that it is paid for by a $30,000 donation by a Bigfoot enthusiast. I seriously doubt his salary and Idaho State University resources used have been adequately covered by what amounts to $3,000 per year (unless this is a misprint). Indeed, the sum would not suffice for one year.
Meldrum said it was a decade ago in Walla Walla, Washington, that he first discovered flat 15-inch footprints in the woods. He said he thought initially that they were a hoax, but noticed locked joints and a narrow arch – traits he came to believe could only belong to Bigfoot.
Locked joints and a narrow arch could not be carved from balsa wood? This is beyond parody. Kudos, however, should be given to the many academics in the story who disputed the value of his work.
Well, perhaps. Among the dissenters to Meldrum’s claims is Martin Hackworth, senior lecturer in ISUs physics department, who calls his research a “joke”:
Do I cringe when I see the Discovery Channel and I see Idaho State University, Jeff Meldrum? Yes, I do… He believes he’s taken up the cause of people who have been shut out by the scientific community. He’s lionized there. He’s worshipped. He walks on water. It’s embarrassing.
John Kijinski, dean of Arts and Sciences at ISU, has a more generous take. He says that there have been “grumblings” about Meldrum’s tenure, but no formal request for a review:
He’s a bona fide scientist… I think he helps this university. He provides a form of open discussion and dissenting viewpoints that may not be popular with the scientific community, but that’s what academics is all about.
A physics professor at ISU, D.P. Wells, wonders whether Meldrum plans to research Santa Claus, too, and more than 30 professors have signed a petition criticizing the University for hosting a recent Bigfoot symposium where Meldrum was the keynote speaker.
Reader Cline continues:
In closing, I wonder about the actual level of support he got from legendary scientist Jane Goodall. Her supposed endorsement [of Meldrum’s book] as reflected in the media story, reminds me of an introduction Isaac Asimov wrote to a book about the Tunguska blast. The book suggested that it was possible that instead of a meteorite or a comet, the blast was caused by a crashing alien spacecraft… Asimov's introduction said basically that, although he found it an entertaining read and informative with regard to what the physical manifestation of the blast looked like, he disagreed with the author’s conclusion.
Still, as Mr. Cline points out, Meldrum apparently has a distinguished supporter in Goodall, the world-famous authority on African chimpanzees. Her blurb on the jacket of Meldrum’s new book, “Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science,” lauds him for bringing “a much-needed level of scientific analysis” to the Bigfoot debate.
Is the theory of exploration dead?” I’m not out to proselytize that Bigfoot exists. I place legend under scrutiny and my conclusion is, absolutely, Bigfoot exists.
But please think for a moment: is it really too much for Meldrum to ask that he be tolerated? Whether we believe his claims and his conviction, or not, we have to feel a certain amount of admiration for his perseverance. History is strewn with academics and amateurs who developed theories that were laughed at, but were later found to be right. Continental drift, for example, was internationally derided by very prominent geologists who later had to "eat their words" – rocks and all. Archimedes and Galileo, while supported by their peers, were laughed at by the public but now stand as examples of thinkers whose ideas have survived and gained acceptance. Pasteur gave attacks of the vapors to Gallic gastronomists when he proposed what has now become known as pasteurization; I’ll never forget the line in the Paul Muni film, “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1936), “Boiled milk, Louis? All Paris is laughing!” Alexander Fleming was looked upon as a fool for putting forth the idea that bread mold could possibly be the source of a powerful antibiotic; many of us would not be alive today if he had not stayed with that notion. Mind you, the number of those who did not survive ridicule and investigation, far, far, exceed the number of winners in this game...
Folks, in my admittedly amateur opinion, the bottom line here – footprint castings, films, colorful stories, aside – is: what happens when a large mammal from a sizeable population, dies? It evaporates, it goes to Heaven, it buries itself, or what? There exists not a trace of fur, flesh, bones, teeth, or droppings – any of which could possibly provide a DNA “fingerprint” to establish definitively, positively, permanently, the existence of a new species. How can every scrap of this wealth of evidence have totally escaped us? Can we even imagine a large species flourishing, multiplying, and surviving in areas that are accessible – though admittedly with some difficulty – without leaving behind some traces of its existence? What happens to this evidence?
Until this question is answered, or at least more seriously addressed, I think that the matter is one for scientific dilettantes or for supermarket tabloids. In my view, there is as much – and as good – reason, to academically pursue the Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy questions.
I admit it. As a result of my radio days, I have an obsession with knowing the correct time. I’m always checking out my timepieces, I have radio-corrected clocks in my office and my home, and I’m driven nuts to see that TV programs come up on my screen a full five seconds later than my watch reading because of the services I hire to give me access to extra channels. Thus, when my eye was taken last week by a back-cover ad in TIME Magazine for a Jaeger-leCoultre watch – their “Reverso Squadra Chronograph GMT” model – I looked it over, and found problems. As you can see in the illustration, this ain’t a Timex, nor in that price range. Though it’s not yet available, it will sell for $7,600. Rather out of my price range, I assure you.
But what really caught my probing eye was the fact that whoever designed this ad, might be more accustomed to using an hour-glass or a sun-dial rather than a mechanical watch. This is the result of an artist choosing the most pleasing placement of the variables, regardless of whether or not he’s representing a realistic view. The watch shown could not exist.
I’ll leave it to my readers to discover why I say this. There are three major reasons. Let’s hear from you curious folks. You can blow up the illustration to examine the device more carefully. If you wish to send me your observations, please address them to firstname.lastname@example.org and use the subject heading: Watch Puzzle.
Incidentally, this ad in TIME – which cost in the neighborhood of $200,000 or so – was run by Neiman Marcus. When I referred to their Internet site for information, I found that for “men’s watches” they had no listing for Jaeger-LeCoultre under “designers,” and when I contacted the local store by phone to ask about the watch, they’d never heard of it! Maybe this is a very expensive gag being played on Neiman Marcus…?
Reader Todd R. Brereton, currently resident in China, tells us that perhaps the law in that country is not being enforced as we’d hoped at www.randi.org/jr/2006-10/100627good.html#i11:
[Recently] you said that misleading advertising had been banned from Chinese broadcasting as of August 1. I don't speak Chinese well enough to understand what little Chinese television I watch, but I know hokum when I see it, and I regret to inform you it's still all over the place here, the law notwithstanding. Some examples:
Women can buy a halter-top contraption (the Qian Hi Ting) that fits over the bra and pushes their breasts up, thus improving their bust size. But it also purports to actually increase the size of a woman's breasts by pressing against a pressure-point where breast and rib-cage meet on the left and right side of the chest. Something about increasing the blood flow….
Children with poor vision can use the Yanbaomu vision machine, which uses space-age technology and Chinese pressure points around the eyes. It instantly reshapes the lens and cornea of the eye to improve vision to 20/20 or better! It evidently won't work on adults. Strange, that.
There's a miracle skin-lightening lotion that transforms dark, dull, yellow Asian skin into light, lustrous, Caucasian-looking skin almost instantly! It's also great for eliminating birth marks and those dark circles under your eyes! All natural!
Finally, the Vital Essence "miracle vitamin" scar-removing gel erases surgical scars, stretch marks, even signs of suicide attempts, in seven days! Doctor approved!
So, Randi, all is not well here in China, and a good move goes nowhere unless it is enforced. Your report notes that the new law is supposed to be "strictly enforced." Wouldn't that be nice.
It would be interesting to see whether all these products are actually still on sale. In looking for the “Yanbaomu” device, for example, I found that many Internet sites for it were “discontinued”…
I note that two of the four examples given depend on acceptance of the centuries-old Chinese belief in traditional medicine, which features fictitious "pressure points" that are believed to be found all over the body. This is a very strong tradition, and may take a very long time to overcome. However, I must agree with our reader that, well over two months since this law is supposed to have gone into full effect, it seems not to have been properly observed. We must also bear in mind that it all depends upon the mind-sets of local officials who are in charge of determining the truth or fiction about any given claim or advertisement. Perhaps we'll have to go through another generation before this step forward is fully in place.
Some news just arrived about Dr. Daniel C. Dennett, who spoke for us at TAM4. He is Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, and author of – his latest – “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.” Just a few weeks ago, he was rushed into emergency surgery with a "dissection of the aorta," and he received a Dacron replacement with a carbon-fiber valve that – he reports – makes a satisfying clicking noise so that he knows it’s working. Confidentially, I’d prefer the silent model…
Dr. Dennett doesn’t seem to have been slowed down much by this event. While recuperating, he managed to turn out an essay titled, “Thank Goodness!” which can be seen in its entirety at http://tinyurl.com/y7jb9y. Here’s one paragraph that I’ve selected from this article, to whet your appetite for more:
In other words, whereas religions may serve a benign purpose by letting many people feel comfortable with the level of morality they themselves can attain, no religion holds its members to the high standards of moral responsibility that the secular world of science and medicine does! And I'm not just talking about the standards “at the top” – among the surgeons and doctors who make life or death decisions every day. I'm talking about the standards of conscientiousness endorsed by the lab technicians and meal preparers, too. This tradition puts its faith in the unlimited application of reason and empirical inquiry, checking and re-checking, and getting in the habit of asking "What if I'm wrong?" Appeals to faith or membership are never tolerated. Imagine the reception a scientist would get if he tried to suggest that others couldn't replicate his results because they just didn't share the faith of the people in his lab! And, to return to my main point, it is the goodness of this tradition of reason and open inquiry that I thank for my being alive today.
Well said, Dr. Dennett! I must tell you that I have overwhelming respect for those good people at my local hospital, Broward General, here in Fort Lauderdale, who labored so mightily to enable me to survive my own recent encounter with cardiac problems, and that has made me perhaps overly sensitive to a certain problem that I have recently noticed. I work out regularly at their gym facility, and in passing through the main hospital lobby, I have noticed a variety of quack literature strewn about on chairs and tables. Many of those persons in the area are reading this material, which is in English, Spanish, and Haitian French – to capture a wide spectrum of those seeking genuine medical assistance. Most of the material is distributed by the Jehovah's Witnesses, and it inveighs against blood transfusions and organ transplants – of course. Other booklets and pamphlets promote homeopathy, magnetic devices, and a variety of magical systems – all quackery. Patients and their associates are subjected to this bombardment of misinformation, much of it directed against the principles and practices of the hospital itself. When I alerted those at the information desk about the situation, I was met with a smile and the comment, "Well, it's all Gods work isn't it?"
In the accompanying illustration, you'll see just a handful of the great number of books that I have managed to recover from the hospital lobby over the past two weeks. I have since made formal complaints to the administration of the hospital, and I'm awaiting a response.
Reader Dan Lewandowski of Wichita Falls, Texas, has a few additions to the list of questions we asked last week at “This Is a Test” – see www.randi.org/jr/2006-11/110306relaxing.html#i5.
Q: How many born-again Christians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. They have already seen the light.
Q: How many agnostics does it take to change a light bulb?
A: We can't know.
Q: How many deists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. If the light bulb no longer interferes with the world, why bother interfering with the light bulb?
Q: How many atheists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. The light bulb does what the light bulb does. Maybe you can understand a tiny portion of light bulb theory, but if you think you know why it’s there, you are deluding yourself. We are not that smart and probably never will be. The light from the light bulb is not there to serve you. You are not the grand drama around which the light bulb spins. Just be thankful for whatever light you have been lucky enough to experience.
Reader Phil Kramer adds to the list:
Q: How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. The light bulb never goes out. (If you don't get this, Google “Hanukkah”)
Q: How many agnostics does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One. Maybe.
From reader John Ruch comes this hilarious ad from the Oriental Trading Company, Inc. (Omaha, Nebraska) Holiday 2006 catalog, "Business Edition." Folks, you can’t make up this stuff, no matter how ingenious or warped you are…
Speaking of silly, yet another Asian wonder-worker has popped up on YouTube with demonstrations of his magical powers. One of my correspondents naïvely suggests that there might be magnets concealed under the table (!), but I think it can all be more easily summed up by: “Pay no attention to that man under the table curtain!”
You must understand a basic difference between the Asian culture and ours. Elderly people – and I can relate to this – are very highly respected, even revered, in Asia. They are granted all sorts of exceptions and privileges, so much so that they are practically immune from most restrictions that might question their validity or their honesty. The man you will see in this video certainly falls into that category, and is assumed to have supernatural powers – which puts him well beyond the possibility that he will be doubted or examined too closely when he gives a demonstration in which he is completely in charge. It would be unthinkable for anyone on the camera crew to suggest that the curtain be raised to see if another element might be responsible for the wonders that are being shown. In Western culture, the very first thing that any responsible investigator would do, would be to insist that the demonstration be done in a different location and with a different supporting surface; that would possibly result in an "alternate" conclusion for the spectator, I have no doubt. With this in mind, look at www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JYGqVA9xc4 with tongue firmly planted in cheek…
Next week, we'll be offering the official Randi Doll for sale. As you'll see, it comes equipped with a pair of handcuffs, a set of official voodoo pins for insertion, and a special hidden feature that you'll only be able to appreciate when you get to examine the doll in detail. Just think of the number of frustrations you’ll be able to work out by jabbing my alter ego whenever you need to...!
This is just too hilarious to go unmentioned. Sylvia Browne – remember her, the psychic who couldn't find me because she didn't know how to use a telephone directory? – has another book out, this one promising to let us in on how the angels in Heaven celebrate December 25th – as if that were the real birthdate of Jesus Christ. Says the blurb:
Sylvia and her son Chris explore the ways in which spirits, angels, and God celebrate Christmas in Heaven. Questions such as Are there presents and the exchanging of gifts? Do heavenly spirits decorate? and How is Jesus honored? are discussed, as is the idea of giving gifts from the heart, like the spirits and angels in heaven do, instead of giving store-bought goods.
As I frequently tell you, folks, you just can't make up this stuff. And there are tens of thousands of naïfs out there who will read and actually believe this baloney. They're the ones who also invest in lottery tickets and stick magnets on their heads to align the few thoughts that may pop in there from time to time. The Dark Ages are coming back fast…
Until next week…