Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
Earlier this year there were a flurry of news stories about Bigfoot DNA. The story started to gain steam right around the same time as the TED controversy so that it was nearly completely off my radar at the time. Then I was writing the book and then I was involved in the Wikipedia controversy, so I didn’t have time to follow it. Now that the dust has settled it’s time to take a look at what happened because this is yet another case of real science smacking into mainstream taboos and of course, the ideologue skeptical community.
The story started about five years ago when serious efforts to collect bigfoot DNA got underway. This was only possible because many years of bigfoot research had already been able to establish areas where bigfoot were likely to be and some of their behavior and there was also a $500,000 donation from Wally Hersom and Adrian Erickson. The painstaking gathering of samples was accomplished mostly through placing harmless sticky traps on branches and tree trunks that captured small amounts of hair and skin as the creatures brushed by them. (Here is a page of hair sample photographs.)
113 usable samples were collected of “hair, blood, mucus, toenail, bark scrapings, saliva and skin with hair and subcutaneous tissue attached were submitted by dozens of individuals and groups from thirty four separate hominin collection sites around North America.” Of these, three were high enough quality to provide complete genomes. Sample 26, which was purported to be piece of flesh or hide, sample 31, which was blood taken from a plate that had sandpaper on it. It was done under the supervision of a PhD in Wildlife biology and sample 140, which was blood collected from a downspout that had been bitten.
This served as the basis for a scientific paper for Dr. Melba Ketchum, et al. to submit to the journal Nature about three years ago. Sometime in late 2011, a reviewer for Nature apparently leaked the information to someone and word began to spread that the paper had been discredited. Personal attacks began on Ketchum, including mentioning an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau. (It’s meaningless. If you want an “A” rating just become a member of the BBB.)
In fact, Nature eventually simply declined to publish. The leaked peer reviews generally revealed that the Nature reviewers hadn’t been especially neutral or even fair. However the paper was resubmitted to the Journal of Advanced Zoological Exploration in Zoology” (JAMEZ) And it did pass peer review there and they were planning to publish in January of 2013. (read the whole story with supporting data here.)
However outside pressure from some unknown sources caused them to back away. The paper was certainly a bombshell waiting to go off. Sasquatch it turned out, is half human. (You can read a simplified DNA explanation here) The mitochondrial DNA was all human female, but the nuclear DNA was of unknown hominid origin. This created as much controversy within the bigfoot community as outside of it because many bigfoot researchers were convinced that bigfoot must be an undiscovered branch of hominin, not a hybrid. The findings raised more questions than they answered.
Scott Carpenter (writing as Joe Black of the Bigfoot Journal) wrote about what came next:
Later Dr. Ketchum purchased JAMEZ in order to preserve the passing per reviews. The JAMEZ was renamed Denovo (http://www.advancedsciencefoundation.org/). Dr. Ketchum then published the “Novel North American Hominins, Next Generation Sequencing of Three Whole Genomes and Associated Studies”. Critics blasted her for doing this and claimed the paper never passed peer review. Due to confidentiality rules Dr. Ketchum could not make public the passing peer reviews from JAMEZ. Many critics, knowing these rules, used this against her and mounted an unprecedented personal smear campaign to discredit her and the DNA Study.
It’s this fact, more than any other that has gotten distorted by skeptics. On February 13, 2013 Ketchum published the paper in her newly named Denovo journal. The very same day Houston Chronicle science reporter Eric Berger slammed her in an article.
Now she has finally found a scientific journal to publish her manuscript — a journal, DeNovo, that happened to not exist until this week.
He goes on:
If Ketchum really had the goods she would have co-authored the paper with reputable scientists and gotten the work published in a reputable scientific journal. Instead she’s playing to an audience that doesn’t understand how science works, that wants to believe Bigfoot exists and is willing to send her some cash to further their delusions.
Ironically, Berger had to later agree to grant a geneticist anonymity just to test a sample of Bigfoot DNA that Berger provided. According to Ketchum: “They just looked at a few random sequences, they didn’t test anything! Berger wouldn’t retract that they had not tested the samples even though we asked him to.” He demonstrated his ideologue skeptic attitude by linking to Doubtful News, a Skeptical Inquirer clone, where Sharon Hill wrote:
This is a brand new journal. Was it launched JUST for this paper? Well, this is an interesting and HIGHLY SUSPICIOUS twist. We do not know what the standards are for review. There are no rules for starting up your own journal and calling it “peer reviewed”. And, indeed, that’s what was done (from Sasquatch Genome Project)
So before anyone had actually read the paper, never mind a careful review, the ideologue skeptics had already passed judgment. Sharon Hill would turn out a few articles on the subject, one in the Skeptical Inquirer and another on the Huffington Post, all with the same theme.
Eric Berger trotted out the paper to a few geneticists and published their opinions on Feb. 14th, the next day. The first person didn’t have enough information, the second one was highly critical and the third person admitted to not reading anything but the abstract and the conclusion, but was still highly critical. In July, after obtaining a sample from Ketchum, Berger took it to a lab and failed to see a big red flag staring at him in his own article.
So I agreed to be an intermediary between Ketchum and a highly reputable geneticist in Texas, whom I trusted and knew personally. I also knew that this geneticist was first and foremost a scientist, and if there was even a 1 percent chance the Bigfoot evidence was real, he’d want check out the story. I asked, and he was willing to approach the evidence with an open mind.
(Why am I maintaining my source’s anonymity? Because some of his peers would question his engagement on such a topic, believing it unworthy of valuable research time. But make no mistake, he is a top-notch scientist at the top of his field.)
So the reporter found someone who was apparently terrified of being associated with the subject matter. Berger was, on the one hand was demanding that Ketchum find reputable scientists to work with her, but on the other hand was holding himself to an entirely different standard that allowed anonymity. Ketchum has published absolutely everything from her studies, while a skeptical geneticist was allowed to hide his identity. Unsurprisingly, this lack of accountability led to less than stellar work which led to a controversy which Ketchum was forced to address on her Facebook page on July 2, 2013.
. . . They only pulled random sequences and did not look at the whole genomes. The person from UT that did our analysis told me that he never got all of the raw data uploaded to the second lab due to computer problems on the receiving lab’s end. 2. I offered raw DNA to this lab so they could extract and sequence themselves. They would not even give the courtesy of a reply. 3. They refused to even speak with me on the phone. The entire thing was completely and totally unprofessional. 4. They never tried to check the analysis done at the University of Texas even though the bioinformatics person put himself at their disposal.
What findings they gave were impossible since both of our labs would have had to extract feces to obtain these results. [They said that Sample 26 was pig feces and Sample 140 dog feces and 31 was Peudomonas*] If it had been feces, we would not have been able to obtain the preliminary results that we got prior to the genomes. After all, they were the same extractions. You can’t get feces from tissue, blood and saliva. If we did extract feces, the quality scores would not have been this high. That is in the literature. . .
In other words, this was yet another example of skeptics rushing to judgment based on incomplete or possibly false information. Eric Berger not only didn’t acknowledge this problem, he continued to rail against Ketchum’s work, conveniently leaving out the part that I quoted above from the same Facebook post and instead emphasizing the conspiracy angle and the new journal to make her look as bad as possible.
Ketchum’s site has also been hacked repeatedly. This is not something that she’s been very public about because it can just invite more abuse, but she shared this with me in an email:
The last hack occurred on the 14th of this month. Earlier this year we had Denovo journal hacked twice. First time, was really bad, they deleted the whole thing and replaced it with a website that was highly insulting. Fortunately we had earlier archives. Then a second attack on Denovo Journal happened where they just managed to shut it down but didn’t replace it. Wix helped me to make a new account entirely so next they went after my regular server on Media Temple about a month ago. They deleted one website (my ranch’s) and then pointed it to a lab site I had on there.
They pointed the lab site to the Sasquatch Genome Project site. Meantime, I wrote a novel (fiction) under a pen name. I spent a lot of money to use a pen name for fear they would go after the book with phony reviews on Amazon, etc. I separated those two websites so they would have different IP addresses but were under my same account. They stripped the two publishing related sites and announced online the name of my book and all related information. They deleted the lab site and put up another phony Denovo site. They stripped the sasquatchgenomeproject website this time also.
Wow. Just wow. In terms of sheer nastiness it kind of reminds me of the skeptical Wikipedia editors. Bear in mind here that all Ketchum has done is to do some some research and to publish it any way possible because she thought it was important. For this “crime” she has been enduring unending abuse, much of it by the very same people who assure everyone that if there was a major scientific discovery that the entire scientific community would be falling all over themselves to learn about it.
This is the sad truth. There is no parade, no recognition and no glory for the true pioneers in science who operate outside the system. Instead, there is only harassment, ridicule, personal attacks and sabotage. We don’t know what a truly objective assessment of the Sasquatch Genome Project looks like because we haven’t seen that yet. As it stands now Sasquatch Genome Project is being defined by irrational fear, hatred and ridicule. Unfortunately, this is all too typical of how science really works.
*Explained by Ketchum in an email to me.