Sunday, December 17, 2006

Peers scoff at professor's quest for Bigfoot

(12-17) 04:00 PST Pocatello, Idaho -- At a glance, Professor D. Jeffrey Meldrum would seem to be a star on the Idaho State University campus here.

A popular instructor, Meldrum has written or edited five books, written dozens of articles in academic journals, and ranged across the American West and Canada for his field research. Famed primatologist Jane Goodall wrote a blurb for his latest book, which she said "brings a much-needed level of scientific analysis" to a raging debate.

The problem is the debate: Is Bigfoot real?

Meldrum, a tenured associate professor of anatomy, is in pursuit of the legendary ape-man also known as Sasquatch.

Some of his colleagues are not amused. They liken Meldrum's research to a hunt for Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, and 20 of them signed a letter earlier this year expressing worry that Idaho State "may be perceived as a university that endorses fringe science over fundamental scientific perspectives that have withstood critical inquiry."

Or, as Douglas P. Wells, a physics professor here, puts it: "One could do deep-ocean research for SpongeBob SquarePants. That doesn't make it science."

The affable Meldrum, 48, who has a mop of brown hair and a bushy gray mustache and is the father of six sons, declines to say whether he believes Sasquatch exists, but adds that based on the evidence he's gathered over the last decade, he thinks the likely answer is yes.

"I believe it would be more incredible to dismiss all the assertions about Bigfoot as a series of hoaxes and ruses," he says with academic precision, "than it would be to at least entertain the possibility that an unrecognized large primate exists in North America."

Even as they defend the concept of academic freedom, some who teach here worry that Meldrum's new book, "Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science," is "pseudo-science," in the words of Steven Lawyer, a clinical psychology professor.

"It's the kind of thing that will make Idaho State the butt of jokes," Martin Hackworth, a senior lecturer in the physics department, says of the book, born out of a 2003 program on the Discovery Channel and published by an offshoot of a science-fiction house.

The controversy over Meldrum's work is testimony to the enduring fascination with Sasquatch, as the Salish Indians called the ape man; or Bigfoot, the term the Humboldt Times in Eureka coined in an August 1958 article about a local logging crew's purported discovery of giant footprints.

But while there have been plenty of books on the subject over the years, Meldrum's is one of the few that could put its author in the middle of an academic fracas.

Twice passed over for elevation from associate to full professor, Meldrum says he would proudly present his Sasquatch research as part of future consideration. As the book's overleaf puts it, he is "willing to stake his reputation on an objective look at the facts." (None of his other books deals with Sasquatch, and he covers the topic in just one lecture of a survey class he teaches, on living and fossil primates.)

Skeptics say it is absurd to think that a huge ape roams the American wilderness.
No carcass has ever turned up, and many footprint "discoveries" over the years have been correctly dismissed as hoaxes, Meldrum concedes in his book.

Ray Wallace, a force behind the 1958 footprint discovery and a source of Bigfoot photographs over the years, famously confessed on his deathbed four years ago that the hulking creature once captured on film was really his wife dressed in a gorilla suit.

On the other hand, no one has ever proved that Bigfoot doesn't exist.

Into this void comes the 297-page book, published by Forge. It's an entertaining compendium of Bigfootology.

A chart compares estimated physical dimensions of one purported Sasquatch with Arnold Schwarzenegger "at the peak of his bodybuilding career." The California governor comes off as a pipsqueak next to the 7-foot-4, 700-pound creature.

Meldrum's small office in Pocatello is crammed with plaster casts he has collected in the wilds of strange footprints and handprints, even a print of buttocks that he firmly says do not belong to any known mammal.

The professor says he has heard the strange wailings that some attribute to Bigfoot, and once he was in a cabin in Ontario when a big rock got thrown against an outside wall.
Bigfoot, he presumes.

It is unclear at this point how his new book will affect Meldrum's review when he comes up again for full professor, perhaps in a year or two.

"Jeff is a great teacher, and he does real good things for his department," says John Kijinski, dean of arts and sciences at Idaho State. "He runs the cadaver lab and it's excellent."

Kijinski says he had not read the Bigfoot book and could not comment on how it would fit into Meldrum's job review, although he suggests that work in a "nonpeer-reviewed press" would probably count less than that in a university press or other academic forum.

"Venue where publication occurs is extremely important," he says. "As is the case with all the scientists here, our basic standard is peer review."

Meldrum's agent for the book, Michael Hsu, president of Minneapolis-based BooBam Ventures Inc., says it involves "too edgy a topic" for academic presses and was intended for a "general audience."

Meldrum says most of his research has been financed with private donations -- about $80,000 so far, the bulk of it from a Texas oilman who believes he may have encountered Bigfoot on a hunting trip to east Texas.

The professor's supporters point out that his Bigfoot work doesn't interfere with what he does all day, which is teach human anatomy.

"I had heard he was way into Sasquatch, but he hasn't even mentioned it in our course," says Heather Lien, a 29-year-old graduate student in physical therapy, pausing in her laboratory dissection of the cadaver of a woman in her 70s. "I gather it's just a sideline interest of his. I think it's fascinating."

"Unless I ask, he doesn't even bring it up," says Steven Johnson, 25, another graduate student involved in the dissection.

The Idaho Museum of Natural History, on the campus, has a popular "Bigfoot: How Do We Know?" exhibit, which details the scientific quest for the great hairy man and discusses the roles of knowledge, belief, faith and folklore in keeping the Bigfoot story alive.

"Faith is believing what you know ain't so," says a quote from Mark Twain in the display.
Meldrum's interest in the topic dates to an itinerant childhood in the prime Bigfoot-sighting terrain of Utah, Oregon, Idaho and eastern Washington, where his father was a produce merchandiser with the Albertson's supermarket chain.

"I spent a lot of time in the woods," Meldrum recalls. He was fascinated by animals of all kinds.
When he was 13, his parents gave him a book called "Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life," which he keeps in his office. His interest in the creature -- and the mystery and romance of the search for it -- grew so profound that one friend wrote in his 1976 Idaho high school yearbook: "Good luck hunting for Bigfoot."

Meldrum received bachelor's and master's degrees in zoology from Brigham Young University, and a doctorate in anatomical sciences from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
His specialty is the evolutionary adaptation of bipedalism, or walking on two legs. (One of the books he edited is called "From Biped to Strider: The Emergence of Human Walking, Running and Resource Transport") Over the years, Meldrum says, he and others have come across large prints that cannot be attributed to known animals.

"The subject begs for investigation," he says, rummaging through the large metal file drawers where he keeps the plaster footprint casts.

Meldrum says many of the prints would be extremely difficult to forge. The "flat flexible feet" -- up to about a size 28, quintuple-E-wide shoe -- are less rigid and arched than a human foot.
"All in all," he argues in the book, "this would be an efficient strategy for a giant terrestrial bipedal ape."

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