“You are Not Entitled to Your Own Bigfoot Facts”

Sharon Hill

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I came across a website that provided “Bigfoot Facts” for kids. The site didn't say from where these facts were derived but they were commonly circulated in various books and all over the web.

Here are some typical “facts”:

  • Bigfoot has been spotted all over the world, often in wooded and mountainous areas.
  • Bigfoot is an omnivore, eating plants, nuts, berries, fish, deer, and other animals.
  • Bigfoot is shy. He just likes to be around others of his own kind but not around people.
  • Since Bigfoot doesn’t want to be noticed or photographed, he is hard to spot and difficult to capture on film.
  • He is curious, aware of people, and can stealthily avoid them.
  • Bigfoots talk to each other by making loud howls across long distances or by wood knocking.
  • Bigfoot throws rocks at people to scare them away. He isn't mean, just territorial.

How do they know these things? I asked the site owner. My comment got rejected and my question was never answered. Did I cross a line? I just wanted a reference. Apparently, that was too much to ask.

Self-styled Bigfoot researchers make claims that suggest they know more about Bigfoot than Bigfoot might know about himself. They can tell me what Bigfoot likes and doesn’t like, where he sleeps at night, how he avoids detection, and how he communicates. They tell the public that Bigfoot makes those sounds they hear at night. They find locations where a Bigfoot passed through or slept or built a shelter. These researchers even know about Bigfoots’ “culture”—what they do with their dead relatives, how they can fool humans. But apparently they don't know enough to catch one.

Fact? You Keep Using that Word But I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means

Perhaps there is confusion over what exactly is meant by “fact.” That word doesn't have a hard and fast definition, but rather one that is based on how the statement is verified—from universal on the left end to personal verification on the right. A scientific fact is at the extreme left end. It is incontrovertible, verifiable to anyone who wants to check it. Facts are the building blocks of theories that describe how nature works.

A more everyday usage of the term “fact” is in the middle: a statement that can be confirmed to the point where the consensus will be that it is true, it really occurred, or it is certainly the case. That infers that there was some process undertaken to establish some basis for what is stated. We accept a lot of things as facts not because we have personally verified them but because others probably have and/or because it is reasonable to accept those facts as true.

On the extreme right side is a fact based on personal verification. “Fact” is used as a label for a statement that a person very much wants to believe or believes to be true. It's a fact in that person’s mind because he or she has accepted it completely: “I know this is true. I’ve seen it.” You probably won't be able to sway that person’s belief with any counter facts of your own. Religious facts are in this category.

Squatchy Facts from the Bigfoot Experts

Matt Moneymaker (of the Bigfoot Field Research Organization [BFRO] and Finding Bigfoot TV show) and I once got into a comical yet revealing Twitter exchange regarding his statement of facts. The exchange began when he posted these statements (that I interpreted as a matters-of-fact on his part):

MattMoneymaker1: Only 2 threats to human safety: Some throw rocks & some vehicle collisions with deer at night are caused by bigfoots November 17, 2011

In response to another user, he continued:

MattMoneymaker1: … IN SOME PLACES they spook deer to run into traffic at night, then pick up the roadkill afterward. Makes hunting easier. November 17, 2011

Here I go again:

DoubtfulNews: How do you know? December 3, 2011

MattMoneymaker1: @DoubtfulNews You will come understand how I know, albeit gradually. December 3, 2011

Ah, so the truth will be revealed to me. Revelation is a way of knowing different than science. It’s one I don’t use too much since it’s historically unreliable. But cryptozoologists (who study Bigfoot and other mystery creatures) and paranormalists seem to like it. It provides great flexibility in “knowing.”

Here are more claims from Matt on Twitter:

What do you mean "we" can't find their droppings? Do you look for them? BFRO members have found BF droppings many times. February 17, 2012

…Squatch todlers swing through trees like gibbons. Squatches r lk apes in many was. They r vry smart but very…[shy] July 5, 2011

Definitely some squatches in Indiana. Check out damned [sic] rivers near Huntington and Mt. Etna. Look 4 combo of deer and catfish. July 12, 2011

Hey #Rutland #Vermont ppl, u got a family of squatches living n Bird Mt WMA. We heard them knocking in there a few nights ago. Awesome place Apr 17, 2012

Squatches r using powerline cut between Jehova's Witness Hall outside Whitehall & north flank of Bird Mt. That is the route from Adirondacks Apr 17, 2012

Want to catch a Squatch? Here are some curious suggestions I bet you haven't heard before:

MattMoneymaker1: Got a howling BF near your home/cabin at night? Step outside w/ a pumpkin or watermelon during howling. Walk toward sounds, set it on a log. April 10, 2012

MattMoneymaker1: Whistle or sing as you carry the pumpkin or watermelon. Set it on a log somewhere dark and out of view of your home/cabin. Walk back inside. April 10, 2012

And then what happens? Despite looking a bit strange, I'd bet lots of people have tried this on Matt’s advice, yet we have no Bigfoot to show for it. Is it a fact that Bigfoot likes singing, squashes, and melons? I'm just bursting with questions about this.

Matt is always churning out such surprisingly specific details about Sasquatch. I refrain from asking each time “How do you know?” I suspect he is already annoyed with me and it’s tough to carry on an in-depth conversation in 140 characters or less. Conveniently, someone else asked and Matt tells the public he can prove it.

In a response to the question “How can you say that it is a well-known fact that BigFoot likes to throw rocks when you can't prove he's real?” (July 8, 2011) Matt replies:

MattMoneymaker1: We can prove "they" are real 2 anyone who wants 2 go into 1 of their cribs at night with us. We're not trying to catch one July 8, 2011

Plenty of people take him up on this offer. The BFRO runs sold-out camping expeditions into “squatchy” (Sasquatch-friendly) places. I don’t know how many people would say they found proof of Bigfoot on these trips but I haven’t seen any proof emerge. I get the impression that if you think Bigfoot is out there, everything is evidence of his presence. And the evidence is, again, of a personal nature.

Maybe all those things they say about Bigfoot are true (even though some are contradictory). But they aren't yet verified facts. We cannot verify Matt's facts because no one has documented conclusively that a Bigfoot/Sasquatch really exists nor has there been produced an actual body or body part for study or incontrovertible photo documentation. Bigfoot researchers have created a natural history of Bigfoot and pass it off to the public looking like a fact when it’s really a personal belief kind of fact, derived from personal observations or eyewitness reports.

Entire arrays of cryptids (mystery animals) are classified based on eyewitness descriptions from stories with no other corroborating evidence to support them. Examples of this speculative taxonomy are in so-called Field Guides or Handbooks to *insert any mystery thing here*. Such guides exist for lake monsters and sea serpents, Bigfoot and similar upright hairy man-like things, monsters (werewolves and the like), ghosts, vampires, little people (fairies and such), and all sorts of paranormal beings. They describe a wide range of creatures and their behaviors with (what looks to the reader like) facts. Most people are skeptical enough to view this literature as mostly entertainment but there actually are people that believe anything can exist, even magical creatures of folklore.

It's fine to speculate but when the whole premise of your field relies predominantly on anecdote-fueled interpretations, you are on thin ice making claims that there all these new animals are out there for us to find. Centuries ago, people knew facts about witches and demons, their behaviors, and reality. Historical natural history books had vivid descriptions of monstrous creatures. Here is one for the basilisk:

…he is king of serpents, and they be afraid, and flee when they see him. For he slayeth them with his smell and with his breath: and slayeth also anything that hath life with breath and with sight. In his sight no fowl nor bird passeth harmless, and though he be far from the fowl, yet it is burned and devoured by his mouth.

We never found anything that quite fit that description.

A Purpose Behind Manufacturing Facts

Any fact can be pulled out of the air when you are an expert in a field unconstrained by limits or rules, as is cryptozoology. Coming up with your own facts works well in the media and on TV shows because you can easily sound like you know what you are talking about. Most of the audience doesn't check your facts. These facts are repeated, catch on, and become public knowledge. This type of expert-looking testimony occurs not only on monster hunting shows but also on programming about UFO mysteries and especially on ghost hunting shows. Facts just spring up, fully formed, from imaginative speculation.

I have my own suspicion for why such manufacturing is so common today. It stems from the strong beliefs held by Bigfoot researchers and their need to justify their continued work and intellectual investment in their subject. Researchers get frustrated that not even one of these creatures can be found to unquestionably show the public they are real. They have to deliver to the public something to keep Bigfoot alive in their minds. The quest to find Bigfoot has gone on for so long that all the stories and hypotheses have woven themselves into an imagined biological sketch of Bigfoot. Researchers fit the debatable evidence they find into that framework and use it as inspiration to sustain and enhance belief about Bigfoot-like creatures.

Science isn’t such a house of cards. It’s built upon concepts we’ve already established to be true. Thinking that something ought to be one way is very different from something actually being that way. This important distinction is lost on wishful mystery hunters. Wishful thinking prevents them from seeking real world explanations for things like creature sightings, hauntings, and UFOs.

I often see comments that such TV shows are so silly, they should be labeled as comedy, that no one could believe they reflect reality. Skeptics often take a hard line against even the possibility of cryptids and see those handbooks and guides as fun entertainment. But consider this: many people around the world have formed paranormal investigation teams in response to ghost hunting shows on TV and people all around the U.S. have formed Bigfoot search groups. Do not underestimate the public buy-in to these activities. The more popular the topic becomes, the easier it is for people to accept.

Sure, Finding Bigfoot is clearly not a scientific expedition; it’s a TV show. Matt Moneymaker’s BFRO, however, labels itself “The only scientific research organization exploring the Bigfoot/Sasquatch mystery.” Matt himself is considered an authority (Note: he is trained in law, not science). Is this what people see as “scientific” enough to emulate? Indeed they do. And they buy those “facts” they are sold.

Comments on this story can be emailed to the author at shill@centerforinquiry.net

Sharon Hill

Sharon Hill is a scientific and technical consultant for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and creator of DoubtfulNews.com. Read more at SharonAHill.com.