Summer Road Trip: Puzzlin’ Evidence

I have been thinking about the intersection of history, storytelling, and science, ever since my visit to the Sasquatch Outpost in Bailey, Colorado, a small but enthusiastically curated museum dedicated to information about Colorado sightings of Bigfoot. I could not help but compare it to two other recent visits here, one to the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita, Colorado and the US Olympic & Paralympic Archives in Colorado Springs.

What I grasped is that history, science, and storytelling all use parts that are native to each other. Scientists start with evidence, but must construct a narrative that uses deductive reasoning to explain results. This happens whether they are aiming particle beams at cuprite samples or reconstructing fossil skeletons from a riverbed. They need to tell a clear story. Historians also need to fill in the details on the timeline, starting with whatever sources (evidence) exist from the time period. Deductive reasoning and inferences play a part.

Storytelling, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish. If it has a little deductive reasoning–a little science behind it–the story might might have more power. Think about the explanation of constellations, for example. Humans are also naturally adept at “What If…? Tales don’t need evidence, although it helps if the story resembles the familiar. Imagination, however, should not let us replace evidence with anecdote. There are different kinds of evidence. Brief examples from my visits should help clarify the roles played. I can’t quite figure out the Venn diagram, but perhaps the following might help:

Dinosaurs in the Flesh

How do we know dinosaurs existed? They left us some evidence: bones, footprints, and imprints of scales, eggs, and even feathers. Paleontologists discovered fossils and petrified bones which allowed them to draw conclusions about how big these creatures once were. That evidence was limited, of course. Researchers can only find bones that were preserved under certain conditions–river water providing minerals to fortify the skeleton for millions of years and geological uplift or tectonic movement to expose the bones to us. Big bones will be easier to find than small bones; multiple bones will be easier to interpret than a single one.

Reconstructed Carnosaur legbone, photo by kajmeister from Dinosaur Journey.

Still, scientists can reconstruct these animals based on what they know about physiology in animals today. A ten-foot shin bone from a T-rex must have had muscles and ligaments as connective tissue. The Dinosaur Journey museum, just outside of Grand Junction Colorado was fairly small, but it was more than just playground or tourist trap. They used their dozen examples to good effect, taking the extra step to create fleshed-out beasts.

Full model of Utahraptor, the Utah state dinosaur, from Dinosaur Journey. Photo by kajmeister.

In the last several decades, dinosaur reconstructions have begun to display skins with patterns. It can be startling to see dinosaurs in full feathers and painted. But why would they all be variations of shades of green? There are agamas, rainbow lizards, or chameleons that are multi-colored. And dinosaurs and birds are closely related (Birds are dinosaurs, as I noted in a much earlier post.)

So when scientists wanted to figure out how to reconstruct a small set of bones they discovered near Fruita, how did they proceed? They thought about modern birds and reptiles. They thought about the skeletons of other dinosaurs. Together, they worked in a committee and published a peer-reviewed article (which the museum displayed so that those who would recognize scientific research would feel at home). The gist of the “Lower limits of ornithischian body size inferred from an Upper Jurassic heterodontosaurid…” is that they put together the skeleton of the unknown based on some knowns.

Reconstruction of Fruitadens, a small carnivorous dinosaur. Photo by kajmeister from Dinosaur Journey.

They further inferred that the coloring on the dinosaur’s skin migt have a disruptive pattern, which is common to birds, a pattern that breaks up the animal’s shape so it doesn’t look like a single form. That makes it harder to spot by predators and by prey. The head might colorful sexual signals, similar to modern birds and lizards.

Overall, then, there’s a chunk of modern evidence and ancient evidence, wrapped together with deductive reasoning in a little narrative to explain why the dinosaur might look this way.

Historical Archives: Tip of the Iceberg

Historians also have to construct timelines and narratives, drawing inferences from primary sources, which are core evidence. Whenever you read someone’s history, you want to know what those sources are and whether the researcher found something new or is making a new argument based on a well-known source. It can be problematic when people in the past make up a story because that could be treated as a type of primary source, but just because it’s old doesn’t make it true. (In the early days, dinosaur researchers thought they dragged the long tails on the ground, or put the skull on the wrong end. Those were not equally-good theories.) Betsy Ross did not sew the first flag; Henry the VIII did not have syphilis. Still, if you’ve done any kind of research, you know that the first twelve responses to your keyword research may be repeated instances of inaccurate information, and that you have to dig to get to the truth, peering into dark corners and sifting through pages of primary sources.

Sample archive boxes from the USOPC. Photo by kajmeister.

But primary sources are like dinosaur fossils. They are hard to find and dependent on what surfaced. I had a chance to peruse a few boxes in the US Olympic & Paralympic Archives last week, and it struck me how difficult it still might be to find information about those early Games. The archivist did a creditable job in labeling and organizing, to be sure, and I give high thanks to the USOPC administrators who let me poke around the boxes. But they aren’t digitized yet. There are thousands of pages to sift through, but you would have to read through them–which people do–but it’s a painstaking, time-consuming process.

Suppose I want to know how women were treated in the early Games? The problem is that few were allowed to compete, so there aren’t many footprints left to examine. Read page after page of discussions of the size of the program, complaints about food on the ships carrying athletes, debates about whether a runner must be upright to come in first… but there may be nothing in a thousand pages about women.

Meanwhile, flipping through the Quadrennial Meeting Minutes of 1921, I came across this paragraph:

From the Quadrennail US Olympic Meeting, courtesy of the USOPC Archives.

Ladies and Gentlemen: We come from the Federation of the Girl Scouts Organization. We have seven thousand little girls whom we want to try to teach to be better losers. We need the help of every man in this room for that great undertaking.

From the Quadrennail US Olympic Meeting, courtesy of the USOPC Archives.

Being good historians, what can we conclude about attitudes towards women and men from that statement? Can we even imagine the leader of the Boy Scouts enthusiastically embracing the Games because they teach losing? Do we think that Americans were supporters of the Olympic movement because it transcended winning and losing? We have ample evidence elsewhere that Americans very much wanted to win for dozens of cultural reasons. Clearly, there is a different attitude when it comes to girls.

It’s an extraordinary statement on its face, but there’s more. The secretary typing up the notes also handwrote in the person who spoke: Mrs. Jane Deeter Rippin. Mrs. Rippin, as it happens, was head of the Girl Scouts for nearly a dozen years, as her biographers have documented. She created the councils and put forth the idea of selling cookies. She wanted the girls to be organized and entrepreneurial as well as “good losers.” Bones on the skeleton.

Mrs. Rippin was also a social worker who supported something called the American Plan, a comprehensive Congressional ordinance that attempted to stop the spread of STDs among the soldiers. Rippin believed that delinquent girls were responsible for the spread of disease and spent years organizing groups to ferret out girls who might be “suspected” of harming male soldiers through inappropriate fraternization and the spread of disease.

I can draw a different kind of historical conclusion about the comment by the leader of the Girl Scouts, buried in these archives, based on knowing about her other work. This is now part narrative, part evidence, and part reasoning based on other things I know. Skin on the skeleton.

So what does this all have to do with Bigfoot?

From the Sasquatch Outpost, Bailey, CO. Photo from Atlas Obscura.

Timelines, Map Pins, and Grainy Films

At the Sasquatch Outpost in Bailey, Colorado, they try hard to put together a convincingly curated exhibit. In a small space, they cover the walls with maps, pictures of footprints, video screens, and fuzzy photographs. But it was the use of the tokens that was “the tell.” Everyone entering the museum was given a token and told at the end to place it in boxes under the sign “Do You Believe?” This is a version of participatory scholarship. But we don’t vote on science by committee, no matter how much today’s attitudes suggest that there might be Alternative Facts. Tokens in a box are not an alternative form of research.

Dinosaurs once roamed the earth because there are millions of fossil remains. Even if they are blurry, scattered, of jumbled together from river flows, scientists can reconstruct dinosaur habits and behaviors based on found evidence. The evidence of Sasquatch–when you peel away all the videos and “exhibits”–comes back to a handful of items. A few oddly sized footprints, some of which are admitted hoaxes. A few grainy photos, one of which was filmed. The most famous one, the Patterson-Gimlin film, was created by people who were determined to get a photo and then miraculously, found one soon after they started wandering around the northwest with a camera.

Famous still shot from the Patterson-Gimlin film. From Atlas Obscura.

There are a lot of excuses about why other “bits” of evidence aren’t conclusive. Despite having identified hair, skin, and excrement samples, none of these could provide DNA samples for one excuse or another. Recent samples submitted to scientists in Britain or at the RBI were examined and found to be cows, humans, or other animals. One research group examined samples that they did conclude where from “non-human primates” which is surprising in North America, except that samples could come from escaped animals. Pythons, which are not native to Florida, escaped from an owner and have reproduced enough to become an invasive pest.

Museum like the Sasquatch Outpost focus on lots of examples of pseudo-evidence. Lots of map sightings from people who thought they heard or saw something–pins on a map are not really evidence. Reconstructed historical timelines of people who thought they heard or saw something. The problem with all of this is that if Bigfoot were as prevalent as all these glimpses suggested, then we would have found a lot of physical evidence–bones, hair, droppings, or something, in the fifty years that we’ve been looking.

“Historical timeline” of Sasquatch sightings, according to the Sasquatch Outpost. Photo by kajmeister.

What we end up with is a ton of storytelling–elaborate, intricate, stories–mostly featuring the people telling the stories–substituting for evidence or deductive reasoning. The imagined paintings have become more sophisticated with digital artwork, but they are still artist’s renderings. If Sasquatch is so prevalent, why is the 1967 film–which might itself have been fabricated–still the only film that has a shred of credibility? You need to start with the bones, instead of with the stories. When there is peer reviewed on sightings, I’ll change my tune.

Even if Teddy Roosevelt is listed on the historical timeline because Roosevelt himself was fascinated by Bigfoot stories, that doesn’t lend more credibility to the stories.

Roosevelt, by the way, was a big supporter of the modern Olympics, once cabling his congratulations to the 1906 American winning team by saying: Uncle Sam is All Right!


I did end up with a cool T-shirt, though.

3 Replies to “Summer Road Trip: Puzzlin’ Evidence”

  1. Wellllllll….your mind must be a thrilling, frightening, wonderful place to live! To go from dinosaurs to Big Foot to Girl Scouts and MORE in one post! You’re like a word cartographer! But…go back to this part, because I’m seeing some similarities between this sentence and many humans I have known, including maybe me: “ But the head has colorful sexual signals, similar to modern birds and lizards.” Fascinating…we all came from TRex?!?!

    1. Frightening is a word people might use if they knew me better. I almost didn’t think I should post this one because it is a bizarre combination that doesn’t perhaps work as well as other posts. But because I had visited those places, and they did make me think about what they had in common, I was compelled.

      I don’t know if we all came FROM T-Rex…birds definitely do. But birds and reptiles are on a different wing from the mammals. However, the earliest mammal and the one from which ALL mammals evolve (including primates and us) is the tree shrew, which is a nasty looking rat-like creature. I would have preferred the T-rex! Thanks for your comment!

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