Do you believe in… ?

December 22, 2006

With The Chronicle of Higher Education on its annual break to commemorate the holidays, it currently lists top stories from the past year on its website. Taking a cue from The Chronicle, I will take a break from my blog until next year, unless I feel moved to do a posting. (A few ideas are already creeping in, though time will dictate whether I post.)

Although it is a “break” from my usual postings, today’s topic does relate to higher education, and it asks the question of what constitutes serious research. It probably would have been more appropriate for Halloween, but anyway…

One top story posted for the holiday break webpage of The Chronicle tells the tale of Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, a professor at Idaho State University’s Department of Biological Sciences. Meldrum specializes in the study of primates, and he has become famous (or infamous) for researching one of the world’s best-known primates. Unfortunately for Meldrum, he faces a serious conundrum: No scientific evidence can definitively prove the existence of his pet interest, the creature known as sasquatch, or “Bigfoot.”

Many of Meldrum’s peers view his work the same way many of us view stories about the creature in various tabloids. The Chronicle article quotes an ISU Physics professor as saying that Meldrum might as well investigate Santa Claus. In addition, a lecturer from the ISU Physics Department points out that the hypothetical behavior of sasquatch varies from behaviors exhibited by most other primates. Meldrum’s own department chair criticizes his colleague’s methods, claiming that he tries to use data to fit his hypothesis. Not surprisingly, the department has twice denied Meldrum a promotion to full professor.

Needless to say, Meldrum has a lot of work to do before he can definitively prove the existence of a “loner” primate that lives in high altitudes. But then, as Meldrum says in response to the Physics lecturer’s skepticism, some species of primate do have such characteristics. If sasquatch does exist, Meldrum believes that it would share some of those same characteristics.

Like the physics lecturer, I am no biologist. However, I believe that Meldrum is legitimately trying to gather evidence that might point towards the existence of some tall primate that wanders the North American wilderness. Admittedly, as the chair of his department points out, Meldrum’s methods differ from those accepted by the scientific mainstream. On the other hand, perhaps traditional methods are a bit too rigid to facilitate a free and responsible search for the truth.

It seems appropriate to mention Carl Sagan, who died ten years ago this Wednesday. In a tribute on MSNBC’s Cosmic Log, Alan Boyle mentions Sagan’s famous admonition that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Boyle also includes an extensive quote from a lecture by Sagan, where he discusses the nature of evidence further. In answering a question related to an omnipotent being leaving evidence for us, Sagan says, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Neither is it evidence of presence. And this again is a situation where our tolerance for ambiguity is required.”

It is hard to rally support around Meldrum’s sasquatch research due to the lack of solid evidence for the phenomenon, as well as the tabloid stigma attached to it. However, one does have to take intuitive leaps to begin understanding potentially deeper truths, even if they go beyond accepted paradigms. Unfortunately, Meldrum is stuck in an intellectual limbo that draws disdain from those who follow accepted scientific methods, but that does not sink to the level of sensationalism that could bring him fame (and perhaps money). Whatever the case, one can only hope that Meldrum can keep working to get us closer to the truth about sasquatch… whatever it may be.

As for Santa Claus, studying him is best left to folklorists.

Happy holidays to all!

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