Bigfoot Reconsidered

I recently came across an advertisement for a “One-Of-A-Kind Adventure,” a Bigfoot Adventures Tour Company endeavor that offers single-day, multi-day, and even Bigfoot-by-bike experiences. Their website promises to take you to sites where Bigfoot has been spotted numerous times and tracks have been found. They utilize “proven methods to call one in” and carry high-tech night-vision and recording equipment. They will teach participants to use and perfect the “wood knock” to communicate with Bigfoot. They offer storytelling around a campfire along with hot coffee and s’mores. The multi-day tours offer the highest odds of spotting a Sasquatch. Of course, sightings cannot be guaranteed.

My initial reaction was indignation. These people are lying to their customers, telling them a mythical creature really exists and claiming to have proven methods to call them in. They have no evidence that their methods work. They are taking money from customers under false pretenses. They should be ashamed.

But on further consideration, I decided they had nothing to be ashamed of. I reframed the issue. Instead of thinking of it as a claim of scientific reality, I reframed it as play and make-believe. I will explain.

Bigfoot Is Everywhere but Nowhere

Bigfoot is big business. There are Bigfoot tourist attractions, Bigfoot merchandise, books, documentaries, blogs, YouTube channels, and more.

You can sign up for a Bigfoot conference in April 2020 “focused on bridging the gap between the physical and metaphysical aspects of Sasquatch.” It’s at a college just down the road from me. It’s only $50, with a sandwich for lunch included. It might be entertaining, but I’m not tempted. I know it would raise my blood pressure, and I wouldn’t be able to sit through it with a straight face.

Sasquatch Calling Festival will be held in Whitehall, New York, in September 2020; it is free. The price is right, and of course they can call, but will Sasquatch answer? Probably not.

As for tour operators, there are Bigfoot tours galore. They aren’t just in the Northwest—in the forests of Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia—but in California, the Ozarks, Appalachia, the Smoky Mountains, Florida, and probably other places too. There are hiking and camping tours, 4×4 vehicle tours, cruises, and helicopter tours. There’s even a Bigfoot Fun Park in Branson, Missouri. The park offers a Bigfoot Discovery Tour advertised to “make you BELIEVE!”

But Bigfoot isn’t real! 

Bigfoot hunts remind me of snipe hunts. I once went to a summer camp that featured snipe hunts. They had us kids carry bags and poke around in the woods at dusk calling “Here, snipe!” There are real birds in the snipe family, but they don’t live in the area of the camp, and they don’t come when you call. “Snipe hunts” have become a practical joke and an American rite of passage; the term has become synonymous with “fool’s errand.” 

Sightings of Bigfoot, or the Sasquatch, are generally attributed by scientists to a combination of folklore, misidentification, and hoaxes. Wikipedia quotes a scientist who explains why the claims defy all logic. And yet the respected scientist and primate researcher Jane Goodall remains open to the creature’s existence. She says she is a romantic and she doesn’t want to disbelieve. She trusts the anecdotes of people all over the world who “have no reason to lie.” She wonders if it could be a Neanderthal remnant or a “spiritual” creature. She thinks it is important to have an element of mystery in life. 

Jane Goodall values play, as most of us do.

Reframing It as Play

Children’s play helps prepare them for adulthood. They can distinguish imagination from reality at an early age. Toddlers pretend to pour imaginary tea into empty teacups and serve Daddy a drink, but they know the tea isn’t real. Play can mimic reality, or it can be wildly imaginative. One of my favorite memories of my two daughters is when they invented a game of saving the whales. They were probably two and four at the time. They pulled the piano bench into the middle of the living room and pretended the piano bench was a boat and the living room carpet was the ocean. They would sit on the bench and scan the “ocean” until one of them spotted an imaginary whale. Then they would jump off the bench and pretend to swim to the whale, seize it, and wrestle it onto the piano bench. I didn’t have the heart to burst their bubble by explaining what people really meant by “saving the whales.” I knew they would learn that soon enough. They were having fun, and there was no harm done … certainly not to the imaginary whales.

We continue to play as adults. We dress up for costume parties, spending money at Halloween to disguise ourselves as witches and superheroes. We act in plays. We play Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy for our children. We pretend that kissing our children’s boo-boos will make them better. We indulge in cosplay (ever been to a Star Trek convention?). We enjoy science fiction and fantasy books and movies. We watch cartoons where animals speak. We read novels and historical fiction. We know these things don’t represent reality. We are able to suspend disbelief temporarily in the pursuit of enjoyment. 

I have reconsidered the Bigfoot tours as pure play and a chance to get out in the woods and experience the pleasures of nature. I don’t think they are hurting anyone. They only offer the same kind of anecdotal “evidence” that humans naturally rely on. It’s not their job to teach critical thinking. Even people well-trained in critical thinking can enjoy pretending Bigfoot exists, although their logical mind knows it’s not true. I think my critical thinking skills are pretty good. I don’t believe in magic, spells, and magic wands—and I know Hogwarts is a fictional creation—but I love the Harry Potter books. I can suspend my disbelief and enjoy the stories. I can imagine going on a Bigfoot tour and enjoying the fun (while trying not to giggle). 

Where Do We Draw the Line?

We can enjoy play and fantasy, but where should we draw the line? There’s a great article in Psychology Today on the value of play that defines how play differs from other activities. Play is noncoercive, and players have the freedom to quit. People play for the sake of play, not as means to an end. Play can be competitive, but it is always cooperative and bound by rules; if players are harmed, it is not intentional. Play is always marked off in some way from reality. But not everything that is divorced from reality is play.

Bigfoot tours are in a very different category from fake cancer cures. Both involve play, imagination, and false beliefs, but belief in Bigfoot doesn’t kill people. When medical misinformation and fantasy are vigorously asserted to be scientific reality, patients may be pressured into refusing vaccinations and other lifesaving treatments. Similarly, personal religious beliefs are acceptable, no matter how bizarre, until the believers try to control others or interfere with their rights (for instance, by denying medical care to children in favor of prayer). I don’t think I can define clear rules for where to draw the line, but reframing Bigfoot tours as imaginative play for adults has made me much more tolerant of what they do.

This article was originally published as a SkepDoc’s Corner column on the  CSI website

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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