Apr 062015

People concerned about the existence, or non-existence, of free will usually acquaint themselves with the issue by reading philosophical literature. The literature on the subject goes back hundreds of years, often intersecting with theological interpretations. There is a growing body of scientific literature on the subject, which can be categorized as the “neuroscience of free will.”

I should like to propose a self test for free will, that is an exercise that an individual can perform that may have the end result of convincing one that “free will” is ultimately an illusion. Unlike testing for things like exoplanets or novel viruses, this test requires no esoteric machinery, as the perception that one has “free will” is purely subjective. We don’t even need the sort of exotic devices used in the tests performed by Benjamin Libet and others.

First off, the exercise requires that one meditate. For those who already meditate, this should be no problem. For those that don’t simply sit comfortably in silence, in a chair or comfortably cross legged. Close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing. There is no need to modify how you breath; simply pay close attention to the rise and fall of the breath within the chest. Relax as many muscles as deeply as you can. The goal here is to try to pay close attention to the somatic sensations of breathing, in real time, instead of the thoughts, perceptions, words, and images that naturally enter our stream of consciousness. It’s an amazingly difficult exercise! To be free of words entering the mind for even a few seconds is hard. Nevertheless, with perseverance it becomes possible, at least for moments.

Now become aware of the ~nature~ of the thoughts entering the mind. Most will be associational in nature, that is they will be copies of thoughts you had earlier in the day. You may be considering the tasks you need to do today. You may be imagining a pleasant event that is scheduled to occur later, or mulling over an event that continues to preoccupy you. Mulling over is essentially creating modified copies of thoughts, an associational process. It’s a non-optimal sort of association. Imagine a word association exercise in which one repeatedly answers “cat” to the stimulus of the word “cat” instead of “dog” or “fur.” This is natural, and attests to the less than optimum software that runs our minds. This software was not designed by an “Intelligent Designer” but is a product of evolution. Why do we need to “tell ourselves” things we already know? Why do our minds repeat the same idea over and over again? At the very least this form of largely associational mental functioning, even during meditation, is familiar. It’s unlikely any productive insight will occur during this sort of habitual process.

Most likely, a truly novel word, image, or impression will eventually present itself in your stream of consciousness. It may take several attempts at meditation for this to occur, if one is not already practicing. I still remember the specific image that occurred to me that produced the insight I’m trying to share: During meditation, a memory, tempered by imagination, entered my mind. I saw the shoreline of the Bitterroot River in Missoula, but from the perspective of being in the middle of the river. I had been on the shoreline before, but not in the water. The image was a hybrid of true memory plus imagination.

At this moment my meditation was completely disrupted by the insight that free will is an illusion. For “I” simply did not “chose” this unique visual image at all, it simply entered my mind. The image of the river was striking because of its utter uniqueness. There was no preceding cogitation of rivers, rafting, water, shorelines, or any sort of similar thought. At this moment it was crystal clear to me that there was simply no act of “choice” that occurred in my mind. The notion of choice is integral to the concept of free will, as if we do not choose what thoughts enter our minds or choose what actions to perform we concede that we are, in an ultimate sense, deterministic. If one counters that “free will” is the ability to choose amongst multiple behavioral or cognitive pathways, then indeed we have that ability. Yet the choice to act is yet another impression that simply enters the mind, just like a visual impression of the Bitterroot river. The choice itself has deterministic antecedents, albeit highly complex ones. This is the ultimate sense in which “free will” is illusory.

Why must this exercise occur during meditation? Because meditation is a very effective way of reducing the barrage of stimuli that enter our minds. Meditation is a way of reducing that barrage so the insight of how the contents of our minds simply ~enters~ the stream of consciousness, and is not “chosen” can occur.

Consider that most of our daily thoughts are associative or repetitive in nature. Isn’t this more or less a concession that those thoughts are essentially habitual and mechanical, and thus far less “chosen” than truly unique impressions? Once one becomes more perceptually attuned to “where” ideas come from that enter our streams of consciousness, it becomes easier to notice this process happening in our prosaic day-to-day lives, not just during meditation. I should like to propose that the FAMILIARITY of our habitual associational thoughts is largely responsible for producing the illusion of “free will.”

For those wishing to research this novel, and admittedly counterintuitive, idea further, I would highly recommend the work of Sam Harris. He is the author of a small book on the issue, as well as a 12 minute video now on YouTube that explains the idea very clearly.

UPDATE 4/25/2015:

In Sam Harris’ latest podcast, a more direct statement of this notion is given at about an hour and 5 minutes into the presentation:

Q: How often should we be aware of the illusion of free will? Should it serve a more reflective function, rather than happen in real time?

A: Well, for me a direct awareness of the illusoriness of free will, the very clear sense that the notion of free will doesn’t name anything in my experience this is more or less coincident with a moment of mindfulness or a moment of meditation where I’m clearly aware of how thoughts and intentions and desires and their subsequent actions arise spontaneously. Something is not there a moment ago, and then suddenly it’s there. And all of one’s mental life, even the most voluntary behavior has this character when you look at it in a fine-grained way. But I think the most important understanding of it is reflective, certainly the most important ethical implications are born of reflecting on this truth about us. It is just an understanding that people are operating on the basis of everything that has made them who they are, and that they are not agents in the deepest possible sense.

 Posted by on 04/06/2015 Opinion, Science Tagged with:  Comments Off on A Self Test for Free Will
Nov 212014

Why should rationalists meditate? There are a number of good reasons, but the one I’d like to address is how it impacts our conception of free will.

For many, the question of free will is both a complex philosophical question and a religious doctrine. It can be intimidating for an individual to make sense of the arcane philosophical debates. I know I did. When I was in college I was rather fixated on the notion of free will to an unhealthy degree.

Eventually I discovered the weirdly counter-intuitive idea that both “free will” and the “self” are illusions. I can’t recall clearly where I first encountered this notion; perhaps it was reading Krishnamurti, or advocates of psychedelic drugs.

I began meditating with a reasonable degree of habitual regularity only a few months ago. I am by every metric a beginner at this practice. Nevertheless, during meditation it becomes MUCH easier to perceive the appearance of individual thoughts arising in the stream of consciousness. Because of this, it becomes a trivial matter to directly perceive the truth of the claim that “free will” and the “self” are illusions. They are certainly strong illusions, as our normal waking consciousness creates a veritable flood of images, words, perceptions, and somatic sensations in our stream of consciousness.

When one perceives a single thought arising during meditation, it becomes easy to see that the thought was not “chosen” in any way; it simply appears. There’s also a logical paradox in the notion of “free will” in that it assumes a mind chooses from a range of thoughts and picks one to enter consciousness. If this were so, we would know a thought before we actually know it.

The notion of “self” is another powerful illusion. Again, when one meditates, it becomes apparent that there is no “self” that chooses which thoughts to enter consciousness. Thoughts simply appear in consciousness.

Nothing I’ve said so far is really novel. What I’d like to suggest that might really be novel is that one of the specific virtues of meditation for skeptics, atheists, and rationalists is that enables a direct and simple way to understand why “free will” is an illusion. Why is this valuable? For a number of reasons, but one being that the doctrine of “free will” is a sort of moral Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card for theists in the Abrahamic traditions. When confronted with the uncomfortable notion that God allows evil to occur even though he’s omnipotent, we are told that God gave man “free will” which puts the responsibility on mankind, not God.

Free will also factors into the doctrine of punishment, both human and divine. Curing immoral behavior is itself a more moral act than simply punishing it. For example, if it were KNOWN that a sociopath had a brain tumor that caused his sociopathy, the moral act would be to treat the tumor, not punish the sociopath. As fallible humans it’s largely beyond our ability, at present, to “cure” most sociopathy.

Once the notion of “free will” is abandoned, the notion of hell becomes all the more morally barbaric and gratuitous. It supposes a super-being capable of re-arranging the determinate causes of sociopathy, which is ultimately a victim state, yet chooses to punish the victim. Eternally.

Again, these ideas are not novel to me. I would refer anyone interested in the issue to read Sam Harris’ book on the subject or to watch this lecture of his:

I encourage skeptics, atheists, and rationalists to meditate. Discover for yourself how “free will” is an illusion.

 Posted by on 11/21/2014 Personal History, Science Tagged with:  Comments Off on Meditation and Free Will
Nov 112013

We commonly believe that “testing” is an intentional process. In fact, we think of the most carefully designed tests as “scientific” tests. Within the commonplace notion of “scientific testing” there is a tacit assumption that it’s intentional. Consider the spectacular success of finding a predicted subatomic particle, the Higgs boson. A giant machine had to be built, the Large Hadron Collider, and it had to be operated by educated people with highly specialized technical knowledge. The intention of the tests at the LHC is to find subatomic particles.

The kind of testing that Mythbusters does is also scientific testing, but with a much lower budget. There again, it’s intentional testing, as unique devices are often built to test the claims that they often erroneously refer to as “myths.”

There are tests that occur which are unintentional, which is why they are non-obvious. Consider Russian dashboard cameras, or “dash-cams.” Their designed function, their intention, is to capture traffic events such as collisions, to guard against fraudulent insurance claims. In a surprising turn of events, Russian dash cams videos were used to help calculate the trajectory of the Chelyabinsk meteor. The unintentional data was valid and scientifically useful. In addition, seismic sensors designed to detect nuclear detonations also provided data that was used to assess the Chelyabinsk event. Again, these seismic sensors were unintentionally testing for events besides nuclear blasts.

There are other “tests” which are as non-obvious and unintentional as dash-cam videos. Consider the question “is there a population of panthers in Florida?” The answer is yes. How do we know this? Well, a variety of reasons, one of them is the sad reality that some members of this population are hit and killed by cars. Roadkill is an unintentional sort of “test” for the presence of animals in an area.

How might this notion apply to skepticism? Consider the central claim of young earth creationism, that the planet is no more than 10,000 years old, and that all species on earth were created spontaneously at one time. If this was the case, there would be tangible evidence of this. This question was settled decades ago, but consider that even now the claim is unintentionally tested on a daily basis. Science learns novel things within branches of science relevant to evolution on a daily basis. If creationism were real, “normal science” as Thomas Kuhn calls it, would be encountering anomalies that suggest creationism EVERY DAY. This does not happen. It does not happen because creationism is false.

The culture of skepticism is often “reactive” in the sense that those who assert extraordinary claims act first and skeptics follow by analyzing or testing those claims. I’ve personally done this in the somewhat reviled area known as “Bigfoot skepticism.” Extraordinary claims were made that certain textures on a putative Bigfoot footprint cast represented “dermal ridges.” I involved myself with testing this claim.

Bigfootery is not seen by most skeptics as being as socially corrosive as creationism, and I would agree with this. Yet even most “Bigfoot skeptics” don’t conceive of Bigfootery as being as intellectually bankrupt as creationism.

I no longer think this way about the subject, and I now conceive of Bigfootery as being as intellectually bankrupt as creationism. Why? Because the Bigfoot proposition, like creationism, is tested on a daily basis. It has failed on a daily basis, and has failed on a daily failed for decades.

How specifically is the Bigfoot proposition tested on a daily basis? First off, as mentioned earlier, roadkill. Bigfoot is asserted to be a real animal, whose range is the entire North American continent. For decades now, drivers travel literally billions of miles on those roads each year. Traffic is constant. Animals of all kinds both common and rare, like Florida panthers, are killed. Not a single Sasquatch. Hikers traverse the wilderness daily, including the alleged habitation areas of Bigfoot. Humans by nature are curious, and anomalous details stand out. A human shaped skull the size of a basketball would stand out, as would virtually ANY part of a humanoid carcass. The natural curiosity of hikers is an unintentional test for all sorts of anomalies, such as aircraft debris occasionally found in the wilderness. No Bigfoot carcass has ever been found in North America. Geologists, road engineers, paleontologists, and others dig and move earth on a daily basis in North America. Though most are not intentionally looking for Bigfoot fossils, anomalous fossils would be noticed, as would all sorts of anomalies. Wildlife photographers capture high resolution, unambiguous photographs of all sorts of animals, including very rare ones, on a daily basis. In 50 years of Bigfootery, the number of clear and unambiguous photographs or motion pictures of Sasquatch produced by non-Bigfoot advocates is zero.

The claim by Bigfoot advocates that Bigfootery is a legitimate scientific question continues to function as effective propaganda because the notion of unintentional testing is non-obvious.

For many years now, creationists have tried to argue that creationism is a legitimate scientific question. “Teach the Controversy” they argue. It’s a subtle form of propaganda. Creationists attempt to stage public “debates” with top scientists. In this way, creationists are subtly attempting to persuade by suggesting the issue is a legitimate controversy, and that the creationist’s argument and evidence is equivalent to that offered by legitimate scientists. Bigfoot advocates engage in a similar form of propaganda, though I suspect that they do so unconsciously.

By causing “Bigfoot skeptics” to continually respond to putative evidence, Bigfoot advocates tacitly position the Bigfoot proposition as a valid scientific question. Furthermore, this obscures the damning flaw of Bigfootery, which is that the Bigfoot proposition is unintentionally tested daily, and fails daily.

 Posted by on 11/11/2013 Bigfoot, Pseudoscience, Science Comments Off on The Notion of Unintentional Testing
Feb 262012

Have you ever wondered how sweetness equivalence is measured? When we read that aspartame is “200 times as sweet as sucrose” what does that actually mean? Does that mean that 100mg of aspartame on the tongue will produce a sensation that is 200 times as intense as 100mg of sucrose?

I’ve wondered about this for YEARS. Consider other bodily sensations, like sound. If you sit quietly in a perfectly quiet place, you will begin to hear internal “noise” like your own breathing and probably some level of tinnitus. Consider that a baseline. Now compare that with the LOUDEST sound you have ever heard. In my case it would probably be my first rock concert, Van Halen. The range of internal sensation for sound is enormous.

Unfortunately for humans, the range of sensation for physical pain is also vast. Our other senses have ranges much greater than that of the sensation of sweetness. But even with taste, the range of sensation is great. Consider hot sauces, and what an enormous physical sensation that capsaicin and other capsaicinoids can produce. But perception of sweetness is different. The range from barely detectable to pure-sucrose-on-the-tongue is not very great. Why is that? Why does the human body have such a disparity in the ranges of sensation that we can perceive? Why do hearing and pain have ranges of sensation so vastly greater than the perception of sweetness? How did evolution “work” to create this situation?

When aspartame was first released as Equal brand by Searle, an advertizing campaign was run which claimed that Equal “tastes great straight.” I seem to recall Cher pouring the contents of a blue paper packet of Equal onto her tongue. Indeed, a similar test with a pink packet of saccharine produced a miserable and bitter result. From there I began to wonder what putting PURE aspartame on the tongue would be like. If you notice, you can’t buy PURE artificial sweeteners.

I long suspected that what it actually MEANS when the statement is made that an artificial sweetener is X times as sweet as sucrose is that a solution of the sweetener diluted X times is EQUIVALENT IN TASTE to a solution of sucrose. Indeed, a bit of Google-fu gives the result. In fact this is similar to the “Scoville scale” of heat in chili peppers. The Scoville scale is not a measurement of PPM of capsaicin but a dilution equivalence.

I do wonder though, if our tongues and brains were wired so that our sweetness range was like that of hearing or chili heat. Would chemicals like aspartame or sucralose become controlled substances? Consider how “abused” sweetened food is right now; what if your chocolate bar or pancake syrup was two hundred times as intense as it is now? Would we have pre-employment screening for sucralose?

 Posted by on 02/26/2012 Opinion, Science Comments Off on How Sweet is Too Sweet?
Feb 082012

Updated Response to Meldrum’s Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science

One of the main pieces of evidence for the claim that Bigfoot tracks exhibit dermal ridges is the “Onion Mountain” footprint, a thirteen-inch cast made by researcher John Green in August 1967. An additional set of tracks, the “Wrinkle Foot” casts, allegedly also display dermal ridges. The Wrinkle Foot set of prints were discovered by Paul Freeman. Photographs of the Onion Mountain and Wrinkle Foot casts appear on opposite pages (256 and 257) of Meldrum’s book, and so allow for an easy comparison. The gross morphological difference between the two casts is striking. Were these both made by individuals from the same species?

On May 29, 2005, I spoke at a Sasquatch conference in Bellingham, Washington, claiming that the unique surface textures of the Onion Mountain cast had a prosaic explanation. I argued they were “casting artifacts”, or as I now refer to them “desiccation ridges”, a term coined by a geologist and ichnologist, Dr. Anton Wroblewski. Basically, textures that closely resemble dermal ridges can sometimes spontaneously form on cement casts when the casts are made in very fine, dry soils, like those in which John Green found his tracks. The ridges that spontaneously form somewhat resemble the sand patterns that form on shallow beaches after the tide has gone out.

In a surprising turn of events, Meldrum himself publicly proclaimed this hypothesis a “slam dunk” during the question and answer session that followed my presentation. Unknown to me at the time, Meldrum had previously made test casts in fine Idaho loess soil that also exhibited desiccation ridges.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Meldrum’s treatment of the Onion Mountain cast in his book Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science is something of a retrenchment from his “slam dunk” proclamation. If the desiccation ridge hypothesis is correct, then dermal ridges expert Jimmy Chilcutt’s claim that the textures must represent Bigfoot’s dermal ridges is wrong, and rather spectacularly so. Indeed, Chilcutt previously set the stakes for himself very high, when he claimed (on the 2003 “Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science” TV and DVD documentary) that he would “stake his reputation” on his dermal ridge interpretation.

The provenance and chain of custody issue of the Onion Mountain cast is even more fundamentally damning for Meldrum’s current position. What Meldrum claims is the original cast has clearly written “Onion Mountain” in ink on the cast itself.

Yet until presented with evidence in the form of an e-mail from John Green, Chilcutt maintained that the cast had come instead from Northern California’s Blue Creek Mountain. Chilcutt had also previously characterized this critical piece of evidence in an interview as originating on “Blue Creek Mountain.”

It is not clear that Chilcutt even examined the cast that Meldrum claims is the original. If he did, why didn’t he use the unique, unambiguous nomenclature of “CA-19” especially when multiple casts were made of that trackway? This would seemly be an obvious procedure for a veteran crime scene investigator such as Chilcutt.

Unfortunately for Bigfoot advocates, the situation is even more chaotic. John Green claims the original cast is lost. Thus the very provenance and chain of custody of a cast which Chilcutt has previously referred to as “the best one with the clearest dermal ridges” is in dispute.

If this sort of “scientific evidence” was used in a legal trial, police detectives would be laughed out of court with such sloppy science and careless protocols. Yet this is typical of the evidence Meldrum and others proffer for Bigfoot.

Incredibly, a recent claim by Bigfoot advocate Rick Noll casts further doubt on the situation. Noll claims that John Green and Bob Titmus regularly scrubbed “surface imperfections” off of their casts with wire brushes. If so, thus calls into question the wisdom of Meldrum’s advocacy of yet another dermal ridge cast, one made by Bob Titmus in 1963.

As forensic or scientific evidence for Bigfoot’s dermal ridges, the Onion Mountain cast is tainted at the very root and so falls short of even minimum standards of what is considered scientific evidence. Because Meldrum selectively presents his experts and evidence, there is no hint in Sasquatch of the many problems associated with the dermal “evidence.” In view of Meldrum’s familiarity with – and acceptance of – my experiments demonstrating serious problems with a cornerstone of dermal ridge evidence, his chapter on this topic is inexplicable.

Though Meldrum was well aware of my findings on desiccation ridges when his book was written, only two sentences are devoted to it:

(Page 257) “Questions still remain concerning the possible occurrence of pouring artifact under hot, exceptionally dry conditions, and further experimentation is needed. This challenge has been taken on by an amature (sic) investigator, Matt Crowley, whose preliminary results raise questions specifically about the interpretation of the Onion Mountain cast features as dermatoglyphics.”

I actually spent several years investigating this process, and have created a series of webpages that argue in minute detail why CA-19 does not exhibit “Bigfoot’s dermal ridges.”

Not surprisingly, Meldrum makes no mention in his dermatoglyphics chapter of the fact that the very trackway that the Onion Mountain cast came from is now strongly associated with known hoaxer Ray Wallace’s wooden prosthetic feet. This illustrates a common theme with Meldrum, and Bigfootery in general, which is to completely ignore the wider context, or “back story” of the evidence offered.
As an addendum to advocating CA-19 as exhibiting Bigfoot’s dermal ridges, Meldrum introduces the reader to another cast from the same trackway:

I later identified an additional 13-inch cast in Krantz’s collection from the same site. Upon examining it, Chilcutt confirmed that it likewise displayed similar coarse ridge detail, although fainter, probably due to inundation by settling dust prior to casting. This observation affirmed his conclusion that these represented natural dermatoglyphics rather than pouring artifacts, or else one might expect the clarity of the ridge detail to be comparble (sic) in so far as the pouring technique was similar” (Page 256-257)

Though Grover Krantz carefully assigned clear serial numbers to the casts in this series, and wrote them in ink on the dorsal surfaces of these casts, Meldrum fails to tell us which cast he’s actually talking about! We can only guess which cast this is, though I’m privileged to have examined and photographed them in person myself. My best guess is that Meldrum is referring to CA-6, another 13” cast which indeed exhibits ridge detail. I’ve created an entire webpage of analysis on this particular cast.

Not only are the ridges on CA-6 entirely consistent with the morphology and distribution of known desiccation ridges, they also appear to be occurring on a patch of plaster overflow, and thus cannot represent the texture of whatever made the track in the first place.

But Until Meldrum decides to specify which cast this is, critical analysis is at a standstill. It’s kind of like that point in an argument when someone backs up their claim by saying “well, this one guy told me so”…
On page 251, Meldrum argues that detail as fine as sweat pores can be seen in certain purported Sasquatch casts:

“Dr Grover Krantz was the first to draw widespread attention to the presence of ridge detail in several sasquatch footprint casts from the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington in 1982. In some instances the preserved resolution of detail was such that individual sweat pores were apparent and could be distinguished from artifacts caused by trapped air bubbles in the plaster”

There are several issues in this claim that Meldrum fails to identify. First off, the casts mentioned were brought forth by Paul Freeman, considered by many within the Bigfoot community as a hoaxer, and who in fact admitted on television that he had previously hoaxed tracks.

Another fundamental issue not addressed by Meldrum is whether details as fine as sweat pores are even physically capable of being transferred to natural soils, and then to plaster casts.
In 1989 Freeland and Rowe published a study entitled “Examination of Alleged Pore Structure Found in Sasquatch (Big Foot) Footprints:

“Upon first encountering news reports of the finding of sweat pores and dermal ridges on casts of Sasquatch footprints, we were skeptical that a medium as coarse as the typical soil could faithfully duplicate primate dermatoglyphics. We were also skeptical that the details of primate dermatoglyphics could be replicated in plaster casts, because of the tendency of plaster when mixed to the proper consistency for casting impressions to entrain masses of bubbles.”

Freeland and Rowe set about to duplicate Krantz’ methodology.

Several pounds of loess were obtained from the geology department of Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington. A representative sub sample was obtained by repeated coning and quartering of the loess. The subsample was placed in a container and dampened with water. An impression of the right foot of one of the authors was made in the dampened loess; a cast of this impression was made in dental stone (sold by Ransom and Randolph Company, Maumee, Ohio). This dental stone is a highly refined plaster of paris; it is the material supplied by the U.S. Army to its investigators for the casting of tiretracks and shoeprints at the scenes of crimes.
The original footprint was examined under a stereomicroscope at magnifications from 10x to 70x. Although in many areas impressions of the dermal ridges were visible, no impressions of sweat pores could be identified. (Bolding Mine)

This is a critical point, as it suggests that features as fine as human sweat pores are simply too small to be captured in a natural substrate like that in which Freeman’s cast was made.
Indeed, if the sweat pore impressions were not captured by the substrate in the first place, the only reasonable conclusion is that the “sweat pores” are entrained air bubbles after all.

Freeland and Rowe’s conclusion:

In light of the foregoing, we feel that the “pores” observed on the dermal ridges of the casts of Sasquatch footprints are probably artifacts of the casting process and are not replications of primate sweat pores.

source: Freeland, D., and W. Rowe. 1989. Alleged pore structure in Sasquatch (Bigfoot) footprints. Skeptical Inquirer 13(3), Spring: 273-276.

In 2005, I had also become interested in whether or not detail as fine as sweat pores could be captured in plaster casts. At the time, I was not aware of Freeland and Rowe’s study. Unlike Freeland and Rowe, I was trying to find out if the casting medium itself rather than the soil substrate could capture detail that fine. I had learned (ironically from Jimmy Chilcutt himself) that Silly Putty was a medium that could capture detail as fine as human sweat pores. I went to Walmart and purchased a bunch of Silly Putty. I washed my hands thoroughly with Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap. I pressed my thumb into a virgin blob of Silly Putty. Using a 14x loupe, I was indeed able to see the sweat pores on the ridge peaks of my dermal ridges. These appeared as little bumps in little valleys, due to the reversal of the impressing process. So indeed, given an ideal substrate, it is possible to capture detail as fine as human sweat pores.
I proceeded to cast the impression with Ultracal 30. In an attempt to reduce the possibility of methodological error, I repeated this experiment twice, using the same protocol. I stirred the cement slurry very carefully, in an attempt to minimize entrained air bubbles. Though my own dermal ridges are quite obvious on these casts, examination with the 14x loupe revealed a complete lack of sweat pore detail. This suggests that conventional cementitious casting media like plaster of Paris, dental stone, Hydrocal, or Ultracal are simply too coarse to capture this level of detail.

Unfortunately Meldrum’s treatment of both the dermal issue and the “sweat pore” issue is lacking in the critical scientific parameter of metrology. How big are these features in the first place? None of the photographs included in the dermatoglyphics chapter include a metric (ruler) and Meldrum fails to mention the size of these features in the text.

If these alleged Sasquatch dermal ridges are larger than human dermal ridges by an amount that would enable a plaster cast made in natural soil to capture sweat pores, why aren’t we told this? If they are that big, are they commensurate with known primate dermal ridges?

As an ironic side note, I was actually chided by Meldrum at the Bellingham conference in 2005 for failing to make use of forensic rulers in my own study of desiccation ridges. I quickly purchased a set of rulers, and often utilize them when photographing fine features.

While the tests performed by Freeland, Rowe, and myself cannot be claimed as proof that detail as fine as human sweat pores are incapable of being captured in cementitious casts made in natural soils, it does demonstrate that Krantz and Meldrum’s claims are indeed extraordinary. Meldrum lists no prior science in defense that such techniques are reasonable, nor lists any tests he’s done himself that support his claim.

As touched on by Mike Dennett in his review, Meldrum’s entire “sweat pore” argument is probably moot, as the casts originally mentioned by Krantz are probably exhibiting human dermal ridges after all!
Besides unreasonably small features like “sweat pores”, some of the textures on casts claimed to contain “Bigfoot’s dermal ridges” are much larger than human dermal ridges.

This is a photo of the lateral margin of CA-19, the side opposite that which exhibits textures claimed to be dermal ridges. As you can see, some of these ridges are highly irregular in morphology, and approach 1-2mm in width. But as we have seen, there is a great deal of cherry picking going on with these casts, and textures which look nothing like known dermal are simply ignored.

In another cast which Meldrum argues exhibits dermal ridges, we see textures MUCH larger than those of know human or primate dermal ridges. Not only are the textures of Paul Freeman’s “Wrinkle Foot” casts quite large, they are highly irregular, as seen in the following photograph. I’ve intentionally included my own fingers in the photograph to act as a size reference. Yet Meldrum coolly introduces them as dermal ridges with no caveat whatsoever:

Dr. Krantz had previously referred to these casts as “Wrinkle Foot” due to the extensive indications of coarse dermatoglyphics. (Page 255)

Honestly, I’m hard pressed to understand how this is any kind of reasonable interpretation of these textures. It brings up a fundamental point about the entire class of evidence proposed to be “Bigfoot’s dermal ridges”; if you have no living or dead specimen to act as a reference, Bigfoot’s dermal ridges can be whatever you want them to be. Perhaps Bigfoot’s dermal ridges actually look like something Jackson Pollock created…

Compare this texture with another cast associated with Paul Freeman, also claimed to exhibit dermal ridges. This is a close-up of the 1982 so-called “Elk Wallow“ cast:

Both textures are said to be “Bigfoot’s dermal ridges”, yet they are grossly and obviously dissimilar.
But one particular patch of texture on “Wrinkle Foot” is claimed by Jimmy Chilcutt to be a “healed scar”

Again, I have purposely included my own finger in this photo as a simple reference to judge how large this texture really is.

But more importantly, is the skin texture of Bigfoot the only way that such a “scar” feature can develop on a cement cast? Some time ago a researcher named Brenden Bannon made a test cast using a rubber “monster” foot stamped into mud. The resulting cast exhibited a patch of texture that exhibits a similar morphology, i.e. small lines that radiate away from a main fissure.

According to Bannon, who made the cast, the “scar” texture is simply due to a suction effect between the mud and the rubber prosthetic.

While this cannot be seen as a “debunking” of “Wrinkle Foot’s scar”, it does illustrate how Meldrum continuously fails to investigate how other mechanisms may have produced the textures seen on some of the purported Sasquatch casts. Further information about Bannon’s cast can be found here.

Meldrum’s chapter concludes with an analysis of the so-called “Elkins” cast, made in 1997. Again, Meldrum defers to the analysis of Jimmy Chilcutt. In possibly the only written analysis of any of his interpretations of purported Sasquatch casts that Chilcutt has so far put forth, Chilcutt argues that the textures seen on the Elkins cast are dermal ridges:

Once again, Meldrum declines to provide any provenance about this track find. In an article written by Samuel Rich, details are included about the officer who actually made the cast, James Akin, who had a less than favorable opinion about the man on whose property the track was found:

The story of this cast begins earlier in the 90′s, at the home of a gentleman whom like Dr. Krantz is now deceased. For the sake of this article and for the privacy of his family he shall be referred to as Mr. “W”. I first learned of Mr. “W” and his experiences from James Akin, the man who would go on to cast what has come to be known as the Elkins Creek Cast.

“Mr. W was considered a nuisance caller at the Sheriff’s office”, writes Akin. “He often called and reported someone hitting the side of his mobile home. He related that person(s) unknown were ‘F—ing with him’ and would come on various nights after midnight and annoy him and his menagerie of canines. His complaints and this activity were legend and these events had occurred for several years. The general problem with this scenario was the responding officers’ inability to stop the activity or catch the perpetrators. It seemed almost magical the way the activity would cease on police arrival and restart within an hour of departure.”

Indeed, some within the sheriff’s department considered the anonymous individual associated with this remarkable piece of Bigfoot evidence might be mentally ill. Per officer Akin:

“My initial contact with this gentleman concerned these disturbances. I was informed that this guy might be a problem. Others claimed that he was probably mental ill and that I should be prepared for his antics.”

It’s telling that the individual associated with this remarkable cast remained anonymous, was thought by some to be mentally ill, and whose chronic pattern of behavior seemed to be a need for attention.
This of course does not invalidate Chilcutt’s interpretations, but raises a large “red flag” about the entire situation.
Additional analysis of the Elkins cast raises further questions as to how and when humans were involved. First off, Chilcutt himself claims that the cast contains human dermal ridges:

Area “D” is located in the center of the foot and shows lateral ridges of the animal and ridges that I believe were applied accidentally by the person making the cast.”

Unfortunately Chilcutt does explain how he came to conclude they were made by “the person making the cast.”

Examination of the cast itself leaves no doubt of one thing: Going by the massive size alone (19” long by 8.5” wide) there is no ambiguity that what we see is either the real thing (a Sasquatch track) or a human hoax. This is no bear overstep, or a smeared boot print.

Curiously Chilcutt’s report fails to mention two unusual textures on the cast. The first is found on the ball of the foot, just below the big toe and toward the center of the cast:

As you can see, something rod-like about a centimeter wide is protruding from the surface of the cast. Another, more subtle, feature is found about 20 degrees clockwise from the one parallel with the one centimeter boundary lines of the ruler. Obviously these textures are distinctly non-biological in nature, and suggest the hand of man. But in fact these textures most likely have a prosaic explanation; Officer James Akin, who made the cast, incorporated wooden dowels as reinforcement when making the cast (Personal communication).

A second and more anomalous texture is found approximately 15cm anterior of the heel on the medial side of the cast. It appears as a regular cross-hatching of some sort:

Again, it has a distinctly non-biological regularity about it, suggesting some sort of human agency was responsible. What might produce such a texture?
Brenden Bannon was the first to suggest that this texture may represent burlap reinforcement within the cast. But it wouldn’t be the cast that Akin made, as Akin used ONLY wooden dowels. (Personal communication).
If indeed the Elkins track is fake, and was made by human agency , whatever impressioning tool that was used would not have required a great deal of force to simply displace mud. Thus a Ray Wallace style wooden fake foot would not have been necessary. It’s possible that a plaster cast itself could have been used as an impressioning tool. While such a scenario must be admitted as speculative, a rather surprisingly strong match is seen between this patch of texture on the Elkins cast and ordinary burlap:

Again with both Chilcutt and Meldrum, we see a chronic lack of willingness to examine the “back story” of these tracks and casts, and to consider possible alternative explanations for the multiple textures found on the casts.

While not included in the Dermatoglyphics chapter, an analysis is offered of the textures found on the Skookum cast. Meldrum writes on page 117:

Of particular interest to me was what could only be interpreted as a distinct heel impression. As I meticulously removed the encrusting soil, it appeared that the heel bore skin ridge detail. Once the heel was thoroughly cleaned, a thin latex peel was made of the skin detail. Consultations over the apparent dermatoglyphics, or skin ridges, were had with latent fingerprint examiner Officer Jimmy Chilcutt. He found them to be consistent in texture and appearance with other specimens of purported sasquatch tracks exhibiting such skin ridge detail (more will be said on this matter in chapter 14)

To be as generous as possible, Meldrum’s book went to press before Dr. Anton Wroblewski’s damning and cogent analysis of the Skookum cast as that of an elk.

In the case of CA-19, the so-called “Onion Mountain” cast, by his own admission Chilcutt was unfamiliar with the desiccation ridge phenomenon prior to my investigations. So to misinterpret a completely novel phenomenon allows for some sympathy toward the person making that mistake. But placing dermal ridges on an elk cast is, to say the least, a rather profound mistake.

How could misinterpretations of this magnitude occur, especially with a respected latent fingerprint examiner? Clearly one reason is that in the case of humans, we have literally millions of known examples of fingerprints with which to study. There is even a small database of known primate dermal ridges with which to study. But there is NO Bigfoot body to act as a known example. We know as much about Bigfoot’s dermal ridges as we know about Leprechaun dermal ridges.

Something has long puzzled me about the entire class of dermal ridge claims. If we see fine textures like dermal ridges, or very fine textures like “sweat pores” on these casts, why don’t we see the kind of coarser textures that know ape (and some human) feet exhibit? Ape feet have characteristically deep flexion creases, which corresponds to their more “hinged” foot and thick foot pad. This is the foot of an orangutan which is covered with deep flexion creases that are much coarser than the dermal ridges.

(Photo credit: Kathy Weaver)

Most humans wear shoes. Those who spend a great deal of time walking barefoot sometimes develop deep cracks in the sole or other parts of the foot.

This amazing photograph of a Nepalese porter’s foot was taken by Bigfooter Peter Byrne in 1958. An entire Flickr pool is devoted to documenting the kind of extreme wear that habitually unshod humans can exhibit.

It’s safe to assume that if Bigfoot is real, he doesn’t wear shoes. Why don’t we see these kinds of coarse fissures, cracks, or flexion creases in the casts that are claimed to exhibit fine features like dermal ridges or “sweat pores”?

After studying the claims of the dermal ridge advocates for some time, I’m of the opinion that all of the casts that are claimed to exhibit dermal ridges could simply be misinterpretations of prosaic phenomena and/or human hoaxing. The wide variety of sizes and textures that are claimed to be “dermal ridges” leaves open a huge vista for those who set about to intentionally hoax Bigfoot evidence. By a series of rather chance encounters, I discovered that addition of a small amount of surfactant into a cementitious slurry and poured over a desiccant substrate spontaneously produced this remarkable texture:

It could be argued that this feature mimics or even represents an arch, or possibly a tented arch. Imagine if this texture had appeared on a cast put forth by Paul Freeman, or the anonymous “Mr.W”. As you might have gathered by now, I am not of the opinion that creating fake “dermal” textures is beyond the reach of a motivated hoaxer, or that fingerprint experts can’t be fooled.

The time to take the claims of “Bigfoot’s dermal ridges” seriously is when we have an actual body to examine.

The complete set of web pages that addresses the issue of desiccation ridges is found within the Bigfoot Compendium.

 Posted by on 02/08/2012 Bigfoot, Science 1 Response »