Pin It


Why one scientist thinks taboo fringe theories are a big hairy deal

click to enlarge news1-magnum.jpg

Dr. Richard Stepp grabs the orange snowshoe by one end as an ersatz pointer to trace an island-hopping path from Northern Europe to Greenland to North America on the overhead projector map. He brought the snowshoe to his April 19 Bigfoot lecture at the Freshwater Grange to demonstrate a point about, well, big feet, but he's taken a detour to talk about another seemingly wild idea: the theoretical journeys of pre-Columbian Vikings.

The hall is packed. There are families, a few burly men with Whitman-esque beards and one woman in a pair of thematically appropriate furry black Ugg boots. Among them are skeptics, believers, the curious and the regulars who've come for the soup potluck. Like the Viking voyage, Stepp's introduction is a long way around to Sasquatch, but he's getting there. By the time he's delineating types of hominids, shuffling stacks of books and relating the tale of a purported Bigfoot abduction, he's right back in professor mode, the projector light rising up in his features like the glow of a campfire.

It's a version of a lecture Stepp has given before to students at Humboldt State University, where he taught for 39 years in the physics department before his final retirement in 2012. He is not trying to argue the existence of Bigfoot so much as why the possibility, along with other so-called "crackpot" theories — a label he tosses around gleefully — shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

"This is the logical circle: Only crazy people talk about Bigfoot, so if you talk about Bigfoot, no matter what your background, you're crazy," he says. That, he feels, is a dangerous assumption, leading scientists to abandon their methods and turn away from empirical study out of prejudice and self preservation.

"A subject that will not get funded and will endanger your career may never be studied," he says. The resulting blind spots in our collective knowledge extend beyond UFOs and yetis, potentially blacking out less-than-lucrative topics and politically unpopular conclusions.

Stepp himself has given plenty of time, study and financial support to the search for the big biped. He tells the grange crowd, "If I was a biologist this would have been a really bad idea. But I'm a physicist and they expect physicists to be a little weird."

In fact, Stepp is willing to give consideration to a fair number of scientifically taboo subjects, noting that acupuncture was considered crackpot just a couple of decades ago. And he makes no bones about his own lack of expertise in biology and anthropology. Instead he proudly waves books by recognized experts in those fields and invites others to read them. But as much as he champions rigorous scientific study, he says science, at least our grasp of it, has limits and there are some things we cannot measure, test or know with certainty. In these cases, Stepp takes a rather unscientific leap of faith, going on his personal judgment and his trust in the testimony of the people he meets and knows.

A more-than-spry 71, Stepp is always moving, shifting in his hiking boots as he talks. His cropped white hair grows in a forward swirl and his dark, weathered skin shows through a couple of days' worth of gray stubble. Since childhood he has been plagued with health problems stemming from undersized kidneys. While they didn't say it outright, he got the message his parents and doctors didn't expect to him to live very long. His kidneys failed him three times, once when he was 20, landing him in the hospital for two months. Whether out of a sense of carpe diem or stubbornness, he threw himself into wrestling and track and field, particularly pole vaulting. He was just over 5 feet 3 inches tall, "exactly the body type that doesn't do well in track and field," he says. But he chose pole vaulting because it was difficult, dangerous and nobody else wanted to do it.

He kept pole vaulting until the age of 45, when his quad tendon snapped. A pair of hip replacement surgeries later, Stepp no longer vaults but still scales the climbing wall at HSU, throws the javelin at meets in his age class and volunteer coaches pole vaulting at McKinleyville High School. He keeps his running down to short sprints and takes a couple of days rest after throwing javelin. "I've got to do a crazy thing," he says, "but I've got to do it rationally."

His first inklings of crackpot interests were born of a certain rational orneriness, too. He tells with practiced ease the story of how, in fourth grade, he bristled at his teacher's dismissal of the idea that Vikings could have reached the Americas before Columbus because there was no evidence. Over the phone, interrupted on the cusp of a nap, Stepp still gets worked up over it, talking quickly and forcefully about Roman-era Latin inscriptions found in the U.S. and the discovery of possible Viking structures along the East Coast.

In graduate school at Penn State University, while earning his PhD in meteorology, Stepp studied atmospheric physics, particularly fluid mechanics, attempting to model the way air flows through forests for his dissertation. "I was so arrogant, I didn't think I needed any help from anybody," he says. He was also frustrated that the standing research he was working with seemed "weak and fudged," and likely funded by "people who wanted to put poison gas in forests."

In the end, he wasn't particularly proud of his work and wanted to leave and do something different — teaching lower level classes in a beautiful place sounded good, so he applied at HSU, where meteorology PhDs were in scant supply in 1973.

"Three years turned into 40," he says with a quick, high laugh. Inw those undergraduate meteorology and introductory physics classes, Stepp found new purpose. "You've got to translate what you've learned down to a level where people understand it," he says. "That's the global challenge."

Richard Thompson was Stepp's faculty sponsor in 1973 and worked with him in the physics department for the bulk of both their tenures. Thompson recalls him as a popular professor and a gleeful debunker of theories like alien construction of Peru's Nazca Lines. Stepp had negotiated an unheard of tenured half-time schedule, giving him time for his athletic pursuits, as well as researching the local legend of Bigfoot.

Thompson says the physics department held weekly rotating seminars at which Stepp sometimes talked about Bigfoot. "But he had a way of presenting it that was really interesting. It was done in at least a semi-scholarly way," Thompson says. Thompson agrees that while Stepp's credibility wasn't damaged by his interests because of his reasonable and thoughtful approach, that might not have been the case if he were a biologist. While he didn't convert Thompson, who views Bigfoot as "highly unlikely," at least in the halls of the physics department, "Nobody thought of [Stepp] as a crackpot."

In both lecture and conversation, Stepp is fond of saying, "Science does itself no honor by overstating its power." As a meteorologist, Stepp is particularly frustrated with what he sees as politics driving the study of climate change. The change, he says, is happening. But he believes the computer models upon which many researchers base their predictions are flawed in that there are far too may variables to ascertain how shifts in temperature and air currents will behave in, say, 100 years. Nor can we test our methods of prediction the way we can in the short term, he points out. Weather might be, he says, flexing his fingers wide in front of him, "a chaotic system not predictable beyond two weeks." The perceived certainty about climate change is a concern that's also been raised by other scientists, such as computational physicist Stephen Koonin who published an account of his doubts in the Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, Stepp says, the current model "could absolutely be right — but they shouldn't be as sure as they say."

In 2004, Stepp attended a conference on all things Sasquatch to celebrate the launch of the Bigfoot section of the China Flat Museum in Willow Creek. There he introduced himself to Jeffrey Meldrum, professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University and an oft-interviewed Bigfoot researcher. Meldrum's area of focus is the evolution of bipedalism — the anatomical distinctions and development of our ancestors that led to our walking on two legs, including the dynamics of their footfalls, footprints and skeletons.

Stepp told Meldrum he administered a family charitable fund and Stepp suggested he apply for research money. Meldrum, who in a phone interview says he has gotten private support over the years but has had little success with university funding, didn't think he could get the required matching funds, but eventually put together a proposal for a standard wildlife study with motion-triggered camera traps and bait, similar to how one might study bear populations.

According to Meldrum, his application to ISU's matching research fund committee was headed straight for the "circular file" until Ed House, a biologist and then dean of research, pushed reviewers to evaluate it based on the proposed methods. Meldrum got his funding (a few thousand dollars) and launched his study in the summer of 2005 by the Suiattle River in the wilds of Washington.

Stepp joined the team in the field for a week or so. Unfortunately, Meldrum says, the sediment choking the Suiattle River that summer left few salmon to lure predators to the water, and 112-degree heat triggered camera sensors, wasting film. The team found a washed out 16-inch set of footprints that appeared bipedal but the detail was lost.

Meldrum says Stepp has been generous, funding other projects here and there, such as a 3D footprint scanning archive that other researchers will be able to access, and dropping the fund requirement for matching. "He appreciates the history of science and the fact that paradigms and dogmas can become so entrenched that academics can become blind to anything that doesn't fit their preconceptions," Meldrum says. He's in the early stages of a project now to which Stepp is contributing, but says he can't talk about it yet.

Meldrum does study other things, particularly relict hominids, those branches of our ancestral tree that died off tens of thousands of years ago — including Homo floresiensis, the 3½-foot-tall species nicknamed "the hobbit" discovered in 2003. As far as how his Bigfoot research has affected his career overall, "Well, it's taken it in a very different direction," he says. "Depends on what constitutes a successful career."

Over the years, he's had a promotion hindered, tenure contested and experienced "irrational, visceral reactions from people who just wanted me to blow away." He knew the late anthropologist Grover Krantz had been mocked as a Bigfoot researcher, but had chalked some of that up to Krantz being "a quirky individual" who once wore a false brow ridge for months to see what it was like.

But, "This project has revealed an unpleasant underbelly in the scientific community," he says. "I had no idea the types of vitriol that I'd experience as a result of my involvement in this subject."

He says that when young, interested academics approach him, he discourages them from risking their careers pursuing Bigfoot research. Better, he says, cut their chops in a field that interests them, establish a solid reputation and then apply their expertise to the search.

Meanwhile, some serious names in the scientific community have come out in support of serious, objective research into Bigfoot, famed anthropologist Jane Goodall among them. Among biologists, trackers and wildlife specialists, Meldrum says he's had a warm welcome. "Ignorance cultivates much more confidence," says Meldrum, adding, "those who are informed recognize how much we don't know."

While fakes are a hallmark of what Stepp calls "the crackpot realm," they are not enough to dissuade him. He's quick to pounce on what he sees as holes in the story of Ray Wallace, whose family outed his 1958 footprint findings as a prank, saying a proper examination was never made and Wallace himself never renounced his claims. Nor, Stepp says, does the existence of humbugs rule out a real Bigfoot.

Meldrum says intentional hoaxes are rare in his experience. Mostly he winds up straightening out people who've misidentified overlapping elk hoofprints, which can look like rounded toes, or shapes created by water erosion. Not surprisingly, people see what they want to see, like the face of Jesus on a piece of toast.

And while "citizen scientists" are a great help in fields like ornithology, when it comes to Bigfoot, "It's a mixed bag." The laminated fold-out field guide he published with an Arcata company about how to identify and record evidence has weeded out some of the wild goose chases and cut down on the amount of scat people send him. He recalls with a grim laugh when the department secretary called one day to tell him a UPS package was waiting for him — and it was dripping.

Despite Stepp's belief in the importance of evidence gathering, he's not optimistic about the scientific establishment's willingness to consider prints, bones or photographs.

"Even if Bigfoot walked through the Arcata Plaza, pushed over the statue of McKinley, left a big scat pile and walked off," says Stepp, "that still would not prove the existence of Bigfoot."

He says that a body or at least a body part would go a long way, but good luck getting anyone with a reputation worth risking to look at it. "You start ignoring those calls early on in your career," he says. In his estimation, it would take specimen after specimen to get any traction.

Stepp himself hasn't had a Bigfoot encounter. He bases his conclusions, his belief in the creature's existence, on the work of biologists and anthropologists he's studied. And on personal accounts. On that 2005 field expedition with Meldrum, Stepp says a woman on the team told him she'd awoken on a solo camping trip to see an 8-foot-tall female ape-like creature with its offspring peeking from behind it, before the pair walked off in silence.

"My judgment of this woman is that she is solid," he says. "I made that judgment as a human, not as a scientist." He's taken the same leap of faith with many, though not all, of the friends and aquaintances who've told him similar stories in confidence, discerning for himself whether they seem sane, trustworthy or susceptible to trickery.

Stepp considers himself a pretty good judge, though he admits maybe not as much so with women. Still, he says, "You've always gotta watch out for hoaxes," he says, and remember that "the crackpot realm attracts nuts."

Some theories, he says should stay in the crackpot realm, but not many. How about ghosts? "There isn't the slightest doubt that ghosts exist," he says, noting the overwhelming number of testimonials from around the world and from people he knows.

However, he doubts it can be proven since nobody knows what such entities would be composed of, so nobody knows what to look or test for. "At some point I, despite being a physical scientist, am able to put my trust in people," he says. "It's not everything that you can measure with an instrument."

How about God? Maybe not the flowing-robes-white-beard kind, but as for a greater power in the universe, "For me ... I can accept that ... the possibility of something beyond us." ESP and telekenesis? He feels scientists are as easily tricked as a magician's audience and it would take magicians to suss out the fakes, but he won't dismiss the possibility out of hand.

"Any physicist would admit that there are many things we don't understand but few physicists would admit that there are things we'll never understand," Stepp says. "I'm allowing for the possibility of that."

Chem trails? "I'm dubious," he says, smiling. Stepp doesn't think the trails in the skies have pollutants beyond the burning of fuels that create them and says how long the trails linger depends on atmospheric conditions with a number of variables. As he recently told someone, "I'll read anything you give me but at this moment, I'm pretty skeptical." 

The only thing he'd rule out for sure is astrology. Sort of. While Stepp says he can't imagine there being anything to it, he concedes that if somebody does a mathematical study of birth signs and properties of measurable human characteristics — a problematic idea in itself — well, "if their results seem statistically robust, then who am I to say no?"

The night of the lecture, members of the Bluff Creek Project, a loose group of amateurs who've planted motion sensor cameras around the famous site of the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot footage, are videotaping with plans to post the talk online. Once Stepp is done and the applause is over, he moves into the seats for a loose Q&A session. He fields questions about why photos, DNA or corpses haven't been produced, saying he thinks DNA is the next step in evidence gathering. A young man in an olive cap suggests that Bigfoot might be the sample-gathering minion of inter-dimensional creatures, as a young woman with a twitching leg twists at her braided ponytail and nods. Shouldn't everything be "on the table?" the man asks.

Stepp replies yes, but "baby steps first."

Nearly an hour later, the grange members and volunteers are packing up the crock pots and wrapping the last of the cornbread and cookies, but Stepp is still encircled by a handful of people in folding chairs. He's down on his knees, hands splayed over his thighs, listening.

Video of Dr. Stepp's lecture at Freshwater Grange:

Tags: ,

  • Pin It
  • Why one scientist thinks taboo fringe theories are a big hairy deal


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

more from the author

Latest in News

  • Closed

    For decades, green paint and a leaking roof housed Garberville's heart. In May, it stopped.
    • Oct 20, 2016
  • McKinleyville Man Abducted in Niger

    HSU grad has spent decades doing missionary aid work
    • Oct 20, 2016
  • The Case of the Missing $5 Million

    Who is profiting off the skilled nursing monopoly, and why it feels 'like we're being extorted'
    • Oct 13, 2016
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • Murder in Arcata

    The story of a Native American woman who — marginalized, blind and alone — faced death to save her children
    • Oct 8, 2015
  • ‘System Failure’

    The life and death of Richard Frederick Tis'mil Estrada
    • Oct 15, 2015

© 2016 The North Coast Journal Weekly

Website powered by Foundation