Rob Hardy on books


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Monster Hunting vs. Science



Rob Hardy


"Cryptozoology" is a word that was coined in the 1950s, to mean literally the study of hidden animals. One could make a case for any newly discovered species to have been hidden until it was revealed and named; the famous coelacanth was well hidden in the deeps until it was caught in 1938, proving it was not extinct as its fossils may have implied. The fish is an inspiration for cryptozoologists, whose interest is not just in hidden animals but especially in big, scary, and legendary creatures that they are sure are out there but whose existence has yet to be proved by, say, capturing or killing a specimen. Instead, they deal in "muddy footprints, blurry photographs, grainy videos, and anecdotes about strange things that go bump in the night." That description of what cryptozoologists study is in the foreword to Abominable Science: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids (Columbia University Press), and though the description is written by Michael Shermer, it is a good reflection of the views of the book's authors, staff writer for Skeptic magazine Daniel Loxton and paleontologist Donald R. Prothero. Although the book has academic chops and has plenty of footnotes, it has jaunty, amusing illustrations by Loxton and although the authors must cast doubt on each of the monsters they take up in the individual chapters, they do so with good humor. Abominable Science tells of dubious tales, duplicity, and hoaxes, but also reflects on the nature of deserved doubt and how basic science is done. 




Cryptozoology, the authors explain, "is built on openness to first-person testimony." The monsters here have been sighted, sometimes repeatedly, by observers who are often sincere. There is a review here of just how unreliable eyewitness testimony is, as some courts of law are now admitting. Everyone knows that memories are imperfect, but those who say they have seen a big monster may have misperceived in the first place, or have colored what they were seeing with what they were expecting to see, or had memories influenced by things they have seen on TV. It is perfectly possible that people can remember things that did not at all happen. A claim that there is a monster out there somewhere asserts that something spectacular is different from the world as we know it; such a grand claim needs more than eyewitness testimony. The authors quote more than once the historian of science Frank Sulloway: "Anecdotes do not make a science. Ten anecdotes are no better than one, and a hundred anecdotes are no better than ten." Someone who says he has seen Bigfoot has an anecdote. It might be true, and it might be a spur to hunt for evidence, but it isn't evidence. There are plenty of "investigators" written about in these pages that think that anecdotes mean something, when scientifically they do not. 




Besides the effects of anecdotes promoting cryptozoological claims, the authors pay close attention to the effect of mainstream media. They find a disturbing attitude among media presenters who have "long tended to approach 'silly season' paranormal stories and monster yarns with a looser standard than that applied in other news items." A legend or regional folklore inspires an initial story, and the broadcasters cover the story without skepticism, causing a snowball effect, generating new sightings and new anecdotes. The authors think that things are worse in the days of 24 hour cable and unfillable programing time; it is easier to run the story without comment than to make an effort to track down the truth. Not only that, but cable stations that do run genuine science programs (or used to) also feature "documentaries" on cryptozoological topics (not to mention UFOs, Nostradamus, and plenty more). It is not hard to understand the reason that they do so; such topics are perennially popular and people do have fun with them, but the programs do not come with a warning label that they are not science. 




There is a fine chapter here on Bigfoot or the Sasquatch. Oddly, as I write this, there are news stories that a fellow named Rick Dyer has hunted and shot the Bigfoot, and has put him on display, and the hundred or so people who have seen the display are, according to Dyer's own report, convinced that he has the real thing. Maybe he does, but he said he had the real thing back in 2008 and then had to admit it was a hoax. Possibly because Bigfoot is supposed to reside in relatively local mountainous areas, hoaxing of this particular cryptid is especially common, and the rest of the evidence consists of bad movie footage, blurry photos, and faked footprints. There are no bones or carcasses, the hard evidence that science needs. Combine this with the necessity that just one Bigfoot cannot be out there, there has to be a population of them, and none of the loggers or campers in the increasingly-traversed area are finding any evidence. Also, if there is some strange primate out there, where are the fossil evidences of its forebears? We have plenty of such evidence for other mammals of North America. 




There is a chapter on sea serpents, which unlike all the other monsters here have an ancient heritage and did not show up only in the twentieth century. Similar to the sea serpents is the Loch Ness Monster, whose lineage is quite modern. There is a medieval biography that says St. Columba had some encounter with a loch beast, but that book is packed with magic and other monsters, and is far from a reliable source of biological information. What is fascinating is that whatever beasties were in the loch, no one fussed much about them until 1933, the year that the sensational King Kong was released. The film includes an episode where a raft is attacked by a water monster, a Diplodocus, and sure enough, the report of the first canonical sighting of Nessie was a replay of this cinematic episode. It became the template for subsequent sightings and hoaxes, as part of a pattern encountered in all the chapters here: popular entertainment, media, and paranormal belief, in a sustained and stable feedback loop. 




Similar to Nessie in many ways, but less famous, is Mokele Mbembe, the dinosaur of the Congo. It is less famous than its Scottish cousin, at least to most people, but has attracted its share of expensive trips by eccentrics, interviews with natives who enjoy impressing or playing with the visitors from the west, false footprints, and so on. What it also has is creationists who are among its most fervid supporters and who help finance expeditions to track down the beast. Somehow they think that if they find a prehistoric animal that was previously known just from fossils it will prove that Darwin was wrong, evolution is bosh, the world is 6,000 years old, and scripture is inerrant. Such ideas simply prove the lack of understanding of science that creationists have displayed repeatedly; discovering the coelacanth caused no such revelations, for instance. The authors describe expeditions by guys with degrees in religion, not biology, who explain that they have not seen Mokele Mbembe because of the wily creature's habit of burrowing quickly into the mud of the riverbanks; this might make one wonder why one expedition after another fails to bring good digging equipment, or maybe it does not make one wonder at all. 




Loxton and Prothero have done a fine job of describing monsters which have an entertainment value for everyone, and without reducing the entertainment in any degree, they have taken each monster to illustrate how science is used (or ought to be used) to look at claims of monster sightings. There are many good laughs within the book, as we are introduced to an odd crew of believers and hoaxers, certainly the strangest of all the peculiar creatures described herein. 




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