In Response to Darren Naish: Why Cryptozoology Is Pseudoscience

As I mentioned in a previous post, Darren Naish of the Scientific American Tetrapod Zoology blog has recently argued that cryptozoology “cannot and should not be considered a pseudoscience.” This post will respond to that claim.

There are several issues in play here, and I have tried to compress things somewhat for the sake of length. Naish has actually written extensively on cryptozoology at the various incarnations of his blog, and in addressing one assertion, I don’t want to oversimplify what he has to say on the subject. His posts on cryptozoology in general can be found herehere, and here, and examples of his analyses of specific cryptid claims here and here.

Naish is a trained paleontologist, which I am not, and I bear that humbly in mind while nonetheless disagreeing with him. His blog covers a range of fascinating subjects and is worth visiting.

I. Cryptozoology as Ordinary Science

Here is Naish’s statement in context:

“However… while being careful (as always) to make clear the point that an interest in cryptozoology does not demonstrate ‘belief’ in, or acceptance of, specific cryptozoological ‘targets’, I still maintain that cryptozoology cannot and should not be considered a pseudoscience. Why? Mostly because there is no contradiction whatsoever between the scepticism, hypothesis-testing, self-correction and need for autoptic evidence typical of ‘proper’ science with analyses of cryptozoological data, nor does investigation of cryptozoological data hinge on the assumption that there are always real, flesh-and-blood animals at the bottom of eyewitness reports.” [emphases in original]

As far as I can see, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the final sentence above. The problem is that it doesn’t make cryptozoology a scientific field.

There is, as Naish demonstrates, quite a bit that can be said about this question, and the issue may not be as clear as it sometimes seems. The Journal of Cryptozoology, as I have pointed out elsewhere, accepts submissions on everything from animals not recognized by science to recognized animals occurring outside of their accepted ranges, which means that, according to its standards, research into the re-expansion of the jaguar into the Southwestern US would be cryptozoological. But there is no helpful reason to classify it this way: such research, scientifically conducted, falls well within the purview of ordinary biology. There is no more need to call it cryptozoology than there is to call the efforts to find black holes cryptoastronomy.

To a large extent, as Naish himself has recognized, the terminology problem is one of overlap. Naish writes: “If cryptozoology is imagined as the investigation of ‘target’ animals whose existence is supported by circumstantial and/or anecdotal evidence (eyewitness accounts forming the bulk of such evidence), then one might argue (as I have) that cryptozoology is practised far and wide by ‘ordinary’, technically qualified biologists.” Again, one might argue such a thing, but to what purpose? If the investigation of such animals is practiced by “‘ordinary’, technically qualified biologists,” why do we need to identify what they are doing as a separate science?

The same argument applies to any other field that might engage in research that coincides with so-called cryptozoological subjects, such as folklore, sociology, or psychology.

To be clear, there are times when recently discovered phenomena and new modes of thinking cause the overlap between existing disciplines to coalesce into a new discipline – for instance, with the advent of chaos theory. But there is no reason to think that this is one of those times.

To put it succinctly, the reason that cryptozoology cannot be classified as a separate scientific discipline is that it doesn’t deal with a single issue that isn’t already dealt with by an established science. And if we cannot classify it as its own field, we are halfway to finding it unnecessary, and have taken at least a step towards classifying it as pseudoscience.

II. Finding Bigfoot

The same point can be made in a different way by doing a thought experiment:

Suppose an anthropologist unearths remains indicating that at one point in the recent past there was a large, non-human primate living in North America. Intrigued, a wildlife biologist constructs a hypothesis about the habitat of this primate, and finds that his projected habitat overlaps nicely with areas where Bigfoot sightings have been reported. His results are published and attract the interest of another biologist, who sets up a series of camera traps in the relevant locations, and eventually obtains clear photos of an unidentified hominid. A multidisciplinary scientific team travels to the place where the photos were taken, uses footprints and hair to track the path of the animal, and eventually manages to capture a live Bigfoot.

Or, to simplify things, a hunter in Oregon shoots what he believes to be a black bear, but which turns out to be a Bigfoot. He contacts the police, who turn the carcass over to a lab for testing.

In which of these scenarios does cryptozoology play any role at all? The first is various scientific disciplines working together, and the second a combination of science and luck (to be fair, luck often plays a role in science). But we can make the point a third way with a final scenario:

Suppose a team from the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization comes stumbling out of the woods one day, proudly carrying a bigfoot carcass, a film of its discovery, and a map to a bigfoot burial ground. What would happen then? Either the body would be turned over to scientists, who would analyze it and autopsy it and sequence its DNA and give it a taxonomic classification, or it would disappear in a maze of brinksmanship and shady claims, mummifying in someone’s basement, never the subject of real science and therefore never taken seriously as hard evidence. Even if one of the members of BFRO team were a trained zoologist, it would not change the nature of the scenario.

In all three of these cases, the people who believed in Bigfoot turn out to have been right. But that doesn’t mean that their belief was in any way scientific to begin with, or that the academic community would or should suddenly sit up and recognize cryptozoology as a science. In each scenario, Bigfoot becomes accepted reality only when it enters the purview of established scientific fields. There is no need for a separate term for the process by which that happens.

III. Discovered Cryptids

Naish and other defenders of cryptozoology point to the discovery of animals previously dismissed as mythical, like the mountain and lowland gorillas, as evidence that cryptozoology should be taken more seriously. This argument, however, in this context, is a canard. At one point every animal now known to science was imprecisely described, unknown, or known only through hearsay. This fact does not place the entire history of zoology squarely in the realm of cryptozoology.

It might be helpful to remember that there was a time, not very long ago, when cutting-edge research in natural sciences from botany to ornithology consisted of finding, describing and naming new species. Explorers swarmed into the interiors of North and South America, some motivated by scientific passion, others by more commercial concerns, and found countless previously undescribed species. John James Audubon discovered 25 species of bird unknown to science, and of course we would not call him a cryptozoologist – at least not in any way that would be a useful application of the term. As recently as the mid-twentieth century, Richard Evans Schultes was travelling into the remote Amazon and collecting hundreds of new plant species, many of which he found after consulting with native tribes. There is no need to describe what he was doing as cryptobotany (or, more amusing lexigraphically, cryptoethnobotany). He was just doing a physically adventurous form of ordinary science.

Audubon, Schultes and others like them had good reason to believe that undiscovered species existed – just as, today, we still have good reason to believe that undiscovered species exist. Seven years ago year researchers ventured into a remote region of Papua New Guinea and returned with hundreds of new species. They were not cryptozoologists.

Once again, this activity of searching for new animals falls well within the purview of ‘ordinary’ science, and has no bearing on the legitimacy of efforts to find Bigfoot or a local lake monster.

IV. Researching What Does Not Exist

Cryptozoology then, in the above contexts, is an unhelpful term that fails to distinguish unique research. But there is one sense in which cryptozoology means something distinct from other words, and that is its most cotroversial sense – the one used by camera-toting amateurs in the woods, and hosts on jejune cable shows, and dismissive skeptics. In this sense, cryptozoology is the attempt to prove the existence of animals for which there is no compelling evidence, and whose existence is considered unlikely by science. And for the most part, this attempt is sheer pseudoscience.

To be sure, even if we can comfortably dismiss the chupacabra or mokele-mbembe, there may be large undiscovered animals out there about which cryptozoologists happen to be right, and they might one day be discovered by a camera crew crashing through the forest and scaring one another. In such an event, as I have said, that crew will not retroactively have been engaging in rigorous science. They will simply have won the lottery.

The reason that ‘mainstream’ science rejects the existence of such creatures as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, or the survival of the thylacine, is not that those creatures would, if they were real, be unfit objects of study. It is that the evidence for their existence is slim to nonexistent, and the arguments against their existence are copious and persuasive. Having looked at the claims, science has seen nothing to overturn the null hypothesis. Any attempt to overturn the null hypothesis on flimsy grounds is, by definition, pseudoscience. It may be fun, and adventurous, and every once in a great while it may lead to a real discovery, but none of those things make it science.

In this context, cryptozoology is a field without a proper object of study – perfectly exemplified by the recent, ludicrous, much-publicized claim that Sasquatch DNA has been sequenced.

V. Conclusion

Although by some estimates only around one-quarter of the total number of plant and animal species in the world have been described by science, the days of heading into the bush without any idea of what you might find are long gone. With their passage we lost part of our collective imagination.

The penetration of the last frontiers in the habitable world was proportionate to the loss of the capacity for dramatic biological discovery and the romance that accompanied it. Now the intrepid biologist seeks the unexpected hunched over laboratory equipment, an activity that strikes many laypeople as prosaic, while the exploration of the deep ocean is reserved for those with access to large sums of money.

In such a world, the appeal of cryptozoology is not hard to understand. I cannot fault anyone for wishing that it were a legitimate science, even as I wish that the excitement and passion of more ostensibly mundane pursuits were more widely understood.

In the end, though, I can only conclude that the sole sense in which cryptozoology is a useful term is the sense in which it refers to a set of pseudoscientific beliefs and pursuits. In all other contexts in which the search for a rumored animal, or the study of the belief in rumored animals, is legitimately conducted, it falls within an established scientific field and requires no name of its own.

There is certainly room for many of the kinds of research that Naish or the Journal of Cryptozoology might call cryptozoology – and science and pseudoscience may sometimes exist in elbow-jostling proximity to one another, as they did so famously in the mind of Isaac Newton. But pseudoscience will never lose its moniker simply by contact with hard science, and in the matter of mystery animals, hard science has enough fields to speak for it already.




About Brendan McKinney

Brendan McKinney teaches high school in New Mexico. He graduated from St. John's College and Bond University and is a former Peace Corps volunteer and record-store manager, among other things. He lives with his wife and an indeterminate number of incessantly prowling quadrupeds in Santa Fe.
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16 Responses to In Response to Darren Naish: Why Cryptozoology Is Pseudoscience

  1. Jeff Grigg says:

    There are still amazing and unexpected discoveries to be made in the deep ocean. But that’s mostly because we haven’t looked around down there much, as of yet. And I wouldn’t call that crypto-anything; I’d just call it biology.

    And there’s lots of amazing and interesting discovery work going on in microbiology — particularly around “extremophiles” — bacteria and the like that live in “extreme” environments, like hot water vents, icy areas, and deep underground. Also biology; not crypto-anything.

  2. Wordwizard says:

    “Although by some estimates only around one-quarter of the total number of plant and animal species in the world have been described by science, the days of heading into the bush without any idea of what you might find are long gone. With their passage we lost part of our collective imagination.

    The penetration of the last frontiers in the habitable world was proportionate to the loss of the capacity for dramatic biological discovery and the romance that accompanied it.”

    It seems to me that finding new species in places that have been gone to before, but not rigorously catalogued, leaves plenty of room for not knowing what you might find, and for dramatic biological discovery. There are areas where unique species can be found under every tree, and who knows where or when the next cure-for-[specific body part]-cancer might be found, or alternatively rendered extinct BEFORE being found if habitat continues to be destroyed at the current rates. The race is on!

    (Agreed: still not crypto-anything…)

    • Brendan McKinney says:

      Oh, I don’t disagree. I think what you describe just doesn’t appeal to popular imagination as much. For non-specialists, even the experience of looking for a species we know exists should be dramatic enough that we don’t have to spend too much time dreaming about cryptids, but alas, it isn’t so.

  3. mud says:

    I am a bit perturbed by the crypto thing as everyone appears to be. You can definitely find new species but the crypto tag is a bit out of view in the above.

    Even if we discounted mythological creatures and popular culture constructs and concentrated on every days new publications what is crypto.

    Surely the BigFoot/Yeti folk find no joy in a species of fish or a myriad of beetles being described?

    Crypto fanciers seem to hedge their bets on mythology. Biologists just do their work and some luck it out to get a species and genetic material up and online for examination and prediction.

    Some biologists are famous for having found many many new species and published their descriptions.

    From the latest gargle from the cryptid fanciers we hear of “primate DNA” native to the americas.

    As far as I know, the only standard set for that still is “monkey”.

    That is not to deny that there is a field of science that is so insular to separate itself from any other discovery other than mammalian and primate (obviously). If thats whats described as cryptozoology aside from biology, the researchers have terrible status attribution problems.

    If there is an anthropologist set that investigates lore and myth then cryptozoology has a fair tag.

    But then I do come from the radiation end of science..

    Cryptozoology has a shocking smell of popular culture and bona fide biologists in that species hunting/collecting game should stick with the term zoologists and research zoologists.

    The rest should call themselves…Darren McGavin..

    Whats in the freezer?

  4. Darren Naish says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this article; thanks also for taking care to accurately represent my position and point readers to my various articles on this subject. I think I should definitely stop ‘defending’ cryptozoology; it really doesn’t do me any favours. I want to note to begin with that I broadly agree with most of what you say in the article above.

    Your primary assertion here is that much of what we term ‘cryptozoology’ is not a separate field of endeavour but, rather, falls within the remit of various branches of biology. As you know from my articles, this is my perspective as well: as I’ve been careful to state, it means that I’m confused as to whether we should use the term ‘cryptozoology’ at all. You then go on to say, however, that the possible redundancy of cryptozoology goes some way “towards classifying it as pseudoscience”. Again, I can agree that cryptozoology might well be redundant, but I can’t see what this has to do with claiming that cryptozoology = pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is understood to refer to those areas where people claim to ‘do science’, but in fact base their ideas on belief and are not really prepared to modify their ideas on the basis of evidence.

    I don’t think that this is true of cryptozoology – admittedly, it’s something that’s hard to be confident about, given that people who term themselves cryptozoologists range from technically qualified biologists to ‘true believers’ interested in the paranormal. My personal understanding, however, is that the majority of self-styled cryptozoologists are not pseudoscientists: they might favour hypotheses that are poorly supported (or, arguably, not supported by any good evidence at all), but they do not have a blind faith in the phenomena concerned and are prepared to change their ideas as evidence comes in. They are more like naïve amateur scientists, obsessed with a strange idea, than pseudoscientists.

    In the end, this argument is academic. The study of animals known from anecdote may well – as you argue above, and as I’ve argued in my articles – fall within the remit of ‘normal’ zoology. However, whether cryptids exist or not, there is still a field of study devoted to the mythology, anecdote and supposed biology of ‘unknown animals’. Given that these ‘animals’ might not be real at all, does their study definitely fall within sociology or psychology, as I’ve suggested? I don’t know, but my point here is that people will not stop using the term cryptozoology when discussing these entities, nor are self-styled cryptozoologists above testing or challenging any of the hypotheses or theories associated with the field. As I said above, I want to stop coming across as a ‘defender’ of cryptozoology, but the claim made in your title – that “Cryptozoology is Pseudoscience” – is not addressed or demonstrated in your article, nor is it consistent with what cryptozoologists themselves say or do.

    • Hi Darren – So glad to see your reply here. Thanks. I wonder have you encountered any cryptozoologist who do NOT harbor a personal belief that their target animal is a real flesh and blood creature? (Discounting the Bigfoot-is-interdimensional crew, of course.)

    • Brendan McKinney says:

      Hi, Darren. Thanks for the response.
      In retrospect, I probably should have extended my remarks into two posts, and not tried to stuff everything into one shabby rhetorical valise. My main point, though, was that the only useful way to apply the term cryptozoology is to use it to refer to the well-documented pseudoscientific practices that too often accompany or inform the search for mystery animals. That is, pseudoscience is the only thing it helpfully distinguishes. In that sense, I think I did, if perhaps too briefly, satisfy my title.
      To answer a more minor point, I did not mean to imply that the redundancy alone makes it pseudoscience – only that having established its redundancy, we have taken a step towards dismissing it, and that in turn takes us a little closer towards being able to classify it as pseudoscience. Redundancy is certainly not a required criterion of pseudoscience, but it is a sign that something may be awry somewhere.
      I think that researchers in fields that might deal with the existence of, or belief in, cryptids, have a choice: either shun the term as anathema, or embrace it fiercely and try to wrest it away from the bumblers and charlatans. I can imagine the temptation of the latter, but I return to the idea that it is not really a useful term that needs to be or should be wrested away. Let the Discovery Channel have it.

      • Brendan McKinney says:

        I suppose I may, inadvertently, have raised the question of the degree to which specialization is a requirement of science.
        In the broadest sense, science is nothing more than making accurate observations about the world. I want to be clear that I see absolutely nothing wrong with anyone hiking into the woods, camera in hand, in the hopes of caging the eldritch or the unusual within the bars of hard evidence. It’s being done in the pursuit of truth. And any given amateur Bigfoot hunter – or even a little old lady who sits on the banks of Loch Ness day after day for years, glassing the water, patiently recording her observations – can be doing hard science if they don’t let their hopes get in the way of their conclusions. That’s different, though, then making what they are doing into its own field.

        • Darren Naish says:

          Hi Brendan – thanks for these thoughts. The issue is complicated (viz, whether cryptozoology can be dismissed as a pseudoscience or not), but I still cannot agree that the basic premise is correct. The main reason most sceptical people dislike cryptozoology is because they equate it with ‘monster hunting’ of the sort seen on TV’s Finding Bigfoot and such: there’s no evidence that might convince someone with appropriate scepticism, conclusions and assumptions are seemingly predetermined, methods and testing are wholly amateurish etc. But that isn’t true of all research that gets labelled ‘cryptozoology’: people can, and have, published statistical analyses of mystery animal sightings, they have used appropriate rigour, they have constructed and tested hypotheses, they have published their results in the peer-reviewed literature, etc.

          If your contention is that the overlap between cryptozoology and other branches of investigation render cryptozoology redundant then, again, I can only agree – self-styled cryptozoologists themselves argue over whether the terms ‘cryptid’ and ‘cryptozoology’ are useful or should be abandoned. But it is still not correct that cryptozoology – as an area of ‘mystery animal’ investigation – has to be regarded as a pseudoscience, even if it is – in the case of bumbling amateurs trying to attract Bigfoot in the woods and old ladies “glassing the water” of Loch Ness – truly amateurish. Those people are not, universally, faith-driven believers who are pretending to do science (true, some of them are, but that’s true for fringe individuals in many different fields): they are frequently testing hypotheses and, as I said, are not always convinced in or devoted believers of the phenomena they are investigating. Yes, cryptozoology may be amateurish, it may be redundant, and some of the people associated with it may well be pseudoscientists. But – can the area as a whole be considered a pseudoscience? I conclude not. Myself and colleagues have been interested enough in this question to ask audiences about it at technical meetings and we are aiming to discuss the issue in full in a technical paper.

          • Brendan McKinney says:

            I absolutely agree that many areas of research that might fall under the heading of cryptozoology – from the Orang-Pendek to the thylacine to pumas being where they shouldn’t – are legitimate subjects for research, and also that much good research has been done in such areas. Even Mothman is a legitimate subject of research in a way – investigating why exactly people believe in him/it, where the legend arose, and so forth. To a certain extent we are perhaps only disagreeing on the usefulness of a particular term.
            I would be fascinated to read any paper you and your colleagues publish. Thanks for taking the time to respond here. Drop in any time.

  5. Darren Naish says:

    Hi Brian. I can think of quite a few people who are definitive card-carrying cryptozoologists, and yet only accept the ostensible existence of a cryptid because they feel the evidence is compelling – they do not have a blind belief that is independent of evidence (I would put Roy Mackal, the late Richard Greenwell, Adam Davies and Richard Freeman in this camp). Indeed, there are even card-carrying cryptozoologists who have given up on their belief in a given cryptid because they feel the evidence has fallen away or been overturned (example: during the 1990s, several Australian cryptozoologists – the late Peter Chapple and colleagues – gave up on the possible existence of the ‘Queensland tiger’, concluding instead that the respective accounts were garbled descriptions of thylacines). That doesn’t sound like pseudoscience to me. However, this doesn’t address your question. Are there cryptozoologists who are unsure about the flesh-and-blood existence of their ostensible targets? That’s a tricky one, because the more sceptical researchers tend not to like being labelled ‘cryptozoologists’. I can, however, think of individuals who do research on mystery animal sightings and yet do not necessarily think that there are real animals at the bottom of the respective reports (examples: some especially well known Loch Ness researchers – Dick Raynor, Adrian Shine – as well as Charles Paxton). Incidentally, Paxton and Michael Woodley had a series of exchanges in the pages of Fortean Times about the nature and usefulness (or otherwise) of cryptozoology. Dammit, am I defending cryptozoology again? :)

  6. Stephen Propatier says:

    I am curious Darren. What method/methods do you use to distinguish between different cryptids? Are they all equally plausible to you or are are their levels? If there are differences why? I am not trying to generate a logical trap here I am trying to understand what is the difference maker for you. You seem to be a logical and thoughtful person I am trying to understand the viewpoint.

    If I understand correctly most cryptid evidence is anecdotal based. If we have corpses or solid evidence like the giant squid. We would not discuss IF it exists. For me plausibility, followed by evidence. The lower the plausibility to more rigorous I would require the scientific evidence to be. Duplication and constancy is king. Post-hoc and special pleadings would immediately invalidate theorists for me. Anecdote would only begin the discussion. If the majority of the evidence were generational folklore it would not be convincing to me in any way.

  7. Darren Naish says:

    Hi Stephen. That’s a good question and one that has come up a few times. We basically have to make a judgement call when it comes to which ‘mystery animals’ we accept as potentially real and which we don’t: this can be done based on plausibility and on the level of evidence we have. Ultimately, this is subjective* and hence unsatisfying, but I don’t see another solution. You should imagine ‘mystery animals’ as falling somewhere on a sliding scale that ranges from ‘likely doesn’t exist’ to ‘likely awaits discovery’.

    * For me, a ‘realistic’ mystery animal would be one that comes from suitable habitat and geographic location, sounds like a real animal and is reported to look and behave like one, and is hopefully supported by data from tracks, hairs, vocalisations etc. Orang-pendek ranks well on this scale. Mothman and Batsquatch do not.

  8. Tulli Monstrum says:

    Probably a bit late but there appear to be several arguments here
    1. Cryptozoology as a term is unnecessary therefore it is pseudoscience.
    2. The probability of success of cryptozoology is very low therefore it is pseudoscience

    I would contest the validity of both these arguments. Population ecology is a subset of ecology which is a subset of biology. One could argue “population ecology” is unnecessary as a term but that does not make population ecology pseudoscience. And with regard to point 2 surely lots of science involves consideration of events with a low probability of success. SETI is the obvious comparison with cryptozoology In fact it has a much lower probability of success than cryptozoology (since we know there are unknown animals out there..we cannot say that about alien civilisations). Is that pseudoscience?

  9. Bos says:

    Cryptozoology exists because zoology isn’t done properly nowadays, that’s all (perhaps due to a lack of funding ?)… I don’t think it’s a good thing for Science to be privately funded anyway. I don’t like the conservative stance adopted by zoologists who want to codify cryptozoology (by Hypocrisy ?) whereas Science should allow you to think out of the box in an empirical way. And by the way why people always think cryptozoology is all about Nessie and Bigfoot ? Those two critters are less prone to exist ( at least as most people imagine them) than say, the Queensland tiger whose existence almost got recognized thanks to LeSuef… Grrr…

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