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 here, here, 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.
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.