My local library offered free access to Universal Class, a digital online learning platform. I love learning and have a Master’s degree focused on science education, so I like to try out current examples of online offerings. They have many useful categories, such as Business and General Education. When I saw that they had classes on Cryptozoology and Haunted Places, I was certainly going to check it out.

I have taken classes on the Coursera platform, as well as taking accredited courses online. I did not expect this to be anywhere near that level. My interest was in seeing the quality of content for these fringe topics, what references were used, and what approach was taken in examining the evidence associated with these questionable and socially complex subject areas.

I enrolled in Cryptozoology 101 and began. In no time at all, I was dismayed. I won’t go through all the details since that would be tedious, but I’ll hit the giant red flag highlights that indicate this is not worth your time or (if you were gullible enough to pay for it) your money.

Universal Class Cryptozoology 101 info on “Why this Course?” promises a good deal but fails to deliver.

The instructor is not a person I had heard of. I won’t give away his name, but he is a PhD in arts, humanities, and history. Fine. I have no problem with that. Any respectable instructor can collect information and construct a curriculum.

I clicked on Class Bibliography. It was empty. This blank bibliography became more of a problem when I noticed that the lesson contents were factually inaccurate, biased, and, in more than one instance, completely wrong.

There are 17 lessons for the course that falls under the category heading of Spiritual, Psychic and Paranormal Classes (which also includes Tarot cards, Reiki, and Paranormal Investigation). There is nothing wrong with teaching about these topics, however, care must be given to represent an accurate depiction of reliability and evidential support and an analysis of why it remains a controversial research area. Critical evaluation is a necessity.

There is considerable value in examining the folklore of “monsters”, the evolution and impact of the concept of cryptids, and the importance of mysterious animals in popular culture and society. Sadly, this content failed in giving an adequate version of that.

Universal Class Cryptozoology 101 learning outcomes. When a subject is treated in a biased manner, with inadequate supporting information, the outcomes are a sham.

Lesson 1 calls cryptozoology the “newest life science” and expresses that it is zoologically-based. Examples of the platypus and Komodo dragon are given as “discovered” cryptids. I don’t agree with that but it’s super-common to see as a justification for cryptozoology. The text suggests that finding any new species alive is utilizing the methodology or intent of “cryptozoology”. This is incorrect, verified by the fact that cryptozoology is not a sub-discipline taught as part of a zoology degree. There is no explanation provided regarding what makes cryptozoology unique from scientific zoology or important as a stand-alone field – a key distinction that should be made. Lesson 1 will leave the participant with a skewed and unreasonable idea that zoology is inherent to the process of cryptozoology, while later lessons will clearly show that there is no proper zoology involved because most of today’s cryptozoologists are self-designated amateurs and the evidence is not scientific.

Lessons continue by providing examples of “proof that cryptozoology is a plausible science”. This is a flawed approach. The examples given are animals that don’t fit the folklore or mythological criteria of a cryptid, were discovered before the idea of cryptozoology gelled (mid 20th century), or follow a scientific method that is well established and not a unique process. Notable in pre-21st century cryptid examples is that explorers almost immediately found the mystery animals they were looking for exactly where they were told to look.

On display in these examples are the weak cryptid standards – platypus, mountain gorilla, Okapi, and coelacanth. The coelacanth, in particular, is explained as a hopeful sign that there may be living dinosaurs! Right from the start, this class is an exaggerated argument for the importance of cryptozoologists. A detectable aim is to dispute the much-repeated slight that cryptozoology is a “pseudoscience”. These lessons, instead, reinforce that negative connotation via a demonstrated disregard for accuracy and by ignoring critical arguments.

At two lessons in, I spotted several careless spelling errors. “Okapi” is misspelled “Opaki” twice, including once as an answer to an exam question. Later lessons included reference to “Rene Dehinden”, “Professor Grover Krants” and more – unacceptable sloppiness.

The instructor says that, given past findings, cryptozoologists believe that the search for cryptids is not only meaningful, but is “one of the most fruitful paths toward zoological discovery”. I’m rolling my eyes from the overreaching rhetoric here. Bernard Heuvelmans, he says, did “meticulous and thorough documentations [that] would serve for decades as groundbreaking research in the field.” Hmm. I’m certain the instructor never asked any academic zoologists about that. Heuvelmans may have been detailed on paper, but not a rigourous scientist. (See Naish, Hunting Monsters, p 368) He was contradictory and inconsistent in his ideas with a bad attitude towards orthodox science and who never managed to solidify a meaningful methodology and structure for cryptozoology, perhaps because his premise was flawed from the beginning. But he was confident about his views.

The section on famous cryptozoologists consists of Heuvelmans and 4 other men: Sanderson, Shuker, Coleman, and Slick. Three of the five are deceased. I might point out that “famous” might mean well-known, but it does not equate to doing “groundbreaking” work. The content is short and, as noted, there are no bibliographic references to document their contributions.

As the haphazardly written lessons go on, and I answer the uninsightful, trivial exam questions, I’ve become more annoyed. For some sections, an essay is required, so I take the opportunity to dispute the lesson content. The instructor is polite and acknowledges my points, but I feel it is ridiculous for me to be part of this. I’m not the intended audience for this course. But, because I’m well-versed in cryptozoology, I notice what is blatantly inaccurate and misleading.

This exaggeration and hype is similar to many paranormal promoters using “scientifical” methods to impress non-experts. The audience might be fooled, where a scientist sees the blatant flaws. But I continue on as the lessons texts tells me —

  • Talk of the mountain gorilla in 1861 was “just like the Loch Ness Monster”.
    This is quite the ad hoc simile!
  • “As more and more species reclaim their spot on the zoological living species list, it is clear that scientists are not aware of all the creatures that currently exist in the world.”
    This weirdly presupposes some sort of creational completion objective that humans must discover. Nature doesn’t care about our lists, and no reputable scientist would say they knew all the creatures existing in the world. It’s a preposterous statement.
  • “While many consider all facets of science to be factual, these animals prove that much of the zoological science is based on speculation – at least when it comes to deciphering an animal’s existence.”
    This statement makes no logical sense in its wording and assumptions. You can’t even fix it, it’s so messed up.
  • Animals such as the bumblebee bat and Etruscan shrew can remain hidden because they are so small.
    How this is any support for a cryptid is entirely missing on me. Moreover, tiny animals were not considered by Heuvelmans to qualify for being “mythologized” because they simply weren’t noticable.
  • The first documented sighting of a “Bigfoot” like creature was in 986 A.D. from the famous Viking explorer, Leif Erikson or “Eric The Red” upon his arrival to the New World.
    This misconstrued and sensational claim is repeated from pro-Bigfoot books.

By lesson 10, on Loch Ness, I’ve hit my limit. The lesson states:

Though sightings date back to the sixteenth century*, the creature came to the world’s attention in 1933. On July 22, 1933, Peter Martin and Sam Jacobs reported seeing a huge animal, about 4-feet high and 25-feet long, with a neck as long 12 feet. They said the animal sluggishly moved across the road, making its way to the loch about 20 yards away.

* There is important missing context here referring to the St. Columba claim.

Anyone who knows a legitimate amount of details about the Loch Ness monster history knows about the July 1933 sighting of the monster crossing the road around Loch Ness. It was, however, reported by George Spicer and his wife. I searched for “Peter Martin” and “Sam Jacobs” in connection with Loch Ness and didn’t find anything. I have no idea how this error came to be in the lesson but it was the point where all credibility for this instructor was irretreivably lost.

Yet, I did one more lesson, on the Chupacabra, which included no mention of Madelyne Tolentino, the key person in publicizing the creature in Puerto Rico and the sound conclusion that her sighting was based on the creature from the movie Species. The key work on this creature done by Benjamin Radford is entirely ignored. Instead, the text included minor details about other unverified sightings as if the chupacabra is a real, undiscovered spiky alien-like creature.

I did not bother to unlock the next 6 lessons by taking another “exam”. I’ve established beyond any doubt in my mind that the instructor is not an actual subject-matter expert. I’m not going to spend any more time fact checking every paragraph; it was his job to write accurate and useful content. If I were grading this course content, I’d give it a D.

In conclusion, I might guess that throwing up informal, uncritical information about breezy topics on an unaccredited educational platform pays a nice little sum. According to the website, 1632 people have taken this course. The regular price is listed as $95 (or $120 if you want a “certificate” for completion, $189 for a year access). It’s unlikely anyone would sign up if they already knew the topic enough to critique it. Placing such topics in a pseudo-academic environment, such as a continuing education framework, gives them credibility. It is clear that many people do believe cryptozoology is a legitimate pursuit as Heuvelmans wished.

Like most information about cryptozoology online, the quality is exceptionally (and inexcusably) poor, written by people whose research has no standards, and whose goal is to bolster a belief instead of doing scholarly examination. In the process, they distort and sometimes outright mock how science and historical research works. I know several professors in accredited university settings that address topics that might fall under “paranormal studies” who present a balanced and in-depth examination of the topic, including historical and cultural background that allow for a more thorough understanding of why these subject areas remain popular. It can be done. It should be done more often. This Universal Class course was a poor substitute.

9 thoughts on “A class in cryptozoology: When you know too much

  1. That this is being offered by a library troubles me. That lends an air of legitimacy to what is essentially a load of nonsense.

    I used to have a friend who swore bigfoot or sasquatch existed and that they’d been sighted here in the north woods. I pointed out to him that every year 750,000 or more hunters are let loose for two weeks all across the state for deer hunting season. If a bigfoot existed, someone would have shot one a long time ago and would have tried to make money off it somehow.

    1. The Cryptozoology class wasn’t specifically offered by the library. The library gives free access to Universal Class. They have a lot of useful offerings. I’m hoping the classes in algebra and accounting are better crafted.

      1. does that mean that the library paid to allow the free access/ if yes, such a waste. If not, I wonder if they are aware of the rubbish they are encouraging folks to access?

      2. Two points: The library serves everyone. On their physical shelves are books that I consider trash and would never read but people have the right to have access to them. There has not been any inkling of book banning in my county so I can respect having a wide ranging content available. Second, as I noted in the other comment, Universal Class has many less controversial options available. It is not reasonable to think that all the content was judged. So in no way do I begrudge the library for this. They provide so many excellent services. This is a mark on Universal Class among a selection of what might be valid other offerings.

      3. Ah, thanks for clarifying that. My local libraries don’t offer something like this, but then I live in a rather rural area. My local library is a 12 – 15 mile round trip away from here and is quite small. I think it only has one full time employee, the librarian.

  2. I took this course as well as the better constructed one on the subject at the Centre of Excellence in England. I posted a review on them at the Coalition for Critical Thinking on Bigfoot Research on FB years ago. I would agree this review is correct and on target. Nice work.

  3. Keep up the good work Sharon! This kind of BS cannot be allowed to be disseminated unchallenged.

  4. *sniffs* This course smells like AI to me. The instructor probably just set it up with AI and didn’t make much effort to correct anything or make it actually useful.

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