When I was a kid, cryptozoology books advocated the existence of these creatures. The same dramatic stories were repeated in many books. I was swayed by the stories but eventually I got bored with them. There was something missing. Stories only get you so far. I wanted a structure, I wanted details. I really wanted a coherent argument. I did not find one at the time. Luckily, they are out there now.
Yet, the majority of popular crypto stuff harkens back to the same old, same old – stories. Last week on Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote about a new Popular Science feature that, for one, described a Yeti-seeking adventure. She remarked about it: “It’s easy to see the writer getting so caught up in the excitement of the hunt that he stopped questioning whether there was really anything to hunt for.” She highlights an article where you will find the quote “The Snowman definitely exists.” Quite the unjustified leap made in that article from decades ago. Where’s the Snowman?
Cryptomundo took major exception to Maggie’s use of the word “pseudoscience” in reference to cryptozoology.
Umm… ? Maggie was describing the Popular Science feature called “PopSci’s Brief Foray Into Pseudoscience”. She was just the messenger. PopSci was using the label. Since one Boing Boing writer often highlights pro-cryptozoology stories, this framing of the subject apparently rubbed the wrong way.
I’ve done some writing about the sciencey-ness of cryptozoology and paranormal topics. I’d like to talk a bit about the use of “pseudoscience” to describe cryptozoology.
While there are some genuine scientists interested in the subject, and some who actually do research in it, the majority of cryptozoology enthusiasts are amateurs without formal science training. They follow Cryptomundo, watch TV documentaries, read the literature, maybe even participate in research groups, etc.
I actually have scientific training, a degree in a scientific field, done lab work, field work and research. However, I would NOT feel comfortable calling myself a cryptozoologist for several reasons – I’m not a trained specialist in wildlife biology or zoology and I’m not devoting a large portion of my time studying it. I’ve enjoyed the subject since I learned to read. Maybe someday I’ll go there but not now. I want to earn the label and respect.
Years ago, I shared a local story with Loren Coleman, writer of the Cryptomundo piece mentioned above. He passed it on to an email list labeling me as “Cryptozoologist Sharon Hill”. I was appalled. But this was enlightening. I learned ANYONE can call themselves a cryptozoologist. You apparently need no special qualifications except keen interest – a low bar for entry.
One can’t get away with that in science. A “scientist” in our society is assumed, at least, to have a specialized training, a degree in a scientific field. Many hold them to an even higher standard such as currently working in the field actively doing research, producing data and publishing it. But, the education and training of a scientist is a CRITICAL piece. It requires practice to learn how to think scientifically. It takes effort to put together careful research results. And, science is a special culture that has rules. The norms of science – how you are expected to conduct your work – are strict which give science its high credibility.
The term “pseudoscience” is problematic. It describes a subject area and all the accumulated knowledge related to it. But it can also describe the process of work in that area. A subjective line can be drawn between science and pseudoscience dependent on which criteria you use (look up “demarcation problem”). Also, “pseudoscience” is clearly a pejorative – meant to set one area outside the establishment or to judge it as inferior to genuine science. No one deliberately calls themself a pseudoscientist. I think the word has its place in some cases, such as for astrology which is so absurd that it deserves all the pejoratives we can stick on it. But, I prefer another term for “scientifical” type endeavors.
I’ve researched and published on why amateur investigation groups fail to reach the high bar of science. I see these groups doing what I call “sham inquiry”. It sounds sciencey, it looks sciencey and it can fool a lot of people into thinking it’s scientific but there are clear reasons why it is not. See here for more on why cryptozoology is sham inquiry, not scientific inquiry.
“Sham inquiry” is about the process and why the results they get out of that process are inferior to scientific inquiry.
The primary problem, and the point that Maggie nailed with her comment is that cryptozoologists, by and large, assume that a mystery creature is out there for them to find. They begin with a bias. They are advocates. They are not testing a hypothesis but instead seeking evidence to support their position. The answer is already in their head. (Same is true for ghost hunters and UFO investigators.) They also begin with the wrong question. Instead of “what happened?” they ask “Is it a cryptid?” They have narrowed the possible solutions immediately off the mark.
Some are worse than others, for sure. I admire many so called cryptozoologists. There are some really great insights and reporting out there. (My two favorites are Darren Naish and Karl Shuker. I enjoy reading their blogs. And of course, Monster Talk is my very favorite podcast.) I don’t admire when the basic ideals of science are ignored – good scholarship in research, quality data collection and documentation, proper publication, skepticism, and open criticism. Instead, the bulk of popular cryptozoology is a jumble of the same old poor quality evidence, a ton of hype, rampant speculation and unfounded assumptions, even conspiracy theories and, too often, paranormal explanations.
I want to make two clarifications. First, amateurs and non-scientists CAN do science. And, second, cryptozoology CAN be a science. But right now, I don’t see that occurring often. It takes a lot of effort to do this and resources that the average enthusiast does not have. Too much is missing to call cryptozoology a science at this moment in time. (I recommend Ziman’s book Real Science for reference.)
It doesn’t have to be that way. I want the quality to improve and for the field to resolve itself into a rational examination of people’s sightings and reports of strange incidents. You can’t get there by following the same paths as those past cryptozoologists. I’m talking about the proper examination of claims, thorough investigation, a good cryptozoology news and information site without hype, rational literature, and well-thought out responses to criticism. Excellent research is already out there such as that by Dan Loxton, Ben Radford, Blake Smith, Joe Nickell and David Daegling. I find the critical, detailed, careful, objective evaluation of these curious crypto questions WAY more satisfying than those hyped up adventure stories or breaking new claims of evidence (that end up fizzling out).
My wish is that it gets better. I think it’s already well on the way. Much good stuff has come out in the past few years and more is to come! I’m excited for these new voices to raise the discussion to a higher quality level and examine the field from a more enlightened perspective.