On the Nature of Cryptozoology
by Ben S. Roesch
Is cryptozoology a science? This question that has long been debated between cryptozoologists and mainstream scientists. Unsurprisingly, cryptozoology is usually held to be scientific by its practitioners, including some scientists. Other scientists, however, have found it difficult to call cryptozoology a science, often with good reason – much of cryptozoology is rife with credulous thinking and illogical conclusions. Unfortunately, I find that some of these critics are overly biased in their treatment of cryptozoology, often taking stances and presenting arguments that remind me more of the very people they are criticizing than of true scientists. There are, however, some good reasons for stating that cryptozoology is not a science, or at best a very weak one. In Fortean Times 128, Loren Coleman criticized some of my arguments to this regard. I would like to take this opportunity to expound on these arguments, and respond to some of Coleman's criticisms.
The "old view" of science to which Coleman sees me cling – a view apparently "discarded by historians and philosophers of science decades ago" – is nothing less than the scientific method. Science has and will always require solid falsifiable hypotheses, experimental work, systematically gathered evidence, and rational deduction and induction. This approach is very much alive, and a glance at any scientific journal will show it is still of paramount importance. To suggest that the scientific method is out of date, but still defend cryptozoology as a science, makes little sense.
Plainly, cryptozoology doesn't live up to the scientific method. Science relies heavily on falsifiable hypotheses – hypotheses that can be tested and potentially shown to be false. If alternative hypotheses are suggested and revealed to be false through experimental research, then the original hypothesis is strengthened. When trying to incorporate falsifiable hypotheses, cryptozoologists run into problems. Seemingly testable hypotheses such as "bigfoot exists" or "if the Loch Ness monster exists, we can find it" are too general and too weak to provide a testable and falsifiable base. For example, there is good evidence showing that the giant shark Carcharocles megalodon is extinct, thus falsifying the hypotheses that it is still alive (an idea based on meagre evidence). However, some cryptozoologists continue to suggest it exists today. Because "megalodon still exists" is such a general hypothesis, it is easy for them to ignore the scientific counter-evidence and simply say that eyewitness evidence indicates survival, or to assume that it now inhabits the deep-sea (an idea also not supported scientifically), thus escaping detection. (This sort of rescue operation – whereby the proponents of a theory re-interpret their claim post litem motam or introduce assumptions so as to escape refutation – was termed a "conventionalist twist" by the philosopher Karl Popper.) Using falsifiable hypotheses and performing experimental tests is difficult in cryptozoology because there isn't good evidence – we don't even know if what we are trying to find exists. Eyewitness evidence has little scientific value (see below), yet it remains the standard of evidence cryptozoologists employ to make a claim such as "the Loch Ness monster is a plesiosaur", despite that statement being completely at odds with scientifically supported theories.
Although Coleman downplays the importance of anecdotal evidence in cryptozoology, I feel this stance is unjustified. Cryptozoology is based largely upon anecdotal evidence. DNA studies and footprint analysis have been carried out, but they are not numerous and often present inconclusive results such as "the hair was neither human nor ape." Certainly, they haven't provided much scientific confirmation – we still don't know if sasquatch definitely exists, despite hundreds of footprint casts. Still, sasquatch researchers are fortunate in one respect – they have at least some physical evidence that is subject to testing. The existence of many cryptids is supported by anecdotal evidence alone. It remains clear to me that anecdotal evidence is of central importance in cryptozoology, and the perusal of a classic tome like Bernard Heuvelmans' In the Wake of the Sea Serpents supports my contention.
A key point to be made here is that, while physical phenomena can be tested and systematically evaluated by science, anecdotes cannot, as they are neither physical nor regulated in content or form. Because of this, anecdotes are not reproducable and are thus untestable; since they cannot be tested, they are not falsifiable and are not part of the scientific process. Consequently, it is difficult to carry out scientific evaluations of cryptozoological claims because the claims are based almost exclusively on eyewitness testimony. A distinction should be made here between anecdotal evidence and observational field studies. The latter are common in science, especially ethology and experimental psychology, but differ from anecdotal evidence in that its data is obtained systematically, so as to regulate content and form. As marine biologist Richard Martin has written (pers. comm.): "Systematic observations of wildlife under field conditions can be achieved by, for example: using the same techniques and tools, and scanning for a standardized period within an area selected at random from other same-sized areas (this is the way scientific whale surveys are done; researchers do not simply scan random directions for random periods, recording each time a whale is spotted – such an approach is decidedly unsystematic and biased, as whales that are breaching or otherwise behaving spectacularly are significantly more likely be noticed than those which are not)." This systematic approach to gathering observational evidence is difficult for cryptozoologists because they cannot reliably find their quarry (indeed, if they could, cryptids would no longer be unknown, and would be amenable to scientific tests). Also, reports usually take place in uncontrolled settings and are made by untrained, varied observers. People are generally poor eyewitnesses, and can mistake known animals for supposed cryptids or poorly recall details of their sighting. Consequently, the credence one puts in an observer is somewhat arbitrary, and because eyewitness testimony is often vague and undetailed, a cryptozoologist can interpret data rather freely. Also, the method of obtaining anecdotal evidence is unsystematic: cryptid sightings are inherently opportunistic and unpredictable, and are thus, in a scientific sense, unreliable. Simply put, eyewitness testimony is poor evidence. Since cryptids cannot be subject to systematic observation, cryptozoology loses much of the scientific nature Coleman claims it possesses.
Coleman's discussion of what he calls the anti-cryptozoology paradigm of modern science exposes a misunderstanding of the work of philosopher/scientist Thomas Kuhn. Many people are under the false impression that Kuhn argued that what is taken as scientifically valid at any time has less to do with its unbiased accuracy than with the popular opinion of scientists at that time. In other words, if scientists don't like a particular theory because it doesn't fit accepted theories, they toss it out, regardless of how well supported it is and how effective it is in explaining a certain phenomenon. This interpretation of Kuhn is entirely incorrect. Instead, Kuhn argued that scientific discoveries at any time are evaluated under a preferred theoretical construct called a paradigm. Over time, anomalies – new discoveries that contradict favoured hypotheses and theories – may crop up and force scientists to revise accepted theories. In rare cases, existing theories may be replaced, resulting in a "paradigm shift", or scientific revolution. Whether a small revision or a paradigm shift, the findings that influence such a change must be extremely well-supported and must be subject to repeatable experiments to confirm their veracity. Therein lies a central problem with cryptozoology. Cryptozoology is not an anomaly-machine, churning out new evidence that contradicts accepted scientific facts (like "non-avian dinosaurs are extinct"), because much of its evidence is not of the calibre needed to stimulate the revision of accepted theories. Irrespective of which paradigms are in effect, good scientific research remains amenable to falsifiability--and cryptozoology performs poorly in that regard. This is why most scientists do not regard cryptozoology as a valid science – not because they simply don't like it, but because it's unscientific, often postulating radical theories based on poor evidence.
What of the new rabbit (left) from Vietnam that Coleman presents as proof that cryptozoology is alive and well? Does its discovery mean that the spectacular beasts of cryptozoology also await discovery? I would say no. No self-respecting zoologist would claim that there are no further mammals to be discovered, but neither would he or she claim, with the certainty cryptozoologists often exude, that a particular animal exists without having an actual specimen. Further, many of the cryptids that cryptozoologists seek require much more of a zoological leap of faith to accept. A new rabbit is not unlikely, but the idea that giant unknown primates, living dinosaurs, huge thunderbirds, and lake monsters share the Earth with us are are fantasies that are at odds with a great deal of accepted paleontological and zoological evidence. One cannot logically deduce from the discovery of a new rabbit an increased probability that any of these "mega-monsters" exist.
What the new rabbit does show is the tendency of cryptozoologists to promulgate the many new animals discovered every year as examples of cryptozoological successes. The logic behind this escapes me. The discoveries are zoological, not cryptozoological. They are made by biologists, not cryptozoologists. Furthermore, these new species rarely have any sort of prior cryptozoological status; certainly, few were predicted by cryptozoological methods. Even if there were native stories about the animals – such as was the case with the saola and some of the other new mammals from southeast Asia – the scientists went out and fairly soon came up with specimens. Are cryptids really so elusive and cryptozoologists really so unlucky? Or are most cryptids simply improbable beasts and the methods used by cryptozoologists scientifically invalid? Of the many cryptids predicted by cryptozoology, few, if any, have been demonstrated to exist, and cryptozoology has produced little verifiable biological data. Scientific theories are bolstered when they predict phenomena that are later confirmed, but cryptozoology consistently displays poor success in this regard.
I do not mean to come off as staunchly anti-cryptozoology. Cryptozoology is a fascinating, multidisciplinary field – but it struggles as a science. I prefer to think of it as natural history, and cryptozoologists as naturalists. Cryptozoology may even help in the discovery of some new species and suggest new areas for zoological research. Still, none of these points excuses irrational or credulous interpretation of cryptozoological cases; this is when I do become anti-cryptozoology. In many cases, cryptozoologists are too carefree in their conclusions, and don't bother to incorporate scientific data that refutes what they are proposing. Occam's razor is generally not applied with sufficient rigour – I often find that many cryptozoological theories can be explained equally well with alternatives that are less radical and more consistent with accepted facts.
Because of the inherent complications arising from studying unknown animals, cryptozoology may never be a genuine science. However, it can adopt scientific methodologies that will help its processes. This has been done in a few cases, but is not widespread enough. My feeling is that a more rigorous scientific approach will eliminate much of the credulous thinking and many of the improbable ideas that permeate the field, leading to more regular successes and a newfound respect from mainstream scientists.
Ben S. Roesch is editor of The Cryptozoology Review and a marine biology student at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. His cryptozoology column will be appearing regularly at forteantimes.com
Fortean Times: http://220.127.116.11/search?q=cache:uMW5Zr4RRtsJ:www.forteantimes.com