The "science" of cryptozoology

29th May 2018

That step between what you know and “well, you never know” is where cryptozoology is trapped.  It is the study of, and attempt to prove the existence of, cryptids and creatures from folklore and myth. It’s caught between our measured and material world and the realm of the imagined and the imagination.

Some cryptids have seared into our minds and become pop culture icons. Bigfoot, the American super celebrity of the ape-man family, was made famous by the Patterson-Gimlin footage — the grainy, minute long film of Bigfoot walking through a clearing while rolling her shoulder to look at her audience.

Nessie, the elusive serpent of Loch Ness, has existed for centuries in the form of the kelpie — a Scottish water horse myth — but became more fully realised in our collected consciousness.

Unlike homeopathy or ghosts, there are examples of cryptids that have been proven to exist

Of course, both these visual proofs have been proven to be hoaxes. On top of which, biological scientists and folklorists have denounced cryptozoology as a pseudo-science similar to homeopathy or ghost hunting. The criticism appears to be that there isn’t enough scientific method applied to cryptozoology and the only evidence there is anecdotal.

But that isn’t quite the case. Unlike homeopathy or ghosts, there are examples of cryptids that have been proven to exist. The mountain gorilla of East Africa was considered a myth by western explorers, a local legend to be dismissed, until in 1902, a specimen was killed and brought back to Europe.

Sasquatch
Some people don’t believe Bigfoot is real 📸  Jim Fischer

The platypus was considered an impossible creature and the first specimens were believed to be a hoax because of its unusual attributes. This year marks the 100 year anniversary of the world’s first live okapi at Antwerp Zoo. The okapi was the basis for the myth of the African unicorn and symbol of former International Society for Cryptozoology.

Likewise, the giant and colossal Squids were considered the Kraken of folklore, whose existence was only accepted by the scientific community in the last 90 years. The latter was only captured on film for the first time in 2014. The list of former cryptids goes on and on.

The shift

In his poem Death of Naturalist, Shamus Heaney describes his younger self’s love of nature eroding upon firsthand encountering the vulgar realities of the natural world. Perhaps the inverse is true in the discovery of new or formerly “extinct” species. Animals shift from cryptozoology, a world of possibilities and the unknown, to the brutal taxonomy, dissection and reality of zoology.

Given that there is an observable and — if you’re cryptozoologically inclined — documented shift from cryptid to known species, perhaps cryptozoology should be viewed as the exploratory arm of mainstream zoology? Jonathan Downes of the Centre for Fortean Zoology may agree with that.

“It is the job of the zoologists to classify new species, but it is the job of cryptozoologists to find them in the first place.”

Okapi
The Okapi was thought to be made-up 📸 Eric Kilby

The term “Fortean”, now assumed to mean all that is spooky and paranormal, originates from Charles Fort, a 19th-century journalist and satirist who argued against scientific certainty in the face of anomalous evidence. Downes is celebrating an anniversary of his own this year: 50 years as a cryptozoologist. He makes the case that cryptozoologists are akin to naturalists of the age of enlightenment.

“I prefer to think of [cryptozoology] as a portmanteau discipline, a bit like ‘natural history’. It covers a wide range of subjects, from zoology to folklore, and from psychology to all sorts of esoteric areas where conventional zoologists would quite rightly fear to tread.”

And though he also argues for scientific rigour and methodology, it’s these “esoteric areas” that destroy cryptozoology’s credibility. After all, while most reasonable folk can accept the possibility of an undiscovered genus of bear in the Himalayas or the rediscovery of a living fossil in the West Indian Ocean, it takes a leap of faith to countenance Mothman, the owl-human hybrid of Virginia, or Mokèlé-mbèmbé, the last sauropod hidden in the jungles of the Congo.

And while the likes of these latter examples seem unlikely given our scientific knowledge, they may be fanciful explanations for undiscovered local species or species that aren’t where we’d expect them to be.

But, this openness to a multi-disciplinary approach may be damaging to cryptozoological studies as a whole and it’s something that cryptozoologists who want to be taken seriously are aware of.

The field is riddled with people who do not approach the discipline in a scientific manner

“One of the big problems is that, because there is no academic qualification for being a ‘cryptozoologist’, anybody can throw his hat into the ring and declare that they are one. As, of course, did I, all those years ago.”

Downes adds: “The field is riddled with people who do not approach the discipline in a scientific manner, preferring to think of it as some sort of branch of paranormal investigation, rather than a branch of mainstream science.”

Mockumentaries

Cryptozoology has no substantial level of peer review, meaning that the scientific integrity that some in the field crave can never be truly established. Further, Downes points to “cryptozoology as entertainment” as a damning addition to the field. Mockumentaries about the discovery of mermaids and shows like pseudo-reality TV show Finding Bigfoot present the more outlandish face of the cryptozoology.

These shows and books weigh heavily on the side of speculation and the tantalising prospect of catching El Chupacabra mid-goat-suck rather than the much drier and harder to sell scientific world of thorough data analysis and research. It’s the Thunderbird — which incidentally, is rumoured to be much bigger than an Albatross — around the neck of cryptozoologists worldwide.

mothman
A statue of the West Virginia mothman 📸 howderfamily.com

This means that, in terms of science communication and presenting cryptozoology to a wide audience, and gaining the respect of the scientific community, cryptozoology is stuck in a Chinese finger trap. The more it engages with audiences and tries to escape its associated with the unknown, the paranormal and the downright bizarre, the tighter these grip onto the subject and become its hallmarks.

But, there may be change coming. Colin Schneider aka the Crypto-Kid is a 17-year-old who has been making waves in the crypto-community. He is in the process of launching The Next Generation Initiative (NGI), whose goal it is to get younger people interested in cryptozoology. Taking them beyond dogmen and deathworms, and into the realm of legitimate science.

I had a bit of a problem with figuring out how to properly do research and stay objective

Schneider quickly identified some of the problems with cryptozoology through his own experience and doesn’t want others to fall into that trap.

“I also had a bit of a problem with figuring out how to properly do research and stay objective. I initially didn’t have anyone helping me along as I was getting started. There was a lot of guesses and bad starts.”

Over time, he was able to learn and develop as a researcher and even went on to state that, as it stands and without change, cryptozoology is quite rightly a pseudoscience and there need to be more objective in research.

“There are a lot of things that people do in the field that lead to the titling of pseudoscience. The recent movement of “squatchers” that have been borne from the popularity of Finding Bigfoot is a good example. Their ultimate goal is not to solve the mystery of what people are seeing, but to prove that what they believe is true. They already ‘know’ that Bigfoot exists.”

One begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts

The young researcher expressed some frustration with his fellow researchers who often overshadow those approaching cryptozoology with a more scientific methodology. He talked about their reluctance to accept new or alternate theories and their lack of objectivity. This objectivity is something Schneider takes very seriously and something he wants to pass onto to other researchers through the NGI. He says that the moment he claims he “knows” a creature exists, he will lose his objectivity and ability to accurately investigate the claims of others.

Schneider’s thoughts of objectivity and the problems that breed into the cryptozoology community echo the thoughts of the fictional monster hunter chasing down demon dogs on the Baskerville Moors, Sherlock Holmes. “It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” This is the very essence of scientific enquiry.

Fighting to legitimise

There is no funding for the NGI, or any aspect of cryptozoology, for that matter. The researchers fighting to legitimise it can only fund their research through book sales and TV appearances. Unfortunately, this fuels the idea of cryptozoology as part of pop culture rather than a science. The media has a habit of misrepresenting science — pseudo or otherwise — and more than one cryptozoologist has had their fingers burnt sharing their research with a journalist, but what other way is there of making hard-earned research public?

It’s very easy to dismiss all of cryptozoology because of the wilder and more speculative theories

From the outside, it’s very easy to dismiss all of cryptozoology because of the wilder and more speculative theories and the chicanery of con men looking for a little fame, and there is a long way to go before the general public will see it as a science.

There are speculation and fraudsters in all branches of science, but we tend not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to other sciences. Science fiction doesn’t make us doubt physics — quite the contrary in fact; there are many cases of sci-fi inspiring scientists, and there are enough historical examples that justify seeming to place cryptozoology in a category about fraudulent pseudo-sciences it’s usually categorised with.  

With qualification and training, could cryptozoology have the ability to purge itself of con artists looking to exploit people’s beliefs with scientific but hollow theories?  Would stories of mythical beasts cease to be seen as the subject’s focus and the gateway drug that excites young minds and draws them into research?

It seems that cryptozoology as research needs to distance itself from cryptozoology as entertainment in order to be taken seriously. Maybe it needs to be rebranded as Fortean-zoology or theoretical zoology.  Perhaps for the scientist, it’s only an entertaining tryst with the unscientific. What is for certain is that, for the time being, it is stuck — unable to develop or achieve credibility — with indulging in the incredible.

CORRECTION: This article has been amended to reflect that the alleged Bigfoot in the Patterson-Gimlin footage is generally thought of as female (we’re told her name is Patty). The Overtake is happy to clarify that.

29th May 2018