Posts Tagged ‘pseudoscience’

In late 1985 or 1986, I had the great pleasure to see a lecture by Sir David Attenborough, during which he shared a variety of anecdotes concerning his career – even then, as distinguished as could be. At the end he took questions from the audience, of which the first concerned a somewhat surprising topic: in all his travels, had he ever seen anything to convince him of the existence of large, unknown animals? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer was a definite yes – ‘It’s not abominable and it isn’t a snowman, but the Yeti exists,’ declared Sir David.

The idea of creatures like the Yeti holds a powerful romantic appeal. I was a believer myself, as a young person at least – not just in the Yeti, but in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and every other cryptid you cared to mention. I spent three years as a teenager collecting a massive partwork entitled The Unexplained, which built up into a thirteen-volume survey of everything paranormal and scientifically marginal. These days I am rather less credulous and more sceptical, but part of me would still love it if one of these fabulous creatures turned out to be real.

abom sci

Both the allure of cryptozoology (the study of creatures unknown to conventional science) and the shaky foundations on which it is built are treated with rigour, some sympathy, and – ultimately, I would say – fairness, in Abominable Science, a review of the subject by Donald Prothero and Daniel Loxton. As well as looking in some detail at five of the best-known cryptids – Bigfoot, the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, the Great Sea Serpent, and Mokele-Mbembe (aka the Congo brontosaur) – the authors take a hard look at cryptozoology itself, asking whether it is or can ever be genuinely scientific, and also ask just why it is that people want to believe in the existence of monsters.

If you think that makes it sound like the authors find the evidence wanting, then you’d be right. Though they quite properly admit that it’s extremely difficult to definitively prove something doesn’t exist, the book’s conclusion is fairly unequivocal – ‘there is no solid evidence that any of the cryptids discussed in this book exist and much evidence that their existence is extremely unlikely’ (they go further and suggest the ‘popular legend’ of the Loch Ness Monster ‘can be definitively rejected as untrue’), mainly on the grounds that anecdotal testimony proves nothing and the total lack of hard physical evidence is, by this point, very indicative.

The closest they come to granting the benefit of the doubt comes in Loxton’s contribution on sea monsters, in which he grants that the existence of a cultural tradition concerning the existence of large marine reptiles does not preclude the actual existence of similar creatures. Nevertheless, his concern remains with the cultural evolution of the concept, which he traces from antiquity through to the present day: once again, the correlation between the increase in alleged sea-serpent sightings and the popular dissemination of the idea of some kind of relict marine saurian is indicative.

This is the central contention of the book: that cryptids are not so much a zoological phenomenon as an anthropological and even pop-cultural one. The authors argue, quite convincingly to my mind, that the Yeti, Bigfoot, and Nessie stories originated in the early-to-mid 20th century, those of sea-serpents and the Congo dinosaur not very much earlier, and all achieved sufficient traction in the public consciousness to create an expectation, or at least credulousness: thus all strange noises in the forest could be Bigfoot, any peculiar object in the water a lake-monster, and so on. The stories become self-perpetuating, driven by people’s own expectations and the peculiar glamour of monsters.

The chapters vary a little in their length and detail – Loxton’s piece on the cultural history of sea-serpents is impressively thorough, while Prothero devotes less space to the Congo dinosaur, mainly due – one suspects – to the sheer lack of evidence in this particular case. He is particularly scathing, however, not least because this cryptid has been adopted by creationists in the belief that a living sauropod would somehow negate evolutionary ideas and send people back to scriptural literalism. (The Loch Ness chapter is somewhere between the two, though it offers up the striking coincidence – or not – that modern conceptions and sightings of the monster began very shortly after the release of King Kong, with its own lake-dwelling horror.)

The parallel with creationism seems to be well-made as, inevitably, advocates of all these creatures have essentially adopted faith positions with regard to their reality. In the light of this, it is hardly surprising that this book has received reviews from within the cryptozoological community which start as venomous and grow only more passionately negative. One gets the impression with these that the Nessie supporters have only read the Loch Ness chapter, the Bigfooters have only read the one on the Sasquatch, and so on, and have then proceeded to attempt a point-by-point rebuttal without looking at or attempting to engage with the book’s more general ideas or suggestions as to how cryptozoology might acquire a bit more respectability.

‘Skeptics make the easy assumption that everyone is either a hoaxer or an idiot who can’t tell what he’s looking at’ is the essential objection of the believers, which is basically the inverse of ‘so many people claim to have seen something that some of them must be a) honest and b) correct in their description of what they say they saw’. You can even reformulate this still further, along the lines of ‘people have seen something – it must have been a monster – we know there is a monster – because people have seen something’. The effects of cultural influence and witness expectation, especially in the case of a cryptid tied to a specific location like Loch Ness, only seem to figure in the believers’ reckoning as an occasion for handwaving. ‘Of course there are some hoaxes and misidentifications, but you can’t dismiss all the sightings like that,’ runs the line. But why not?

‘All witnesses are hoaxers or idiots’ misrepresents the book’s line, anyway. Case after case is cited of the unreliability of perception (particularly in moments of stress and excitement) and the mutability of memory. You don’t have to be an idiot to make a mistake, especially in an environment where you are predisposed to expect to see a monster – this, I think, is why the authors place such stress on the cultural aspect of these creatures.

(Then again, what is one to make of such a bizarre phenomenon as the ‘British Bigfoot’ – surely no rational person would seriously argue for the existence of a hominid creature in the UK, but reports of a four-foot primate in Epping Forest (‘jumping over the wall into the garden of the pub’, apparently) have made the national media in the UK. What light this sheds on the American Bigfoot phenomenon inevitably depends on which side of the debate you stand – either it’s testimony to the ubiquity of these creatures or proof that we’re dealing with phenomena untroubled by basic material concerns such as physical remains, breeding populations or habitats.)

If nothing else this book and the response it has drawn proves that here we are not strictly, or at least not exclusively, dealing with matters scientific: I suspect it would be literally impossible to convince a Bigfooter that the balance of probabilities overwhelmingly indicates the creature is a fiction – Bigfoot’s existence is such a critical element of their worldview and identity. This is not just a study of monsters, but a study of belief in them – how these beliefs grow, and why they persist. True believers may not find much to sustain them here, but for anyone interested in the idea of fabulous creatures and the strange grip they exert on the popular imagination, this is an excellent book.


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