What is cryptozoology? Is it a science?



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    Cryptozoology is the “the search for animals which are considered to be legendary or otherwise nonexistent by mainstream biology.” It is widely considered a pseudoscience (‘false’ science) — a discipline which appears scientific but is not. Mainstream biologists would certainly not grant it much credence. However, there is something to be said for people willing to think outside the box of mainstream biology, and everything labeled ‘cryptozoology’ is complete hokum. (Unfortunately, the entire ‘field’ is rather redundant, as zoology itself attempts to discover and describe new species anyway.) That said, allow me to contrast what I see as the two ends of cryptozoology on the science/pseudoscience spectrum.

    The best (read: most scientific) cryptozoologists blend the empirical rigors of classical zoology with an open mind. They don’t ‘believe’ in the creatures they search for — science, after all, is not a matter of belief. Rather, they think that something about the legends and folklore is worth studying. Ideally, it’s an unknown species waiting at the end of their investigation — but it may also be something less fantastic, yet still valuable. Perhaps they will uncover insights into the culture that spawned tales of Nessie, for example. They mix zoological techniques with those of anthropologists and sociologists, exploring the cultural landscape as frequently as they slog through remote swamps in search of Mokele-mbembe.

    Bigfoot and Me

    The worst cryptozoologists, however, are hardly ‘scientists’ at all. They leverage jargon and questionable evidence — the superficial trappings of science — to lend credence to their claims (even the label ‘cryptozoologist’ pulls from the pool of trust built up by zoology proper). Perhaps most tellingly, they believe in the creatures they search for, certain of their existence before even beginning an investigation. They are not skeptical or objective (nor do they try to be) — qualities fundamental to proper science. One may think it difficult to be a skeptical cryptozoologist — but why not? One doesn’t need to investigate bigfoot itself, on the presumption that a creature does indeed exist. One can quite easily (and quite skeptically) investigate the claim that bigfoot exists. The folklore is real; the accounts are real. These things can be examined objectively. Sadly, much of ‘popular’ cryptozoology is little more than sensationalized entertainment, exploiting fear, ignorance, and superstition to draw attention. Shows like “MonsterQuest” could hardly be less scientific, and these are most people’s primary experience with cryptozoology.

    By and large, there has been little convincing evidence for the existence of any of the more spectacular, popular subjects of cryptozoology (Bigfoot, Nessie, Chupacabra). However, sightings continue to be reported, and the accompanying legends continue to grow. It is a worthwhile endeavor to apply a bit of good old-fashioned skepticism to these claims; to parse the fact from fiction. One thing people, as a whole, are not aware of is just how suggestible they are. Once you’ve heard of bigfoot, you’re much more likely to mistake a bear for the famous ape-man of the American Northwest.

    chupacabra figure

    There may be some merit to cryptozoology — at least the work of a handful of earnest scientists who describe themselves as such — but the enterprise as it exists today is a largely unscientific enterprise. Bear in mind that these are opinions, not statements of absolute fact. If you’ve an abiding interest in the subject (as I have), I recommend the following books as rather fair, objective treatments of cryptozoology and excellent, intriguing reads. The linked Wikipedia page also offers an excellent ‘Further Reading’ section, though I cannot attest personally to the quality of those books.

    • Cryptozoology: Science & Speculation by Chad Arment
    • Cryptozoology A to Z by Loren Coleman & Jerome Clark
    • The Beasts that Hide from Man: Seeking the World’s Last Undiscovered Animals by Karl P.N. Shuker, Ph.D

    Hopefully you’ll find this topic as interesting as I have. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about scientific progress — highlighted beautifully by cryptozoology — is that it requires an ever-so-delicate balance between rigorous skepticism and open-mindedness.

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