August 8th, 2013 at 9:34 am
The following is an interview with Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero, authors of Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids. In the interview, Loxton and Prothero consider, among other things, the phenomenon of cryptozoology and its relationship to science, and reveal their favorite cryptids!
Question: Let’s get this out of the way, right now: Does Bigfoot exist?
Donald R. Prothero: I would say that the odds are 99.999% against it. Not only are all the supposed “evidences” of Bigfoot either hoaxes, fakes, blurry photographs, or questionable movie footage, with not a single piece of hard evidence (e.g., bones, fur, carcasses), but there is LOTS of scientific evidence against their existence. The most important is that they would have to have a large population with huge home ranges, not just a single individual. Yet the more people look, the less they find. Even rare animals like bears eventually leave bones and carcasses behind. Their habitat is not the pristine “forest primeval” that most people imagine, but heavily modified and largely cut down by loggers over the years. It is traversed by lots of real biologists who never find evidence of Bigfoot—but plenty of animals that could be mistaken for Bigfoot, or animals that make sounds that non-biologists don’t recognize and attribute to Bigfoot. Another important factor: we have literally thousands to tens of thousands of fossils of Ice Age mammals in North America, including some extremely rare creatures—but not a single primate fossil, let alone remains of Bigfoot.
Q: How widespread is the belief in cryptids such as Bigfoot or the Yeti?
Daniel Loxton: Much more widespread than the fringe reputation of the topic suggests. For example, when asked “Do you think Bigfoot (also known as Sasquatch) is real?” in a 2012 Angus-Reid poll, 7 percent of American respondents affirmed the belief that Bigfoot “Definitely is real,” and 22% said Bigfoot “Probably is real.” That’s a more-or-less typical response to polls about cryptid beliefs. And that adds up to an awful lot of people.
Q: How do these legends begin?
DL: Well, we’ve just jotted down a quick 400 pages on that topic for anyone interested in some detailed exploration of that question! But the short answer is that it’s a snowball effect. An initial crystal from pop culture or regional folklore is set in motion by media, and that hype generates reports—some sincere and some hoaxed—which fuels further interest by a sensation-seeking media and entices serious proponents and scoundrels alike into the pursuit. And all that attention generates new sightings, which generate new media and inspire new popular culture…
Q: What explains the persistence in believing in the existence of such creatures?
DRP: There is lots of speculation, but the main factor seems to be that belief in monsters is universal among nearly all human cultures. In our scientific culture, where monsters have been banished to mythology, there still seems to be a deep-seated psychological need to believe in the unexplained and the mysterious, and accept the more supernatural explanation over the more mundane but scientific one. In addition, chasing monsters (especially Bigfoot) gives a lot of amateurs a sense of excitement and purpose, and a hobby they share with others of the same belief system. We found that a lot of “Bigfoot researchers” just like to use it as an excuse to get out in the woods and test their mettle against Mother Nature, but instead of birdwatching or hunting or camping, they search for Bigfoot.
Q: How do you discount the fact that people have provided eye-witness accounts of seeing these animals and in some cases, even DNA evidence?
DRP: Recent research has shown that human “eyewitness” testimony is extremely unreliable, and almost as likely to be wrong as to be right. As researchers have shown (and courts of law are now admitting), humans often misremember what they see, or color what they see with their expectations, or often “recover memories” of things that never happened. Humans are capable of hallucinating in broad daylight, or seeing a glimpse of something and then filling in all the details with things they’ve seen on TV or other media. Thus, for a scientific claim as incredible as Bigfoot or Nessie, “eyewitness” testimony is worthless, the worst possible kind of evidence.
All of the “Bigfoot DNA” cases have been debunked. The latest one, from a lab in Texas, proved to be incompetently done by someone who is not a top-notch molecular biologist. When her results were re-analyzed by a neutral lab, the samples all turned out to be normal human with a mixture of other common American mammals, including the opossum.
DL: Going to the eye-witness cases, I don’t discount them. My parents were cryptid witnesses—that’s what got me into this topic in the first place. An eye-witness occupies a privileged vantage point. Say you come to me and say you saw Bigfoot. Well, maybe you did. I don’t know what you saw. I wasn’t there. But because I don’t know what you saw, there’s only so much I can do with your story. I can’t take it away from you, but it’s just a story. We can talk about some of the possibilities and try to figure it out, though, if you’re willing.
Q: I would imagine it would be tempting for some scientists or skeptics to dismiss believers as being kooky or eccentric. But are scientists takings this phenomenon as seriously as they should? Can or should scientists be more proactive in combating cryptozoology?
DRP: In general, most scientists don’t think it is worth their valuable time to chase after claims that are based on such poor evidence. They focus on what they are paid to do: investigate reality, and do productive science that leads to something important. However, there are a number of trained professional scientists who have examined the evidence for Bigfoot and Nessie and the other cryptids carefully, including myself. When you look at the careful and thoughtful work that these scientists have done, you can see why they do not take claims about cryptids seriously. Based on this result, there’s no reason for a lot of additional scientists to keep re-investigating what has turned out to be unreal. It only takes a few well-researched books by scientists to state the case, and if people choose to reject scientific consensus, no amount of additional pleading by scientists will change this (any more than dozens of good books on evolution by scientists changes the percentage of people believing in creationism in the U.S.)
DL: I agree with Don, of course, that scientists should not be faulted if (in one of my favorite lines from the Bigfoot literature) they “prefer to investigate the probable rather than beat their heads against the wall of the faintly possible.” And if cryptozoologists sincerely aspire to make their pursuit scientific, they should welcome good-faith skeptical criticism of their claims, no matter how much they disagree with the conclusions. It’s very self-defeating for cryptozoologists to decry the exact people who are most willing to look seriously at their evidence. But I don’t think it is kooky or eccentric to believe in cryptids, or at least to prize them as a cherished hypothesis. After all, these are inherently plausible claims, and they are supported by a great quantity of tantalizing-sounding evidence. The quality of the evidence offered for cryptids may not stand up to serious scrutiny—I think it doesn’t—but I don’t dismiss people for finding it persuasive at first or second glance. I mean, I found it persuasive myself when I was younger. I don’t think I was any nuttier then than I am now.
Q: Likewise, what does the belief in cryptozoology reveal about contemporary attitudes about science in North America? Does this reflect larger trends relating to scientific literacy and the place of society in contemporary society?
DRP: To me, the sad aspect of cryptozoology is that they practice “sham science”: they adopt the trappings of science (fancy cameras and sound recording equipment, night-vision goggles, camera traps, sonar, other devices) without following the methods of science, especially the idea of testing and shooting down hypotheses that have failed, and getting rid of ideas when they have been decisively debunked. This indeed reflects badly on the scientific literacy of Americans, since they don’t understand that science is not about white lab coats and bubbling beakers. It is about the methods you use to investigate claims, and the willingness to admit you’re wrong and throw out bad ideas when they fail. Although Daniel may disagree, I view cryptozoology as a “gateway drug” to bad thinking. Not only do many “Bigfoot hunters” have a chip on their shoulders and resent professional scientists who don’t take them seriously, but the entire field legitimizes poor thinking skills and anti-scientific attitudes. And the surveys showing many Bigfooters also believe in UFOs and other paranormal phenomena suggest that belief in the paranormal and non-scientific is all linked together.
Q: Have you heard from any cryptozoologists or believers in some of these cryptids, who have read your book?
DRP: Not yet — but it’s only out about 3 weeks at this moment.
DL: I’ve started to see some initial feedback — positive, so far. Cryptozoology author Loren Coleman tweeted that the book is “scholarly and balanced,” and said that cryptozoologists are treated fairly. We’ll see how things go from here, but you have to remember that cryptozoology enthusiasts conceive of themselves as skeptical and pro-science. They’re partisans, but I think they’ll put their best foot forward, engage in good faith. Most people will when you give them the chance.
Q: Finally, I have to ask, do you have a favorite monster or favorite cryptid-inspired movie?
DRP: As a kid who loved dinosaurs at age 4 and never grew up, it would have to be Mokele Mbembe, the “Congo dinosaur.” Sadly, this one is the favorite of the creationists too, and the lore about it reflects the recycling of outdated notions about dinosaurs inherited from movies and the outdated early twentieth century reconstructions of dinosaurs.
DL: I’m a Victoria, British Columbia boy. For me there are no other monsters before our local Cadborosaurus. Our West Coast monster could pick his teeth with a Yeti.