Saturday, May 30, 2009

Defending cryptozoology

This skeptical page, like so many others, dismisses cryptozoology by lumping it with the claims for ghosts, UFOs, and other "pseudosciences." That's not valid, folks. My comment on the page follows:

The lumping of cryptozoology with other "pseudosciences" is incorrect for a very simple reason: cryptozoology, unlike the study of ghosts, UFOs, etc., deals in testable hypotheses. For example, either there is a large unknown animal in Loch Ness, or there is not. The means to test the hypothesis may not be available (e.g., a definitive sweep using the most modern naval sonar gear and hydrophones may be something no one can afford) but the hypothesis is, nonetheless, logically testable and thus scientific.
There is no arguing with the statement that many people involved in cryptozoological research, mainly amateur enthusiasts, are too quick to conclude an unknown animal is real based on inadequate data. The implication in your article that searching for unknown animals is fruitless, however, is absurd.
New mammal species alone described in scientific literature in the last 15 years number 408, including cetaceans, deer, van Roosmalen's tapir and dwarf manatee, and other creatures of substantial size. This doesn't mean there is a huge ape stalking the Northwest forests, and indeed (in my opinion, at any rate) ecological and other factors indicate it is unlikely that one will be discovered. Yet this does not invalidate cryptozoology as a field of inquiry any more than disproven claims of cold fusion invalidate nuclear physics.
It's proper to demand that, to be accepted, creatures propounded by cryptozoologists must meet the universal scientific standard of a type specimen. In many cases, though, species which have been thus established did not fall into the lap of science. They were found when researchers (both academically qualified and amateur) followed the kind of evidence cryptozoologists collect - historical accounts, footprints, local stories, etc. - until a type specimen was obtained.
You can argue convincingly that many overly enthusiastic cryptozoologists overreach the data in their claims for particular species. You cannot, however, argue that the search for unknown animals - a search being validated by the description or collection of new type specimens every single day - is scientifically void.

Matt Bille
Author, Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology (Hancock House, 2006)

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