Saturday, August 10, 2013

Book Review: Abominable Science!

Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids

Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero
Columbia, 2013

Loxton and Prothero have written a very good book, which I reviewed on Amazon as a 4.5 star effort (I'll explain why I had to downgrade it just a bit) that goes on the "must reading" list for anyone interested in cryptozoology. I've been following this field for decades now without seeing anything that fills this niche - that of the scientific, skeptical (in the good sense of the word) consideration of the entire field and its most spectacular maybe-creatures.
Prothero, a geologist and paleontologist, and Loxton, a skeptical science writer (and a superb illustrator, as the reader of this book will discover), start with the question of whether cryptozoology is a science or pseudoscience. They come down mainly on the latter side, arguing that cryptozoology as often practiced includes some of the sketchiest "science" being written today. They do nod to the recent discoveries in the animal world as evidence of what real field zoologists are accomplishing. (I do wish to note that "the beaked whale" (they mean the pygmy beaked whale, Mesoplodon peruvianus) is only one of several cetaceans described in the last two decades.) The existence of a reported creature is a perfectly valid subject for science, but, in the instant-analysis age of the Internet, the science is often poorly done at best. The authors also point out there's a tendency in much cryptozoological writing to place too heavy a reliance on the details reported by eyewitnesses.
I argue, as I always have, that cryptozoology is a science because it deals in falsifiable hypotheses, but it's hard to argue against the claims of sloppiness in the execution of it.
Then it's on to the creatures, a chapter each for Bigfoot, the yeti, Nessie, the sea serpent, and mokele-mbembe. I accept the point, reinforced in the authors' much-appreciated response to a couple of queries from me, that a single book can only cover the most pivotal cases and must leave out many details even then. However, while I agree with the thrust of the argument in all cases save perhaps the sea serpent, there are some nits to pick amid the generally excellent text.
The authors ask good questions about sasquatch, including why wildlife biologists never come across it and why one of the foundational reports, William Roe's seemingly sincere declaration, was never actually investigated. They agree with Greg Long's debunking of the Patterson film, although they should have mentioned that Long's book presents two contradictory accounts of the suit (a modified theatrical costume vs. a heavy horsehide suit)without reconciling them. They class the most famous sasquatch prints, the Bossburg "Cripplefoot" tracks, as a hoax by the notorious Ivan Marx, while acknowledging forthrightly that eminent primatologist John Napier had a different opinion. They argue that it's not true we don't find bones of other animals, like bears (even some sasquatch hunters have found dead bears) and that saying Bigfoot buries its dead is special pleading unsupported by even the slightest evidence.
The authors dismiss the yeti, pointing out correctly that it's very hard to find good evidence for an unknown animal in the jumble of differing reports and folktales. They suggest the Shipton footprints were a hoax, although there's only the most indirect hint of this. They deserve kudos for not suggesting the clear print shot in closeup was a product of melting/refreezing: skeptics like Joe Nickell who argue this have apparently never experimented. (I have, and it doesn't wash: as Loxton and Prothero point out, though, this IS the explanation for some "yeti" trackways.) I have another nitpick here: one shouldn't cite climber Reinhold Messner's belief that the yeti is a brown bear and not mention he thought it was a bizarre bipedal whistling species, not an ordinary Ursus arctos.
The Nessie chapter won't surprise anyone who's read prior skeptical analyses of this much-discussed subject. Suffice to say the authors consider it a mixture of hoaxes, claims made for tourists' benefit, and misidentifications. They are certain all the photographic evidence, including the Dinsdale film and the Rines photographs, can be safely dismissed.
On to the sea serpent, the authors correctly report the saga began as a compendium of now-known creatures and heroic myths. Whether there's a core of unexplained fact in the hundreds of recorded sightings is the question, and the authors argue strongly that, if you can technically never disprove the sea serpent, you can still safely dismiss it. Two of the omissions here, though, are startling: the New England serpent of 1817 and the Nicoll/Meade-Waldo sighting of 1905, which are foundational episodes in any argument for the sea serpent. While they analyze and reject two other "touchstone" cases, the Daedalus sighting and the Cadborosuarus events, they ignore the other two. Loxton explained they meant to include the New England case but it just got lost in the crunch of writing a book that was 200 pages over the specified length and two years behind the original deadline: I can sympathize, but the New Englander still needed more than a passing mention. On Meade-Waldo, Loxton (who wrote this chapter) advised me that they left it out because it didn't fit in with the main sea serpent story: in other words, it was an outlier in which the animal as described was something other than the classic sea serpent. I can kind of see the logic, but I strongly disagree with it.
On to the African dinosaur, mokele-mbembe. The authors pretty much shred the case for this animal, and I agree on every count: the images could be anything, the contamination of local witnesses is long since a forgone conclusion, and the ecology and paleontology don't work. Loxton and Prothero win this round pretty convincingly.
The authors conclude with their somewhat differing views on whether cryptozoology is a harmless diversion or contributes to the problem they see in general rejection of science and the willingness to believe the unscientific, even the irrational. While treading cautiously on religion (although the previous chapter discussed the creationist motive behind some mokele-mbembe activities), they make a strong case that, in areas which we can all agree should be about science, there is in fact a lot of bad science and a lot of irrationality.
There are 56 pages of endnotes and citations tacked onto this book: the authors clearly gave it their all. If I've pointed out some flaws, I want to come back around to the main point of how good and how important this book is. Even cryptozoologists who think the authors are flat-out wrong on one or more major animals need to read this skeptical but not closed-minded work. It's a superb contribution.

UPDATE: Veteran Bigfoot hunter Danny Perez has found that William Roe, while there is no audio or film recording of him, did talk to the newspaper and to his family members about his event, and Perez found a photo of him.  This evidence by itself doesn't prove Roe was truthful or correct, but it does ground the story in some reality.

10 comments:

Laurence Clark Crossen said...

Abominable skepticism!

-there is the tendency of poor skeptics to look for examples of
fallacies in amateur speculative science instead of examples of
excellence.

-one example of excellence would be the search by one man for the
unicorn in Africa resulting in finding the okapi.

-another example of excellence would be the demonstration that
the kraken exists when the giant squid was discovered. Tentacles
had long washed up on Scandinavian shores.

- the demand that extraordinary claims require extraordinary
proof is blatantly subjective and biased. If this requirement
were objectively defined it might be phrased: more fundamental
claims require more fundamental proofs.

-cryptozoology is not so much "built on openness to first-person
testimony" as on respect for native testimony.

-When alternative claims are made one should not focus on the
worst instances such as the Georgia Bigfoot. As Ian Wilson
insisted in his excellent criticism of reincarnation claims*, one should focus on the very best cases.
*Mind Out of Time*

-science should not be any more skeptical of new ideas than old
ones.

-Messner's account must be clearly recognized as a tall tale.

-people equally have a need to disbelieve. The rational
scientific perspective is agnosticism, not the atheist negative belief system.

-Abominable skeptics (unlike law enforcement officers who know
better) love to accept false confessions like Ray Wallace.
Wallace was a transparent and facile joker who is unlikely to
ever have fooled anyone for a moment.

-Romantic zoology or cryptozoology is not anti-scientific. It is
part of the best scientific tradition of open minded exploration.

-Falsification is a lame approach to science. Science is equally
involved in the positive attempt to demonstrate.

-Most cryptozoologists have no belief system dictating their
views, do not presume the creatures exist, and are not
creationists.

Matt Bille said...

Clark, points well argued, although I have my own view on "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." What is being asked of cryptozoologists is precisely what is asked of all species describers: a type specimen. It's not extraordinary or unfair.

Laurence Clark Crossen said...

Why would you think I would deny the need for a specimen to demonstrate its existence? You are correct,a specimen would not be extraordinary proof. Then why do they demand "extraordinary proof?" They should not!

Laurence Clark Crossen said...

When the olinguito was under the noses of many experts at a number of museums without being recognized as a new species, it would not be at all surprising if a sauropod lives in the difficult to access swamps of Africa. And no, I am not a creationist. I am an agnostic.
-http://www.nbcnews.com/id/8004316/ns/video/#52763941

Matt Bille said...

Well, their phrasing is odd. The authors cite the "extraordinary proof" line but then say that extraordinary proof in the case of bigfoot would be a corpse. That is a misstatement on their part: this would only be ordinary proof. So I think you caught the authors in a goof.

Laurence Clark Crossen said...

You are missing the point. The error is not in a particular but in the principle.

Laurence Clark Crossen said...

That this is really what happened is shown in Chris Lavers book, The Natural History of Unicorns (page 174). Harry Hamilton Johnston thought the unicorn may be in Africa and his discovery (for Westerners) now bears his name, Okapia johnstoni.

Laurence Clark Crossen said...

It is unfair to demand "extraordinary proof" when only ordinary proof is necessary. Please do not twist the matter around. It is standard practice, ever since Sagan, to demand "extraordinary proof" from anyone contesting accepted, entrenched views. This is a method of prohibiting alternative views and is deplorable. It is not right for you to apologize for it.

Laurence Clark Crossen said...

Abominable skepticism! Updated!

-there is the tendency of poor skeptics to look for examples of
fallacies in amateur speculative science instead of examples of
excellence.

-one example of excellence would be the search by one man for the
unicorn in Africa resulting in finding the okapi. That this is
really what happened is shown in Chris Lavers book, The Natural
History of Unicorns (page 174). Harry Hamilton Johnston thought
the unicorn may be in Africa and his discovery (for Westerners)
now bears his name, Okapia johnstoni.

-another example of excellence would be the demonstration that
the kraken exists when the giant squid was discovered. Tentacles
had long washed up on Scandinavian shores. In 1674 a 19 foot
long giant squid washed ashore in Ireland according to Abominable
Science page 212.

- the demand that extraordinary claims require extraordinary
proof is blatantly subjective and biased. If this requirement
were objectively defined it might be phrased: more fundamental
claims require more fundamental proofs.

-cryptozoology is not so much "built on openness to first-person
testimony" as on respect for native testimony.

-When alternative claims are made one should not focus on the
worst instances such as the Georgia Bigfoot. As Ian Wilson
insisted in his excellent criticism of reincarnation claims*,
one should focus on the very best cases.
*Mind Out of Time*

-science should not be any more skeptical of new ideas than old
ones.

-If cryptozoologists are presumed to be true believers, assuming
the creatures exist, then these skeptics are true disbelievers.
People equally have a need to disbelieve. The rational
scientific perspective is agnosticism, not the atheist negative
belief system.

-Abominable skeptics (unlike law enforcement officers who know
better) love to accept false confessions like Ray Wallace.
Wallace was a transparent and facile joker who is unlikely to
ever have fooled anyone for a moment.

-A great book if you want to be lectured to about the ABC's of science.

-Loxton and Prothero miss the gorilla in the room because they are
so focused on the worst examples!

-Romantic zoology or cryptozoology is not anti-scientific. It is
part of the best scientific tradition of open minded exploration.

-Falsification is a lame approach to science. Science is equally
involved in the positive attempt to demonstrate.

-Contrary to Loxton, most cryptids are not new. Creatures similar
to the Loch Ness "monster" were reported in lakes throughout Scotland
long before the 1933 newspaper reports. Bigfoot-like creatures have
been reported worldwide since ancient reports of satyrs. Perhaps
Loxton was trying to say that each generation gets the cryptids
they deserve, as when Jacquetta Hawkes said, "every generation gets
the Stonehenge it deserves." Bigfoot are not "routinely reported" to
be 12 or more feet tall. They are usually reported to be 8-10 feet tall.

-Most cryptozoologists have no belief system dictating their
views, do not presume the creatures exist, and are not
creationists.

-Cryptozoology's foundation is not the paranormal, except to those
who conveniently define it that way, so as to premise what they wish
to conclude. Many apparently fantastical creatures have been shown
to have originated from real creatures, such as the unicorn from the
rhinoceros. Louis Nicolas' hippocamp beside a beaver in Canada
probably owed more to reports of walrus that lived there then, than
from a mythical hippocamp.

-Loxton stonewall's the possibility of a real sea serpent by first
presuming that ancient depictions are artistic creations without any
basis in observation.

-In 1833 the scientist Benjamin Silliman attests that the sea serpent
was already conceived of as long necked.

albert candy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.