Thursday, January 07, 2016

ICM Conference, final day

Day 3
January 6
Today included two presentations followed by a tour of Marineland and the approximate area where the 1896 “giant octopus”  beached.  I wasn’t able to make the afternoon activities, but the morning had plenty to offer. 

First off was an important bit of business. Loren Coleman announced the kickoff of the International Cryptozoology Society, with an online peer-reviewed journal and regular conferences.  I asked him to describe how the ICS would be different from existing organizations – what new value would it bring? He answered that, while the ICS mission statement is still being written, its intent was to carry on the work of the International Society for Cryptozoology, which tried hard to put scientific principles to work in cryptozoology.  The will be headed by Dr. LeBlond as the first President, while an advisory panel including several PhD’s is being set up but is not yet announced (Coleman added that the scientific world won’t listen to you unless you have several PhD’s around, and he has a point.) Loren and the ICM Deputy Director, Jeff Meuse, will do the day-to-day work of running the ICS. The first conference is planned for Portland, Maine, site of the new/expanded museum, in 2017. 

Loren described the ICS as being strictly scientific and said that “true believers and debunkers” were not welcome. I understand what he’s aiming for, but this statement is fraught with problems that will have to be worked out.  Does “true believers” count all the people who think sasquatch is an apparition or assign it psychic abilities? (There’s no way to avoid framing questions in terms of sasquatch, despite the large number of potential cryptids all over the world: Bigfoot is the predominant topic in most of cryptozoology these days, and the one that attracts significant money from the TV world.) Even more difficult, what qualifies as a “debunker”?   I assume it encompasses people who think the whole field is a pseudoscience, but those people usually make some points worth considering if cryptozoology is to shed the “crazy” label.  Does it include people who think the field has some value but are heavily critical of its methods and findings? How does one differentiate between reasonable and unreasonable "debunking?"
If it were me trying to define these terms, I’d let all but the most closed-minded "debunkers"in (assuming they’d want to join) but make it clear on the other end of the spectrum that there will be no publications or leading roles for anyone who thinks the solutions are to be found in the paranormal. As a Christian, I believe by definition that the material universe is not all that exists, but cryptozoology is trying to establish itself as a science and needs to leave all matters outside the material to the parapsychologists.  I think Loren is sincere in his desire to create a reputable organization, and I'll provide my input in as a member and see what Loren and LeBlond and other leaders work out as guidelines.

OK, presentations:
Jerome Hamlin, one of the world’s leading coelacanth experts and founder of the site, reported on his adventures in search of new populations. He began by chronicling the known history, returning to this topic later to describe the numerous failed attempts to make some kind of tank that would keep the deep-dwelling fish alive after a catch.  While the lungfishes and not the coelacanths are the fish in our direct line of ancestry, the coelacanth remains a much sought after scientific prize. Particularly sought are juvenile examples: Hamlin mentioned only one he knew of, and ichthyologists don’t know where the fish grow up.
The original discovery off East London, South Africa, has been followed by new populations as far north as Kenya and Tanzania and as far east as Indonesia.  Following an email alleging the fish was known in the Solomon Islands, Hamlin made four trips to islands in the Solomons, other nearby chains, and Papua New Guinea to the south and west.  One aspect of this with lessons for all of cryptozoology is how carefully he tried to avoid cuing people to tell him what they thought he wanted to hear. He classed the responses he got into three groups:
   1.       Trying to please him
   2.       Truthful but inaccurate
   3.       Both accurate and true.
The results were less than he’d hoped for. One some islands, no one had ever seen a similar fish: one islander got his hopes up but brought him specimens of a kind of jack, although the fit wasn’t very close. The stories Hamlin heard of caught coelacanths seemed straightforward, but didn’t lead to any new populations. Fishermen who had seen one, or heard of one, all emphasized this was a very rare fish, and no one had caught one in the last couple of years: many catches were distant memories.  If truthful, these men were probably referring to stray individuals, as no one knew of a good place to catch them regularly. One man did tell him the fish was blue in life but turned brown in death, a fact Hamlin had avoided mentioning, so he was encouraged to think there were at least occasional catches. After his expeditions, a Japanese team did discover a new population off Biak, an island just north of Papua.
 I asked whether his visits to fishing villages and surveys of fish markets had led to any new species of fish, but he said no: the fish being brought in and/or sold looked pretty run of the mill.

Lyle Blackburn made the day’s Bigfoot presentation. Lyle, a Texan, has spent many months in neighboring Arkansas researching the Fouke monster, famous due to the 1972 film The Legend of Boggy Creek (most of the events in the original film were reported as true, although the funny scene of a guy minding his business on the toilet and having a giant furry hand reach in through the window was invented.) Lyle emphasized the area was still almost as undeveloped as it had been in 1972, and that sighting records stretched from 1908 to 2015.  
I pointed out that a common critique of cryptozoologists (hammered at repeatedly in the influential book Abominable Science) is that they already have their solution in mind and consciously or unconsciously cue witnesses to tell them things that fit the preconceived narrative.  I asked how he tried to avoid this. Lyle’s response was that he went after the story thinking of himself as an investigative journalist who wants to solve the mystery, saying “I’m not out to prove Bigfoot,” although he certainly believes the creature exists. He lets the witnesses tell their story without interrupting before he starts questioning. He always asks whether the subject could have been a person in costume (and is usually told the witness thinks not.)

Closing thoughts
First and foremost, the Conference was valuable: I learned a lot. I didn’t change my mind on any major cryptid, but as I said yesterday, I have a much better understanding of the people who endorse those North American primates and other creatures and why they endorse them.  I will join the new ICS and wish it the best of luck. 
The Conference could have added someone from the Florida wildlife departments to talk about local creatures and activities of interest, such as the Florida panther, the known and suspected colonies of escaped monkeys (and reportedly apes), and the persistent reports that other out of place mammals, like the jaguarondi, may have become established. This should be standard practice wherever future conferences are held: take advantage of the local wildlife and the expertise available to discuss it, such as getting someone from Maine in to talk about what they think happened to the state's panthers and why they think recent reports are erroneous.   While I know Loren tried to get quite a few people who could not make it, the meeting also could have used a speaker or two more skeptical of the major cryptids.   
I would have like an anthropologist to review the ideas about possible ancestors and routes of travel for sasquatch ancestors’ arrival in North America, a topic none of the sasquatch-related speakers addressed. This was the conference’s most significant omission, scientifically. I should have pressed more on it, but the presenters were talking about what they think IS, rather than how it came to be.   

Overall, though, I’d like to say again that this meeting was valuable, and that people who think cryptozoology is a complete waste of time should come to the next one and listen and discuss and debate: we’d all be better off for that. From my experience with this crowd, such a person would generate a lot of discussion but wouldn't have to fear being ostracized or dunked in a river: certainly I didn't get anything but polite argument when I expressed concerns about the science.  I was impressed by the depth and breadth of knowledge on display, even if I disagree about some of the conclusions.  I had a great time.  See ya’ll in Portland, I hope!

1 comment:

Laurence Clark Crossen said...

Check out this recent video at
Mystery Animal Caught on Camera

It is being seriously considered by law enforcement to be a film of an albino puma, as it leaps over a six foot stream.