On the 12th July 2011, the ZSL (= Zoological Society of London) hosted the meeting ‘Cryptozoology: science or pseudoscience?’. The talks were by myself, Charles Paxton and Michael Woodley, and it went very well.

Given that we all emphasised a sceptical, evidence-led approach to the subject of mystery animal research, and were critical of cryptozoological hypotheses and proposals, it might not be appropriate to conclude that cryptozoology (whatever it is) has been ushered in with open arms* to the hallowed halls of formal zoology. Nevertheless, we definitely did our bit in helping promote the idea that you can ‘do science’ with cryptozoological data, and I hope that we also succeeded in showing that at least some people interested in mystery animal reports are trying to look critically and objectively at the data. What about the meeting’s title: did we resolve the whole ‘science or pseudoscience’ thing? Well… that’s complicated.

* Or “ushered in again”, since (as discussed below) you might argue that cryptozoology already had a stint of being academically respectable.

The turnout was pretty spectacular – the audience was so big that we had to remove the wall at the back of the lecture theatre and provide seating in an adjoining room. A great many notable persons graced us with their presence. I don’t want to do too much name-dropping, but I will say that I was especially honoured and surprised to learn that Adrian Shine was attending [see photo below]. It was also great to meet Lena and Paul Bottriell (best known for their work on the recognition of the King cheetah) and Carole Jahme (author of the excellent Beauty and the Beasts: Woman, Ape and Evolution).

The meeting was chaired by Henry Gee. Henry explained how the discovery of Homo floresiensis led him to take seriously the idea that “perhaps stories of other human-like creatures might be founded on grains of truth” (Gee 2004), and it was for this fairly crypto-friendly attitude that we initially approached him as chair.

Woodley, Paxton, Naish

Turning now to the speakers, Michael gave us a pretty good scare by turning up at, pretty much literally, the very last minute before the meeting was due to begin. Anyway, focusing initially on the predictive power of cryptozoology as a ‘targeted research methodology’, he showed how species discovery curves for large marine animals generally seem to match the numbers of undiscovered species purported to exist on the basis of circumstantial accounts. Species curves for pinnipeds, for example, indicate that a very low number of species might await discovery, and indeed only three ‘crypto-pinnipeds’ have been proposed to exist in the cryptozoological literature (Woodley et al. 2008). In discussing several key ‘Cadborosaurus’ and long-necked seal accounts, Michael also explained how – since most cryptozoological claims are published in the ‘grey literature’ – they escape evaluation, even when this is deserved or even required.

In the following talk, Charles Paxton began by drawing attention to the fact that studying monster accounts really is no bad thing for science. It’s good because monsters (whatever they might represent) inspire a sense of wonder, and Charles explained how his own nascent, childhood interest in science was nurtured by books that did likewise (he specifically mentioned the How and Why Wonder series of books, including the truly terrible dinosaur one). Alleged sightings of monsters are also interesting because they raise the issue of how science deals with anomalous data. Such things as rogue waves, sprites and St Elmo’s fire all show that science is ‘happy’ to accept the validity of low-frequency anomalies once the data are good enough.

While Charles stated that big marine animal species damn near certainly do await discovery, he suggests that the sea monsters reported by eyewitnesses are unlikely to really represent sightings of these species. What can we learn from the big body of ‘sea monster’ accounts that we have? Surprisingly, sea monster sightings occur at closer range than expected by chance (Paxton 2009), perhaps indicating that there’s some sort of bias in what gets reported. All too few possibilities have been considered when cryptozoologists have tried to identify the creatures that might be at the bottom of sea monster accounts (Paxton et al. 2004, Paxton & Holland 2005), and experiments involving model water monsters and observations of real animals show that people consistency make mistakes involving distances and the sizes of the objects concerned.

Finally, my own talk – ‘Sea monsters and the prehistoric survivor paradigm’ – covered the sort of stuff I’ve been saying in cryptozoology articles (Naish 2000, 2001, 2010) and at meetings for a while: that some sea monster accounts may well describe encounters with real animals, that we don’t know enough to say what those real animals might really be, and that the ‘prehistoric survivor paradigm’ (the hypothesis proposing that sea monsters are not only real, but that they represent the descendants of fossil groups like plesiosaurs, mosasaurs and basilosaurid whales) is a poor explanation of the data and can be rejected. The talk was more concerned with the copious and elaborate speculation that has built up around sea monster eyewitness reports than the eyewitness reports themselves: the region where merhorses, post-Cretaceous furry plesiosaurs, armour-plated basilosaurids, cadborosaurs, super-sized turtles, and long-necked giant seals lurk.

A discussion/Q&A session followed the talks. Topics covered included the Ishtar Gate ‘dragon’, Darwin’s predicted hawk moth, witness reliability, and how ‘literal’ we should be in interpreting eyewitness accounts of mystery animals. The fact that the meeting was entirely focused on mystery marine animals was not really intentional – it just happens that all three speakers have special interests in the marine side of things.

Talking about cryptozoology is fun (and the meeting really was very enjoyable), but I find it somewhat frustrating that many people seem to find it utterly inconceivable that one can be interested in cryptozoology (perhaps even interested enough to publish on the subject) yet still be strongly sceptical of eyewitness testimony in general, of the existence of alleged cryptids, and of the claims made in the cryptozoological literature. My take on the study of mystery animals is that eyewitness reports are interesting and worthy of study no matter what they represent: that they can tell you as much about witness fallibility and bias as the possible existence of as-yet-undiscovered species, if not more. So, I was careful to state specifically in my talk that “[A]n interest in cryptozoology does not necessitate or demonstrate a ‘belief’ in the existence of the respective mystery animals”. But this approach doesn't mean that I necessarily reject out of hand the possibility that at least some of the ‘targets’ of cryptozoology might actually exist.

I’ve been saying this same thing for years, but still it seems that most people just don’t get it. Those people especially interested in or passionate about cryptozoology assume that the sceptical approach denotes the arch-cynical attitude of the aggressive debunker. Those who pride themselves on their scepticism and level-headedness think that an interest in cryptozoology indicates fluffy-headedness, naivety, and proof that the person concerned believes not only in the literal existence of cryptids but also astral projection, ghosts, Atlantis and zeta reticulans.

The whole ‘science or pseudoscience’ thing

If cryptozoology is imagined as the investigation of ‘target’ animals whose existence is supported by circumstantial and/or anecdotal evidence (eyewitness accounts forming the bulk of such evidence), then one might argue (as I have) that cryptozoology is practised far and wide by ‘ordinary’, technically qualified biologists. A list of species have been discovered following the investigation of either local tales and legends, or fleeting observations of what were (at the time) mystery animals. One of the great classic examples is the Okapi. Referred to as the Atti and thought to be a donkey-like equid, it had been mentioned in passing by Henry Stanley in 1888. It was on the basis of this anecdotal information that Harry Johnston went in successful pursuit of it. Just two recent examples of this sort of thing include the Kipunji Rungwecebus kipunji (discovered in 2006 following observations of a mystery monkey) and the Burmese snub-nosed monkey Rhinopithecus strykeri (discovered in 2010 following investigation of local reports about a “monkey with an upturned nose”).

However, it remains true that the term cryptozoology is mostly associated with a contingent of passionate researchers and enthusiasts who tend to assume that mystery animal reports denote the literal existence of the respective mystery animals, tend to accept sensational claims that really should be viewed more critically, and tend to be more interested in popular writing and popular culture than in performing, consulting or publishing technical research. I’m not interested in dissing these people – many of them have good intentions and many are my friends – but the strong association of the term cryptozoology with an area where little or (arguably) no science occurs makes it a real uphill struggle to claim that ‘scientific cryptozoology’ can, might, or does exist.

One idea is that the strong negative stigma attached to cryptozoology is a recent phenomenon, that the field has fallen into disrepute since the collapse of the International Society of Cryptozoology during the 1990s, and that it needs rescue and invigoration. Another is that what we term cryptozoology is now so much the haunt of cranks and true believers that it should be abandoned, and that the research that truly involves the investigation of valid, undiscovered animals is just normal ornithology, herpetology, mammalogy or whatever; the research involving the creatures of myth and legend, and the abilities and failings of eyewitnesses, is not cryptozoology at all, but mythology, sociology, or psychology.

If you followed the lengthy debate held recently in the comments section at Tet Zoo ver 2, you’ll know that we’re kind of at an impasse and that this issue isn’t going to be resolved tidily any time soon. For now I’ll say that the theme of all three of the ZSL talks – and, indeed, of the work that all three speakers have published on mystery animal reports – was and is that hypothesis formulation, hypothesis testing, parsimony and evidence-led approaches can all be applied to mystery animal accounts. In other words, you can clearly ‘do science’ on mystery animal reports. I recognise that this is not the same as saying that cryptozoology itself is a science, but I can’t see that cryptozoology is a pseudoscience since even self-proclaimed, specialised cryptozoologists sometimes practise hypothesis testing, parsimony, self-correction and so on. For now, I’ll leave the issue there.

Anyway, the meeting was a success and I hope that everyone who attended enjoyed it as much as I did. There is more to come.

Several other people have written up their thoughts on the meeting elsewhere online. Carole Jahme’s thoughts are here at guardian.co.uk, and Henry Gee’s can be seen here on his blog.

For previous Tet Zoo musings on sea monsters and cryptozoology, see...

Refs - -

Gee, H. 2004. Flores, God, and cryptozoology. Nature doi:10.1038/news041025-2.

Naish, D. 2000. Where be monsters? Fortean Times 132, 40-44.

- . 2001. Sea serpents, seals and coelacanths: an attempt at a holistic approach to the identity of large aquatic cryptids. Fortean Studies 7, 75-94.

- . 2010. Monsters of the deep! Fortean Times 262, 36-37.

Paxton, C. G. M. & Holland, R. 2005. Was Steenstrup right? A new interpretation of the 16th century sea monk of the Øresund. Steenstrupia 28, 39-47.

- ., Knatterud, E. & Hedley, S. L. 2004. Cetaceans, sex and sea serpents: an analysis of the Egede accounts of a “most dreadful monster” seen off the coast of Greenland in 1734. Archives of Natural History 32, 1-9.

- . 2009. The plural of “anecdote” can be “data”: statistical analysis of viewing distances in reports of unidentified giant marine animals 1758-2000. Journal of Zoology 279, 381-387.

Woodley, M. A., Naish, D. & Shanahan, H. P. 2009. How many extant pinniped species remain to be described? Historical Biology 20, 225-235.