Want to shed the pseudoscience label? Try harder.

When I was a kid, cryptozoology books advocated the existence of these creatures. The same dramatic stories were repeated in many books. I was swayed by the stories but eventually I got bored with them. There was something missing. Stories only get you so far. I wanted a structure, I wanted details. I really wanted a coherent argument. I did not find one at the time. Luckily, they are out there now.

Yet, the majority of popular crypto stuff harkens back to the same old, same old – stories. Last week on Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote about a new Popular Science feature that, for one, described a Yeti-seeking adventure. She remarked about it: “It’s easy to see the writer getting so caught up in the excitement of the hunt that he stopped questioning whether there was really anything to hunt for.” She highlights an article where you will find the quote “The Snowman definitely exists.” Quite the unjustified leap made in that article from decades ago. Where’s the Snowman?

Cryptomundo took major exception to Maggie’s use of the word “pseudoscience” in reference to cryptozoology.

Umm… ? Maggie was describing the Popular Science feature called “PopSci’s Brief Foray Into Pseudoscience”. She was just the messenger. PopSci was using the label. Since one Boing Boing writer often highlights pro-cryptozoology stories, this framing of the subject apparently rubbed the wrong way.

I’ve done some writing about the sciencey-ness of cryptozoology and paranormal topics. I’d like to talk a bit about the use of “pseudoscience” to describe cryptozoology.

While there are some genuine scientists interested in the subject, and some who actually do research in it, the majority of cryptozoology enthusiasts are amateurs without formal science training. They follow Cryptomundo, watch TV documentaries, read the literature, maybe even participate in research groups, etc.

I actually have scientific training, a degree in a scientific field, done lab work, field work and research. However, I would NOT feel comfortable calling myself a cryptozoologist for several reasons – I’m not a trained specialist in wildlife biology or zoology and I’m not devoting a large portion of my time studying it. I’ve enjoyed the subject since I learned to read. Maybe someday I’ll go there but not now. I want to earn the label and respect.

Years ago, I shared a local story with Loren Coleman, writer of the Cryptomundo piece mentioned above. He passed it on to an email list labeling me as “Cryptozoologist Sharon Hill”. I was appalled. But this was enlightening. I learned ANYONE can call themselves a cryptozoologist. You apparently need no special qualifications except keen interest – a low bar for entry.

One can’t get away with that in science. A “scientist” in our society is assumed, at least, to have a specialized training, a degree in a scientific field. Many hold them to an even higher standard such as currently working in the field actively doing research, producing data and publishing it. But, the education and training of a scientist is a CRITICAL piece. It requires practice to learn how to think scientifically. It takes effort to put together careful research results. And, science is a special culture that has rules. The norms of science – how you are expected to conduct your work – are strict which give science its high credibility.

The term “pseudoscience” is problematic. It describes a subject area and all the accumulated knowledge related to it. But it can also describe the process of work in that area. A subjective line can be drawn between science and pseudoscience dependent on which criteria you use (look up “demarcation problem”). Also, “pseudoscience” is clearly a pejorative – meant to set one area outside the establishment or to judge it as inferior to genuine science. No one deliberately calls themself a pseudoscientist. I think the word has its place in some cases, such as for astrology which is so absurd that it deserves all the pejoratives we can stick on it. But, I prefer another term for “scientifical” type endeavors.

I’ve researched and published on why amateur investigation groups fail to reach the high bar of science. I see these groups doing what I call “sham inquiry”. It sounds sciencey, it looks sciencey and it can fool a lot of people into thinking it’s scientific but there are clear reasons why it is not. See here for more on why cryptozoology is sham inquiry, not scientific inquiry. (Check out the entire section on “sham inquiry”.)

“Sham inquiry” is about the process and why the results they get out of that process are inferior to scientific inquiry.

The primary problem, and the point that Maggie nailed with her comment is that cryptozoologists, by and large, assume that a mystery creature is out there for them to find. They begin with a bias. They are advocates. They are not testing a hypothesis but instead seeking evidence to support their position. The answer is already in their head. (Same is true for ghost hunters and UFO investigators.) They also begin with the wrong question. Instead of “what happened?” they ask “Is it a cryptid?” They have narrowed the possible solutions immediately off the mark.

Some are worse than others, for sure. I admire many so called cryptozoologists. There are some really great insights and reporting out there. (My two favorites are Darren Naish and Karl Shuker. I enjoy reading their blogs. And of course, Monster Talk is my very favorite podcast.) I don’t admire when the basic ideals of science are ignored – good scholarship in research, quality data collection and documentation, proper publication, skepticism, and open criticism. Instead, the bulk of popular cryptozoology is a jumble of the same old poor quality evidence, a ton of hype, rampant speculation and unfounded assumptions, even conspiracy theories and, too often, paranormal explanations.

I want to make two clarifications. First, amateurs and non-scientists CAN do science. And, second, cryptozoology CAN be a science. But right now, I don’t see that occurring often. It takes a lot of effort to do this and resources that the average enthusiast does not have. Too much is missing to call cryptozoology a science at this moment in time. (I recommend Ziman’s book Real Science for reference.)

It doesn’t have to be that way. I want the quality to improve and for the field to resolve itself into a rational examination of people’s sightings and reports of strange incidents. You can’t get there by following the same paths as those past cryptozoologists. I’m talking about the proper examination of claims, thorough investigation, a good cryptozoology news and information site without hype, rational literature, and well-thought out responses to criticism. Excellent research is already out there such as that by Dan Loxton, Ben Radford, Blake Smith, Joe Nickell and David Daegling. I find the critical, detailed, careful, objective evaluation of these curious crypto questions WAY more satisfying than those hyped up adventure stories or breaking new claims of evidence (that end up fizzling out).

My wish is that it gets better. I think it’s already well on the way. Much good stuff has come out in the past few years and more is to come! I’m excited for these new voices to raise the discussion to a higher quality level and examine the field from a more enlightened perspective.

10 thoughts on “Want to shed the pseudoscience label? Try harder.

  1. Been awhile since I’ve commented, but your essay and commentary on the cryptid world is reasonable and measured in tone, IMO. Given that, I am not surprised that Coleman is miffed at you.

  2. Actually, I am not miffed at Ms. Hill. We have never met, so she little realizes that I have an enormous sense of humor, which apparently spilled over in calling her a “cryptozoologist.” Also, I am so mild-mannered that those who know me would laugh at anyone saying I have “temper tantrums.” All of these characterizes of my behavior, of course, have nothing to do with my deep intellectual appreciation of her point of view.

    After all, both Joe Nickell and Ben Radford tell me that I may be one of the most skeptically-minded cryptozoologists they know.

    Your link to this commentary has been posted on the posting “Boing Boing Drops ‘Pseudoscience’ Bomb On Cryptozoology,” over at Cryptomundo, as it was extremely on-topic.

    All my best.

  3. Thanks for posting the link, Loren. I would ask that if I post some well though out criticism in the Cryptomundo comments again that you would also allow those. My comments have frequently been blocked and, as such, I and several others who experienced the same, have stopped reading the site. Lively discussion would be a draw to the site and I would hope you would encourage it.

    For some background on the “temper tantrum” comment, you can view a past post from me where Loren took exception to something I said. https://idoubtit.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/decade-cryptozoology

    Readers can judge for themselves.

  4. As an investigative scholar of the unknown and unexplained, a blogger for FATE magazine and photographer, I grew weary of reading exaggerated headlines like “Amazing Nebraska Cryptid Photo” and zipping over to Cryptomundo http://www.cryptomundo.com/cryptozoo-news/nebcryptpix to find “blobsquatch” results.

    Looking at the Mt. Hood cam photographs http://www.cryptomundo.com/cryptozoo-news/mthoodpix I wondered why “if trail cameras are capturing incredibly clear, sharp still images and video of wildlife, why haven’t they caught any cryptids?”

    I understand photography and its capabilities.

    I also understand journalistic photography.

    So I blogged “Does this questionable documentary “evidence” have the slightest value in serious investigation and research? This is no more scientific than looking for animals in fluffy clouds passing overhead. Or faces in the geological features of Mars. Is this cryptozoology? Enough is enough.”

    Loren’s answer speaks volumes.

    Loren and I are still friends, I think…

  5. Thanks for the plug, by the way. By an interesting coincidence we’ll be posting a pertinent interview with return guest Dr. Brian Regal on his new book which is a kind of meta-study of the history of the search for Sasquatch. It’s quite an interesting read and covers many of these points you bring up and gives them historical context.

    And a quick shout-out to Loren! We really do want you to do a MonsterTalk interview. I hope someday we can get that scheduled.


  6. I would just ask, when you use words like “miffed” and “temper tantrums” to describe my responses, which were given point by point to your “swag” insults to my museum’s contents without you ever visiting it, wasn’t that the kind of ad hominem usage that Skeptics clearly denote as not useful?

    Comments to Cryptomundo are screened and approved (and not just by me, please note) for on-topic, non-ad hominem replies.

  7. But Bob, my point is that we all use words like “amazing,” as I point out you have, to bring attention to items, and then clearly skeptically pay attention to them.

    Part of the crypto-efforts at Cryptomundo are to present photographic evidence to the readers, as it is being passed around virtually or in the media, and then support critical thinking and commenting so that the answers (“a dog,” “a bear,” “a closeup of a moose,” “a cow”) can be mutually achieved by the readership. It is an exercise in education, and you, I thought, understood that.

    Anyone that is a longterm reader of Cryptomundo knows that most of what we investigate turns out to be misidentifications, and I have never retreated from the reality of that in cryptozoology.

    Yes, we are still friends.

  8. Well, my two-cents to the Cryptomundo-webkeepers. I want a site that gives breaking news but that treats questionable blobsquatches as such. I’ve had similar reactions to Bob Goerman’s. That’s all I have to say about that…

    But, I would also think it would be AWESOME for Loren to be on MonsterTalk since it is the most credible crypto podcast.

    Finally, the response after mine on the cryptomundo site from commentator “DWA” is something that seems to fit the category of “ad hominem replies”. Yet, it was allowed. I will not dignify it with a response.

  9. Actually, I noticed that you edited my reply, Mr. Coleman, adding a link to a skeptic.com site that makes it’s clear I am a skeptic. This may be a minor thing but I find it reprehensible that you would alter my comments in such a way without my permission.

    I no longer trust Cryptomundo even with my own comments. I’m fairly certain I will NOT be participating in any comments on your site until it assumes a more ethical code of conduct.

    See an archive of the site here http://www.webcitation.org/5yxUGuhIp (before the link gets removed, as has been done in the past.)

  10. There’s a perfectly good set of terms that can be applied to endeavors that haven’t reached the level of an established science, as yet: “protoscience,” and “parascience.”

    These can be defined in various ways, but the common note is “You ain’t convinced me, Jack”–however said without contempt or fear of Looming Darkness. (Another issue.)

    It is simply very hard to bootstrap to the level of Science, by which I mean the whole institutional apparatus that sustains–and enforces!–the kind of good behavior that Dr.(?) Hill points to (and still is sometimes breached). May I tentatively suggest someone’s doctoral thesis: would a study of, say, Aldrovandi’s work on serpents and dragons conclude that, allowing for the era and state of knowledge, he was doing Science, or protoscience, or pseudo science?
    How could he have been motivated to do any better, in a situation that, for example, did not discipline Topsell for plagirizing Aldrovandi’s work?

    There is more mutatis mutandis in this generally, re contemporary “pseudosciences,” than one might think.

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