The coelacanth as a red herring

This post is updated from its original publication in 2009.– SH

In researching three areas of what I concluded were mostly “scientifical” fields of inquiry for my book – cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and creationism – I was amused to find one example used to the same end for all three – the discovery of the coelacanth in 1938. Its frequent use, however, as a symbol of hidden nature and incomplete science, is not what scientifical claimants portray it to be.

In an attempt to showcase how orthodox science is “wrong” or “blind”, proponents of ghosts, creationism, and cryptozoology all cited the finding of the rare, bottom-feeding coelacanth fish as a scientific shocker.

Coelacanth in the wild

Paranormal investigators cite the coelacanth

Ghost hunters say the coelacanth represents unexpected findings still left in nature.

Joshua Warren, in How to Hunt Ghosts (2003), highlights that the discovery was unexpected and the fish’s existence unknown to scientists. Therefore, he surmises, there may be many more unexpected findings left in nature to come to light. Perhaps, paranormalists suggest, we are just around the corner from scientifically proving ghosts exists. That’s quite a stretch – to compare a cave-loving, rare marine fish with spirits of the dead (or whatever ghosts might actually be). It’s hardly a reasonable comparison.

Creationists love so called “living fossils”

Creationists love the prehistoric-looking coelacanth because it appears to not have evolved – looking much like it did from the last fossil find 65 million years ago. If evolution is true, they proclaim, why didn’t it sprout legs and walk by now? (From M. Issak, The Counter-Creationism Handbook, Univ of Calif. Press., 2007, p. 99.) One can find many examples in Creationist-based information that point out similar examples where species alive today do not appear to have changed much from their fossil ancestors. These examples, they say, are weaknesses for evolution as the method of creating diversity on earth. Such claims egregiously misrepresent evolution and life on earth across deep time.

Coelacanth as cryptid symbol

The coelacanth is an iconic species for cryptozoologists – those who pursue mystery sightings based on conjecture that such sightings represent a scientifically unrecognized animal. The fish is frequently used as an example of the possibility of large, interesting animals that might yet be discovered. Several cryptozoology books cite a statement by Georges Cuvier in 1812 who proposed we already know all the large animals out there and that it was likely no more would be discovered. This was a “rash dictum” indeed, and was unreasonable for the time and still is even now. To over-generalize and paint all of the scientific community as a naysaying, closed-minded lot is a silly and unreasonable argument. We know there are plenty of new species yet to be found in the deep sea, in the dense forests, and in the dusty, unattended drawers of the museum.

The coelancanth is a dubious cryptid, regardless of its prominent place in cryptozoology. It had no substantive legend attached to it. No one was actively seeking it. Sure, it was a surprise when found and it was a new species (contrary to the Creationist arguments that emphasize it hadn’t evolved). But a slow, bottom-feeding, fish that was occasionally caught by locals does not compare to the more elaborate tales of Yeti, Bigfoot, large lake creatures, and sea serpents. It does not follow that modern discoveries of new species are support for the claim that certain legendary creatures are real animals.

Coelacanth as a wonderful surprise

This poor fish has been abused as a symbol for the weaknesses and failures of science – but the version of science invoked by pseudoscientifical researchers is false. The coelacanth is serving as a red herring – distracting the viewers from seeing the lack of rigor in these fields through a dramatic but misrepresented example. No reputable scientists are pronouncing that there is nothing new to discover in the world. It’s not the fault of science that many scientific-minded thinkers doubt the reality of ghosts, God, or Bigfoot. That’s entirely due to lack of evidence and suitable explanatory mechanisms.

The finding of the coelacanth was in no way an example of how science as an institution or method is misguided or inadequate. Instead, the finding of the modern coelacanth is a testament to the wonderful ability of nature to still hold surprises for us. And we must credit the fast-thinking museum curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who preserved the carcass as best she could, then contacted a genuine expert to examine it before declaring the jaw-dropping discovery. One can only hope if a sasquatch is found, someone will be that diligent instead of negotiating a fee for viewing the remains. We must realize that scientific efforts by careful, experienced and legitimate researchers are useful and should be supported because another amazing discovery most certainly awaits.

Many pseudoscience proponents will jump at a chance to show that science has a flaw because they wish to promote their own wishful views that can’t quite compete. The lovely coelacanth doesn’t deserve that association.

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Copy-paste cryptozoology

A review of Chasing American Monsters: Over 250 Creatures, Cryptids, and Hairy Beasts by Jason Offutt (2019).

I’ve been thinking a lot about cryptozoology lately. While consuming content about many other subjects, I see excellent examples in cryptozoology to illustrate public attitudes towards and understanding of science, paranormal thinking, colonialist themes, misperceptions about evidence, media depictions of factual events, and sociology. I still am in love with the idea of monsters. I require, however, some substance in the discourse. As such, I am a tough book critic. I expect some quality standards. When the world is full of good books, I resent wasting my time on poor ones. I expect a nonfiction book to contain solid references and useful, preferably original, information. If a book is not specifically marketed as juvenile non-fiction, I assume it will be written for adults to enjoy. I probably should not assume those things.

Chasing Monsters (on Kindle) sounded interesting. I’m very sorry to say that this volume lacked the positive qualities I expect and committed several major blunders common to books on anomalies.

It gets off to a bad start with attribution to mystery-mongering personalities associated with the Mysterious Universe website (a site that blocks me from commenting because they reject fair criticism). When I was about halfway through the book, I discovered that all of the content was previously published on MU. While Chasing Monsters contains the standard language that “no part of this book may be used or reproduced…including Internet usage” the text is still up at MU. This doesn’t make sense. Also, why would Llewellyn publishing want non-original content to begin with? More on this copy-paste lit in a bit because it’s ubiquitous with paranormal topics. 

The chapters of Chasing Monsters are alphabetical by state with 4-7 very short snippets about a local cryptid or monster lore. Many subjects are repeated because similar stories (and folklore motifs) aren’t contained by state boundaries. (The only state without a Bigfoot-type creature is Hawaii.) Thus, a state by state layout is not a good way of presenting mysteries or paranormal ideas. It is disjointed, worse than alphabetizing by the first letter of the name. Worse than that, the entries are so short that the reader can’t really grasp the story. Most are woefully incomplete. Several subjects have widely known or readily available interesting proposed explanations or outright conclusions but these are not mentioned. We are left to think that there is some mystery that remains when there isn’t. For example, there is no cave in the Grand Canyon filled with Egyptian artifacts or giant humans – these were fictionalized news stories. The legend of the Jersey Devil does not go “exactly like this” – the story has always varied with different versions. And, readers are not provided the rather important fact regarding the “green clawed beast” near Evansville, Indiana – that it was reported the year after the movie Creature from the Black Lagoon was released. Such omissions of critical context borders on deception, unless it’s just incompetence. I can’t say which it is here but I really dislike it. On the flip side, the author sometimes includes ridiculous explanations instead of substantiated ones, such as saying one explanation for the Honey Island swamp monster is that circus chimpanzees escaped and bred with alligators. Maybe absurd inclusions like that are meant to be entertaining. Offutt can’t decide if he wants us to take this seriously or just for fun.

I couldn’t work out what this book aimed to accomplish. If this was to be an entertaining book of stories, the content is too skimpy. If it is meant to show cryptids are worthy of investigation, it is confounding. Offutt makes the claim in the intro that all animals were once “hidden”, therefore, cryptozoology is important because people are seeking answers to mysterious animal reports. However, he fails to distinguish between tall tales (he admits some stories in this book qualify for that label) and legitimate zoological investigation, which so few self-styled cryptozoologists actually do. The standard hand-waving “cryptid success stories” of the okapi, mountain gorilla, Congo peacock, megamouth shark, and coelacanth are trotted out, again confusing normal zoological discovery with the unstructured and nebulous “cryptid hunting”, and misconstruing a scientifically discovered new species as a validated cryptid (after the fact). Later, the book includes descriptions of the Squonk hoax beast and the legendary cannibalistic Wendigo. How exactly are those monsters comparable to an unusual zoological specimen that is definitively documented not long after it is sought? (Or, fortuitously found without any pre-knowledge?) 

Things gets really cringey when Offutt invokes the naive reasoning that if all these once unknown creatures are now real, why couldn’t something like Bigfoot be out there – a possible remnant Gigantopithecus, Neanderthal, or unknown species of North American ape.

“Whatever Bigfoot is, I think it just may be out there. I have faith in you, big guy.”

Ugh. So is the purpose of this book to promote belief in legendary monsters? I don’t know. 

Adding to the overall problems with this volume is the use of recent anecdotes pulled from unreliable internet sources (such as forum posts). This is an awful practice that should only be used when there is a clear justification (e.g., to note first use or trends). I was glad to see some original news sources in Chasing Monsters but the good sources are outweighed by some stinkers. For example, he uses a story from “an account on about.com by an anonymous author who posted as ‘Bob'”. For some entries, there are no sources provided and these are cited as “cases not specific enough for a reference”. That is unacceptable. If the stories exist, they have a source. 

I kept going in the book, getting more annoyed, until I got to the New York chapter. Included was the illustrator’s dramatic depiction of the Montauk Monster. Except it wasn’t; it was another one of these same critters sighted along the East River years later. Why not include the more popular Montauk Monster? The only reason I could guess was that the Montauk beast has its own Wikipedia entry that clearly states it was a raccoon carcass. This “East River monster” had fewer internet references (because we’d already exhausted the Montauk Monster hype) so it couldn’t be as easily googled for an answer. There was no mention in the entry of it being a dead raccoon. I became so irritated by this point, I stopped reading and skimmed the rest. 

Stop me if you’ve heard this before

Cryptozoology is remarkably deficient in original, scholarly content. The literature largely consists of the same stories repeated from source to source often without fact-checking or new information included. It makes the body of work repetitive and intellectually weak. I can’t fathom why any publisher thinks we need yet another encyclopedic book with hundreds of uninspired short entries. In a quick search for cryptozoology on Amazon, I counted 12 field guides, encyclopedias, collections, or compendiums. There are many more short-entry type volumes grouped by themes. This format – generally quick to cobble together and lacking depth – applies to too many modern cryptozoology books! Only a rare few have any analysis or original ideas.

Cryptozoology is not unlike its sibling topics in the paranormal neighborhood – UFOs and ghosts – where there is considerable copying and even outright plagiarism that occurs. Note the recent Zak Bagans and Troy Taylor scandal with Ghost Hunting for Dummies. In 2013, Ben Radford called out blatant plagiarism in a vampire “encyclopedia”. And I’ve seen hundreds of websites that copy directly off other sources without attribution. It is not uncommon. Another MU writer, Nick Redfern, also recycled his previous work into an encyclopedic book that had similar issues as Chasing Monsters with poor sourcing and short, incomplete entries. Each writer wants to be viewed as knowledgeable and produce readable content but copy/pasting isn’t research. It’s lazy and I don’t feel bad calling it out when I know these writers can do better. (Well, maybe not Bagans…). 

Cryptozoologists who promote their interests lament why the field isn’t taken seriously. It’s partly the parade of overtly similar content that is sloppy, shallow, and illogical. It’s fine for kids or casual consumers and that’s it. There is little new to build on.

Two major problems rampant throughout cryptozoology literature were exhibited in Chasing Monsters: poor scholarship and a muddled, contradictory depiction of the field. Specifically, this book, and many other paranormal-themed books, have the following flaws: 

  • Dramatic, exaggerated, often unverified anecdotes
  • Recycled material lacking crucial explanatory information, context, and analysis
  • Overly-simplistic, uncritical arguments with illogical speculation in a blatant effort to persuade belief in fringe ideas
  • Noncredible sources used for convenience, or lack of sourcing entirely

This is a fascinating topic – a blend of folklore, human perception, sociology, pop culture and zoology. It doesn’t have to be mostly awful copy-paste media. Is cryptozoology real science or monster stories? Important research or entertainment? Serious evidence or just for fun? The observer can’t tell because the participants and their aims vary widely, usually missing their mark, which compromises any integrity and leaves little substance in the field.

Chasing Monsters is bland and redundant, I recommend skipping it.  I’ll rate it 2 out of 5 on Goodreads and Amazon only because there are minimal grammatical errors and the illustrations were cool.

The monsters of cryptozoology: Book review

Cryptozoology literature has a problem. 

Too often, popular cryptid books perpetuate unreferenced tales, elevating certain unwarranted details that are probably not factual, but opinion. Any references are often poor quality work, frequently web sites or blogs. There is a distinct lack of original scholarship, and generally poor scholarship overall. Cryptozoology proponents are notoriously adverse, even hostile, to criticism. This is a downer because I want better books on these subjects. 

What follows is my review of The Monster Book: Creatures, Beasts and Fiends of Nature by Nick Redfern, published in 2016 by Visible Ink Press. Visible Ink sent me this book before it was released but I just got to it now. I have to start with some caveats so I, hopefully avoid being misunderstood. 

First, I like some of Nick Redfern’s stuff. He’s a highly entertaining writer, speaker, and general spokesperson for paranormal subjects. His living is made by writing popular books. This book was entertaining. There is plenty of room for that in the world. It was not written for someone like me, though. It seems to be aimed more at the younger crowd just getting into the subject. Also, the book is not actually entirely on cryptozoology if you consider that some of these “monsters” may be supernatural stories or occult tales (i.e., Hexham’s wolf creature, the dancing devil, vampires). But, it includes many typical cryptids and mentions the word early on. For those other authors and commentators who stress the “scientific” aspects of cryptozoology (note: not Redfern), they sure leave a wide berth for the supernatural to creep in. There is internal confusion about what cryptozoology is today. Is it serious? Or is it monster stories? That’s for another post but consider the issues I found within this book.

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Supernatural Creep: When explanations slide off to the fringes

Originally published as Supernatural Creep: The Slippery Slope to Unfalsifiability for my column Sounds Sciencey on csicop.org May 29, 2013.

I’m taking a step beyond sciencey with the following topic. What happens when science doesn’t cooperate with your subject area? Researchers of unexplained events may get frustrated and disenchanted with the scientific process when the eyewitness accounts they collect are too weird to explain via conventional means. They go unconventional.

Captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel led the hunt for a beast that was attacking and devouring victims in the Gevaudan, France, in 1794. He had a problem. He could not catch and kill the man-eating monster. Being a proud man, he had to justify why he could not conquer this particular foe. Since the option that he was an inadequate huntsman was not acceptable, the creature must be supernatural in its abilities to escape his capture. The characteristics of the beast were exaggerated—it was huge, cunning, and not just an ordinary wolf. Captain Duhamel left defeated by what must truly be an extraordinary beast.

The cognitive dissonance experienced by the French captain is reflected today by those who can’t capture Bigfoot. When normal processes and causes fail to satisfactorily explain events or answers to questions, then the reasoning slips beyond nature, into super nature, beyond the testable claims of science.

I call this “supernatural creep.” Although, I swear I’m not the first one to name it as such. I searched to find where I have seen this referenced before. (If anyone knows, please email me so I can give the originator due credit.) Once I noticed this kind of reasoning, I saw it frequently. Wherever I come across this concept, it reveals a bit about human nature:

If you have to choose between the belief or a rational explanation, the rational explanation may be that which gets rejected.

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It’s all very fuzzy: Dogman, Bigfoot, and the scent of paranormalia at CryptidCon

Werewolves have staked out new territory within the field of cryptozoology. What does this mean for cryptid-credibility? I explore the ideas and patterns spotted at a recent cryptozoology convention and discover that the paranormal is alive and well in monster research.

September 9-10, 2017 was CryptidCon in Frankfort, Kentucky. I drove 8.5 hours for two days and two nights of listening to those who believe cryptids exist and seeing how these mysterious monsters are represented in our popular culture. And I was glad to do it. I met up with Dr. Jeb Card (academic archaeologist and spooky enthusiast) and Blake Smith (skeptical paranormal researcher and host of Monster Talk podcast). The three of us wanted to see firsthand the current state of cryptozoology. What topics would be covered? How would they be presented? What was the evidence provided in support of these incredible claims? What was new?Read More »

Monster tales of the southern swamps (Book Review)

Beyond Boggy Creek: In Search of the Southern Sasquatch, by Lyle Blackburn (2017)

This is Blackburn’s third book in a semi-series of volumes on southern bipedal creatures. I reviewed the other two books as well:

Chronicle of the Lizard Man (Book Review)

Definitive guide to the Fouke monster – Beast of Boggy Creek (Book review)

This volume is not a rehash of Beast of Boggy Creek but an expansion of the area with reports of mysterious man-apes. The narrative pulls in both the Fouke monster and Lizard Man. True to form, Blackburn leaves out the most (but not all) of sciencey-sounding speculation that irks me tremendously in cryptozoology volumes and instead provides an entertaining and comprehensive account of the subject matter. This book is a chronicle of many colorfully-named Boogers stomping around the swamps and backwater ways of the southern US. They have characteristics somewhat unique from the traditional Northwest Bigfoot/Sasquatch in that the seem to be meaner, more apt to attack people, and reported to be sometimes smaller (orangutan-like) and move on all fours as well as bipedally. Assuming truth to such reports requires a conclusion that not only is there one unknown primate in the US, but two or more variants or species. That’s simply too difficult to accept on the basis of no solid evidence.Read More »

Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 2: Lake Monster Tropes

lmtThis is the second in a series of posts examining cryptids (“hidden” animals said to exist based on local testimony), namely lake monsters, in terms of the folklore, tradition, and native tales of these creatures.

The first part is here: Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 1: The Illusion of Facticity in Unknown Animal Reports

What can we make of folklore tales that cryptozoologists use to support claims that an unknown animal has been historically reported and remains to be identified?


 

 

As I noted in part one, Michel Meurger’s 1988 Lake Monster Traditions (LMT) supports the view that reliance on folklore and traditional stories as evidence of cryptids is problematic for many reasons. Chapter 1 of the book is called “The Enquiry” as Meurger and Claude Gagnon undertake field work to the lakes of Quebec in 1981. Many locations are mentioned but the main reports focus on ten lakes that have known lake creature lore.

The creatures reports can be categorized into six general types:

  • big fish
  • horse-head
  • living log
  • boat-like
  • seal-like
  • serpent-like

At the end of the chapter, there is a handy table that shows either that many different kinds of monsters may live in the same lake, or that we can’t accurately pin down a solid description of several of the famous lake denizens. The latter is far more probable. Decades of attempts have been made to find biological evidence for the source of mystery animal reports in lakes around the world. No cryptid has been discovered.

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Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 1: The Illusion of Facticity in Unknown Animal Reports

What can we make of folklore tales that cryptozoologists use to support claims that an unknown animal has been historically reported and remains to be identified?

Cryptid researchers say that modern reports of Bigfoot-Sasquatch, lake monster, sea serpents, giant flying animals, and elusive land creatures are supported by the stories of native people, legends or myths and sagas. Are these stories evidence? Can we reach back in time to use old tales to reinforce and help explain modern sightings of cryptids?

lmtI’m not well-versed in folkloric studies just with a few pop culture college electives to my credit and casual observation for many years. But I heard from respected others that a modern interpretation and application of ancient cultural tales to the cryptozoology field was problematic. I wondered exactly why. The frequently cited source for understanding this aspect of cryptozoology is Michel Meurger’s Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross Cultural Analysis which I obtained.

There is much to digest in this book, translated from French. I do note that the translation does make it difficult sometimes to decode the meaning but it’s not incomprehensible.

I intend to write a series of posts exploring the author’s treatment of this material and his recommendations of how we should consider it for cryptozoological research.

The preface and introduction alone gave a jolt to my thinking. A review of what it contained was perhaps worth sharing for those who have not been introduced to these ideas. It’s obvious that the work still applies to today’s modern TV and internet-based cryptozoologists.

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