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.

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100 Things Popular Science Thinks Science Got Wrong, but Didn’t Quite

I was in the grocery checkout line a few weeks ago. I sometimes scan the magazine rack impulse grabs but never buy them. This week, the crop circle cover photo of a special edition of Popular Science caught my attention: Mistakes and Hoaxes – 100 Things Science Got Wrong

PopSci

What did science get wrong about crop circles? “Science” (be wary of the tone of generality used in the title) never assumed there was anything worthwhile about crop circles. They were a man-made (and quite nifty) phenomenon. Thumbing through the issue, I saw pages about phrenology, cigarettes are good for you, bloodletting, humans evolved from apes, and so on – topics that may appear to have once had scientific backing. But several other standard hoaxes were cited in the list – spirit photography, alien autopsy, Loch Ness Monster, King Tut’s curse…

So, it was a mishmash of rejected thinking, errors, and hoaxes but not everything had to do with science. Lots of these “myths” were popular in the public or the media but gained zero traction as legitimate science. I bought it to see how these popular myths (if not popular “science”) were treated. It was a mixed bag.

The issue, considered a Time Inc. Book, priced at $13.99 is a snazzy coffee table edition. Each “myth” takes up one page or less. It’s well illustrated and a casual read for those who are not specialists in science. I would recommend it to those who find science stuff interesting but don’t have a formal background in it. As with typical “popular science”, specialists will find plenty of nits to pick in the text. But overall, it’s not flawed except in the egregiously wrong title. There was no introduction or editor’s note, the content started immediately with Myth #1: Neutrinos Are Faster Than Light – a legitimate story that described how an experiment went awry. Read More »