And here’s why.
It pisses me off because it’s the perfect microcosm of what’s wrong with television science reporting. They’re not interested in reporting good science or in educating their viewers; they’re only interested in tabloid stories. And they affix a “science” label to them. Send some horseback kooks into the woods with a megaphone and an infrared camera to look for Bigfoot, show it on the Science Channel, and that’s what passes for science programming in the United States. The obvious result? We have a population who believes that communication with ghosts represents the leading edge of brain research, that multilevel marketing schemes are a way to get rich, and that a mail order gadget (suppressed by the oil companies) will make your car run for free.
I grew up obsessed with cryptozoology. I knew all the Bigfoot stories, I fully believed Nessie was a relic plesiosaur, I was convinced that Neanderthals survive in Russia. Having seen, as a young boy, the skeleton of the Megatherium that died falling into the Grand Canyon Caverns millennia ago, I was thrilled to learn that a “scientist” had discovered that they may still exist in the Amazon, based on local superstitions. I had no doubt. It seemed perfectly plausible and scientific.
That’s because I, at ten years old, had an understanding of the scientific method comparable to that of the cream of today’s cryptozoologists. My reading had taught me that you start with a conclusion (“Bigfoot exists”), support it with a logical fallacy (“Either it’s true or it’s a hoax of impossible proportions”), and you’re automatically right because nobody’s disproven it. This was absolutely convincing to a ten year old boy, and that’s good enough for the TV networks. What an easy sell! If your “science” broadcasting is effective, it must be good.
Cryptozoologists are the perfect marriage for this type of reporting. They sell a seductive message – monsters are real – and they’re not hampered by the need to restrict their comments to what’s supported by facts. They’re free to say the establishment suppresses them. They’re free to draw conclusions from anecdotal evidence. They’re free to turn correlation into causation, and to present the results of confirmation bias as evidence for their monster du jour.
Cryptozoologists are not hampered by the boundaries learned in formal education. You can drop out of school and flip burgers for a living, yet the attachment of “-ologist” to the name of your hobby turns you into exactly the kind of expert the networks want to promote. Someone whose conclusion is easy to understand, exciting, and game changing. Someone who’s absolutely convincing because they’re free to employ every logical fallacy in the book to support their position, to the detriment of a public largely unprepared to recognize poor arguments and bad information.
Cryptozoology is not just a joke that can be laughed off. It’s an active threat to human intellect. But the real culprits are not the ordinary cryptozoologists themselves; they’re just well-meaning guys who grew up reading the same books I did, but who never took the opportunity to learn the scientific method. The real culprits are much bigger and more numerous. They are the networks who promote bad information; the viewers hungry for exciting information indistinguishable from fact; and everyone who works to support that dangerously co-dependent relationship.
No conscientious person should knowingly condone any part of that process.