Late in 2008, I got an email requesting my participation in a program of the cable TV show MonsterQuest. Like many of the newer “reality” shows on formerly scientific cable stations like the Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel, it is a typical piece of pseudoscientific tabloid journalism: lots of moody music and dark foreboding camera shots promoting one kind of legendary monster or another, with dubious “eyewitness” testimony and sketchy “evidence” but nothing concrete like an actual body or bones. Normally, I ignore such programs as a waste of time, and focus my energies on trying to make real science documentaries better. However, this one concerned the alleged dinosaur in the Congo, Mokele Mbembe. As a vertebrate paleontologist with some experience with dinosaurs, I was qualified to speak to at least some of the usual claims made about the creature. I knew I would be only the token skeptic on a largely credulous program, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have at least one skeptic in the show—otherwise, it would be entirely pseudoscientific garbage.
In January 2009, a two-man crew came over to my department to do their filming. I’ve done a lot of documentaries about prehistoric animals, so I know what these filmmakers like. It was during winter break at my college, so I set up a classroom that was quiet with controlled lighting, so they could have an undisturbed setting to film. I pulled out a bunch of our real dinosaur specimens and casts to use as props or to fill the background of their shots. They set up my “talking-head” interviews in front of our big duckbill dinosaur skull cast, and they also filmed me moving our teaching fossils around on the tables, and rolling the dinosaur cast around our hallways on a cart. Most of the questions were relatively straightforward, and I gave them the answers that are found in the broadcast.
The one surprising moment came when they handed me a wrapped package, and asked me to unwrap it and interpret it as the camera was rolling. Once I did so, I found this fist-sized shapeless lump of plaster that looked like absolutely nothing—and I said so. Hoping for a “gotcha” moment, they tried it again, showing me photos of where this cast had been taken, and trying to get me to admit it looked like a dinosaur footprint. They tried the shot again and again, each time prompting me with more details of the place where the cast was taken, but it changed nothing. The cast was simply a lump of plaster that had been formed when it was poured into a random hole in the ground. It was clearly NOT a dinosaur track or any sort of track, for that matter. Any experienced vertebrate paleontologist has seen lots of photos and casts of dinosaur tracks, and most of us have visited a number of the important track sites, such as the Paluxy River site in Texas. There are several excellent books on dinosaur tracks written by University of Denver paleontologist Dr. Martin Lockley, who has spent his career documenting trackways. From all these sites, we know a lot of what dinosaur tracks actually did look like, from not only sauropods like the alleged Mokele Mbembe but also three-toed theropod dinosaurs and many others. And this lump of plaster bore no resemblance to the track of any animal: no symmetry, no flat footpad impression, no distinct toe impressions, nothing. It was a big fizzle, and I could see the filmmakers were disappointed. Later, I learned from the comments of the believers on the web that the cast was supposed to be one toenail impression of a larger footprint, but that is not apparent from the photographs, nor does the cast resemble any dinosaur toe.
MonsterQuest Part 1 first aired on the History Channel in June 2009. It was generally as I expected from other episodes of MonsterQuest: lots of spooky music and shots of the dark jungles, “explorers” trying to find their way up the Congo Basin through the jungles of Cameroon—and nothing in the way of actual concrete evidence. No footage of the animal, not even old photos from past “documentaries”. There were no bones or carcasses or anything that would have justified spending so much time and money to make a “documentary.” The “explorers” tried interviewing local native peoples in MonsterQuest Part 2, but immediately biased their efforts by showing them pictures of a sauropod, thus “leading the witness” and planting evidence in their heads in MonsterQuest Part 3. If they had let the natives do the drawing, they would have been somewhat more believable, but it is difficult to know whether the local peoples make the same distinction between myth, legend, and reality that we westerners do. MonsterQuest Part 4 showed a few fuzzy images on their underwater sonar, but nothing definitive—especially in waters that have crocodiles, hippos, huge fish, and many other large aquatic animals. They made a big fuss about the holes in the ground from which their “footprint” casts came—but as I mentioned, the images and casts look nothing like any sort of footprint, and only goes to show the incompetence of the “explorers” who mistake random holes in the ground for footprints.
Finally, they reach the peak of absurdity when they conclude the episode by poking around a large hole in the bank of the river, and claim that the creature was inside and made the burrow, then covered itself up. What the heck? First of all, the burrow (if that’s what it was—there are lots of random holes in any river bank that are not true burrows) was nowhere near large enough for any creature matching the size and description of the “dinosaurs” they had mentioned earlier. IF it was a burrow, it might have been large enough for a snake or crocodile or possibly the large lizards that are known from the area. The bizarre account of such huge creatures squeezing into such a tiny hole and then burying themselves inside just showed how little actual training in field zoology these “explorers” had.
It turns out that none of these “explorers” seemed to have any relevant training in biology, which is why they came off as bumbling amateurs. The “chief scientist” and most experienced “Mokele Mbembe” hunter of the episode, Bill Gibbons, is a creationist with degrees in religious education from Immanuel Baptist College in Atlanta, Georgia. His website (still “under construction” after several years, full of ancient posts and lots of broken links) is all about how his planned “discoveries” of cryptids will undermine evolution, and about ministering to fellow creationists, not doing legitimate scientific research. His fellow “explorer,” Robert Mullin, apparently had a similar background. Gibbons has published several books on the topic through religious publishers, including one on the most recent “expeditions”, published in 2010. None of this lack of appropriate training, or their creationist bias, was mentioned in the film or in the narration. Both were treated as legitimate scientists, even though neither was in fact trained to do even the simplest field biology. As someone who had done a LOT of field research in both biology and geology, this was painfully obvious to me by their blundering and bizarre thinking.
My own part in the film was chopped down considerably, but I was pleased that they left most of my statements intact without editing them down to contradict what I had really said (except for the final segment, where they cut out a key phrase). Ironically, they gave me more screen time pushing the dinosaur skull cart around and sorting fossils on the table during the voice-over narration, compared to the time I actually talked into the camera about the facts of the case. This is consistent with how they filled the rest of the episode with fluff about “explorers” in the Congo with almost no time spent on real evidence—since there WAS no real evidence in the entire one-hour episode!
So, if one of these pseudoscientific “documentaries” calls, don’t hesitate to be the token skeptic. It’s better than letting them broadcast non-stop woo without any voice of reason.
(The preceding post is an excerpt from an upcoming book, Bigfoot, Yeti, Nessie: Cryptozoology Examined, by myself and Daniel Loxton, due to be published by Columbia Univ. Press in 2012)