Abominable Science! was the work of several intense years, so you won’t be surprised to hear that its warm reception by media from The Wall Street Journal to Nature is very exciting to me. It may surprise you slightly more to hear that I looked forward with particular interest to the review of Abominable Science! in an altogether smaller, niche publication: the Bigfoot Times newsletter.
It’s appropriate and welcome that the Bigfoot Times should take a crack at a critical review of the book; after all, Don Prothero and I offer a fairly robust critique of cryptozoology (certainly a critique offered in good faith). I was hopeful that they and other cryptozoology proponents would weigh in with substantial contributions about what they see as the merits and roadmap for future development for cryptozoology, while also giving serious, honest consideration of some of the deep problems with the field.
I prefer to take it for granted that cryptozoologists can and will rise to such occasions. Prothero—still muddy from the trenches of the creationism wars—expects rather the worse. This has emerged as something of a running bet between us. I tell Prothero that cryptozoologists, seeing themselves as pro-science and truth-seeking, will engage in a spirit of fair-minded scholarly debate. Prothero predicts instead that they will respond with angry, hyperbolic denunciations on the basis of minutia, without making any serious effort to address the deeper issues raised by our book. I concede that in some cases Don may have a point about the hyperbole. (One Bigfoot proponent insists, “The only reason to buy this book is so if the publishers value their own integrity and recall the book, the few copies sold already will be collectable as novelties.”) Still, I’m not convinced that my faith in my counterparts across the cryptozoological aisle is naive. Consider for example, cryptozoologist Matt Bille’s thoughtful critical review of the book. Bille praises the book for its strengths, probes and critiques what he sees as its weaknesses, and concludes that it’s worthwhile for cryptozoologists to honestly ruminate upon our arguments: “Even cryptozoologists who think the authors are flat-out wrong on one or more major animals need to read this skeptical but not closed-minded work. It’s a superb contribution.”
The review by Bigfoot Times publisher Daniel Perez is the latest cryptozoological response to Abominable Science! Perez has posted the text of his Bigfoot Times review online as a strongly-worded one-star Amazon customer review. It’s also posted at the cryptozoology blogs Cryptomundo and CryptoZooNews. I encourage you to read it yourself to get a fair and complete sense of where the Bigfoot Times is coming from, but the upshot is that they don’t like Abominable Science! one bit. Perez concludes, “this is truly an abominable book.”
I’m not totally sure how to respond to this Bigfoot Times review. It twice expresses unhappiness that Abominable Science! is published by Columbia University Press, and even complains about the cover art, yet gives Bigfoot Times readers no hint as to the existence of the majority of the book’s chapters. I assume Perez must probably have read the whole book before denouncing it, but his review concentrates almost exclusively on fine points within the sub-topic of Bigfoot (with an aside about the Yeti). Even within that sub-topic, he ignores the opportunity to acknowledge (or even to defend) any of Bigfootery’s missteps, problems, or challenges.
All the same, I’ll respond to a few of his comments here. Perez writes,
As I read I contemplated the authors’ explanations for cryptids: hoaxes and misidentifications proved to be the principle thesis for all things cryptozoological, be it Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster and everything in between.
So I thought why aren’t people seeing Bigfoot in Cuba or Iceland? Why would hoaxers and unreliable witnesses want to confine the Bigfoot mystery to just North America?
This wouldn’t be an especially strong argument in any event, as nationally- or regionally-specific monster and paranormal traditions in fact do often arise as purely cultural phenomena—complete with testimony from “witnesses” that is, yes, based upon hoaxes and misperceptions. Consider penis shrinking panics. Also, for what it’s worth, both Cuba and Iceland boast their share of monster sightings, including a “living pterosaur” in Cuba and an extensive history with sea monsters in Iceland (some of which is discussed in Abominable Science!). Iceland even has a sea monster museum. But going to Perez’s specific point, it’s not really true that “the Bigfoot mystery” is confined “to just North America.” A great many uncomfortably Bigfoot-like (yet creatively varied) hairy humanoid creatures are also spotted throughout Europe, Asia, South America, and even Australia. That amorphous universality is a cultural pattern, or possibly even a pattern reflecting innate human psychology. It should make any serious Bigfoot investigator uneasy—and it did, in the case of pro-Bigfoot anthropologist Grover Krantz. As Krantz warned (and this too is discussed in our book),
But when it is suggested that a wild primate is found native to all continents, including Australia, then credibility drops sharply. Only humans, along with their domesticates and parasites, have distributions that are worldwide; no other land animals even remotely approach this condition. Beyond a certain point, it can be argued that the more widespread a cryptozoological species is reported to be, the less likely it is that the creature exists at all.1
Perez suggests that I am “lying by omission” if I do not showcase the cases and personalities that he prefers. For example, he is quite unhappy with my discussion of pivotal early Sasquatch witness William Roe, whose tale I credit in the book as “the first fully modern sasquatch sighting.” Perez retorts that this argument “ignores another white man’s tale, that of Albert Ostman from 1924, so the template for how the Sasquatch looked was in place long before Roe, but you wouldn’t know that if you read this somewhat confusing, illogical book.”
I’m a bit at a loss here. I certainly could have discussed Ostman—I’ve written about this kid-friendly story before, for Junior Skeptic—but it is not one of Bigfootery’s more flattering cases. Albert Ostman, for those who don’t know, spun a whimsical and completely uncorroborated story about having been kidnapped decades earlier by Sasquatches (“four people…all covered in hair”) and forced to live among them for several days. He was able to escape only when the “old man” Sasquatch made himself cartoonishly sick by eating a box of snuff. So upset was the Sasquatch that he emptied an entire coffee pot into his mouth for relief, “grounds and all,” and then apparently turned a series of somersaults. “In general outline,” admitted Bigfooter John Green in 1968, this yarn “defies belief.”2 It’s been circulating in the Bigfoot literature for over fifty years, famous for being famous, but it never had anything to remotely recommend it as likely to be true.
Be that as it may, Perez is factually mistaken: the Ostman account does not predate the Roe case. It’s true that Ostman said that his seemingly obvious tall tale took place in 1924, but that is not when the yarn enters history as a potential template for Sasquatch reports, which is what matters here. Instead, Ostman told no one anything of the kind until 33 years later, after he heard the Roe story. It’s a perfectly plausible speculation that Ostman simply invented his colorful yarn in 1957, based upon Roe’s tale.
Globally, there are many old stories involving hairy humanoids that do predate Roe’s case, such as the “gorilla” that reportedly terrorized Long Island in 1886.3 (It was subsequently reported to be a hoax.4) In my opinion, these belong to other traditions unrelated to the mainline of Sasquatch/Bigfoot lore (“escaped gorilla” stories inspired by the West’s discovery of actual African gorillas, for example) but almost any of these would pose a more credible challenge to my arguments regarding the transformative impact of the Roe case than does Ostman.
When I talk about this book as both confusing and illogical, let me shore up my argument. Roe is a hoaxer, it follows that Patterson is a hoaxer. I don’t get it. Does this mean that if a short, bald man who robs a bank it follows that the next short, bald man who walks in a bank will do the same? I don’t see the logic in that.
I think Perez is correct that he does not understand this unifying thesis of the book, which is that a historical view reveals that many paranormal and cryptozoological mysteries follow a pattern of cultural evolution, originating at identifiable moments and then developing and changing over time in a feedback loop of mutual inspiration with popular culture. Perez’s “bald man who robs a bank” example does not help him get a handle on this historical argument because bald men have been well known since prehistory. The “bald man” idea does not originate at an identifiable moment in time—unlike the cryptids we discuss in the book, which do.
A better analogy would be if it appeared from eyewitness accounts or security footage that the bank had been robbed, not by a bald man, but by a one-eyed, one-horned, flying, purple people eater. If we wanted to know, was this a real purple people eater or merely a person in a purple people eater suit, it would be premature to begin by meticulously debating the various hard-to-determine minutia of the events at the bank. The more immediate question would be, was the 1958 “The Purple People Eater” song completely made up nonsense? This matters because the song emerged before the robbery. If the songwriters invented the idea of purple people eaters, this constrains how we may plausibly view the bank robbery, and (obviously) severely downgrades the plausibility of all future claims that purple people eaters actually exist as real creatures.
The big-breasted Sasquatches reported by William Roe and filmed by Roger Patterson are so similar as to be clearly related, in my opinion. Does this necessarily mean that either or both cases are hoaxes? Not at all. Both could plausibly represent genuine sightings of real sasquatches, or the P-G film could be a hoax inspired by a real sighting by Roe. But if the template-providing Roe sighting was a hoax, this would place us in the purple people eater situation: it would essentially compel us to regard the P-G film as a hoax as well.
So, was Roe’s alleged sighting a hoax? I don’t know. Probably no one knows. But if Bigfooters want to advance the scholarship of their field, I submit that this is question that should be of interest to them. This could, just possibly, be a fabulous gift to responsible cryptozoology: a means to finally falsify a long-standing hypothetical explanation of the stubbornly unfruitful Patterson case! (That’s a good thing.) This is an opportunity to do further cryptozoological research. “I wouldn’t be surprised if René [Dahinden] did meet Roe and conducted a reel-to-reel tape recording of what he claimed in his sighting,” Perez writes. He adds, “Never mind the fact that Mr. [John] Green heard Roe in a ‘…taped radio interview…’ which may still survive somewhere.” Great! Terrific news. Go find ‘em! The Roe case received only the most cursory investigative attention during its first half-century of prominence in the Bigfoot literature, and it deserves a lot. If new evidence can be uncovered, or if lost evidence can be recovered from history, I will be delighted to see it.
Continuing on the topic of Patterson, Perez complains,
Bob Heironimus is thrown in the P-G film mix for good measure. You know, the standard crap: car trunk, fur suit and rumors. Anything to dislodge the 16-millimeter film from its proper place in natural history.
For those who don’t know, Bob Heironimus was a local guy who grew up running in the same circles as Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin. Heironimus has claimed that he portrayed the creature depicted in their much-contested Bigfoot film, wearing a suit at Gimlin and Patterson’s request for the purposes of a hoax. Because the P-G film is considered compelling and important in Bigfoot circles, Bigfooters often react with fierce outrage when Heironimus is mentioned. For context, though, I might mention that Abominable Science! devotes around half of one page (out of more than 400) to discussing Heironimus. This short discussion notes and even quotes the objections of Bigfooters. And, while I consider the Heironimus story plausible and relevant, I also straightforwardly explain in the book, “Critics point out, correctly, that the truth of Heironimus’s story cannot be confirmed.”
Perez also voices concern about the scholarship of the book:
And if you just kind of poke around, you will find non factual statements. “[Joshua] Buhs met with George Haas…” on page 299. With people sometimes only an e-mail click away, I asked if Buhs ever met with Haas and he told me “no.” I suspect this book is riddled with non factual information but this was what I found due to time constraints.
“I suspect” does not exactly demonstrate that the book is “riddled” with anything, but Perez is of course correct that errors do sometimes occur despite the sustained best efforts of writers and editors. I’ve thanked Perez by email for bringing this inaccuracy to my attention, apologized to Buhs for the mistake, and submitted this to Columbia as an item to add to the small but important file of typographical and other errors to correct in future print runs and editions.
Where does this leave us? Well, I’d still like to encourage cryptozoologists to respond to the book in a substantial, fair-minded way. The argument that skeptics are closed-minded scoundrels really does nothing to advance the case for cryptozoology. This is a great moment to take stock, acknowledge a few of cryptozoology’s challenges and shortcomings, and consider how to further refine cryptozoology as a practice. It’s not every day, after all, that cryptozoology as a field becomes a topic for discussion in Nature or The Wall Street Journal. Cryptozoologists might just as well embrace that—and might as well bring their A-game.
I’ll take a moment here to say that I invite and encourage civil discussion, scholarly debate, and open exchanges of ideas on this thread. At the same time, I expect all commenters to keep these useful principles firmly in mind. As on my other posts, I will delete posts that seem to me to be abusive. It’s not that kind of blog.
- Grover Krantz. Bigfoot Sasquatch Evidence. (Hancock House: Surrey, 1999) p. 197
- John Green. On the Track of the Sasquatch (Agassiz, British Columbia: Cheam Publishing, 1968.) p. 10. Nonetheless, Green was “impressed” by Ostman and his tale.
- “Paralyzed By a Gorilla: Chickens and Sheep Badly Mangled.” Boston Globe, October 31, 1886. p. 1.
- The case was reportedly solved within a couple of months: the creature was not an escaped gorilla, but an African American hermit named Sam Young who crafted a monster suit as a means to commit a series of robberies. He was reportedly discovered by an armed party, pursued, and savagely beaten. “An Imitation Gorilla.” Detroit Free Press, December 12, 1886. p. 7