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Breaking Down a Criticism of Abominable Science

by Daniel Loxton, Sep 12 2013

Abominable_Science_cover-576pxMy critical cryptozoology book with Don Prothero, Abominable Science!, continues to garner kind reviews from readers and press, with one perhaps predictable exception (or partial exception): monster proponents. While some cryptozoologists have generously received the book as “sympathetic to cryptozoology…a favor and a contribution to Bigfoot research,” or even “a superb contribution” that “goes on the ‘must reading’ list for anyone interested in cryptozoology,” others are less positive.

The other night, for example, I noticed a lengthy negative review of Abominable Science! posted by Loch Ness monster proponent Roland Watson, published on his blog and also as a one-star Amazon customer review. It argues that Prothero and I “dig a hole for themselves in terms of accuracy” and engage in a “lot of misquotes.” Mr. Watson’s numerous rapid-fire arguments about fine details of the Loch Ness literature pose a bit of a conundrum—a conundrum familiar to skeptics as the so-called “Gish Gallop.” I do not agree with Watson’s arguments, and I feel that I can give a robust accounting for my positions on each and every point that he raises, but it might take me days to walk readers through them all. So I read the review, considered his points, and resolved to move on without comment. You can’t respond to everything, after all—and a blogger who throws around accusations of poor scholarship while admitting he wrote his review before bothering even to read the whole book? I trust you’ll forgive me if this was not at the top of my list of priorities.

But then I received a note about this same review from Daniel Perez, publisher of the Bigfoot Times newsletter. Perez emailed me the text of Watson’s critique, quoted Watson regarding something Watson calls “an astonishing act of omission” on my part, and expressed his feeling that this “omission” confirmed his own poor opinion of Abominable Science. (Perez earlier offered his own harsh review, which he ran in the Bigfoot Times and posted as another one-star Amazon review. I responded to Perez’s review here at Skepticblog—I thought, pretty charitably.)

So, what the hey. Let’s dig down specifically into Watson’s “astonishing act of omission” complaint in detail, just because we can.

The relevant portion of Abominable Science! develops my argument that “unambiguous Nessie sightings did not exist before the release of King Kong and the subsequent media hype” in 1933. (See pages 134–135, but note that this theme is also developed across several sections of this chapter.) In particular, this sub-section explains that a “fictive history” has grown up about Nessie (as is also the case for Bigfoot and many other cryptids and paranormal mysteries), in which “backdated tales, about alleged but unrecorded events or hearsay from decades earlier, are interspersed with older stories of uncertain or unlikely relevance to create a fictional time line of Nessie prehistory.”1 This fictive history creates the illusion that Nessie has been known to locals as a real animal for centuries. My own reading of the literature persuades me that this is not so. Instead, Nessie is a creation of twentieth century pop culture.

It’s not surprising that Mr. Watson would take special exception to this argument. It seems that he is the author of a self-published book dedicated to making the exact opposite argument. Well, that’s fine, of course. He can make his case for his position, I can make mine, and it will all come out in the wash. That’s how scholarship progresses.

But Watson does not merely argue that I am wrong. He argues that I dishonestly “misquoted” pioneering Nessie author Rupert T. Gould in order to make my case. So let’s examine that.

First, here is the relevant passage from Abominable Science!:

A genuine monster should imply a history of monster sightings. Where were they? Seeking such a history, people turned to old sources—and old memories—in search of support. Newspapers carried many letters like this one from the Duke of Portland:

Sir,—The correspondence about “the Monster” recently seen in Loch Ness reminds me that when I became the tenant in 1895, nearly forty years ago, of the fishings in the River Garry and Loch Oich, the ghillies, the head forester, and several other individuals at Invergarry often discussed a “horrible great beast,” as they termed it, which appeared from time to time in Loch Ness. None of them, however, claimed to have seen it themselves, but each one knew individuals who had actually done so.

It is difficult even to know what to say about this story. After the media hype started, the duke came forward to say that he remembered that forty years earlier, he had heard some hearsay about a monster? Rupert Gould rather understated the provenance problem when he said of this claim, “Although interesting, such stories are of no great value as evidence.” Yet, to this day, many Loch Ness monster sources include this story, without comment, as a firsthand sighting in 1895 by multiple witnesses.1

Watson retorts,

Gould refers to a letter from the Duke of Portland talking about stories of a “horrible great beast” back in 1895. The authors make mileage out of Gould when they quote him as saying these “stories are of no great value as evidence”. Evidently, this is meant to demonstrate the irrelevance of these old reports. Yet, in an astonishing act of omission, Loxton and Prothero do not quote what Gould then says:

“But the same cannot be said of a statement which I recently received from Mr. F. Fraser”

Gould then goes on to describe Mr. Fraser’s sighting from 1904 and others from before 1933 also gain Gould’s attention. It was clear to me that Gould’s disinterest was towards second hand accounts as opposed to those with which he could interview the witness face to face. Basically, Gould has been misquoted in this tactic of promoting the weak evidence and ignoring the strong.2

That sounds bad, huh? What should we make of this allegation?

Well, I might first mention as an aside that it’s somewhat ambiguous whether Gould’s “Although interesting, such stories are of no great value as evidence” refers only to second-hand-stories. Gould uses the plural, “such stories” after all, as his summation after sharing three other stories in addition to the Duke’s. Also, Gould clearly did have reservations about older stories in general, whether retro-dated or not. He dismissed the famous early medieval Adomnan tale and water-horse traditions as “of great interest to students of folklore” but “more or less beside the point”; he “decided to exclude from the main body of evidence all sightings before 1923”; and, he prefaced his short survey of older accounts with the warning that these were in some cases “little more than rumors — and, for various reasons, I do not regard any of them as carrying quite the same weight as those dating from 1923 and onwards.” Even regarding the sighting account from one Mr. F. Fraser (which we’ll come back to in a moment) Gould warned, “in view of the lapse of time…it is impossible to be sure that the creature which [he] saw was identical with that seen in the Loch in more recent years (and so far as I know, there to-day).”3

But honestly, all that hardly matters, because it happens that I quote Gould in the exact context that Watson insists is appropriate: Gould expressing reservations about second-hand testimony. I characterized the Duke of Portland story as “hearsay” rather than the apparently first-hand account it is now sometimes suggested to be, and quoted Gould as agreeing that such hearsay “stories are of no great value as evidence.”

But what of my damning “omission” of Gould’s next lines? Here’s how Gould continues:

Although interesting, such stories are of no great value as evidence. But the same cannot be said of a statement which I recently received from Mr. F. Fraser, Knockie. One calm day in December 1903 he was rowing, in company with two other men, from Knockie Pier to Invermoriston. When about 400 yards from the Knockie shore, they noticed, about 250 yards away in the direction of Fort Augustus, an object on the surface which looked “like an upturned boat.” They rowed toward it, but got no nearer, and so desisted—they had to catch a steamer at Invermoriston. On their way back, they looked for it, but could find no trace of it. Mr. Fraser added that he had never seen a similar thing in Loch Ness before or since.4

Catch that? In 1933 or 1934, after the release of Kong and the beginning of the media hype about a monster in Loch Ness, Gould received a letter alleging that Mr. Fraser saw something 30 years earlier (in 1903, according to Gould—Watson’s “1904” is in error). Since then, Fraser’s retro-dated account has been matter-of-factly presented as a 1903 sighting in books including Roy Mackal’s The Monsters of Loch Ness and Peter Costello’s In Search of Lake Monsters, even though the tale apparently did not exist in the historical record until three decades after it allegedly occurred.

That is, the Fraser story directly supports the larger point I was arguing in that exact same sub-section of Abominable Science! I could have included it (or for that matter, many others) but it was redundant: I had the primary published source for the Duke of Portland’s story (that is, hearsay told in the duke’s own words in the Scotsman newspaper on October 20, 1933), and so used that instead of Gould’s paraphrase4 of a letter he says he received that I do not have. The suggestion that not including Fraser’s brief, uncorroborated, retro-dated, second-hand anecdote is an “astonishing omission” or failure of scholarship or integrity is, with apologies, silly.

I might end here by reiterating the conclusion of my response to Perez’s Bigfoot Times review: I’d like to encourage cryptozoologists to respond to Abominable Science! in a substantial, fair-minded way that acknowledges some of cryptozoology’s ongoing challenges, after actually reading the book. Hostility toward critics does nothing to advance the case for cryptozoology, but it does cast cryptozoology in an ugly, pseudoscientific light. Cryptozoologists need not do themselves this disservice.

References

  1. Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero. Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.) pp. 134–135
  2. Roland Watson. “Abominable Science! and the Loch Ness Monster.” September 10, 2013. http://lochnessmystery.blogspot.ca/2013/09/abominable-science-and-loch-ness-monster.html (Accessed September 12, 2013.)
  3. Rupert Gould. The Loch Ness Monster. ( Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1976.) p. 27. This edition  is presented as a “complete reproduction of the original edition published by Geoffrey Bles, London, 1934.
  4. Ibid. p. 30
  5. Ibid. Gould wrote, “I have paraphrased Mr. Fraser’s letter. I should have preferred to give it verbatim; but those unacquainted with the Highland idiom might find it rather difficult reading.”

Note to Commenters: 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.

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11 Responses to “Breaking Down a Criticism of Abominable Science”

  1. Keith Wycoff says:

    Daniel Loxton doesn’t point out that which is apparently obvious: what Mr F. Fraser saw in December 1904 was probably an upturned boat. How this could be “of great value as evidence” of the existence of the Loch Ness monster is certainly unclear to me.

    • Michael Martinez says:

      I have no opinion on cryptids like BigFoot and Nessie, except that I think they are interesting debates in which I have no part to play.

      But debunkery is oft ill-attempted and goes awry easily.

      For example, while it’s plausible that an upturned boat would explain a particular story, there is no proof that there was such a boat. So one cannot simply say a story about something in the water is debunked because “it probably was an upturned boat”. I am sure Loch Ness has seen a lot of upturned boats and flotation devices through the centuries; that doesn’t explain any specific individual reported sighting regardless or whether it is a first-hand account or hearsay summarized in a book canvasing other books.

      Successful debunkery must either show that the debunked point-of-view is simply impossible or that the cause for whatever is being debunked is clear and obvious. That windows bang in the night does not explain all nightly bumps and clatters. That doors may be off-balance does not explain all swinging doors. That the Earth trembles does not explain all quake-like experiences.

      To maintain scientific credibility it is better to question the credibility of the available evidence rather than to substitute contradictory incredible evidence.

  2. Blake Smith says:

    What is interesting to me is the number of highly reputable reviewers in major scientific publications who’ve praised the book – yet folks who self-publish their opinions without editorial review find the work an outrage (at least the chapter they bother to read, the one about their favorite monster). I expect that what will happen over time is readers who *actually read the whole book* will then give the book very reasonable (and I expect, mostly positive) reviews that will drown out these early naysayers. It won’t be because of a cabal of group-think cryptid-denialists are suppressing the truth, but rather because rational people tend to give the whole book consideration when they review it and weigh the work on its merits as a whole, not through the inverted gestalt of monomaniacal devotion to a sacred favorite monster.

    Bias blinds. For all I can tell, these 1-star review people each saw a ratty pamphlet mocking their monster-god, not a well reasoned critique with an extensive history of the field. It is, sadly, their loss. Had they been able to read and understand the whole book, it might have been of benefit to them.

  3. Karl says:

    “Excellent?” I cried.

    “Elementary,” said he.

  4. paul says:

    Bill Munns, a bigfoot believer, posted a one star review of your book.

    He has been studying the Patterson film in detail over the last several years, and thinks that it is among the best evidence of our possible Gigantopithecus forest brothers . Read the last sentence of his review to see how he really feels about your book. Hilarious.

  5. Note that since Watson’s review, we’ve gotten 5 straight 5-star reviews in a row. Current score 18 5-star, and 3 4-star reviews out of 26 (21/26 very favorable)–and 4 1-star reviews by grumpy crypto crazies

  6. Stronzo Squirrelli says:

    I do believe that the Loch Ness monster has been identified – as an elephant, or elephants. Between the wars a circus used to tour Scotland every summer, and they always took a week on Loch Ness for rest and repairs, because their elephants could be let loose to swim. The geography of Loch Ness is such that there is only one place where elephants can safely get in and out of the water, and that was where the circus camped. The elephants would apparently swim for hours and travel several miles along the loch, coming back at supper time. A swimming elephant, with its trunk upraised, is remarkably similar to the descriptions of the Loch Ness monster. Case closed, I’d say.

  7. Scott the Aussie (in Devon!) says:

    Your book has been added as my Xmas present hint to my wife:-) Hope she picks up the hint.

    Did you cover the ridiculous Yowie in Australia? Where I used to live next to the Judge Dowling ranges on the Central Coast was supposed to be prime Yowie territory – I hiked and camped all over those hills and never gave a thought to it. Disgruntled Vietnam veterans – yeah they were there, feral cats and dogs, yes, but apes??? No. Well apart from me and my hiking buddie. :-)

  8. Ricardo Briozzo says:

    Catch one of this beasts and make irrefutable proofs of its existence.