When our new book, Abominable Science: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, came out at TAM last July, Daniel and I were both wondering what kind of response we would get from the cryptozoology community. Daniel is always more optimistic about people than I am. He felt that at least some cryptozoologists attempt to follow the scientific method and want to be taken seriously as scientists, and they would give the book a fair hearing despite the mountains of evidence we compiled that demolishes their ideas. My expectation was a bit different. My hide is scarred by 40 years of battling creationists, and I’ve seen how facts and evidence and logic don’t matter to people when a skeptic challenges a belief that they hold deeply and which gives them meaning in their lives. We never made a formal bet on the outcome, but it’s been interesting now in the three months since the book has been out what kind of response it has received.
As expected, we got great reviews from the mainstream media and even from some high-profile scientific journals, like Nature, so we knew the book was properly focused and was effective for the general audience. (So far, we have 23 five-star and four-star reviews on its Amazon.com site, and only 5 one-star reviews from cryptozoologists). We even got a couple of half-decent or at least non-condemning reviews from some prominent cryptozoologists, and it was publicized on their websites such as www.cryptomundo.com, giving the cryptozoology community plenty of chance to notice it. But as I expected, more of the reviews from the cryptozoologists have been nasty, unfair, and full of venom, some of which Daniel has addressed in posts about Daniel Perez’s and Bill Munn’s attack on our treatment of Bigfoot, and Roland Watson’s attack on our demolition of the Loch Ness monster myth.
For me, it’s deja vu all over again. Substitute a few words here and there, and the tone and the content of these cryptozoologists’ attacks on our work sound much like those of the creationist internet trolls that attack anything mentioning evolution. As I pointed out in my other new book, Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future, the people who don’t like the “inconvenient truths” of science which might threaten their own cherished belief system always fall back on some of the same tactics to blunt the critique of their arguments, and obscure what everyone else accepts as reality. I call it “the Holocaust denier’s playbook” because it’s the same strategy pioneered by the Holocaust deniers, who have managed to convince a lot of people that the Holocaust never happened, or that it was not as bad as claimed—despite the fact that the Nazis themselves proudly documented it, and we have thousands of survivors still living who remember (although that number dwindles every day as they die off). The same strategy has long been used creationists as well. Some of these tactics were described in Michael Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird Things, but the specific differ from case to case.
In our case, all three of the reviews mentioned above employ the common tactic of nitpicking about insignificant details. Holocaust deniers will quibble about small details of scholarship on the Holocaust, as if these small details make the entire event a fantasy. Creationists are legendary for picking out small individual examples that they misinterpret as favorable to them, and dominating a debate with such trivia. Climate deniers will pick some tiny factoid about climate out of context, and focus on it to get the debate completely derailed. As you read the cryptozoologists’ arguments, and Loxton’s rebuttal to them, they spend the entire content of their review focused on some little detail of who said what in what year, and whether we quoted a certain source properly. Daniel’s reply puts all those ridiculous claims to rest, but unless one has spent a lot of time buried in that literature to know all the minuscule details, and the full context of various cryptozoological claims and reports (as Loxton has), you can’t tell whether their claims have any merit or not.
But the flip side of this obsession with debunking by trivia is another common phenomenon: missing the forest for the trees. Such trivial details may be important to obsessive-compulsive types who spend all their time in Bigfoot and Nessie minutiae, but they have no bearing on the larger argument: what does the preponderance of the evidence say? In Chapter 1 and throughout the book, we compiled mountains of scientific evidence that are overwhelmingly against the existence of these creatures. So what if a particular source said a particular thing in a different year that Loxton or I cited? Where are their attempts to deal with the fact that the evidence of cryptids is almost entirely based on “eyewitness” accounts, which recent psychological research has shown is completely worthless as evidence of what really exists? Where are their counterarguments to the huge list of biological, geological and paleontological constraints that we enumerated that make their obsession with details irrelevant? For the Nessie story (and all the other lake monsters), the most crucial fact is that all of these lakes in which monsters were reported were under a mile of ice just 10,000 years ago. None of these lakes has a route to the sea that any marine organism could travel up, and most are completely landlocked. So where did Nessie and Champ and the rest go when the ice covered the lake? I’ve never seen one decent explanation by any cryptozoologist that shows they comprehend the geological impossibilities inherent in their mythology. What about the fossil record, which shows overwhelmingly that both dinosaurs and plesiosaurs have been extinct for 65 million years all over the world, so there’s no possibility that they somehow hid from the excellent Cenozoic fossil record of large land animals and shallow marine organisms without leaving one single bone (even though their fossils are abundant in Mesozoic rocks). Likewise, we have an excellent fossil record of mammals in North America, with literally thousands of fossils from the Ice Ages from nearly every species, yet there is not one primate fossil in North America younger than about 34 million years ago. What about the problems that animals this size (whether Bigfoot or Nessie or Mokele Mbembe) need a huge range to sustain their populations, yet none of their supposed habitats is big enough to support such a population? What about the fact that not one bone of these creatures has ever been found? We find plenty of other bones of creatures we know exist (including rare things, like bears and cougars), but the entire evidence for Bigfoot is based on “eyewitness” accounts (worthless as scientific evidence, since it is so easily mistaken and distorted), trackways (easily hoaxed and faked, as has happened often), grainy, blurry, terrible photos (“Blobsquatch”), the suspicious Patterson-Gimlin film (an obvious fake, for reasons we documented), and the supposed hair and DNA (which has always come back as human or some other known wild animal when the DNA is sequenced). All of these problems and many more were enumerated in the book at length—yet not one of these cryptozoologists even begins to address it.
The third common science-denier strategy is cherry picking: find something here and there that appears to favor your position, and ignore everything else that doesn’t. Both the climate deniers and the creationists are legendary for doing this, and so too are the cryptozoologists. In all the reviews mentioned above, the cryptozoologists pick on a few cases they think are strong and deserve to be taken seriously, and omit any mention of the dozens of counter-cases that we dissected in the book. In these particular cases, the reviewers even admit that they read only one chapter of the book, and didn’t bother to read the rest! So much for a fair unbiased assessment! Not only did they cherry-pick the parts of a single chapter that they preferred, but they are completely honest in confessing that they never even looked at any of the mountains of counter-evidence that we amassed. Then they have the gall to accuse us of sloppy scholarship!
It appears that my pessimistic expectations were justified. There may be a few scientifically-minded cryptozoologists out there, but judging by the actions of those who reviewed the book without doing their homework, the cryptozoology community is just like the creationists. They are obsessed with a mythology to which they devote a lot of their time and effort and money, and which apparently gives their lives meaning and purpose. No amount of evidence or fact will dissuade them, because this belief system gives them comfort, and nothing can shake it. Clearly, they believe in things based on personal experience and anecdotal evidence from other story-tellers, not hard facts. When facts do get in the way of their mythology, they ignore them or find ways to distort them or cloud the debate with irrelevant discussions of trivial and arcane details.
Frankly, I would have been very surprised if it had been otherwise. I’ve read enough of their writings to spot their similarities to creationists. I hold no further illusions that cryptozoologists can be persuaded by evidence and facts, no matter how overwhelming a case we present.