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Credential Mongering

by Donald Prothero, Dec 18 2013

This past few days, the internet has been buzzing with conflicting reports that cryptozoologist Roy Mackal has apparently passed away. I first heard about it on Sharon Hill’s Doubtful News site, and it is also reported on Cryptomundo.com. There is also a post from a funeral home in Illinois saying he passed away back on Sept. 13, but apparently no one in the cryptozoology community knew about it until just now. However, I can find no formal obituary for him on the web, and his Wikipedia entry still doesn’t mention it. Born August 1, 1925, he would have been 88 years old, and apparently no one has been in touch with him for a long while, but it’s really surprising that the news is just reaching us three months late. I’m sorry to hear of his passing. I never met the man, but I’ve talked to a lot of people who did, and he seems to have been open and friendly and kind—but also a complete believer in the crazy notions that the Loch Ness monster and Mokele Mbembe were real.

Roy Mackal is often touted as the foremost example of a professionally-trained biologist who was an active member of the cryptozoology community, with a legitimate Ph.D. and a tenured post at the University of Chicago. As such, cryptozoologists often point to him and his Ph.D. as if it conferred respectability on their field—at least ONE Ph.D. in biology takes their stuff seriously, and has made significant research efforts in hunting monsters. But as Daniel Loxton and I pointed out in our new book, Abominable Science, what really counts is whether the Ph.D. is earned in a field relevant to cryptozoology, such as field biology and ecology. If it is not, then it is just credential mongering to impress those who don’t know any better.

Roy Mackal in his 40s when he became devoted to searching for Nessie and Mokele-Mbembe

Roy Mackal in his 40s when he became devoted to searching for Nessie and Mokele-Mbembe

Indeed, that is the case with Roy Mackal. He spent his early career working in microbiology (Ph.D. 1953), where he earned a scientific reputation in that field, and got tenure from the University of Chicago. Based on his background, he is only qualified to do research as a microbiologist, and has no formal training in systematics, field zoology or ecology that might qualify him to hunt for exotic creatures. But just as his career in microbiology was at its peak (his last peer-reviewed scientific paper was published in 1971), he apparently went through some sort of mid-life crisis. On a trip to London in 1965 when he was 40 years old, he took a side-trip to Scotland, visited Loch Ness and met with the local Nessie gang, who had set up the “Loch Ness Investigation Bureau.”  Apparently, this experience was life changing, because soon he was spending a lot of time at Loch Ness, helping with the monitoring, trying to develop new means of detection, and eventually became the head of the project. According to a 1981 interview in People magazine, one evening in 1970, Mackal says, he finally had his reward. He saw, some 30 yards away, “the back of the animal, rising eight feet out of the water, rolling, twisting. If that’s a fish, I thought, it’s a mighty fish indeed! To this day, when someone asks me, ‘Do you believe there is a monster in Loch Ness?’ my stomach does a somersault. I know what I saw.” Although the investigators found nothing more but his “eyewitness accounts” and blurry photographs, this culminated in his 1976 book The Monsters of Loch Ness. He then turned his attention to Mokele Mbembe, and mounted several expeditions to the Congo, where again he found nothing, but still managed to publish a book on the topic in 1987 entitled A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele Mbembe. Since that time, he has largely been retired and not very active in cryptozoology, although footage of him talking about Nessie or Mokele Mbembe when he was younger often reappears on Monsterquest and other shows which promote cryptozoology.

One can speculate on the factors that might have caused Mackal to undergo such a radical change in direction from a legitimate scientific career to one in pseudoscience. People at the University of Chicago who knew him told me that Mackal went through some personal crises in the period around 1965, and apparently lost interest in microbiology when the glamour of the Loch Ness monster took over. The University of Chicago tolerated his behavior (he had tenure, so they could do nothing), but most of his professional colleagues thought he had gone off the deep end.

Whatever the reasons for his change in course, cryptozoologists have often featured “Professor Roy Mackal, Ph.D.” as one of their leading figures, and one of the few with a legitimate Ph.D. in biology. What is never mentioned, however, is that he had no relevant training that would qualify him to actually do competent research on exotic animals. This is a classic case of “credential mongering,” where an individual or organization flaunts a person’s Ph.D. degree as proof of expertise, when in fact they have no training relevant in the fields they are discussing. The same strategy is employed dishonestly by creationists, who flaunt their degrees in hydraulics or biochemistry as proof they are legitimate scientists—but then they make arguments about paleontology or evolutionary biology where they have zero appropriate training, and quickly show that they are incompetent. Roy Mackal might have known about bacteria at one time, but you wouldn’t trust him to know what to do in a real field zoology study, since he doesn’t have the appropriate training, any more than you would trust him to fix your car or write a symphony or do anything else that he is not trained to do.

The passing of Roy Mackal also represents another landmark: the last member of the old guard is gone. Mackal was the sole surviving founder of the International Society of Cryptozoology, along with the other founders, Bernard Heuvelmans and Richard Greenwell, who started the organization and journal in 1992. The “old guard” that founded and nurtured what Brian Regal called  “the golden age of cryptozoology” are now nearly all dead or inactive. Bernard Heuvelmans and René Dahinden died in 2001, Grover Krantz and Ray Wallace in 2002, Richard Greenwell in 2005, and Jon-Erik Beckjord in 2008. The ISC is now extinct, along with its journal and newsletter and website, because it suffered from perpetual money problems, the journal issues were often years late, and the field never expanded or grew healthy with more scholarship as all professional societies must. With the death of the ISC, cryptozoology no longer had a formal professional organization with the pretense of serious scholarship. Loren Coleman is still alive and active, but he is over 64 and no longer working on Cryptomundo.com. There are still a few active cryptozoologists in major positions, like Bigfoot advocate Jeff Meldrum, who has a legitimate Ph.D. in anthropology and teaches at Idaho State University, but  a lot of the academic energy and scholarly force of the ISC and its supporters has vanished, and the field is once again the domain of amateurs. This is more apparent than ever with the large number of clumsy incompetent Bigfoot reports this year, from the many “”Blobsquatch” blurry photos and video that showed up on line nearly every week, to the debunking of Melba Ketchum’s incompetent work in identifying “Bigfoot DNA.” I doubt that cryptozoology will ever again gain the degree of professionalism it had when people like Mackal and Krantz and Greenwell were alive, and formed a real scholarly society with a peer-reviewed journal. Instead, it’s amateur hour again….

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6 Responses to “Credential Mongering”

  1. Trimegistus says:

    It would have been polite to at least throw in some conventional expressions of regret that the man died.

  2. It’s valid and important to consider qualifications, and to be wary of credential mongering. Certainly it goes to the credibility of cryptozoology that so few of the people involved in cryptozoology are field biologists, and (perhaps even more so) that so few field biologists seem to find cryptozoological arguments or cryptid cases compelling.

    I do feel obliged at this point, though, to emphasize that many useful contributions to the cryptozoological literature are made by people who are not field biologists. For example, Joe Nickell’s credentials are in English literature, and Ben Radford’s in psychology. My own are in visual art.

  3. Loren Coleman says:

    Someday, perhaps, I should share some deeper thoughts about credit (thank you Sharon Hill for acknowledging the first, my original obit, on Mackal at http://www.cryptozoonews.com/mackal-obit/) and credentialing.

    However, I merely wish to speak briefly here about the sad news of this passing. Roy Mackal was an intelligent, gentle professor who will be missed. Even if we are to acknowledge Mackal as an amateur field biologist, which would be a demotion of reality, we should recall the term “amateur” comes from the French for “lover of,” from Old French and ultimately from Latin amatorem nom. amator, “lover.” Like many explorers before him, Mackal’s passion and love of discovery naturally fit into his quest for cryptids. He also held many patents for inventions too. Degrees are hardly given as much weight as this blog would have us consider.

    One brief personal note: I have the feeling Mr. Prothero might be putting me on the edge of death’s door or some such. Indeed, I am active, alive, and the director of the world’s only nonprofit cryptozoology museum (now beginning its 11th year). Yes, I did leave a directionless blog I helped establish, but did not own, to begin my own CryptoZooNews a year ago – which others cite frequently now for its cryptozoology news. Meanwhile, I am writing four books, as we speak, doing fieldwork still, just got married for the third time, and hardly am slowing down. My age was strangely listed as “older than 64,” instead of just noting I’m 66. That was a bit bizarre, if you ask me, for someone who wants to get his facts straight.

    Good cheer to all at this time of year,
    Loren Coleman

  4. Gingerbaker says:

    “What is never mentioned, however, is that he had no relevant training that would qualify him to actually do competent research on exotic animals.”

    That is quite harsh. The man has earned a PhD in a hard science, has won grants, has published in peer-reviewed lit (I assume these things).

    One would hope that he would have a very good grasp of the scientific method, and a deep appreciation of evolution, genetics at the least.

    How difficult would it be for a man with such a background to get up to speed with the topics relevant to cryptozoology? I’m guessing it would not be difficult at all, and that seems to me to be a reasonable assumption.

    I think his contributions to cryptozoology need to be assessed on their own merits.

    • You missed my point. Field ecology is a highly specialized field now, a lot more than just tromping in the woods with binoculars. It takes very specialized training, which Mackal did not have. Indeed, most of his work showed he was ignorant of some of the most relevant principles of field ecology (as I outlined at length in our book). And if you want his work to be assessed on its own merits, that’s exactly what Loxton and I did. All Mackal did was show even more strongly how weak the case for either Nessie or Mokele Mbembe was, as both of us found out reading his books cover-to-cover.