Sunday, May 19, 2013

Cryptozoology as a Mystery Religion

I've finally realized something about cryptozoology that had been nagging at me for some time.  I've commented before on some problems with the methodology of cryptozoology -- basically that it is incapable of sustaining iterations of the scientific method because by definition it deals with "hidden animals" for which there is enough evidence to form an hypothesis, but not enough to develop and refine a theory.  Having spent some time at a cryptozoology blog, though, I am now convinced that there is a difference between the motivations for cryptozoology and for proper science.  Roughly speaking, scientists are interested in better understanding their subjects and in sharing what they know; cryptozoologists -- at least an appreciable number of them -- desire the smug feeling of being one of the few people who really knows the the truth.  This is the same attitude that has spawned countless mystery religions over the years.

The clue that led me to this conclusion was the behavior of one particular cryptzoology fan.  (It is only fair to say that he appears to be a fan only, not someone who actually involves himself in any actual attempted research.)  During intermittent visits to the blog I have in mind I have noticed that this person tirelessly offers his opinions on the failings of scientists to "do real science" by devoting much more time and resources to looking for Bigfoot, and he has claimed dozens of times that there is sufficient evidence for any rational, unbiased person to conclude that Sasquatch is a real, bipedal ape native to North America.  Yet whenever I have asked direct questions about what he claims to know, whether what evidence he considers most convincing or citations for the sources evidence he claims to be aware of, the answer is always the same.  "Life is too short" for him to say what the convincing evidence is, though apparently not too short for him to endlessly repeat the unsupported claim that the evidence is convincing.  

I am not referring to a single incident, let alone a single request for details.  This has happened repeatedly, and I have pressed him hard for citations that he refuses to supply.  When asked for what he considered the top five pieces of evidence pointing to the existence of Bigfoot, he claimed that I could not do something analogous and provide the five best pieces of evidence for Einstein's theory of relativity -- but I did.  In spite of this, he claimed that his knowledge is so vast that it is impossible even to summarize it.  In the end, his behavior was exactly like that of the people who emerge about once a year to claim they have a Bigfoot body:  a lot of empty talk, zero evidence.  It was this commonality between two very different "cryptozoologists" who would not think much of each other that made me think I was onto something.

This is very different from the attitude that characterizes real science.  I'll concede, of course, that scientists are cursed with pride like the rest of mankind, so of course each of us likes the idea of being the first to solve a problem.  Also, for those of us not blessed with state-of-the-art facilities and jobs that allow us to devote our full time to research, it helps to choose a research area that is not crowded.  But ... if you ask a real scientist about the subject of his research, the real risk is not that he will blow you off, the real risk is that he will never shut up -- about the background and related research by other people, about potential applications, and of course about his own specific contributions.  He will probably even try to drag you to his lab.  

If a real scientist is looking for something and finds it -- the Higgs Boson, for example -- he won't say, "Cool.  NEXT!"  Instead, he will try to learn more about the thing he has just discovered.  "What exactly is the mass of the Higgs Boson?  Is there only one?  Does anything about it hint at physics beyond the Standard Model?"  

For another example, sure, Jane Goodall is curious about Bigfoot.  If Bigfoot were found tomorrow, she would be even more curious about him, much as she has spent her whole life wanting to know more about chimpanzees.  Compare this with how cryptozoologists treat the giant squid.  Yes, they mention it all the time, since it was almost certainly the basis for the legends about the Kraken.  What you don't see is sustained interest in the giant squid as an animal -- the sort of interest that marine biologists have about the squid's anatomy, life cycle, and evolutionary history, among other things.  Instead, now that the giant squid is a known object of science, cryptozoologists are only interested in using it in an argument that other large animals (usually sea serpents) may yet remain undiscovered in the sea.  The squid is no longer hidden; it is no longer a cryptid; because it is now in the domain of the marine biologist, the cryptzoologist no longer has a claim to special insight, and he loses interest.

Cryptozoology shares its "mystery religion" aspect with its close relative, "paranormal investigations", as well as with many other aspects of contemporary culture (notably including both the fascination with conspiracies, real or imaginary, and the widespread dabbling with the occult and/or esoteric religions); this is an atmosphere that is all around us.  Recognizing it, though, makes clear what is otherwise mysterious.  If cryptozoology fans are really so interested in Bigfoot, why don't they actually go into zoology?  Why don't they acquire the formal education needed to understand their quarry?  
Why do they so distrust and belittle science when their whole lives are shaped by it?  (I know of no Amish enthusiasts of Bigfoot.)  Why are they so firmly convinced by such shoddy evidence?  

And don't be fooled.  They go out of their way to say that they don't believe in Bigfoot, or whatnot, but that they are just following the evidence in good scientific fashion.  They say this as though "believe" actually meant "believe for no good reason", which of course it does not.  ("Will it rain tomorrow?"  "I believe so; there's a cold front headed our way.")  The real reason they do this is in a vain attempt to conceal their religious-like devotion to their favorite cryptids, a devotion that swallows shoddy evidence, celebrates any minor academic who gives them the time of day, is enraged by any "heretic" who dares to doubt their shoddy evidence.

So, yeah:  when it comes to how the adherents of cryptozoology think and act, cryptozoology really is a kind of mystery religion.

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