A Critical Approach to Cryptozoology
by Ben S. Roesch
Copyright 1999 Ben S. Roesch.
It has been argued in the past that cryptozoology requires specialization. After all, cryptozoology is a very wide field, and in traditional zoology, one who studies the social system of ants will not typically be asked to explain the mating behaviour of the nurse shark. In cryptozoology, however, one who writes about sasquatch one month may write about sea serpents the next. How can we be sure that all facts and interpretations are accurate? I have found that some cryptozoologists often write about things of which they know very little, and therefore make fundamental errors of reasoning and fact. This hurts the credibility cryptozoologists strive for from more mainstream scientists.
Thus the argument goes: in order to ensure accuracy in cryptozoology, research on sasquatch should be done by a primatologist or physical anthropologist, and research on sea serpents should be done by a marine biologist, preferably one who has good knowledge of both invertebrate and vertebrate marine organisms. However, this need not be the case. The key ingredients in good cryptozoological research, I think, come down to the ability to do excellent, comprehensive research (in particular, tracking down references at libraries and inquiring to experts in certain fields relating to the subject) and the ability to think critically. This may seem an easy solution, but---and excuse the cliché---it is easier said than done. Good library research is laborious and tiring work, involving, first, the search for the references for which you are looking (in cryptozoology, the references involve all subjects, from folklore to zoology); the lugging of piles of journals, books and other publications; and repetitious photocopying of hundreds upon hundreds of pages. When applicable, one must also be able to ask useful and pertinent questions in eyewitness interviews, properly record and preserve physical evidence such as tracks and hair, and perform rigorous, in-depth field research.
The idea of critical thought is somewhat more abstract. The researcher must be able to first synthesize all of the information he has gathered from his many sources, apply it to a logical framework, and decide if there is a cryptid worth investigating among all the piles of paper. In too many cases, cryptozoologists base entire theories or promote the existence of a cryptid upon very slim evidence that could easily be explained by some other cause. In many cases, cryptozoologists simply do not use sufficient critical thought in their investigations, putting too much weight on anecdotal evidence and pushing forward scientifically unacceptable theories as an explanation. This is where research is extremely important; it should help enormously in your decision of whether the cryptid you think may exist is actually probable in the light of present scientific knowledge.
An example of this is the suggestion that a small sauropod dinosaur lives in the tropical jungles of central Africa. The majority of evidence backing up this claim is anecdotal in nature; are we to believe, based on stories by a few natives and missionaries, that there is a dinosaur living in the Congo? Critically speaking, we definitely should not. There is much more evidence---hard evidence---that all dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago. Some cryptozoologists would counter this with the coelacanth analogy---if it survived that long without any fossils to show for it, then why not dinosaurs? Research on this subject would show us that the coelacanth is really a pointless analogy; it survived in an area of poor fossilization (the deep-sea), and has a very fragile, inconspicuous skeleton compared to those of dinosaurs (and thus wouldn't fossilize as well or be readily noticed). Furthermore, coelacanths on a whole were already becoming rare in the fossil record by the end of the Cretaceous, when they supposedly disappeared, whereas dinosaurs are very prominent in rocks of that age. Most importantly, it has been revealed recently that post-Cretaceous coelacanth fossils are known (Darren Naish, pers. comm.). Basically, it is ridiculous to compare the geological record of a fish to that of a dinosaur, because they are such different creatures. Yet many cryptozoologists make this error---among others---time and time again.
Critical thought and good research are key in cryptozoology, and until this practice becomes commonplace among cryptozoologists, cryptozoology will remain disrespected by traditional zoology---and rightly so.