Matt Bille Reviews Abominable Science

Posted by: Craig Woolheater on September 8th, 2013


From Matt’s Sci/Tech Blog

Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids

Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero
Columbia, 2013

Loxton and Prothero have written a very good book, which I reviewed on Amazon as a 4.5 star effort (I’ll explain why I had to downgrade it just a bit) that goes on the “must reading” list for anyone interested in cryptozoology. I’ve been following this field for decades now without seeing anything that fills this niche – that of the scientific, skeptical (in the good sense of the word) consideration of the entire field and its most spectacular maybe-creatures.

Prothero, a geologist and paleontologist, and Loxton, a skeptical science writer (and a superb illustrator, as the reader of this book will discover), start with the question of whether cryptozoology is a science or pseudoscience. They come down mainly on the latter side, arguing that cryptozoology as often practiced includes some of the sketchiest “science” being written today. They do nod to the recent discoveries in the animal world as evidence of what real field zoologists are accomplishing. (I do wish to note that “the beaked whale” (they mean the pygmy beaked whale, Mesoplodon peruvianus) is only one of several cetaceans described in the last two decades.) The existence of a reported creature is a perfectly valid subject for science, but, in the instant-analysis age of the Internet, the science is often poorly done at best. The authors also point out there’s a tendency in much cryptozoological writing to place too heavy a reliance on the details reported by eyewitnesses.

I argue, as I always have, that cryptozoology is a science because it deals in falsifiable hypotheses, but it’s hard to argue against the claims of sloppiness in the execution of it.

Then it’s on to the creatures, a chapter each for Bigfoot, the yeti, Nessie, the sea serpent, and mokele-mbembe. I accept the point, reinforced in the authors’ much-appreciated response to a couple of queries from me, that a single book can only cover the most pivotal cases and must leave out many details even then. However, while I agree with the thrust of the argument in all cases save perhaps the sea serpent, there are some nits to pick amid the generally excellent text.

The authors ask good questions about sasquatch, including why wildlife biologists never come across it and why one of the foundational reports, William Roe’s seemingly sincere declaration, was never actually investigated. They agree with Greg Long’s debunking of the Patterson film, although they should have mentioned that Long’s book presents two contradictory accounts of the suit (a modified theatrical costume vs. a heavy horsehide suit)without reconciling them. They class the most famous sasquatch prints, the Bossburg “Cripplefoot” tracks, as a hoax by the notorious Ivan Marx, while acknowledging forthrightly that eminent primatologist John Napier had a different opinion. They argue that it’s not true we don’t find bones of other animals, like bears (even some sasquatch hunters have found dead bears) and that saying Bigfoot buries its dead is special pleading unsupported by even the slightest evidence.

The authors dismiss the yeti, pointing out correctly that it’s very hard to find good evidence for an unknown animal in the jumble of differing reports and folktales. They suggest the Shipton footprints were a hoax, although there’s only the most indirect hint of this. They deserve kudos for not suggesting the clear print shot in closeup was a product of melting/refreezing: skeptics like Joe Nickell who argue this have apparently never experimented. (I have, and it doesn’t wash: as Loxton and Prothero point out, though, this IS the explanation for some “yeti” trackways.) I have another nitpick here: one shouldn’t cite climber Reinhold Messner’s belief that the yeti is a brown bear and not mention he thought it was a bizarre bipedal whistling species, not an ordinary Ursus arctos.

The Nessie chapter won’t surprise anyone who’s read prior skeptical analyses of this much-discussed subject. Suffice to say the authors consider it a mixture of hoaxes, claims made for tourists’ benefit, and misidentifications. They are certain all the photographic evidence, including the Dinsdale film and the Rines photographs, can be safely dismissed.

On to the sea serpent, the authors correctly report the saga began as a compendium of now-known creatures and heroic myths. Whether there’s a core of unexplained fact in the hundreds of recorded sightings is the question, and the authors argue strongly that, if you can technically never disprove the sea serpent, you can still safely dismiss it. Two of the omissions here, though, are startling: the New England serpent of 1817 and the Nicoll/Meade-Waldo sighting of 1905, which are foundational episodes in any argument for the sea serpent. While they analyze and reject two other “touchstone” cases, the Daedalus sighting and the Cadborosuarus events, they ignore the other two. Loxton explained they meant to include the New England case but it just got lost in the crunch of writing a book that was 200 pages over the specified length and two years behind the original deadline: I can sympathize, but the New Englander still needed more than a passing mention. On Meade-Waldo, Loxton (who wrote this chapter) advised me that they left it out because it didn’t fit in with the main sea serpent story: in other words, it was an outlier in which the animal as described was something other than the classic sea serpent. I can see the logic, though I disagree with it.

On to the African dinosaur, mokele-mbembe. The authors pretty much shred the case for this animal, and I agree on every count: the images could be anything, the contamination of local witnesses is long since a forgone conclusion, and the ecology and paleontology don’t work. Loxton and Prothero win this round pretty convincingly.

The authors conclude with their somewhat differing views on whether cryptozoology is a harmless diversion or contributes to the problem they see in general rejection of science and the willingness to believe the unscientific, even the irrational. While treading cautiously on religion (although the previous chapter discussed the creationist motive behind some mokele-mbembe activities), they make a strong case that, in areas which we can all agree should be about science, there is in fact a lot of bad science and a lot of irrationality.

There are 56 pages of endnotes and citations tacked onto this book: the authors clearly gave it their all. If I’ve pointed out some flaws, I want to come back around to the main point of how good and how important this book is. Even cryptozoologists who think the authors are flat-out wrong on one or more major animals need to read this skeptical but not closed-minded work. It’s a superb contribution.

About Matt

Matt Bille writes science, history, and fiction from his home in beautiful Colorado Springs, Colorado. Matt interests are many, but a few of his specialties are space, cryptozoology, and national defense. In addition to writing books, he frequently updates Matt’s Sci-Tech Blog. Listed below are some of Matt’s varied accomplishments. 2012 First novel, The Dolmen, will sppear from Wolfsinger Publications 2011 Wrote on marine “monster” legends and folklore for ASIAN GEOGRAPHIC. Wrote “International Space Cooperation: A Rising Tide,” an article featured in Space Times magazine May/June 2010 Matt was profiled in 2010 as one of the “Men of Cryptozoology” 2010 Published a short story in the Anthology All About Eve (Wolfsinger Publications) and his ideas on international cooperation in Space Times magazine. 2008 Interviewed as on-camera expert on mystery bears for an episode of The History Channel’s MonsterQuest series. The episode aired several times in the fall of 2008. 2007 Appeared on the opening panel of the American Astronautical Society’s Annual Conference in Houston. Presentation title: “50 Years of Space History: A Resource for the Future.” On the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launch, published (with Erika Lishock), the article “Sputnik – the Human Story,” in QUEST magazine, issue #14:4. 2006 Presented with Kris Winkler to the AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites on “Microspacecraft and the Vision for Space Exploration.” Second book on zoological discoveries and mysteries, Shadows of Existence, published by Hancock House. 2004 Second nonfiction and first space history book, The First Space Race: Launching the World’s First Satellites, published by Texas A&M under sponsorship from the NASA Chief Historian. 1995 First nonfiction book, Rumors of Existence, about the world’s rarest and least known animals and the many new discoveries made in the 20th century, published by Hancock House. 1994-Present Consultant, analyst, and researcher for a variety of topics in the fields of space, defense, and national policy. 1992 Published the first of a continuing series of professional papers, magazine articles, and newsletters on my favorite scientific topics: zoology and space exploration. 1982-1994 Officer, U.S. Air Force, specializing in ballistic missiles, guidance programming, and command & control.

About Craig Woolheater
Co-founder of Cryptomundo in 2005. I have appeared in or contributed to the following TV programs, documentaries and films: OLN's Mysterious Encounters: "Caddo Critter", Southern Fried Bigfoot, Travel Channel's Weird Travels: "Bigfoot", History Channel's MonsterQuest: "Swamp Stalker", The Wild Man of the Navidad, Destination America's Monsters and Mysteries in America: Texas Terror - Lake Worth Monster, Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot: Return to Boggy Creek and Beast of the Bayou.

5 Responses to “Matt Bille Reviews Abominable Science”

  1. Matt Bille via Facebook responds:

    Much appreciated. Others have pointed out some more criticisms of this book: I might give it 4 stars instead of 4.5 on a revisit. But even if you think the authors are dead wrong on every point, this book is important and a must-read.

  2. Scott Mardis via Facebook responds:

    This book is on my radar and shopping list.

  3. DWA responds:

    Matt Bille: I’m not so sure about must-read.

    My read so far is a rehash of the same skeptical shibboleths I have been dealing with for years (dismissal of anecdotes, out of hand; excessive fallback on scientific method by people who aren’t practicing it on the evidence; no-proof-yet as argument; misapprehension of resources actually being devoted to the search, vs. for mainstream-approved topics…I could go on and on).

    The skeptical community dukes it out with the proponent fringe, and studiously avoids the scientists who disagree with it, and actually have a case for what they think. The mainstream “consensus” upon which they fall back doesn’t even grasp the depth and breadth of the evidence. This book simply perpetuates that behavior.

    One must-read is Bill Munns’s critique of this book. He is right; and his analysis of the Patterson film is right there to be taken apart.

    By anyone who can.

    THAT is science. This book, not so much.

  4. corrick responds:

    One can always count on Matt as a candle in the darkness and a voice of reason.

    Ironic that the ones who write they don’t need to read this book are exactly the
    same that always claim mainstream science ignores their evidence.

  5. DWA responds:

    Um, corrick?

    What we are saying is that this book is a prime example of ignoring the evidence.

    For example: anyone going to have a talk with Bill Munns anytime soon? Or Jeff Meldrum for that matter? Still waiting for that.

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