There’s science and then there’s pseudoscience. But what about the grey area in between? Jack Flanagan looks at Cryptozoology, the science of legendary monsters.
In 2000, onetime zookeeper Richard Freeman was tired of people making fun of his passion. He was, and still is, a cryptozoologist: someone who researches the animals science knows nothing about.
Looking like the birthday magician you begged your mum not to hire, he waits in his home for a representative from the little-known Hong Kong film studio “Bang Productions”. He isn’t hopeful.
Then in walks the outrageously beautiful Manami Szymko. Her studio has the commission from Discovery Channel for a piece on cryptozoology. She’s here to convince Freeman to jump on board and help uncover the mysteries of the legendary Naga of the Mekong River in Thailand. The program is to be called “The Mysteries of Asia”. Freeman hardly needs any encouragement.
Sadly, in Thailand the Nagas aren’t forthcoming. Freeman’s enthusiasm, however, is stalwart. Despite unsubstantiated reports of Nagas, an elephant’s tooth mistaken for a snake vertebrae and a video of just rolling waves and clear water, Freeman goes home knowing in his heart that the snake still lies out there, waiting for him.
Freeman is one of many. In the UK, the science of cryptozoology is centred around the Centre for Fortean Zoology, or CFZ. They describe themselves as a “mystery animal research group”, and believe that in the remote corners of the world there are animals which are actively avoiding humans. It is a voluntary, not-for-profit organisation.
Cryptozoology straddles the line between the paranormal and empirical sciences, or what’s known as a protoscience. A protoscience is one which chases after ghosts but which, after all, is willing to accept that they may just not exist. That is, if someone can disprove it enough to satisfy a crytozoologist. And, as Freeman proves, that’s not easy.
They spend their time investigating the mysterious animals of the world. Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, Yeti: these animals or “megafauna” have inspired native populations and fiction writers for generations. But some people take it to the next level: believing that they really exist, somewhere out there.
Their faith goes on, encouraged by rare sightings and word-of-mouth. In Freeman’s retelling of his adventures of his time in Thailand, the “evidence” he eats up are the reports of villagers. They claim to have fled from a “70 metre serpent”. He wonders whether this is the creature he’s been waiting for. Meanwhile, any suggestion that the very large Mekong catfish might be his Naga has been “mooted”. Why, he doesn’t say.
Uneasy relationship with reality
To date Cryptozoologists have had few successes, or zero if you’re not generous about it. The Komodo Dragon was once thought to be a fictional animal, but that theory was quickly put to bed in 1910 when a host of skins and trophy heads made their way back to the laboratories in England. Plus, as large animals they were both unable to hide, and didn’t see any reason to: for the most part, large animals don’t need to run away from anyone.
Other legends like the Kraken have been received quite easily into the scientific community: very large squid do exist. Meanwhile, cryptozoologists almost scorn the halfway-house between what is real and what is legend. Could a giant species of squid tear down an 18th century ship? No? Then it isn’t the Kraken. The real Kraken apparently still lurks somewhere unobserved, where scientists are afraid to go.
The relationship between scientists and crytozoologists is an uneasy one, at best. Publications like Nature and the Journal of Zoology, and even popular publications like The New Scientist, wouldn’t publish a cryptozoological piece unless it was framed in a classically scientific style. That’s something red-blooded cryptozoologists have no interest in doing: words like “evidence” are treated as mildly offensive, unless it can be reintroduced to include grainy photos and local opinion.
Is this research coming from scientists, or the boys that use to watch Doctor Who?
That’s not to say cryptozoologists aren’t skeptical at all. Karl Shuker: cryptozoologist, editor of The Journal of Cryptozoology and poet has released a number of blog posts debunking online mysteries. It would, it’s worth saying, take a lot to believe these images in the first place.
Shuker’s Journal is a peer-reviewed look at cryptozoology around the world. The “peer-review” is presumably the peers of the cryptozoological community and not skeptics. It’s currently on volume two, discussing Spanish lake monsters and unidentified hominids, among other things.
The work of cryptozoologists is very much questionable. Is this research coming from scientists, or the boys that use to watch Doctor Who and are now trying to live their lives in his shadow? The romanticism surrounding the profession is almost as much a part of their job as trying to actually find the animals. Everyone can find entertainment in the stories of monsters, but how much evidence is enough to prove that that’s all they are?