Analyst vs. Critic: Cryptozoology and Pseudoscience

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In each installment of Analyst vs. Critic I take on an article written about suspected paranormal phenomena. I will examine the breadth and depth of the article and look for signs of bias and flawed thinking. I don’t do this to put down paranormal critics, but rather to inform those interested in serious investigations of the paranormal. 

Today I will analyze a piece by Geologist and CSICOP contributor Sharon Hill; Cryptozoology and Pseudoscience

You can read the article in its’ entirety here.

I’m going to omit portions of these piece that are for background and provide no grounds for analysis. I also will not be a critical of this piece as I usually am. Hill clearly establishes this article as an opinion piece, as such it would be unfair to apply my usual criticism for the use of generalization and unsupported claims.

Cryptozoologists have a classic love-hate relationship with the scientific community. This field has a history of interest from credentialed scientists, including anthropologists, zoologists, and wildlife biologists. (For more on this in the context of Bigfoot research specifically, see Brian Regal’s book Searching for Sasquatch.—Ed.) Yet the majority of cryptozoology enthusiasts are amateurs without formal science training. They follow Cryptomundo, watch television documentaries, read the literature, and maybe even participate in research groups.

Years ago, I shared an interesting local story with Coleman. He passed it on to an e-mail list, identifying me as “Cryptozool­ogist Sharon Hill.” I was appalled; I didn’t call myself that. I learned quickly that anyone can call him- or herself a cryptozoologist. You need no special qualifications or training, just an interest in and knowledge of the jargon (and, most importantly, reverence for the self-appointed experts). Cole­man laughed off my objections by telling me that I didn’t understand his sense of humor.

Not to disparage the Cryptomundo site, but my comments on various posts there have frequently been deleted and in some cases altered because they were critical of Coleman’s assertions. On this latest topic, Coleman did include one of my comments that linked to my website. However, he added a link in the comment directing readers to a skeptical site, clearly showing his audience (some of whom often refer to skeptics as “scoftics”) where my affiliations re­side. The crypto community is warm and welcoming to professionals who are sympathetic, but its members show blatant disdain for scientists and investigators critical of their claims.

If this is true about Coleman’s deletion of Hill’s comments, I find this troubling. While I am a libertarian and a staunch advocate for freedoms I acknowledge Coleman’s right to delete comments as he so chooses. However this action is an indicator of one who isn’t interested in critical discussion about the subject at hand. Whether logical or illogical, critical discussion is a necessary mechanism to determine veracity.

I actually have scientific training and a degree in a scientific field; I have done lab work, field work, and research. However, I would not feel comfortable calling myself a cryptozoologist for several reasons. Although I’ve enjoyed wildlife biology and zoology since I learned to read, I’m not a trained specialist in these subjects, and I’m not devoted to studying these fields. I would rather earn such a label and respect through good work.

One can’t get away with self-labeling his or her expertise in science. A scientist in our society is assumed to have at least specialized training and a degree in a scientific field. Many people hold scientists to an even higher standard, expecting them to be currently working in the field and actively conducting research, producing data, and publishing studies. But it is the education and training of a scientist that is the most critical piece. It requires practice to learn how to think scientifically. It takes effort to put together careful research results, and science is a special culture that has rules. The norms of science—how you are expected to conduct your work—are strict, which gives science its high credibility.

I agree that no scientific background can be problematic. However if Hill is insinuating that a normal person cannot participate in the process or even create scientific tests I would strongly disagree. Formal education is not a necessity but some form of education is. But we also need to acknowledge the lack of scientific interest in the study of paranormal. Study requires objectivity and many scientists who investigate claims of the paranormal have demonstrated bias and illogical reasoning to support their hypotheses. Read more of my Analyst vs. Critic articles for examples of this. You may also find my article on the Participation Paradox to be of interest.

Calling a field “pseudoscience” will un­doubtedly yield controversy. The word colors the accumulated knowledge of the field as well as its participants, but it is also used to de­scribe the process of work. A subjective line can be drawn between science and pseudoscience depending on which criteria you use (collectively referred to as the “demarcation problem”). “Pseudo­science” is clearly a pejorative term meant to set one area outside the establishment or to judge it as inferior to genuine science. No one deliberately calls him- or herself a pseudoscientist. I prefer another term for pseudoscientific en­deavors: “sham inquiry.” Cryptozoology typically qualifies.

“Sham inquiry” is about the process of pseudoscientific inquiry and why the results of that process are inferior to scientific in­quiry. Amateur investigation most often fails to reach the high bar of science for a variety of reasons. The methods of amateur investigation groups sound scientific, look scientific, and can fool a lot of people into thinking they are scientific, but there are clear arguments for why they are not.

Hill’s own acknowledgement that the line between pseudo-science and genuine science is subjective opens the door for issues. From the perspective of the paranormal investigator, they should be concerned that even with genuine efforts to use scientific methodology they may retain the label of pseudo-scientists because of the stigma used to characterize all who are in the field. We should ask some questions. If we cannot get objective scientific participation in the field, can the work of paranormal investigators ever be accepted? Even if the work of a paranormal investigator follows scientific principals, will there be resistance due to the continued stigmatization of the field? The real question is are scientists being fair in their treatment of paranormal investigators? Does this treatment create an unfair standard? From my past articles you can infer my opinion, but I won’t open that door here.

The primary problem, and the point that Koerth-Baker nailed with her comment, is that by and large cryptozoologists assume that a mystery creature is out there for them to find. They begin with a bias: They are advocates. They are not testing a hypothesis but instead seeking evidence to support their position. The answer is already in their head. (The same can be said for most ghost hunters and UFO investigators.) They also begin with the wrong question. Instead of asking, “What happened?” they ask, “Is it a cryptid?” They have immediately narrowed the possible solutions.

Certainly some are worse than others. I ad­mire several so-called cryptozoologists who have really great insights and conduct science-based reporting. My two favorite blogs are Darren Naish’s Tetropod Zoology (http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology) and Karl Shuker’s Shuker Nature (www.karlshuker.blogspot.com/). My favorite podcast,Monster Talk (www.skeptic.com/podcasts/monstertalk/), brings in genuine scientists to talk about cryptozoological phenomena.

Not all cryptozoologists can be characterized as having this pre-determined outlook, but I will agree that many do. I also agree that this bias can affect the results of an investigation. Many investigators are looking simply to prove a claim not evaluate it. But as must apply our critical thinking principals let’s turn this line of thought toward the claimant. I argue that many paranormal critics have this same bias and frequently demonstrate it. You can read more about that point here. And related arguments are made here.

I also need to point out that differentiating between who has and doesn’t have pre-determined objectives can be tricky. Some investigators blatantly tell us that they want to prove something paranormal but others don’t. I would suggest Hill use caution in applying this label en masse. I will be the first to say that my critique of some paranormal critics does not extended through the entire scientific community.

What I don’t admire is when the basic ideals of science are ignored: good scholarship in research, quality data collection and documentation, proper publication, skepticism, and open criticism. Instead, the bulk of popular cryptozoology is a jumble of the same poor-quality evidence, a ton of hype, rampant speculation, and unfounded assumptions—even conspiracy theories and, too often, paranormal explanations.

Amateurs and nonscientists can do science, and cryptozoology could be a science. However, I don’t see that occurring often. It takes a lot of effort to do proper investigation, which requires resources and a dedication to science and truth that the average cryptid enthusiast does not have.

We agree but I think these issues plaque all sides. I have found very few who have demonstrated the objectivity and interest to evaluate claims of the paranormal without influencing the results and conducting inferior analysis.

I appreciate Hill’s opinion that amateurs and non-scientists can do science; an answer to my questions posed above. But I do not believe everyone shares this view. Call me crazy if you want.

I want the quality of standards to im­prove and for the field to resolve itself into a rational examination of people’s sightings and reports of strange incidents. You can’t get there by following the same paths as the past cryptozoologists Coleman often cites. Any website claiming to be scientific ought to deliver a proper examination of claims, thorough investigation, rational literature, and well-thought-out responses to criticism. A good cryptozoology news and information site will have all this without resorting to hype in order to increase ad revenue. Excellent re­search is already out there, such as that done by Daniel Loxton, Michael Dennett, Benjamin Radford, Blake Smith, Joe Nickell, and David Daegling. I find critical, detailed, careful, objective evaluation of these curious crypto questions far more satisfying than those hyped-up adventure stories or breaking-news claims of evidence (which almost always end up fizzling out). I finally found the satisfying examination of cryptids I was looking for all along from authors with a more skeptical approach.

My wish is for the field of cryptozoology to continue to get better. Much good work has come out in the past few years, and more is to come. I’m excited for these new voices to raise the discussion to a higher quality level and examine the field from a more enlightened perspective. Raise the bar. No more pseudoscience!

Of course I agree with Hill’s vision of more scientific research into claims of the paranormal but I disagree with her examples of people doing excellent research in the field. Read more of my Analyst vs. critic articles if you want to see why. This highlight a central problem I see more and more examples of – scientists are not good at introspection. Yet introspection is a fundamental requirement of critical thinking. Without introspection even the best critical thinker can lose their way. Critical thinking is a battle against one’s own mind. It is a crusade to root out bias and illogical thinking. If this practice is not done to oneself, much less one’s colleagues, that leaves a great deal of room for poor practices to develop.

I would like the scientific community to keep itself in check and when they aren’t I will be here to offer the criticism they need to get back on track. I hope my readers will recognize this as a necessary duty if we want a field of critical thinkers and I hope you will act in the same capacity towards me. I would be disappointed by anything less.

Related Reading
The Harm of Unchecked Belief
How to Avoid Confirmation Bias – A Lesson for Skeptics and Believers Alike!
Where’s the Proof? The Scientific Method Applies Both Ways
The Participation Paradox 
What Happens When We Have a Logical Stalemate… Science Wins??

 

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