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On July 12th 2011 a very interesting thing is happening – interesting, that is, if you’re interested in the academic evaluation of cryptozoological data. ZSL (the Zoological Society of London) is hosting the meeting ‘Cryptozoology: science or pseudoscience?’. Speakers are Charles Paxton, Michael Woodley and myself. Henry Gee is acting as chair.

Given that one of the things we hope to address is whether cryptozoology – whatever that term might mean – should be considered a valid branch of zoological science, this meeting shouldn’t be taken as evidence that cryptozoology has finally “come in from the cold”, nor that the doors are wide open for the acceptance by ‘mainstream science’ of cryptozoologists and cryptozoological investigations.

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Nevertheless, this is an important step and it demonstrates that the investigation of mystery animal reports remains a topic of interest to trained scientists, or some trained scientists at least. Note that we shouldn’t say that the meeting demonstrates how cryptozoology has become of great interest to trained scientists, since this has always been the case: many scientists associated with non-controversial, ‘mainstream’ zoological efforts have had a vested interest in mystery animal reports and have frequently published cryptozoological data and speculations (the board of the now defunct International Society of Cryptozoology included a list of notable biologists and palaeobiologists, among them Nicholas Hotton, C. Levett Smith, Pascal Tassy and George Zug). This phenomenon explains – in part – why I can’t really agree that cryptozoology is pseudoscientific: sure, some of the people interested in the subject have not adopted a scientific, parsimonious, evidence-led approach, but many others definitely have and do.

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In fact, the whole ‘science or pseudoscience’ issue is so complex with regard to cryptozoology that I don’t think it’s possible to make a simple decision one way or another. Like many trained scientists, I regard myself as what you’d call a sceptic, but I don’t see that being a sceptic is at all incongruous with an interest in cryptozoology, nor even with being a ‘cryptozoologist’, and lots of people happy to call themselves dedicated cryptozoologists would and do agree with me. [Adjacent graph, from Paxton (2009), shows – counter-intuitively, perhaps – that a significant percentage of reported sightings of unidentified large marine animals occur at a claimed close range, and not at great distance. Why? Charles will be discussing this sort of thing in his talk.]

What I object to in particular is the knee-jerk reaction that any interest in cryptozoology makes you a crank or a naïve believer in the impossible. Not only are some targets of cryptozoology entirely ‘believable’ (example: new marine sharks and cetaceans*), the assumption that people interested in cryptozoology necessarily ‘believe’ in the existence of the supposed targets of cryptozoology is erroneous. Clearly, you can investigate mystery animal reports because you’re interested in what they might tell you about the evolution and transmission of folklore, the reliability and abilities of eyewitnesses, and so on. Furthermore, I always thought that the scientific evaluation of claims of any kind was meant to be a good thing (see comments in Woodley et al. (2008)). Basically, there’s definitely science to do here, whether you advocate the possible existence of the respective supposed animal species or not.

* An assortment of reported ‘crypto-cetaceans’ are shown above. One day I’ll get round to covering this subject here on Tet Zoo.

There’s lots more that could be said about this subject, much of it discussed here on Tet Zoo before (see links below). It will be interesting to see what gets covered in the discussion session we’ll be having at the meeting. While the meeting is on cryptozoology in general, the talks are mostly focused on marine cryptozoology, or ‘sea monsters’ if you like. That’s not through deliberate choice, it’s just a consequence of the fact that those of us behind the organisation of the event are mostly interested in the marine side of things. Hopefully it’ll work out.

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So, I hope to see some of you there. The ZSL’s page on the event is here. There’s a meal afterwards (you have to book and pay for it, of course). I really look forward to the event.

I noticed recently that there doesn’t seem to be a list of links to the many sea monster articles that have been covered on Tet Zoo: in the interests of providing a sort of clearing house, here we go…

And for articles on what cryptozoology – in my opinion – is and is not, please see…

Refs – –

Paxton, C. G. M. (2009). The plural of “anecdote” can be “data”: statistical analysis of viewing distances in reports of unidentified giant marine animals 1758-2000. Journal of Zoology, 279, 381-387

Woodley, M. A., Naish, D. & Shanahan, H. P. 2008. How many extant pinniped species remain to be described? Historical Biology 20, 225-235.

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