Professor Prothero’s Preening, Pungent Prattle

“You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he came to be so silly….you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.” C.S. Lewis, “Bulverism,” God in the Dock (emphasis in original)

In my last post I explained I’m generally no longer inclined to stand up and argue for the existence of Bigfoot, Chupacabra, or the Mongolian Death Worm. But if someone uses faulty argumentation against their existence, it’s still enough to make me cringe. Especially if they have a PhD and wrote an entire book that seems dedicated to this faulty reasoning, and published it under an academic press.

A very exhaustively cited book on cryptozoology, Abominable Science is coauthored by Daniel Loxton (who seems like a very nice, fair-minded guy, and a very talented artist as well) and Donald Prothero, PhD (a paleontologist and professor at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, CA).

It’s not so much the book I am commenting on here (though that may happen after I’ve read the whole thing…honestly, I’m a slow reader, so I don’t know when that’s going to happen). But given the Amazon description, its subtitle (Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids), and what I had read of Prothero beforehand, I got suspicious that he’d already decided his conclusion before gathering research. Hence the quote about bulverism above.

Long story short: I expressed my suspicions on Twitter a while back, and it seems Prothero was informed. And judging by a comment on one of his blog posts, he wasn’t very happy about the suspicion. Normally I wouldn’t respond to something like this, certainly not at length. But each sentence was either false or so poorly argued, I elected to craft a response anyway.

Even if a skeptic is right on a particular subject, broken logic will never give him or her a solid basis on which to stand. In this case, it’s about time someone called him out for it. As a scientist, Prothero has a responsibility to use solid argumentation and make his case like a professional.

Okay, so here’s the comment. In its entirety.

“Clearly, this person hasn’t read the book, nor does he understand what we said. The genetic fallacy is only a fallacy if the origins story in question has no relevance to the truth or falsity of the argument being made. But the long story lines that Daniel teased out about the history of each of these cryptids–especially how their descriptions are inconsistent, how they are strongly influenced by cultural factors such as current movies, how they are full of hoaxes and bad data that the cryptozoologists NEVER expunge, and how they compile “lists of sightings” which are houses of cards, with nearly every one of them useless or questionable–is VERY relevant to the credibility of each cryptid.

“Even if we had not compiled the historical record of each cryptid, the rest of the book demolishes the possibility of their existence by a whole range of biological, geological and paleontological constraints that this critic clearly never read about. As usual, he’s doing the usual creationist tactic to avoid the confrontation of hard data against his beliefs: dismiss it with an irrelevant or false argument and then ignore it.”

Oh dear, where to begin?

First of all, I already admitted to not reading the book at the time. Check Twitter to see for yourself. I expressed concern that it was going to be a book with weak argumentation. I have a copy from the library at the moment. While some of its arguments are stronger than I worried, elsewhere those fears are being realized in spades.

Things don’t get any better when he gives the definition of “genetic fallacy” as the necessary condition under which it happens. That’s what the genetic fallacy teaches us: an idea’s origin doesn’t have any bearing on that idea’s truth or falsehood. Prothero is basically saying “a frog is only a frog if it’s a tailless amphibian of the order Anura.”

Duh. That’s what it means.

The next sentence makes a fair point, but Prothero doesn’t justify his position. He’s right that the case for most mystery animals appears lacking. I’ve stated at length that I don’t expect Bigfoot or Nessie or Yeti to be real, even if I want them to be real. (Mokele-mbembe, on the other hand…might be a different story)

Given the absence of a foundation of hard evidence, I’m inclined to agree with his overall conclusion. However, he then overestimates what the evidence gathered thus far actually tells us; then he dives to the bottom of the barrel, trying to make the proposal of unknown large animal species look like ridiculous, even dangerous pseudoscience. To do this, he scoops out cryptozoology’s familiar and well-established legacy of hoaxes, some genuinely preposterous ideas (Bigfoot being able to move to other dimensions, for instance), and the fact that humans can be made vulnerable to deception. To which Prothero himself, of course, is blessedly immune. The starting assumption in the book and his worldview appears to be that these sightings are most emphatically not caused by unclassified species of animals (even though that sounds like a perfectly modest and reasonable possibility, at least for some cryptids), therefore the explanation must lie in psychology and old-fashioned gullibility, and this is sufficient to explain pretty much the entirety of cryptozoology.

In other words: “It’s never credible and none of these animals exist, because look at all the weirdos and liars who go looking for monsters. Ta-da! No unclassified animal species needed. All you need are hoaxers, the credulous, and fundamentalists on a crusade to destroy science, and there you have it.”

Welcome back to the genetic fallacy, Professor. You have provided a textbook example of it, in more ways than one.

Oh, but you see, it’s totally okay that he does this, because SCIENCE! tells us that these creatures can’t possibly exist anyway. “The rest of the book demolishes the possibility of their existence…”

Oh? Says who? Is it scientifically impossible that there is an ape of unknown classification in the Himalayas? Is it impossible that a large something-or-other is lurking in the cloudy waters of Loch Ness?

Of course not! It’s unlikely, but no possibility is demolished. Why take the position that it’s impossible?

  • “Says the fossil record,” which Prothero seems to believe is overall complete with no big surprises awaiting us. Never mind that they keep finding a new species of dinosaur every couple of months. Many of which are totally unexpected. Not to mention the numerous other newly identified animal and plant species routinely recovered from the field or dusted off in museum archives. Paleontology is a great scientific endeavor, but when they can’t even get the nonexistence of Brontosaurus right, you’d be wise to learn to never say never.
  • “Says biology,” because of course we’ve learned every single impact an organism can have on its environment. We can instantly detect the impact a species has when something is amiss. Oh, except for the 125,000 extra gorillas found in the Congo in 2007. And the new species we discover all the time on submarine dives to the darkest corners of our oceans. Hmm, maybe we don’t have all the evidence in yet?
  • “Says geology” because…well, I’m not sure what he means. It seems paleontology would have more to say about animals than would general geology. It was kind of a broad brush to start with.

Then he throws out a red herring that implies anyone who says he commits the genetic fallacy is on the wrong side of the origins fence. As if no one who accepts evolution could possibly see anything wrong with his logic, or as if this has anything to do with the veracity of his claims.

Basically, he got caught committing the genetic fallacy. But rather than owning up to it or beefing up his arguments or retracting them, he opted to flaunt his dubious line of reasoning in everyone’s face, and yell that he’s totally justified in doing so. This is such an insult to logic that Mister Spock would do a “Live Long and Prosper” facepalm.

Skeptics, you’ll do yourselves and others a huge favor if you can please get your act together.

UPDATE, APRIL 29, 2015: Regarding Prothero’s stance that the fossil record doesn’t hold animals that can be properly called “cryptids,” I’d like to point out yet another unexpected discovery reported today: a pigeon-sized dinosaur in China, with elongated arms and fingers, and membranes underneath that strongly resemble the wings of a bat.

That’s right. If this fossil is genuine, they basically discovered a small dragon. You’re welcome.

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3 thoughts on “Professor Prothero’s Preening, Pungent Prattle

  1. Pingback: Another Plausible Monster? Direct Evidence for an Unknown Marine Predator | John K. Patterson

  2. Pingback: A Plausible Monster? Part Three: Answering Criticisms | John K. Patterson

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