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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A Plausible Monster? Part One

[Now that they are published, here’s part two and part three-A, and three-B will be released soon]

I could go back to staying “safe” on this blog, and not stick my neck out again. Nothing weird or controversial.

But that’s boring. And in some respects, it wouldn’t be right. For today, I thought a nice swim into deeper waters would do us some good. It’s invigorating.

Come on in! The water's quite pleasant.

Come on in! The water’s quite pleasant.

Today’s topic involves cryptozoology — the practice of investigating and searching for animals that have not been classified by science, but are reported by sightings and/or folklore. Think Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, sea serpents, etc.

Here and now, I mean to neither take down nor advocate cryptozoology as a practice. This is not being written to defend or demolish it, or classify it as science or pseudoscience. That last distinction is odiously bureaucratic. I care much less about whether a claim is classified as science than I care about whether it is true. My main concern is in whether the animal really exists or not.

If you want to know my position on cryptozoology, here it is: In short, I reluctantly take the position that most “cryptids” (the animals cryptozoologists seek to find) most likely do not exist. But I’d be more than happy to be proven wrong if someone can show proof of their existence.

I used to think the world full of monsters, waiting to be discovered and ushered into our textbooks, zoos, and museum displays. From Nessie to Yeti, I was fascinated by the possibility of weird and spectacular creatures, and treated their existence like it was a near certainty. Of course, they haven’t showed up thus far. Nowadays, I hold out little to no hope in a monster at Loch Ness. Tourists and live webcams can only miss a large creature for so long. Nor does Bigfoot seem at all likely, as far as I can tell. In the Pacific Northwest you can hardly throw a rock without hitting somebody’s log cabin or pickup truck. Not the environment I’d expect an undiscovered primate to call home.

I’d love to be wrong about Bigfoot and/or Nessie, but I’ll be deeply shocked if I am.

On the other hand, this should never be cause to discount all cryptids as equally ridiculous or unlikely. You are no doubt familiar with the phrase “even a broken watch can be right twice a day.” A species of large animal can still persist undiscovered and unclassified, even today. Most of the new animals we are finding consist of insects and deep sea-dwellers. But on occasion, something a bit more spectacular can be uncovered. Several factors can be conducive to a species escaping detection by the scientific community:

  1. It lives in an environment where it can easily hide. By now this would be limited mostly to dense tropical rain forests and deep oceans.
  2. It is critically endangered, either through human activity or environmental factors. Specimens will be rare, as will physical traces (carcasses, footprints, scat, etc.).
  3. The animal’s environment can quickly erase traces, making it difficult to detect or track. Again, rain forests and oceans are the biggest offenders. Such an environment also presents great difficulty in bringing proof of a new species to the outside world, either from remains not getting refrigerated before they rot away, or the hostility of its native species and/or human populations.
  4. The animal has reclusive habits, tending to avoid human habitation (as a lot of animals do, from okapis to panda bears to cougars).
  5. If natives in a remote region tell about an unknown animal living in their part of the world, a biologist can be biased against the creature’s existence and assume that the animal is mythical rather than biological. It is quite possible his suspicions are correct, of course. If there ever was such an animal, it may have become extinct or migrated to another area. Still, one has to wonder how many times the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater, and a legitimate species had been missed by the biologist because he’d assumed it could not be there.

There is at least one cryptid that matches all of these factors. Therefore I am prepared to argue that its existence is more likely than its nonexistence. I speak of Mokele-mbembe, from the Congo swamps and jungles of Central Africa. Its range purportedly extends across Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Gabon, and Cameroon.

My painting,

One of my latest paintings, “Cameroon.” Acrylics on watercolor paper, approx. 7 by 9 inches.

The name means either “One who stops the flow of rivers” or “He who divides the waters.” Its described morphology bears a resemblance to that of a small sauropod dinosaur. These are the long-necked herbivores sometimes informally called “Brontosaurs.” Both sauropods and Mokele-mbembe possess long necks and tails, small heads, and elephantine bodies with four feet.

Please take care to note: I am not here to argue whether dinosaurs persist in Africa today. I am arguing for the likelihood of a rare and unrecognized species living in the Congo basin. So please don’t comment with a post like “Sauropods can’t live in swamps, because of x, y and z.” We can discuss that in a later post, an addendum to this one.

Regardless of what kind of animal it is, what does Mokele-mbembe have that most other “cryptids” don’t? What keeps its existence plausible, even (in my estimation) likely?

The answer in a nutshell: The right environment and obstacles, where we could expect its discovery to be delayed.

I suspect very few of those who roll their eyes and mock the mere possibility of this animal being real would maintain their contempt if they took time to consider the kind of environment the Congo basin really is:

  • A region shredded by guerilla warfare, poaching and disease outbreaks that have a habit of shutting down expeditions to the area
  • Stifling jungles that pose a serious challenge to even the most seasoned explorers
  • An almost total lack of internet and technological infrastructure (so long, smartphones) outside the cities of the region — electricity is “expensive and unreliable” in Cameroon, for instance
  • A dense canopy of trees a hundred and fifty feet high that does a great job at hiding the rain forest from satellite photography
  • This Florida-sized jungle is so dense that it’s mostly unexplored to this day, even to the point that it hid over 100,000 western lowland gorillas from scientific eyes until just eight years ago. Another discovery made at roughly the same time was the Bili Ape, a new type of chimpanzee that plausibly eats lions and other big cats. (makes you wonder what else could be hiding in that region, doesn’t it?)
  • Largely corrupt governments, held together by miles of red tape, which don’t exactly roll out the red carpet to Western explorers, unless they’re with bigger organizations like the BBC, National Geographic or the World Wildlife Fund

Neither the Pacific Northwest nor any Scottish Loch can boast of such an ideal hiding place for an unclassified, critically endangered species.

At the risk of stating the painfully obvious, a good hiding spot does not necessarily harbor an unknown species. But in the next installment of this series, I’ll provide the main reasons why I think the evidence thus far gathered is quite sufficient to warrant further, more thorough investigation.

And then I can add another post, to tackle what have been some embarrassingly bad arguments against the Mokele-mbembe’s existence. I do allow for the possibility that the skeptics are correct, but they are in desperate need of improved reasoning. As I have stated before, being right for the wrong reasons is almost as bad as being flat-out wrong.