Reflections on Cryptobiology, Living Fossils, and Pseudoscience
Derek Turner writes . . .
Cryptobiology as pseudoscience
A couple of years ago at a music festival I saw someone promoting the “Leave No Trace” ethic with a T-shirt: “Bigfoot’s Been Doing It for Years: Leave No Trace.” In addition to raising awareness about wilderness ethics, the bit about leaving no trace hints playfully at why it might seem reasonable to dismiss cryptobiology as mere pseudoscience. If Bigfoot leaves no trace, then there’s no way to test the hypothesis that Bigfoot exists.
Of course, some people seem convinced that Bigfoot does leave traces. According to this recent report in Cryptozoology News, two “Bigfoot researchers” from Iowa—Iowa?—have a 10 second audio recording of what they think is a Bigfoot vocalization. Um, okay.
Some philosophers and scientists have wanted to try to draw a clear line of demarcation between genuine science and pseudoscience. This issue has recently gotten some fresh attention. However, while I do think that there are clear-cut cases of pseudoscience, like the work of the Iowa Bigfoot enthusiasts, I’m skeptical about the idea that science has an essential nature. In this post, I want to explore one way in which paradigmatic cases of pseudoscience can begin to shade into work that looks more like real science. The boundary, if there is one at all, is really blurry.
Searching for extinct creatures
Some examples of cryptobiological obsessions involve species thought to be long extinct: Is the Loch Ness Monster a plesiosaur? A surprising number of people seem to have convinced themselves that there is a population of sauropod dinosaurs (known locally as Mokele Mbembe) hanging out in the Congo Basin in Central Africa. One of the many “expeditions” to find Mokele Mbembe inspired the cringeworthy 1980s film, Baby.
And then there are the pterosaurs. (Here is a nice essay on the topic by Darren Naish at Tetrapod Zoology.) Apparently there is a significant subculture of folks who believe that there are relic populations of pterosaurs out there somewhere. Alleged photographs of pterosaurs have been produced, such as this hoaxy one, in which a group of Union soldiers pose with an animal that they are supposed to have shot out of the sky with their rifled muskets:
As if pterosaurs, if they still existed, wouldn’t have the good sense to steer clear of Civil War battle zones.
Not long ago, The Discovery Channel aired a controversial show during Shark Week that featured a team of researchers prowling around the Sea of Cortez looking for Megalodon, a giant shark known primarily from teeth which are significantly larger than those of a great white shark. Most scientists think that Megalodon when extinct a couple of million years ago. And in the event, the only thing that the “monster hunters” on The Discovery Channel found was a whale shark. The episode drew criticism from those who worried that The Discovery Channel was promoting pseudoscience. Or maybe it was only intended to be a mockumentary. (As usual, Darren Naish has a lovely piece on the Megalodon controversy over at Tetrapod Zoology.)
As far as anyone knows, the last thylacine, or Tasmanian wolf, died in captivity in the Hobart Zoo in 1933. (It one of the examples of an “endling” that Leonard discusses here.) But extinction is difficult to document. Scientifically serious searches for the thylacine continued for a while, though by the 1960s, if not earlier, it was pretty clear that no one was going to find any. Nevertheless, the species was not officially declared extinct until the early 1980s, 50 years after the death of the last known individual, according to the rules of the IUCN. Still, some people hold out hope that a few thylacines are hiding out there in the wild somewhere, and a group called the Thylacine Research Unit maintains a website to collect reports of sightings.
When we think something has gone extinct, it is entirely rational—for a while anyway—to go out looking to see if any remain. At a certain point, this becomes irrational. But it’s very hard to say when that is.
The IUCN lists the ivory billed woodpecker as critically endangered and possibly extinct. Serious people continue to look for them in the swamps of the southeastern U.S., and in 2005, controversy erupted when scientists from the Cornell University Ornithology Lab reported some suggestive evidence that the ivory billed woodpeckers might be hanging on in a remote Arkansas swamp. The evidence was grainy video footage of a bird in flight, taken from the prow of a boat. Some people were sure it was an ivory billed woodpecker, though a more common pileated woodpecker is also a possibility.
The search for the ivory billed woodpecker was undertaken by serious scientists. The Thylacine Research Unit feels more like a social network for wishful thinkers. But the difference is mainly a matter of degree, as the probability that any members of the sought after species remain in the wild diminishes over time.
Living Fossil Hunters
One possible view is that distance in time from the probable extinction goes a long way toward explaining why the hunt for the ivory billed woodpecker might make scientific sense, while hunting for thylacines is more of a stretch, and hunting for pterodactyls crosses way over into pseudoscience. But one problem with this proposal is that there actually have been cases which, for all practical purposes, are roughly equivalent to finding a living pterodactyl.
In earlier posts, I’ve written a bit about the wollemi pine and the coelacanth. In both of these cases, people more or less stumbled upon populations that scientists thought had been extinct at least since the end of the Cretaceous, 66 mya, if not much earlier. Proponents of cryptozoology like to cite these cases as lending some justification to the search for other extinct creatures. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is worth considering a thought experiment:
The Living Fossil Hunters. Suppose that in the 1980s and 1990s, a group of cryptobotanists coalesces around the shared hope that the wollemi pine (which at that time was known only from fossils) might not be extinct. This group sponsors expeditions to remote areas to try to find the wollemi pine. And they provide a discussion forum for enthusiasts to share tips about where to look next, and how to identify the tree when they found it. Of course, the scientific community dismisses these cryptobotanists as engaged in mere wishful thinking, a pseudoscientific exercise that’s not much different from hunting for living pterodactyls.
Knowing what we know now—namely, that the wollemi pine was really out there, in a secluded ravine in Australia’s Wollemi National Park—would this dismissal of the living fossil hunters as engaging in mere pseudoscience have been correct?
I’m honestly not sure what verdict to make about the living fossil hunters in this thought experiment. (Discussion in the comment section is welcome!) But I’ll conclude with a conditional claim: If you think that the living fossil hunters in this thought experiment were doing mere pseudoscience, then you must allow that pseudoscience sometimes gets things right!
[Quick thanks to Jessica Wright for calling my attention to the Shark Week controversy and giving me the idea for this post!]
 Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Baudry, eds., Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
 I pretty much agree with the line of argument that Larry Laudan develops in his classic paper, “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem,” in Robert S. Cohen and Larry Laudan, eds., Physics, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis: Essays in Honor of Adolf Grünbaum. Dordrecht Riedel, 1983, pp. 111-127.