So I started reading this book that I had from when I was a kid. I started with Chapter 1, which was about ghost ships and now I’m ready for Chapter 2 – Here there be Sea and Lake Monsters, Chapter 3 – Giant Birds, Beasts, and Human Skeletons of Great Size (it took me many years to read that grammatical mess in a way that wasn’t redundant), and Chapter 11 – Fairies, Elves, and Little Men from UFOs (my favorite one…see below).
At first I was like “well I won’t do every chapter”, but every time I flip farther into the book I see something else that makes me cringe. I’ll take these chapters together because they fall under the same category: strange, usually unverifiable beings. In other words, cryptozoology.
I’ve dealt with so-called sea/lake monsters before. As far as lake monsters go (he brings up Nessie, Champ, and Ogo Pogo [sic]), how come the best we’ve done in the last 80 years or so of popular camera technology is blurry 3-second/still shots of nebulous darkness with no sense of scale? With sea monsters the reason is apparently that they’re so clever, they simply “elude capture”. And because “earnest, scientifically trained, and technologically equipped sea serpent and lake monster hunters” insist that sea monsters will be seen at Sea World one day. Uh huh. Sea World, eh? So these earnest hunters obviously have nothing to gain by this insisting (read: fooling themselves or lying). Of course, it’s entirely possible that we do have pictures of these “monsters” — there’s just no way to match up the story with identified wildlife.
The entire chapter consists of eyewitness accounts (read: anecdotes). And in a species that is prone to spreading similar stories and seeing similar details in phenomena after hearing a story, they are not terribly convincing. So are the stories evidence of sea monsters or memes? Biologists and zoologists need more than “huh, this is weird” to go from regular animal to Cthulu.
Some accounts are from fisherman at sea — this is funny because he says that sea monsters are not just “things of the past” seen by ancient fisherman, silly skeptics, and then proceeds to tell several stories from the 60s (book written in 1991) as if to say “see?!” Anyway, not being marine biologists, I can certainly see how these people might mistake a whale, giant squid, or other large animal for a sea monster. One account is from a group of people in the fog (read: poor ability to describe the animal) off the coast of Florida (read: shark-infested waters) who were attacked by a “sea monster” (read: probably a shark). All of this was told from the perspective of one surviving teenager.
It was completely reasonable that they would not know what it was. Their lives were in danger, they had poor visibility, and they weren’t carrying their copy of Marine Life for Dummies. But why do we have to invent monsters and dinosaurs to explain these incidents? There’s plenty of really cool animals that could take the blame. These tales told over time also can get taller and taller in detail until it can be difficult to identify the animal by description alone.
It’s definitely possible that there are sea animals that have not been identified yet, particularly the large deep sea creatures. But there’s no reason to conclude that there’s something odd about this or that they are man-eating monsters. They’d just be regular animals like anything else. They’re discovered, they’re cataloged, what’s the big deal? Why are they “monsters”? To not bother having an exciting, scientific discussion about these animals in order to create needless mystery is I think intellectually lazy and dishonest.
ZOMGGiants!! Just to set the tone, here is an actual question from the beginning of the chapter regarding an alleged monster that fed on humans:
“Is it possible that the Piasa of Native American legend was actually a surviving pterodactyl from the Age of Reptiles? Or was it, as one missionary suggested, the ‘twin brother of Satan’?”
I have to remember stick these in here from time to time so people understand I’m not just picking on this guy. The evidence for this monster was piles of human bones. Think about that. No evidence whatsoever for a monster itself, just a cavern full of human bones and an Indian legend. So not a sacrificial temple then, or a burial ground? Nope. Monster. In a culture that typically uses monster imagery to convey parables, obviously it’s the only logical explanation. I’m seriously starting to lose my patience.
Brontosaurus-like creatures in Africa, giant footprints in 1973 Texas, more Native American legends (Allegwi), and — omg….seriously. I’m done with this chapter:
“Certain researchers have suggested that these strange humanoid skeletal remains may not be the bones of huge member of Homo sapiens, but of some related species, such as the creatures known as ‘The Abominable Snowman’, the ‘Wildman of China’, ‘Bigfoot’, ‘Sasquatch’, or ‘Yeti’.”
What “researchers” are those?! And then this:
“After years of scoffing at sightings of giant manlike beasts from California to China, many serious scientists are beginning to consider that they might well have been wrong in dismissing reports of ‘Sasquatch’ as tall tales.” [emphasis his]
I’m suuuure he meant to say:
“After years of responsibly rejecting an unfalsifiable hypothesis with no verifiable evidence, scientists are still unconvinced — yet are, as always, open-minded — of the possibility that there are large undiscovered land mammals roaming about, but the likelihood of such animals existing this long without concrete detection is very low.
I’ll just pretend that’s what it said, and move on to the next chapter…about fairies. Goddammit.
ZOMGFairies!! We can largely blame the Norse for these ones. Notice how many of these stories are regional? Almost like you would expect from local folk tales. Anyway, I digress. Again we have a series of people telling tales of what they allegedly saw and have no way of proving, wrapped up in disingenuous language. He even tries to suggest that reports of fairies and elves are just misunderstood stories of aliens from UFOs. Well, Brad, I ask you — is it so much of a stretch then that fairies, elves, and aliens are misunderstood tales of ordinary events? Or shall we throw out everything we know about evolution and interstellar travel to accommodate fancified tales of probably mundane circumstances?
How do I know he didn’t do a lick of actual research and simply regurgitated every popular tale of fairies, elves, and aliens he could find? He actually brings up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Cottingley fairy photos. A long known hoax (the girls admitted it was a hoax 10 years prior to the publishing of this book and said they hadn’t told the truth right away because they were embarrassed to have fooled the author of Sherlock Holmes), yet the opening sentence to this segment says: “the controversy over their [the photos] authenticity continues to this day”. Um, no. It doesn’t. And didn’t even when you wrote the book. Basic research FAIL. Remember — the title of this book is Strange, TRUE Mysteries, not Strange Lies I Didn’t Bother to Look Up.
For an intelligent investigation into cryptozoology, I suggest reading some Joe Nickell. Particularly what he has to say about Bigfoot. This is a man who has managed to approach these topics in an intellectually stimulating way without resorting to the vague canards of asking unanswerable questions and flinging about the terms “scientists” and “researchers” in an irresponsible show of attempted credibility. One thing that prompted me to write about this particular book (Beyond Belief) is how glaringly irresponsible it is and that it’s a Scholastic (!!) book meant for pre-teens. Please read Joe Nickell instead. You’re doing yourself a favour.
Edit: Oh yeah, and stay tuned for part 3: Chapter 4 – The Mystery of Lost Civilizations and Chapter 5 – The Perplexing Enigma of Vanishing Islands. Jesus, enough with the synonymous adjectives. Also edited slightly for clarity.