“All wet” (Bunyip)

Zoologists discover species all the time. But it does not follow that this confirms the existence of terrestrial creatures of significant size whose representatives have all escaped capture, detection, cars, and steady cameras.

Cryptozoology places strong credence in eyewitness or third-hand accounts, legends, and folklore. Cryptozoologists aim to establish the existence of creatures, rather than examining actual animals and are thus engaged in Tooth Fairy Science.

Take for instance the bunyip, long associated with Australian Aborigines. Bunyips have been said to reside in wet locales such as rivers, creeks, and swamps. They feast on any flesh, be it human or a lower animal, and are associated with a nocturnal shrieking.

Consistent with cryptozoology, many persons claim to have seen the creature but no one has ever captured one, examined it up-close, or got indisputable video evidence of it. As such, bunyip descriptions vary, from a mammoth snake sporting a beard and mane to a man-monster hybrid with a bird-like head and elongated neck, to monsters covered with fur and being endowed with flippers that can transform to feet for land excursions. With this possible limited exception, the one constant of bunyip descriptors is that it makes its home in the water. And, of course, the accounts are embellished in future retellings.

Sightings report a creature similar to a seal or dog, often with a dark fur. Another variation has a long-necked animal about 10 feet in length with mammoth ears and modest tusks. They are said to favor a crayfish diet, though a more bloodcurdling option has them feeding on humans, especially women and children.

Author Robert Holden identified about 10 regional variations of the crypto critter. But by whatever form the bunyip takes, almost all evidence is anecdotal, although there have been a few attempts at a scientific spin. The Australian Museum displayed a deformed horse skull in the mid-19th Century and marketed it as having come from a bunyip. With that, eyewitness reports and belief skyrocketed. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald reported that, “Everyone became immediately aware that he had heard strange sounds from the lagoons at night, or had seen something black in the water.”

While the misshapen horse skull was a case of fraud or at least gullibility, a more measured approach at a scientific explanation has proposed the extinct marsupial Diprotodon may be the answer to supposed bunyip remains. Other possible explanations are misidentification of seals or cassowaries.

“What a crop out” (Mowing Devil)

In Skeptical Inquirer, ­­­cryptozoology expert Benjamin Radford addressed the claim popular among crop circle UFO enthusiasts that a 17th Century woodcut contains just such an image.

These round riddles began appearing in the English countryside circa 1970, mostly consisting of smashed-down wheat or barley, which are the food crops that are most-easily flattened. But proponents feel that the image featured above in a 1687 woodcut suggests that the circles predate modern times.

This attempt to marry the past to newer claims is a common technique of paranormal proponents, according to Radford. He writes, “Indigenous myths and legends of spirits and figures are retroactively claimed to represent early sightings of particular mysterious creatures…including the lake monster in British Columbia and the Puerto Rican vampire el Chupacabra.” Further, Michael Goss noted in the journal Folklore that, “The contents of ‘The Mowing Devil’ seem to prove the rule that…­­given time, some industrious researcher is bound to turn up a historical precedent” for a contemporary mystery.

Artwork served as an early medium for stories, truthful or otherwise. These works included morality tales that instructed on the consequences of one’s conduct. Therefore, The Mowing Devil should be viewed through this folkloric lens. While the piece is usually presented out of context, the original tale can be found in a pamphlet dated from 1678. There, we learn that the woodcut illustrates the legend of an English farmer who, during a dispute with a contractor, tells him that he would rather pay the devil to cut his oat field than have the worker do it.

The storyteller makes clear that Satan’s Sickle cut the crop rather than laying it down. And the perpetrator is of known diabolical origin rather being unspecified interplanetary visitors creating a parking spot.  

Crop circles only came about in the 1970s when simple renditions began appearing in the English countryside. They were made by Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, who attempted to fool people into thinking UFOs had landed and they succeeded wildly in this goal. The pranking pair inspired several imitators who engaged in an indirect competition for who could create the most complex designs. People sometime blame the devil for their doings, but Bower and Chorley have made so such assertion, citing an Australian entertainment program episode as their inspiration. And as Radford demonstrated, the 17th Century woodcut IS of the devil and there is no tie-in the modern phenomenon, much as crop circle jerks wish that there was. 

“Con man of the apes” (Hybrid primate)


In the densest jungles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there is said to lurk a relative newcomer to the ape family. Witnesses have described the beast as large, upright, aggressive, and distinct from both chimpanzees and gorillas. It is called the Bili ape, after the forest in in which the animal is said to live. While eyewitness reports are considered weak evidence for validating the existence of a new creature, some of those witnesses brought back a potentially strong piece of evidence in the form of primate skulls purported to be neither chimp nor gorilla.

The story begins with what sounds like the first line of a joke: An author, a photographer, and a bushmeat activist walk into a museum. There, they saw skulls that, again, seemed to be not quite gorilla or quite chimp, but something in between. According to the display’s text, the craniums were collected in the Bili-Uéré region by late 19th Century colonists. Intrigued, the photographer from this trio, Karl Ammann, flew to DRC in in 1996 and found potential confirmation of an undiscovered ape. The primate resembled a chimpanzee but was larger, grayer, and behaved like a gorilla. It slept on the ground, whereas chimps usually snooze in trees to avoid predators. Ammann collected a skull from a deceased specimen and noted that it resembled a chimpanzee’s, except that it was larger and had a satittal crest akin to a gorilla’s. 

This potentially exciting find was put on hiatus for a few years because of the Second Congo War. But in 2003, Ammann returned to DNC accompanied by scientists and an experimental psychologist, Dr. Shelly Williams, who had received a $20,000 research grant from National Geographic. There followed a slew of stories based on Williams’ reports, most of which dutifully pronounced that a new great ape was amongst us. Citing the animal’s facial features, body idiosyncrasies, and utterances, Williams decreed the animal to be either a new species (the most thrilling possibility), a chimp-gorilla hybrid (still pretty cool), or a new chimp subspecies (meh). 

But, again, Williams’ doctorate was in experimental psychology, not in zoology or biology. That itself does not mean what she said was wrong, but it calls into questions National Geographic’s incentive in presenting her as a Ph.D. and letting readers assume it was in a related field to what she was commenting on. Her doctorate may also explain why outlets like CNN and the Associated Press didn’t ask more probing questions about her claims and just assumed she was a subject matter expert.

However, her claims were subject to immediate peer review in the form of responses from the biologists, primatologists, and anthropologists who accompanied her on the trip. This group of 13 scientists uniformly rejected her interpretations. And scientists currently in the Bili region are no longer reporting any sightings of hybrid apes or their corpses. 

One of the scientists who accompanied Williams was Thurston Cleve Hicks, who presented the results of DNA analysis at the International Primatological Society in Uganda. Results from three laboratories show that the Bili apes are ordinary members of a common Eastern chimpanzee subspecies, Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii. He also reported he saw them behaving in a manner consistent with chimps, such as guttural noises and rudimentary tool usage. 

This year, Hicks authored the definitive paper on Bili chimps in the official journal of the European Federation for Primatology. The paper mentions how their use of tools and some behaviors differ from other chimp populations, but makes no references to differences in appearance. 

About the only physical traits of Bili chimps that are different from other chimpanzees are a somewhat larger head, a slightly larger build, and a tendency to turn gray earlier. But these are all the result of specific allele frequencies, which commonly causes slight differences in dispersed populations. So there’s no new animal here, and the credulous reporting about it is something we’ve also seen before.

“With a bear to cross” (Yeti)


Last week, I was surprised to realize I had never written about Tarot cards in this forum. I corrected that deficiency and today will again address a topic I had somehow managed to neglect all this time, the Abominable Snowman.

The subject in question is a proposed bipedal ape-life creature, usually depicted as being hairier, larger, and stronger than humans. Yeti is said to reside in the vicinity of Mount Everest and the concept is so entrenched in the Himalayan region that it predates Buddhism there.

But while there are thousands of years’ worth of yarns and excited reports, there has yet to be the recovery of a live or deceased being. Nor has anyone come down the mountain with fur, skin, or bone that would belong to a mammoth bipedal ape, so all scientific signs point to Yeti being mythological. And while eyewitness reports are the lowest caliber evidence, it is even truer in these cases, as whiteout conditions and altitude sickness can come into play.

The closest thing to proof are footprint photos. There have been pictures taken of impressions made by a large beast that seem inconsistent with any known animal. However, the prints are likely made by a bear or other large creature, with the image becoming distorted by melting and refreezing snow, or by erosion and wind.

Skeptic leader Benjamin Radford, who specializes in examining cryptozoological claims, explains, “Tracks in snow can be very difficult to interpret correctly because of the unstable nature of the medium in which they are found. Snow physically changes as the temperature varies and as sunlight hits it. This has several effects on the impression, often making the tracks of ordinary animals seem both larger and misshapen. As sunlight strikes the impression from different angles, the sides of the tracks melt unevenly. Thus a bear track made at night but found the next afternoon has been exposed to the morning sun and might change into a mysterious track with splayed toes.”

Likewise, there have hair and scalp specimens touted as having belonged to a crypto critter, but these too fall short of scientific validation. Examinations by anatomy and biology professionals generally reveal that the remains belong to a known animal. And even when unknown, they are close enough to a verified creature that it is much more likely that they are an undiscovered relative instead of the long-sought bipedal manlike beast.

Many of the supposed sightings are likely of the Tibetan blue bear. When the hide of such an animal was brought down from Everest in the 1970s, natives pointed to it and proclaimed it to be from a Yeti. Other animals misidentified as the Abominable Snowman might be the langur monkey or two varieties of Himalayan bear, the brown and the red.

A relatively recent find, from Bhutan, was of a hair that human genetics professor Bryan Sykes analyzed and he was unable to match it to any known member of the Animal Kingdom. Much as happened when searchers found an unknown hair in the Pacific Northeast, some cryptozoological enthusiasts were only too happy to fill in the biological blanks with their favorite fur ball. But further analysis showed that the Bhutanese hair belonged to a mutated Himalayan brown bear.

Indeed, bears are the most frequent explanation for putative Yeti evidence. From ages 2 to 4, the Asiatic black bear spends much of its day in trees to avoid predators. During this period, the treed bears train their inner claw outward, allowing an opposable grip. When walking in the snow, this could leave an impression seeming to suggest the animal has something akin to a big toe, and could be misinterpreted as an elongated humanoid foot.

Some persons seeking a more ancient answer speculate that the Yeti is a descendant of the extinct Asian ape Gigantopithecus. However, the Yeti is generally described as bipedal, and most scientists believe Gigantopithecus moved about on all fours. And its descendants likely did not have evolve to be bipedal since Gigantopithecus was so large that walking upright would have been problematic at best.

So after numerous searches for the expressed purpose of finding a Yeti, in the precise place he is supposed to live, we still have no strong evidence for its existence. What the expeditions have revealed is the mindset of the trekkers. There are many animals yet to be discovered and scavenging about for the Abominable Snowman is unlikely to reduce this number. Yeti is a captivating concept to those looking for him, but such adventurers are more drawn to the thrill of chasing a monster than they are driven by the desire to expand our zoological knowledge. The expeditioners would be much more likely to score a hit if they were to embark on a mission to find the next beetle subspecies. But that would fail to provide them with the thrill that losing a game of hide-and-seek to Yeti brings.

“That’s owl, folks” (Mothman)


In November 1966, a motorist and three passengers on a late night drive outside Point Pleasant, W. Va., saw what appeared to be a six-foot-tall monstrous humanoid with fiery eyes. Other than its flaming peepers, the creature lacked discernible head and neck features. The frightened foursome hightailed it in the other direction, at which point the beast pursued them with use of silent, stationary wings.

Over the next year, similar sightings were reported in the area, with speculation that the alarming apparition was an alien, omen, demon, cryptid, or multi-dimensional spirit. Skeptic leader Joe Nickell, who specializes in examining ghost and cryptozoology claims, thinks the Mothman had shredding talons and a head whose swiveling could rival Linda Blair’s. He also thinks it comes out at night to feast and howl. That’s because he strongly suspects the creature to be an owl. Of note, during the spate of original sightings, a rancher fired at what he thought was the Mothman and it turned out to be just what Nickell has guessed, specifically a snowy owl.

As to why this solitary, nocturnal bird of prey morphed into a man-sized otherworldly terror, that speaks to characteristics of both owls and humans. “Because of the owls’ size, their shining eyes, their nocturnal habits, and noiseless flight, they’re really noted for fooling people,” Nickell explained.

Nickell never accuses Mothman eyewitnesses of making up the stories up or even intentionally exaggerating them. But he believes expectation, faulty memories, and even worse lighting create a mix that makes monstrous visions and interpretations more likely. When deciphering such reports, Nickell said he “takes people’s description, allows for some error, and matches it to an animal in the real world.”

In the same article, audobon.com quoted ornithology expert Ryan Barbour, who said owls prefer old, abandoned buildings; they regularly yelp, hoot, and hiss; and they can take on a creepy appearance. All this could be disconcerting for someone who’s already spooked.

There are other reasons to think an owl was behind the sightings. The Mothman’s shape as originally reported greatly resembled the bird, with a head and body that blended together, along with large, intense eyes. Nickell suspects this look was caused by eyeshine, which is a feature in nocturnal animals. Barred owls are an especially pronounced example of this because of the many blood vessels that encircle their eyes.

While the bird of prey explication suffices for the sounds, silent flight, and piercing eyes, what accounts for the Mothman being four times the size of the average owl? A 2010 episode of the schlockfest MonsterQuest may have provided the answer. On the program, Nickell drove subjects down a dark road lined with plywood Mothman cutouts with bike reflectors for eyes, and all reported that the object was larger than it actually was.

Nickell explained, “It’s very hard to judge the size of something seen at night at an unknown distance, and if you misjudge how far away it is, you misjudge its height by the same proportion.” Also, intense fear and disturbing memories can cause the object grow in size over time in the person’s mind.

It’s also telling the there are no diurnal Mothman encounters. Just like UFOs land in the Nevada desert as opposed to Times Square, very few retold cryptozoological run-ins take place during the day. That doesn’t make for near as compelling a campfire tale or sleepover story.

Moreover, exaggeration and revision became prevalent in subsequent retellings of Mothman confrontations as such tales became folklore. Like the Mothman, folk tales take on various forms that reflect the interest, motivation, and mindset of the narrator. That’s why the creature has been described as a demon, alien, beastly bird of prey, or hideously overgrown insect escaped from a Kafka novella. It can have horns, claws, or bulging eyes, depending on the storyteller. But while just such a statue of the beast stands in Point Pleasant, it bears little resemble to the creature reported by the original 1966 eyewitnesses.

“Out of shape” (Skinwalkers)


Most cultures have crypto critters and among the Navajo, these are called skinwalkers. These quasi-beasts are imbued with the ability to transform into an animal, mostly ones that are either tricky or scavengers, such coyotes, foxes, and crows, though they can also take the form of the intimidating (wolf) or the wise (owl). The likes of beetles and mallards never seem to apply to these situations. Whichever form the skinwalker takes is based on which animal’s abilities will serve them best in a given situation.

While they do take the general form of animals, legend had their size being a little distorted and they also have disproportionate features and glowing red eyes. They are described and vicious and bloodthirsty, and were a Navajo’s greatest fear.

To be sure, the skinwalker is neither a friendly, furtive creature like Nessie, nor an alluring, manlike beast in the mold of Sasquatch. It is more comparable to a Chupacabra or skunk ape, but still more dastardly because they are not considered isolated, evolved creatures, but flawed, transformed humans who wreak havoc on former friends and family.

Since they are said to take the form of known animals, any sighting of a wild beast, especially a canine, could be inferred as being a skinwalker. Because of this, skinwalkers are substantially differentiated from Bigfoot, Yeti, and Nessie, in that no composite description has emerged from disparate accounts.

Nor have there been many treks to their supposed stomping and chomping grounds. One notable exception was hotel and aerospace entrepreneur Robert Bigelow maintaining a command post on his ranch, fitted with 24-hour cameras, in a decade-long attempt to digitally capture a skinwalker. Even by the loose evidence standards of cryptozoological hunts, Bigelow came up empty.

Indeed, there are few alleged video captures of such critters. One of the few further sullied NatGeo’s reputation. An episode of the network’s Navajo Cops purportedly captured a howling skinwalker on audio. Typical of crypto or ghost hunts, the piece of evidence was assumed to be whatever the person is looking for instead of considering other possibilities.

These modern adaptations have the skinwalkers being less animalistic and more resembling humanoid hybrids that chase cars and terrify campers in the rural Southwest. Other contemporary tales have skinwalkers being unable to be felled by bullets, an update necessitated by the advent of firearms, which the legend predates. One present-day story even incorporates the hook killer urban legend, though it fails to explain how the animal got ahold of the pointy accoutrement or knew how to use it.

The Navajo are recalcitrant to address the subject, which leaves plenty of room for outside believers to get creative. Regarding the Bigelow ranch, skinwalker enthusiasts claim the previous tenant lived there 30 months before leaving due to concern over the shapeshifters. While he did leave after two and a half years, the reason was that Bigelow gave him a truckload of money to do so.  

The ancient Navajo stressed living in harmony with nature and from this stemmed the concept of supernatural abilities that could be used for good or bad. Medicine men were revered and considered a link to the spirit world. Countering them were the skinwalkers, the rough Navajo equivalent of demons, who mangled magic for their own twisted ends.

In the tribe, men were seen as hunters, gatherers, and warriors, while women were viewed as the bringer and sustainer of life. Hence, males were normally thought to be the ones who took their traits to the dark, shapeshifting side for malevolent use. There were a few exceptions, but women who were suspected of transforming were usually old and childless. Having failed in their duty to the group, they exiled themselves in bitterness and shame in order to plot revenge.

Whatever their gender, skin­walkers were assumed to have violated a cultural tenet to gain this shapeshifting ability. It would be roughly akin to a human selling their soul to the devil in Christian teachings.  

Skinwalkers figure prominently in legends surrounding the Long Walk of the Navajo, the lesser-known complement to the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Many Navajos blamed this tragedy on shapeshifters, even though the Cavalry members who were driving the tribe toward cultural oblivion would seem the more tangible, obvious place to lay blame.  

Scapegoats arise when fortunes decline and some societies have blamed Muslims, Jews, immigrants, or communists, while others favored unseen enemies like witches, demons, and skinwalkers. In the Navajo case, this included the presumption that shapeshifters were behind unexplained livestock deaths, human sickness, or purloined property.

Implicating an outsider or traitorous insider are strategies that become more pronounced during times of social upheaval. And an extreme example of upheaval is having one’s entire community frog-marched to internment camps categorized as “reservations” and having one’s clothing, language, symbols, religion, and traditions eradicated. That this devastation would be pinned on a culture’s ultimate nightmare makes sense, although it failed to establish that the phenomenon was real.

“Trippin’ over Sasquatch” (Cryptozoology)


There are some people who delight in past mistakes made by scientists. They enthusiastically repeat these tales of science failures by posting them on the Internet or texting them into a cell phone, all while living in a world with airplanes and without smallpox.

What they fail to understand is that science is a process, not an end point. This process includes attempts to falsify and recalibrate, and test again. When mistakes are made, they are acknowledged and corrected. Moreover, such mistakes don’t prove competing notions, despite the assertions made by proponents of alternative medicine, creationism, and cryptozoology.

In my skeptic experience, science-loathing crypto lovers are relatively few in number. A majority of those intrigued by the concept of discovering a giant new beast present the search as part of a continuing effort to expand zoology. Now, I’ve never been much impressed by this rationale. There are a gazillion undiscovered insects out there, and if increasing our knowledge of the animal kingdom were the goal, those on Finding Bigfoot would instead be pursuing a graduate degree in biology while using their vast entomological knowledge to find new creepy crawlies. They wouldn’t be looking for Bigfoot, they’d be looking for the little critters he might snack on.

Since less-intense members of the cryptozoological community advertise themselves as broadminded and merely considering the possibly these creatures exist, this means they are at least ostensibly open to the possibility that there are no monsters under the bed, on the mountaintop, or in the jungle.

Then there are those who offer no pretense of open-mindedness. Many conspiracy theorists offer self-congratulation for being able to think for themselves and see through media accounts. But they then quaff however much speculative and poorly-substantiated tripe the conspiracy websites can offer them. Similarly, crypto fanatics say they are the ones who are advanced enough to realize these creatures exist and excoriate anyone who questions this. Consider their reaction to skeptic Benjamin Radford’s essay on 10 reasons Bigfoot was supremely unlikely.

On the site cryptomundo.com, one fervent believer called Radford a nihilist, another said he was an attention-seeker, while a third said debating skeptics or proffering evidence was a waste of time since “they wouldn’t consider the possible existence of Sasquatch even if they tripped over one.”

Our purpose here today is to demonstrate this claim’s falsity. First, a definition. A cryptid is a proposed animal based on anecdotes, lore, and eyewitness accounts. However many known animals there are in the world, that’s how many have gone from undiscovered to discovered, so it has happened for millennium and will continue to occur. This includes a few animals whose existence seemed unlikely, but then was validated. However, these are not triumphs for cryptozoologists because these new creatures were not found by cryptomundo.com, YouTube regulars, or MonsterQuest producers. They were discovered and examined by anthropologists, zoologists, or biologists using the Scientific Method.

Most important, confirmatory evidence was embraced, not shunned or suppressed, despite claims of the cryptomundo crowd. Insinuations of science being unbending and perhaps even covering up newly-discovered truths are frequent among pseudoscientists. They also play the Galileo Gambit, which is what a cryptomundo regular calling himself Hapa did. He wrote, “Plate tectonics were laughed at and was without peer review yet now is as accepted as gravity and atomic theory.” But validation of plate tectonics does not mean that Bigfoot also being ridiculed and unsupported by peer review is proof of its existence. In critical thinking circles, that is known as the false equivalence fallacy.

Further, ridicule and lack of peer review could be overcome. Consider the platypus, a venomous, egg-laying mammal with a duckbill, otter-like feet, and a flat tail.  Another odd distinction it holds is being one of only two known mammals to hunt by means of electroreception. Many in the West presumed the platypus to be a fraud. To be sure, it is such a hodgepodge animal that it could be used as a rejoinder to the crocoduck challenge issued by confused creationist Ray Comfort and his sidekick, Kirk Cameron.

While scientists viewed the platypus with suspicion, that’s different from being closed-minded. They asked to see the evidence and it was presented. By contrast, this is not possible with Bigfoot, Yeti, or the Loch Ness Monster. There is no evidence to see, nothing to analyze, nothing to put under the microscope, no body part to test, no findings to submit for peer review.

But with the platypus, there was a corpse to consider, and George Shaw, keeper of the British Museum’s department of natural history, examined the find. The Aussie animal was so quirky, and coming in the era of P.T. Barnum and the Fiji mermaid, Shaw had to consider the animal to be a potential hoax. But after careful reviewing the evidence and following the Scientific Method, Shaw became convinced. He wrote, “I can perceive no appearance of any deceptive preparation, nor can the most accurate examination of expert anatomists discover any deception.”

Despite the claims of the cyrptomundo aficionados a few paragraphs back, scientists embrace newly-confirmed evidence. If Hapa and his cronies ever produce a Sasquatch specimen that shows itself to be genuine under the protocols Shaw used on the platypus, Bigfoot will be acknowledged, given a scientific name, and categorized.

Similarly, the giant squid for centuries was thought to be in the purview of exaggerated sailor stories. The aquatic beasts were referenced by Aristotle and Pliney the Elder, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th Century that note was made of carcasses washing up ashore. These were examined and, through science, the giant squid went from a kraken-like myth to a verified reality.

Other examples of confirmed cryptids are the mountain gorilla and komodo dragon. There is also the okapi, whose discovery and confirmation doubled the size of the Giraffidae family. Nineteenth-Century Europeans had heard tales of an elusive forest beast known as the African Unicorn and this was confirmed when the British governor of Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston, came into possession of an okapi skull and hide. These are examples of the third strongest piece of evidence when looking for new animals, after a live specimen and a complete corpse. When the okapi remains were confirmed as authentic, science classified it.

Cryptozoologists sometimes use such finds to bolster support for the existence or Chupacabra, Sasquatch, Nessie, or Yeti. But these so-far mythical beasts lack the proof that moved the other animals from suspected to confirmed. Fuzzy photos, wide-eyed witnesses, and ad hominem attack on skeptics are not evidence.

It is understandable why a giant squid would be hard to find and the large terrestrial mammals that Western scientists were only able to verify in the 19th Century lived at a time when getting from England to Africa or Australia was much more arduous, time-consuming, and expensive than today. Also, these were solitary animals living in remote locations, such as a dense forest, nearly insurmountable mountaintop, or Australian outback.

By contrast, Nessie is said to reside in an enclosed area, there are now regular treks up the Himalayas, and Washington state forests have been visited by outdoors enthusiasts and vacationers for decades. No Sasquatch has been killed by a hunter or vehicle, no hiker or camper has stumbled onto its remains. Then there are the untold hours spent by persons using video equipment, bait, and night vision devices to search in the precise location where sightings have been alleged, and none have come away with so much as a hair or tooth fragment that might belong to the sought-after cryptid.

If Finding Bigfoot lands its prey, I will announce this as a major cryptozoologist victory, and will do so standing on my head for good measure. But so far, the platypus, giant squid, mountain gorilla, okapi, and komodo dragon, and every other confirmed creature were discovered by scientists. This shows why measured inquiry, careful investigation, and verified evidence is valued over hearsay, speculation, and desire.


“Tall tail” (Jersey Devil)


Even by the lax standards of cryptozoology, the Jersey Devil seems an unlikely creature. It is less biologically plausible than a bipedal ape, a modern-day plesiosaur, a Himalayan half-hominid, or a canine-reptilian hybrid. Descriptions of the Devil more resemble a chimera. His serpent body stands about four feet high, he has an equine head, cloven hooves, two small, mostly useless arms with talons, a forked tail, and it takes to flight utilizing leathery wings reminiscent of a bat’s.

This Devil’s tale is split into two periods. The latter started with a glut of sightings around 1909. The first stretches back another three centuries. That legend centers of the offspring of Daniel Leeds, an English immigrant and historical footnote who published the American Almanack in days or yore when they spelled almanac that way.

In the story, Leeds’ wife, Deborah Smith, gave birth to her 13th son in 1735. Different versions exist as to what happened immediately after. One story is that Smith or her clergyman cursed the newborn; others say it was horribly deformed (not sure what other kind of deformity there is); the least believable version is that the infant transformed into a monster who killed his mother, then escaped up the chimney. A less macabre version excludes the matricide, but still has a Devil being unleashed into the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.  

Biographical records, however, show that even mundane elements of this tale are in error. Leeds died in 1720, 15 years before the diabolical birth. And he was married to Ann Stacy, then Dorothy Young, but never to a Deborah Smith.

Leeds’ writings and the foreboding locale in which he penned them likely contributed to this legend. He started as a Quaker, but had a falling out with the church and a long-running feud was born. His former church dismissed his work as a blasphemy for attempting to blend Christianity with occultism or science. For example, he would use astronomy to try and gain a deeper understanding of the nature of God, a technique that got Giordano Bruno burned at the stake. Leeds suffered a fate nowhere near that excruciating but Quakers were forbidden from reading his work, and church leaders were only too happy to point out that the Leeds family crest featured a dragon, and indeed, later descriptions of the Jersey Devil corresponded with the animal on the Leeds crest.

Meanwhile, the foreboding appearance of the Pine Barrens made them a natural stomping ground for a creepy creeping cryptid. There are close to a thousand legendary animals said to exist worldwide, but I know of none who have an urban industrial district or strip mall as their place of origin. Nay, to be mysterious and captivating, a beast need arise in a deep loch, underground cavern, enchanted forest, foreboding windswept mountaintop, impenetrable jungle, time warp, or outer space.

Besides the Jersey Devil, several ghosts are said to haunt the Pine Barrens, including Captain Kidd’s. In Leeds’ time, the barrens were home to highwaymen, fugitives, poachers, moonshiners, deserting soldiers, escaping slaves, and others from society’s outskirts, so this also makes it fertile ground for satanic spawn.

References to the creature before the 20th Century normally refer to it as the Leeds Devil, but by the spate of 1909 sightings, few knew who Leeds was, so the name Jersey Devil was assumed.  

Some of the sightings may have been of the Sandhill Crane, a large slender bird capable of standing tall and spreading its two-meter bat-like wings. Its footprints can also be said to slightly resemble cloven prints. It’s likely that a majority of the sightings, though, were of other animals, or persons dressed in black, or even of rustling tree branches, all interpreted by persons wanting to be part of the hot new craze.

An attempt was made to monetize the hysteria through the beast’s “capture” and display. This was shown to be a fraud wherein hucksters had affixed artificial wings to a kangaroo, then used a harness to control its movement in order to make it seem menacing. From the rear of the cage, a stick was used to elicit shrieks or whatever sounds captive marsupials make when being prodded for purposes of cruel entertainment.

Reports of the flying fiend happen far less frequently than they do for the Big Three of cryptozoology: Bigfoot, Yeti, and Nessie. But Devil sightings do feature the same unverified accounts and complete lack of bone, hair, or skin samples. There are hundreds of purported sightings of a menacing, bouncing beast who seems only too willing and able to mutilate those he stalks, yet can never get around to finishing the job. While most tales feature anonymous witnesses, Napoleon Bonaparte’s less territorially-ambitious brother, Joseph, claimed a sighting. And a naval hero, Commodore Stephen Decatur Jr., allegedly shot a cannonball at the fleeing beast, with less success than he had targeting Barbary sailors.

Even most who believe in the Jersey Devil reject the original tale of his demonic nature. But without immortality and supernatural powers, a sustained existence seems hopelessly remote. The Jersey Devil being real would necessitate a sustainable population existing for 400 years with none of its eggs being discovered, with it never being a victim of hunters or motorists, and with its remains never having been found by hikers, campers, or anglers.

There have been hundreds of reputed sightings, but the plural of anecdote is not data. Sightings are weak evidence and these hundreds do not combine to from one strong piece of evidence, such as carcass or at least a body part. There is a group called the Jersey Devil Hunters, but the only place they will ever make a capture is in a hockey arena.  

“Remember the data” (Anecdotes vs. evidence)


While “Don’t knock it until you try it” is the cliché, skeptic leader Brian Dunning thinks a better suggestion is, “Don’t try it until you knock it.” He was being somewhat sarcastic, as no opinion should be formed until all available evidence is considered. But his point was that personal experiences are inferior to data.

When it comes to favoring personal experience, this mistake is most frequently committed with regard to alternative medicine therapies and products. People often trust their perceptions more than any other source. But clinical test results provide a much better assessment of efficiency than someone’s word that it worked.

Our senses are prone to error and not everyone’s are as pronounced as the next person’s. Further, we all carry preconceived notions, biases, and expectations. Then there are mood swings, good days, bad days, and medium days. Hence, the assessment of a person grabbed off the street will be filtered through his or her prejudices, biases, preconceptions, preferences, and forgetfulness. It is impractical that their anecdote will be proof that the product or procedure will work (or fail) for everyone.

That’s why scientists use controlled, randomized trials. These will overcome the biases and other weaknesses addressed in the previous paragraph. As Dunning explained, “If you want to know whether listening to a binaural beat will make you fall asleep, a science fan knows not to try it to find out. She knows her sleepiness varies throughout every day and she knows that the expectation that it’s supposed to make her sleepy skews her perception. Instead, she looks at properly controlled testing that’s been done. Those subjects didn’t know what they were listening to, they didn’t know what it was supposed to do to them, and some of them unknowingly listened to a placebo recording. She knows the difference between real, statistically-sound data and one person’s anecdotal experience.”

Trying an untested product compromises a person’s ability to objectively analyze testing data about that product. This is also true in areas beyond alternative medicine. It can come into play while reading a horoscope, seeing an alleged ghost, or attending a psychic seminar. A cousin of mine did the latter and afterward, she excitedly posted there was “NO WAY” the psychic have known what she did, save an esoteric ability.

This is known as subjective validation, where an experience being personally impactful is considered evidence that the phenomenon is authentic. But with psychics, there are issues regarding cold reading, selective memory by audience members, and the lack of confirmatory testing. In my cousin’s case, the experience resonated with her because she had an intense experience, but that is not controlled data. A test could be designed, and in fact have been carried out, and no medium has ever consistently performed better than chance.

Still, persons will insist they know something works because it did for them. But this is not necessarily what happened. During the 2016 Olympics, athletes tried cupping and elastic kinesio tape, two alternative therapies completely lacking in evidence and with no plausible working mechanism behind them. Desperate for the extra edge against fellow world-class athletes, Olympians tried them and their personal experiences convinced them it worked. Yet these swimmers, runners, and gymnasts also had access to personal trainers, excellent nutrition, regimented rest periods, massage, icing, and other attentiveness that guaranteed they would perform at their peak. Giving the credit for victory to cupping wins the post hoc reasoning Gold Medal. Michael Phelps, after all, had collected plenty of first-place finishes before he started overheating, misshaping, and discoloring his back. There’s also the issue of those who tried these techniques and came in 17th.  

Now we will examine another instance in which personal experience is treated as preferable to tested evidence. An Answers in Genesis chestnut is “Were you there,” which they genuinely consider a solid retort to proof about the age of the universe, Earth’s earliest days, and the development of homo sapiens. This is a vacuous, absurd reply. No one questions if Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence by asking historians if they were there when he dipped his quill into ink.

This supposed “gotcha” question reveals Young Earth Creationists’ substantial ignorance about how science works. As Dunning explained, “Scientific conclusions are never based simply on personal reports, but upon direct measurements of testable evidence. Nobody’s been to the sun, either, but we know a great deal about it because we can directly measure and analyze the various types of radiation it puts out.”

Likewise, chemists can’t see quarks and astronomers can’t see dark matter, but these entities can be measured and their attributes analyzed. The answer to a time-honored riddle is that a tree falling in forest does indeed emit soundwaves whether anyone is there to perceive them. Likewise, Earth formed, heated, and cooled regardless of whether this was being witnessed. Researchers understand the science behind the various dating methods that are used to determine this. In the same way that DNA is preferable to a witness at trial, radiometric dating, carbon 14 dating, and the speed of light are more important than the fact that no one from Earth’s earliest days is alive to recall it.

From those that deny something has happened, we move to those who assert that something has happened despite lacking concrete evidence for this claim. Specifically, some persons will wonder what’s the harm in using a product or technique if it makes a person feel better.

The harm can come in such forms as using Therapeutic Touch instead of antibiotics. Such methods not only waste time and money, but the patient may bypass legitimate medicine that would work. And in certain cases, such as with colloidal silver, black salve, and some essential oils, active ingredients are being ingested and overuse can be dangerous.

Another way in which personal experiences are trusted over clinical evidence is to claim, “I know what I saw.” Yet senses are prone errors, deficiencies, and bias. A popular video asks viewers to count the number of times a basketball is passed between a group of persons. When most respondents are asked to give that number, they usually give the correct response. But they also fumble when asked the follow up question, “What walked through the group while the ball was being passed?” It was a man in a gorilla suit ambling by, yet most viewers missed it because they were so consumed with keeping track of the number of tosses.

“Our memories change dramatically over time and were incomplete to begin with,” Dunning wrote. “And who knows how good was the data that your brain had to work with was to begin with? Lighting conditions can come into play, as can movement, distractions, backgrounds, and expectations of what should be seen. Possible misidentifications and perceptual errors all had a part in building your brain’s experience.”

That’s why Bigfoot sightings are not considered to be “case closed” proof of the beast’s existence. Anthropologists would need to look at testable evidence, which in the case of Sasquatch, is utterly lacking.

Out of frustration, aficionados of alternative medicine, conspiracy theories, cryptozoological critters, and a Young Earth will sometimes label scientists and skeptics “closed-minded.” But closed-mindedness includes refusing to change ideas no matter how much contrary evidence one is presented with. Since phone calls from 9/11 hijack victims described Islamic terrorists, Truthers concocted an evidence-free ad hoc assertion that those victims and the family members they telephoned were in on the government’s plot.

Meanwhile, being open-minded means changing your position when you discover you’ve been mistaken. I balked when I first heard that race was a social construct instead of a biological one. Using some of the reasoning addressed earlier, “I knew what I saw,” and clearly race had to be biological since I could see the difference between someone from Canada and someone from Nigeria. But as I learned about alleles, gene frequency, migratory routes, blood types, and the Human Genome Project, I changed my mind.

There are mounds of evidence that disprove such notions as chemtrails, chiropractic, a flat Earth, vaccine shedding being the cause of disease, and the first man being spoken into sudden existence 5,000 years ago. Yet hardcore adherents to these ideas consider the skeptic or scientist to be the closed-minded one.

People who assert this think of science as an unbending set of dictates from dour men in crisp lab coats or arrogant academics perched in ivory towers. However, science is a process that continually adapts, refines, improves, adds to, subtracts from, and alters data, according to where the evidence leads. And that refinement is subject to still further peer review, examination, and testing. That is why scientifically controlled data on the ability of a eucalyptus rub to cure rheumatism will always be preferable to what Aunt Tillie says.

“Assume the simple position” (Occam’s Razor)


I have been doing this long enough and with enough frequency that if one read a post a day it would take a year to finish the blog. I heartily encourage this activity, but for readers lacking the time or ambition, I can sum up the blog’s contents as being an endorsement of Occam’s Razor. This is the notion that, all other things being equal, the solution that makes the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one. Closely related to the Razor is the notion of the burden of proof, which states that the person making an assertion is required to provide evidence for it and not merely challenge listeners to disprove it.

Carl Sagan famously noted that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Suppose I amble into work late and my co-workers wonder why. One postulates that I may have encountered the road construction they had. They were there, it happened to them, they know I take the same route, so that seems a likely reason. But another wonders if I was delayed by persons on horseback engaged in a medieval war reenactment, which had taken place over the weekend on a family farm. A third co-worker speculates that I may have slipped into a wormhole where aliens detained me to obtain skin and blood samples before releasing me back onto my usual route.

The first choice requires just one assumption, that I had encountered the same construction as my co-worker had. From there, the number of assumptions increase. The equestrian excuse would require that the reenactment went beyond the scheduled date and took place in a locale other than its designated point. The final explanation would require assuming the existence in Moline of both wormholes and aliens and assume I had encountered both on my commute.

Anyone espousing the third option would have the highest difficulty level since it employs the most assumptions to reach its conclusions. Still, such attempts to shift the burden of proof and bypass Occam’s Razor happen all the time.

O.J. Simpson’s defense team attempted to shift the burden to the prosecution by trying to make it prove that Nicole wasn’t killed by Colombian drug dealers who mistook her for Faye Resnick. Judge Lance Ito disallowed this line of reasoning, owing to a total lack of evidence. “Prove it wasn’t drug dealers” is not a valid defense argument and such reasoning is not critical thinking.

While the number of assumptions is important, so too are the quality of those assumptions. The Simpson trial, like most criminal cases, had prosecutors assuming the defendant’s guilt and defense lawyers presuming his innocence. But there was no reason to think drug lords were targeting Faye Resnick, much less confusing her for Nicole Brown Simpson, as this required more assumptions than concluding that the relevant evidence included a trail of O.J.’s DNA leading from the crime scene to his vehicle and residence, his history of abusing the victim, and bloody shoe imprints. 

Now let’s apply this to science. A blogger at logicofscience.com wrote about authoring a paper on the diet of a turtle species. In his research, he collected the shelled creatures, had them defecate in a bucket, then examined the feces. There, he found a variety of plants, insects, and crawfish. The conclusion was that these turtles ate a variety of plants, insects, and crawfish, since this explanation required the fewest assumptions.

The biology blogger noted he could have instead deduced that “someone went out before me, captured the turtles, force fed them crawfish, then put the turtles back into the pond.” Or he could have assumed this force feeding was done by aliens. But these options would require unfounded assumptions, the latter necessitating a step beyond even the middle choice. Such conclusions are usually instances of begging the question, where speakers reach the conclusion first, then attempt to buoy that conclusion with unproven premises.

No one takes issue with the science when it involves reptile diets or other noncontroversial topics that leave world views and favored industries untouched. But if the scientific conclusions do impact those areas, there are those who seek to dull Occam’s razor, beg the question, and contort themselves in order to finagle around the evidence.

Young Earth Creationists, for example, insist all animals and plants were destroyed in a worldwide flood 5,000 years ago. This means that in the YEC scenario, all corals today would had to have started growing around the time the Pyramids were constructed. But corals grow about a foot a year under ideal conditions. The Great Barrier Reef would have taken more than 500,000 years to reach its current size.

For corals to have gotten as large as they are today, if they only started growing 5,000 years ago, they would had to have grown at a rate many times more than has ever been observed. The standard YEC response is that perhaps growth rates were much faster in the past than they are now and that the rate has slowed down exponentially since, for reasons unknown.

They employ the same thought process with being able to see stars millions of light years away. This proves Earth has been around at least as long as it has taken the most distant starlight to reach us. But the YEC answer is that maybe the speed of light has not been constant. The coral and starlight responses are both instances of ad hoc reasoning backed by no evidence. It requires assuming that an aspect of botany or astronomy is much different from what has ever been observed or recorded. It is also begging the question. They begin with the assumption that a worldwide flood wiped everything out 5,000 years ago, then try to make all evidence (or in these cases, speculation) fit that assumption. They go from conclusion to evidence, whereas science works the other way.

A third area of creative deduction by YECs centers of alternating layers of light and dark sediment that accumulate in lakes. The different colors are the result of seasonal changes, with light layers made in winter and dark ones made in the summer. Some lake centers feature millions of these layers, so we can draw one of these conclusions:

  1. A set of two layers forms every year in these lakes. Some lakes contain millions of layers. Therefore these lakes are millions of years old.
  1. Layers were formed during the flood, through an unknown mechanism. By a second unknown means, floodwaters sorted the particles into alternating layers of sediment, then the layers managed to form only over lake beds, and did so at a rate of 10 layers per minute, rather than two per annum, which is the only rate that has been observed.

The YEC takes on these occurrences requires rejecting all data and scientists’ understanding of the natural processes involved. Their response to the scientifically-deduced facts are to offer unsupported ad hoc speculation that proposes unknown and unworkable mechanisms. They fail to manage even the first step in the Scientific Method, observation, because no one has observed the phenomena they claim are occurring. As our turtle excrement-collecting blogger noted, “If we grant creationists the ability to create unknown mechanisms in order to derive interpretations that match their pre-existing biases, then an infinite number of interpretations become possible. It is always possible to generate an ad hoc argument, which is why Occam’s Razor is so important. It tells us that the solution that makes the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one.”

That is why almost all conspiracy theories collapse under the weight of Occam’s Razor. Some anti-vaxxers claim that pharmaceutical executives pay immunologists to say vaccines don’t cause autism. Here, we have two options:

  1. Ethical scientists reach their conclusions through sound research.
  2. These hundreds of researchers from multitudinous institutions and companies are being paid to falsify data. Moreover, none of these hundreds who are in it solely for ill-gotten gain have been lured away by wealthy anti-vaxxers offering to pay them more.

This shill accusation is similar to the charge leveled at climate scientists. On this issue, the two primary competing options are:

  1. 99.8 percent of the 12,000 peer-reviewed papers published in the last five years have attested to anthropogenic global warming, so this is likely happening.
  2. Anonymous elites are paying these thousands of climate scientists to reach this conclusion and fabricate data, yet this plan is being foiled by oil company executives and Facebook posters exposing the plot.

Again, from the logicofscience: “Ask whether there is any reason to think the scientists are corrupt other than the fact that you don’t like their conclusions.”

Going back to the Sagan quote, if one is going to assert the scientific consensus is wrong about climate change, the Big Bang, evolution, vaccines, or GMOs, it is insufficient to offer, “Were you there when the universe began?” or “Follow the money trail.” The burden of proof is on the speaker to provide clear, well-researched, and reasoned evidence for their position.

In some instances, there is no damage other than to the listener’s intelligence. Ancient Aliens attempted to branch into evolutionary biology by suggesting extraterrestrial visitors may have altered dinosaur DNA in order to have them develop into smaller creatures like birds and coelacanth.

In other instances, the misinformation is fatal. Anti-vaxxers mistakenly cite improved sanitation and nutrition as the reason for the decline in infectious diseases over the last century and a half. While those were welcomed health advances, when it comes to disease eradication, here are the two choices offered:

  1. Vaccines work by mimicking disease agents for the real deal, which is why instances of the diseases plummet after vaccines are introduced, and spike when vaccination rates fall.
  2. The introduction of vaccines has coincidentally occurred at a time when the impacts of improved sanitation and nutrition were beginning to be seen. This benefit has extended to countries with deplorable sanitation like India. This has even effected airborne diseases like rubella, which are impacted by sanitation and nutrition improvements by an unknown means. A decline in vaccine rates does not impact disease; rather there has been a coincidental reduction in sanitary and nutrition benefits for unknown reasons when vaccine rates go down. The reason all this is not universal knowledge is because nearly every immunologist is pumping out fabricated propaganda to discredit sanitation and nutrition improvements and cover for vaccines, which actually cause disease.

Those who embrace the latter idea also cotton to the idea of a repressed cancer cure. But which requires the fewest assumptions: That oncologists have been unable to find a panacea for a disease that has more than 100 variations, or that they have, but are eschewing everlasting fame, untold fortune, worldwide adulation, and the chance to spare them and their loved ones, in order to continue enriching the pharmaceutical industry, which has yet to figure out there is more money to be saved in selling that cure?

Meanwhile, 9/11 Truthers talk about the hijackers having little flight training and Tower 7 collapsing despite not bearing a direct hit. They hypothesize that Flight 93 was shot down, insist that a missile hit the Pentagon, and make repeated references to jet fuel and steel beams. However, even if all their claims were valid, it would no more indicate guilt by the Bush Administration that it would cause blame to fall on Islamic terrorists, communists, the Irish Republican Army, or the few remaining Branch Davidians. Which requires the fewest assumptions: That a wealthy and committed terrorist leader with the means and stated desire to pull of such an attack did so, as indicated by passenger phone calls, conversations between hijackers and air traffic control, and flight manifests; or that it was all an elaborate hoax that included WTC security workers, victim’s family members, the airlines, Pentagon witnesses, BBC reporters, and even Philippines police officers, who in 1995 uncovered and turned over to the FBI evidence of what became the 9/11 plot?

One final example, focusing on Bigfoot, which has two primary options. Which of these contains the fewest assumptions?

  1. A complete lack of verifiable evidence strongly suggests its non-existence.
  2. A sustainable population of eight-foot bipedal apes has lived, bred, hunted, and roamed from the Northwest Territories to the Bayou for two centuries without once being shot by a hunter, hit by a vehicle, or leaving behind a corpse, skeleton, fur patch, or excrement.

It is not on me to disprove an ad hoc rationale about a troop of lumbering beasts mastering stealth and adroitly avoiding human contact at all cost. The burden falls on those who make these assertions the centerpiece of their Sasquatch Science.