Hunting the Yeti with "Popular Science"


The Popular Science archives—Google-digitzed versions of whole issues stretching back to the beginning of the 20th century—will never not be awesome. Reading these magazines can teach you a lot about the culture and history of science. It's also a nice way for journalists, like me, to remind ourselves about how very easy it is to get our jobs wrong.

For instance, just because the Royal Geographic Society is sending an expedition to the Himalayas to hunt for the Abominable Snowman doesn't mean the Abominable Snowman definitely exists. In this story, from a gallery of Pop Sci articles about pseudoscience (some appropriately skeptical, some ... not), it's easy to see the writer getting so caught up in the excitement of the hunt that he stopped questioning whether there was really anything to hunt for. It's a fun read. And a nice kick in the pants.


  1. As regular readers may have noticed, opinions on such matters vary among BB’s contributors. : )

    1. Opinions on the responsibility of the journalist in scientific discovery, or opinions on the existence of The Yeti?

  2. In the fervent hope of preventing my being labeled as an instigator and contributor to the fear and hysteria that could conceivably spread from incorrect Yeti information I must confess that the news quotation I posted in the comments of Maggie’s “An Explanation for Roswell…” post yesterday may have some fabricated elements.


  3. I’m no genious, but if I were hunting that Yeti I’d probably follow its footprints.

  4. The lumping of cryptozoology with other “pseudosciences” is incorrect for a very simple reason: cryptozoology, unlike the study of ghosts, UFOs, etc., deals in testable hypotheses. For example, either there is a large unknown animal in Loch Ness, or there is not. The means to test the hypothesis may not be available (e.g., a definitive sweep using the most modern naval sonar gear and hydrophones may be something no one can afford) but the hypothesis is, nonetheless, logically testable and thus scientific.
    There is no arguing with the statement that many people involved in cryptozoological research, mainly amateur enthusiasts, are too quick to conclude an unknown animal is real based on inadequate data. The implication in your article that searching for unknown animals is fruitless, however, is absurd.
    New mammal species alone described in scientific literature in the last 15 years number 408, including cetaceans, deer, van Roosmalen’s tapir and dwarf manatee, and other creatures of substantial size. You can argue convincingly that many overly enthusiastic cryptozoologists overreach the data in their claims for particular species. You cannot, however, argue that the search for unknown animals – a search being validated by the description or collection of new type specimens every single day – is scientifically void.

    Matt Bille
    Author, Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology (Hancock House, 2006)

  5. Contrary to claims, and despite Loren Coleman being awesome, cryptozoology is not science. A testable claim is not the only requirement of science. Zoology is a science. The idea of “crypto” zoology was created as in reality it only deals with animals that zoology/science has already demonstrated can’t or don’t exist. Cryptozoology deals with animals that science has labeled extinct, such as thylocines, moas, and assorted dinosaurs, pterodactyls, pleisiosaurs, gigantopithicus, etc. or animals which the scientific method/evidence has already established can’t exist – giant sea monsters in land-locked lakes, a species (actually cryptozoologists yell at me and tell me all their ape-men are separate species, so it’s really even worse) of giant ape with no fossil antecedents that spans six continents yet has left no bones or body at any time in history, small upright-walking apes (orang pedek, which many cryptozoologists claim to have seen yet none have photographed), and even dragons – yes, one c.z. has even posited that dragons are based on real creatures.

    Cryptozoologists don’t test claims because most don’t have any real scientific background to perform the tests necessary. Most of what they do is collect stories of people and uncritically reprint them and claim them as evidence. There’s no realistic peer review, no reproducible evidence, etc. Some cryptozoologists have even at times advanced ideas such as lots of Bigfoot photos come out blurry, so… maybe Bigfoot can affect camera lenses (seriously). Oh, they’ve also proposed the idea that Bigfoot can turn invisible or travel across dimensions to explain the lack of evidence. That’s not science, it’s science fiction.

    What Matt Billie describes can and does occur under the auspices of real biology and organizations like the World Wildlife Fund. “Hunting” for animals that can’t or don’t exist – cryptozoology is the search for impossible creatures – falls into the same realm as “hunting” ghosts. You’re dealing with people with passion and imagination but little scientific knowledge using tools they don’t understand and accepting a priori what they should be trying to prove – the existence of what they’re searching for. Except for the work of a sceptic or two like Benjamin Radford, there is no one “in” cryptozoology who hasn’t already formed a positive opinion as to the central premise and are actively searching for “evidence” to justify their belief, not to answer the question one way or another. Cryptozoology has no degrees, no textbooks, no accreditation process, and, of course, no successes. It forms no testable hypotheses, unlike Billie’s claim. Cryptozoology starts with the premise that a creature exists, then looks for evidence to justify that belief. Other than Radford, no cryptozoologist will establish under what conditions they’d accept that a cryptid doesn’t exist. They don’t conduct experiments. They don’t employ the scientific method. Despite Coleman’s claim, the little “evidence” that is actually collected is almost universally determined to not be evidence at all (footprints or hair turn out to be of known animals, etc.) They also tend to latch on to one or two positive results and ignore the mountain of negative results and claim their pet hypotheses proven. Even then, some of that turns out to be false when (rarely) re-examined by a non-true believer. It’s the collecting of folklore and trying to pass it off as fact, not a science.

  6. From Matt Bille: I stand by my statement. The statement “There is an unclassified ape in North America,” for example, is an unproven and (in my opinion) highly unlikely thing, but it is a perfectly valid example of Popper’s faslifiable hypothesis. Cryptozoology has its overenthusiastic amatuers, many of who do start with the assumption a creature exists. But if I were to say, “The passenger pigeon still exists,” that might be extremely unlikley, but how would it be bad science? Cryptozoology is not about things proven not to exist, although some of those hang around on the internet and in the literature far too long. It is about new/rediscovered animals and uses the same techniques John McKinnon and others used to find the animals of Vu Quang – talk to locals, look at hunters’ trophies, collect eyewitness accounts, follow tracks, see what might be in roadside zoos, etc. Properly done, the only distinction between cryptozoology and the rest of zoology is that cryptozoology broadens a little the range of initial evidence considered in the hopes it might point toward something real. Read any of the acocunts of modern species discoveries. They sound a lot like cryptozoology. It’s not like chasing ghosts because you are unlikley to prove a ghost exists and it’s impossible to prove a ghost does not exist. Not so for a theorized animal in a specific habitat.

Comments are closed.