Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Epistemology And Cryptozoology

Two totally unconnected cryptozoology stories appeared in the mainstream press at the start of November. One was about bigfoot, the other was about chupacabra. Each was interesting in itself, and they both were typical examples of the way mainstream media report cryptozoology in general. Here are the two stories. I’ll make a couple of remarks afterward.

Hunter's Photos Ignite New Debate Over Bigfoot's Existence

RIDGWAY, Pa. — A hunter out to photograph deer last month has reignited the Sasquatch debate with a photograph of a small furry animal walking on all fours.

Rick Jacobs said he took this photograph with a camera using an automatic trigger in the Allegheny National Forest, about 115 miles north of Pittsburgh, hoping to capture deer. But his image has only managed to spark further debate about the existence of bigfoot.

"We couldn't figure out what they were," Jacobs said of the images captured on Sept. 16. "I've been hunting for years and I've never seen anything like this."

He contacted the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, which pursues reports of a legendary two-legged creature that some people believe lives in parts of the U.S. and Canada.

"It appears to be a primate-like animal. In my opinion, it appears to be a juvenile Sasquatch," said Paul Majeta of the bigfoot group.

However, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has a more conventional opinion. Agency spokesman Jerry Feaser said conservation officers routinely trap bears to be tagged and often see animals that look like the photos.

"There is no question it is a bear with a severe case of mange," Feaser told The Bradford Era.

* * *

Creature ID'd As Coyote, Not Chupacabra

SAN MARCOS, Texas (AP) — The results are in: The ugly, big-eared animal found this summer in Cuero is not the mythical bloodsucking chupacabra. It's just a plain old coyote.

Biologists at Texas State University announced Thursday night that they had identified the hairless doglike creature.

San Antonio television station KENS provided a tissue sample from the animal for testing.

"The DNA sequence is a virtually identical match to DNA from the coyote (Canis latrans)," bioligist Mike Forstner said in a written statement. "This is probably the answer a lot of folks thought might be the outcome. I, myself, really thought it was a domestic dog, but the Cuero Chupacabra is a Texas Coyote."

Phylis Canion and some of her neighbors discovered the 40-pound bodies of three of the animals over four days in July outside her ranch in Cuero, 90 miles southeast of San Antonio. Canion said she saved the head of the one she found so she could get to get to the bottom of its ancestry through DNA testing and then mount it for posterity.

Forstner said the testing provided an opportunity to demonstrate how science answers questions.

Chupacabra means "goat sucker" in Spanish, and it is said to have originated in Latin America, specifically Puerto Rico and Mexico.

"This is fun, not scary, but if people are worried about the chupacabra, it is probably even more important that we explain the mystery," he said. "Folks can fear what they don't understand, and a big part of the goal in science is to explain the natural world."

He said additional skin samples have been taken to try to determine the cause of the animal's hair loss.

These stories look to me like examples of a philosophical double standard—an epistemological double standard—on the part of scientists seeking to explain the evidence.

In mainstream paleontology, evidence is assumed to be representative of a ‘normal’ element of the population. For instance, the various sizes of ancient proto-human skulls are assumed to be representatives of normal individuals from different species of early man, not examples of regular humans with medical conditions that created large, small or misshapen skulls.

Indeed, when creation science believers make just that argument, mainstream scientists patiently explain that medical anomalies are rare and recovering any evidence at all is very rare, so the odds against a rare medical anomaly also being recovered as evidence become very high.

In cryptozoology, however, mainstream scientists almost always explain away evidence as an anomaly of some kind. Strange coyotes with a skin condition. Strange bears with a skin condition.

But the statistical dynamics are as valid here as in paleontology. Encounters with animals in the wild are generally pretty rare. Animals with bizarre medical conditions are pretty rare. Our ‘default’ assumption, therefore, when looking at evidence shouldn’t be that it depicts an unusual individual from a general population, but rather that it depicts a normal element of some population.

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