Dear Straight Dope:
What's up with cryptozoologists? Do people really get research grants to study what doesn't exist? What makes them qualified as an authority on what isn't? And if one of them did find a yeti or unicorn or whatever, does the discovery nullify their expertise since now the once-mythical beast exists? Hope you can clarify what seems to be a rather goofy profession.
SDStaff Doug replies:
We’d better define our terms first. From the Skeptic’s Dictionary:
Cryptozoology is, literally, the study of hidden animals. It is the study of such creatures as the Australian bunyips, Bigfoot, the chupacabra, and the Loch Ness monster. It is not a recognized branch of the science of zoology.
You can get a glimpse into this if you visit the website of Loren Coleman, a self-proclaimed cryptozoologist, giving advice on entering the field:
But I’m sorry to say that there are very few classes ever given in cryptozoology (I taught one in 1990) and no formal cryptozoology degree programs available anywhere. So my advice would be to pick whatever subject you are most passionate about (primates? felids? giant squids? fossil men?) and then match it up with the field of study that matches that subject (anthropology, zoology, linguistics, etc.). Pursue that subject, pick the college that is good in that arena, and you can develop your niche in cryptozoology and not go wrong. (I studied anthropology/zoology, and then moved on to more psychological graduate studies to understand the human factor.)
That pretty much sums it up. These folks do not get grants specifically to look for mythical beasts. The scientific grant review process is arduous and extremely critical, and any legitimate scientist would immediately reject searches for yetis, etc., as total nonsense. However, if you write a research proposal saying something like, “The Mgwango tribe of equatorial Africa believes that a large, brontosaurus-like beast called mokele-mbembe lives in their forest, and I wish to go to Africa to investigate this tribe,” you might actually get a grant for it — not because the grantors believe you’re going to discover a brontosaurus, but because you’re promising to find out why the Mgwango tribe believes there’s such a beast in their forest, which is an interesting bit of anthropology. If that qualifies as “goofy,” then the entire anthropological profession would qualify, I suppose.
In other words, the anthropological side of this research is legitimate. But once someone starts calling themselves a cryptozoologist instead of an anthropologist, they’ve departed the realm of science. Don’t get me wrong. Only a fraction of the world’s species have been described in the scientific literature, and new critters are being discovered all the time, mostly tiny ones — bugs and worms and such. Finding more is a serious scientific project. But to go after legendary megafauna chiefly because they’re legendary, without any real evidence that they exist — I’m sorry, this is the work of crackpots.
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