Credulity Lives!

Human belief in flim-flam appears to be limitless

“My god, what do you have to show them before they’ll take it seriously?”

So cried Bigfoot quester René Dahinden in 1967, after scientists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, along with their counterparts at the Smithsonian, the University of British Columbia and several other notable institutions, unanimously discounted the most famous Bigfoot video in history as a hoax.

That video, filmed in 1967 in northern California by two cowboys named Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, is embedded in the North American psyche. Recorded on shaky, hand-held 16mm film, the video shows something that could either be Bigfoot or a man in a gorilla suit marching away from the camera through a gravelly forest clearing. As it passes behind a thigh-high collection of woody debris, the creature looks back toward the filmmaker and into Bigfoot history, before passing out of sight.

As the authors of Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie and Other Famous Cryptids point out, the question of the Patterson-Gimlin video’s authenticity can never be 100 percent resolved unless one of three things emerges: “a live or dead Sasquatch, powerful new documentary or physical evidence that exposes the film as a hoax (such as the suit itself), or a confession.” But that does not mean we cannot get a pretty good idea from the circumstantial evidence surrounding the video—in particular, from the character of the principal filmmaker, Roger Patterson, a man described by his own family and friends as a “highly artistic, small-town hustler with dreams of the big score” who “seems to have ripped off everyone he met.” When someone who makes money selling books and other Bigfoot paraphernalia announces that he is heading into the woods to capture his subject on film, then does so on the first day of his attempt and subsequently reaps more than $100,000 for the effort, what is a Homo sapiens to conclude? Apparently, that the credulity of our species knows no bounds.

Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero, the skeptics who penned Abominable Science!, deserve applause for this definitive response to a century’s worth of international flim-flam. Ninety-three pages of footnotes attest to their researching zeal; the book’s compassionate tone demonstrates the love they have for their subject—or rather subjects, for in addition to exposing the fraudulent testimonies and fake artifacts on which the legend of Bigfoot (aka Sasquatch) rests, they also take on the Loch Ness monster, Yeti (aka the Abominable Snowman), the Great Sea Serpent feared by ancient mariners and, lastly, the Congo dinosaur known as Mokele Mbembe, “one who stops the flow of rivers.” Perhaps motivated by the knowledge that ridiculing people is a bad way of converting them to your cause, Loxton and Prothero take care not to insult the millions of people who believe the fantasies described. They are kind and cautious, but also resolute: footprint by footprint, photograph by photograph, video by video, Loxton and Prothero uproot the pranks and misconceptions that gave rise to this pantheon of modern-day monsters. (Soon after their book’s publication, an Oxford scientist made global headlines by analyzing the DNA of two samples of Himalayan “Yeti” hair that turned out to be bear fur.)

The result is an entertaining book full of illustrations and photographs you forgot you had seen when you were young. If some of the chapters carry on well after their point has been made, the authors should be forgiven: “cryptozoologists,” as monster hunters call themselves, are an especially stubborn lot.

Consider this: On April 10, 1933, King Kong opened to sellout crowds in London; one of the movie’s more memorable scenes was of a night attack by a long-necked water monster. Four days later came the first sighting of the Loch Ness monster, a long-necked denizen of the deeps that, like the King Kong version, was clearly inspired by the dinosaur fossils that had recently seized the public’s imagination. From that moment on, Nessie sightings soared along with their attendant hazy photographs and murky videos and newspaper headlines. Tourists flocked accordingly, and by 1934, loch-side bus traffic was so severe that new highway rules were introduced to control the traffic. The spectacle was such that Germany’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, declared that Nessie was a hoax created by British tourism agencies. Never mind that the most famous Nessie photograph, shot by Marmaduke Wetherell in 1934, was confirmed as a hoax by Wetherell’s son in 1975; never mind that successive sonar dragnet operations scoured the entire loch in 1962, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1981, 1982, 1987 and 2003, without locating anything larger than a seal. The legend survives, as do the hotels.

But, the believers insist, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as Sherlock Holmes told us (and it is worth noting, as Loxton and Prothero do, that Arthur Conan Doyle unintentionally helped prepare the ground for all this with The Lost World, in which humans and plesiosaurs shared the landscape). In cases like these, though, it is pretty close. For Nessie to exist, she must have radar-proof skin similar to that of certain U.S. attack helicopters. By the same token, the Congo dinosaur must have erased the last 65 million years of its fossil record, just as the flesh and bones of Bigfoot must dissolve at the moment of death, in order for humans to have failed to discover a single cadaver in its well-trodden habitat.

And what of it? Is it so bad, you may ask, for adults to indulge in a few tooth fairy fantasies of their own? What is wrong with a few winking conspiracies if they get people out into nature and generate a few tourism dollars?

That is the question posed in the book’s final, and arguably most interesting, chapter, in which the authors ask: “Why do people believe in monsters?” For his part, Loxton, a self-professed “believer in everything … who eventually became a ‘professional skeptic’,” sees little harm in monster hunting. “The love of cryptozoological mysteries may offer some of the same educational benefits that science advocates promote: love of the natural world and experience grappling with the nature of scientific evidence,” Loxton claims. It may even serve as a “‘gateway drug’ for science literacy,” as was the case for him.

Not so for Prothero, a former lecturer in geo-biology at Caltech and currently a research associate in the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the University of Los Angeles. “Rather than merely wasting time and resources, the widespread acceptance of the reality of cryptids may feed into the general culture of ignorance, pseudoscience, and anti-science,” something that does indeed cause a great deal of demonstrable harm. Consider the discredited but still widely accepted belief that routine inoculations cause autism. Or the stubborn resistance to belief in evolution that persists, especially but not exclusively, in the United States. The list is long and growing, and it veers quickly from locally benign prank to globally malicious propaganda. If 29 percent of Americans and 21 percent of Canadians believe in Bigfoot to this day, should we be surprised that an even greater proportion of voters in each country refuse to believe that the Earth is warming due to human activity?

It is enough to make even an atheist cry: My God, what do you have to show them?