A common complaint among cryptozoologists – those who pursue unknown or folkloric monsters – is that mainstream science does not take their work seriously and inappropriately labels it as pseudoscience. The shenanigans currently going on in Russia are a good example of why that happens. Gathered there, as the worldwide headlines have proclaimed, is a group of monster enthusiasts, having come together to investigate an upsurge in sightings in Russia of the yeti, or abominable snowman. Some of the participants in the hunt include a former Russian boxer turned politician, an American woman who claims a bigfoot family lives on her rural property, as well as an intrepid scientist or two. There also seems to be a political undercurrent and the usual hype by locals to boost tourism to their part of the world. And therein lies the rub.
One of the things the Russia monster project illuminates is the difference between science and pseudoscience: between real and fake science; between professional scientists and amateur investigators. Science does research thoroughly over long periods, checking and double checking to make sure they can prove their findings. Charles Darwin – who was essentially an amateur – waited decades before publishing his work on evolution to be sure he could support his argument. Such examples are legion. Science looks for evidence before headlines (though scientists have occasionally fallen prey to overly enthusiastic early reports prior to having established the basis of their work – remember cold fusion?).
Monster-hunting projects are nothing new in Russia. There is a robust history of searching for almas and almasti. These smaller cousins to the yeti are known from Russian folklore. They were sought in the early 20th century by Mongolian scholars Badzar Baradiin and Tsyben Žamcarano, later by Yöngsiyebü Rinčen. In 1958 the Soviet government organised a “snowman commission”, which in turn sponsored an expedition to the Pamir mountains to follow up on sightings of the creatures there. Later, academics like the historian Boris Porshnev and medical doctor Marie-Jeanne Koffman became the revered parents of Russian monster-hunting. Their progeny, Dmitri Bayanov, Igor Bourtsev and others carry on the tradition.
Despite naysayers, the basic concept of cryptozoology is not pseudoscientific. Unknown animals are found on a regular basis by biologists and zoologists, and there is a long history of learned scholars engaging with the concept of monstrous creatures as well. From Aristotle to Pliny to Linnaeus to Richard Owen and Darwin, naturalists have investigated monsters and still do. Darwin thought they might be able to shed light on questions of generation and transmutation. One thing going for cryptozoologists is that creatures like the yeti or bigfoot have a greater theoretical evolutionary plausibility than, say, werewolves or the Jersey devil.
There is no problem with looking for monsters; the problem is how you go about it. That is the issue of contention in Russia. You need evidence. Assertions, claims and headlines alone are not enough. Vague bits of hair and odd footprints found in a cave on a publicity stunt do not constitute evidence. Supporters of intelligent design creationism try the same thing. They want to skip all the workaday effort that goes into science and jump straight to the point where their ideas are accepted.
There are a number of cryptozoologists who work diligently at being properly scientific. They go about their work with intelligence as well as energy. While mostly amateurs, they embody the essence of the scientific endeavour: search the unknown. They, however, are regularly undermined by their less academic brethren. This condition shows that rather than mainstream science it is cryptozoologists themselves who often toss the monkey wrench (or should we say yeti wrench) into the works.
If the yeti or bigfoot or any of their kin do exist out there, someday they will be found, and likely by an amateur rather than a professional scientist. If that day arrives all of us sceptics will have to rethink our positions. Until then, if cryptozoologists want to be taken seriously by scientists they need to behave more like scientists and less like carnival barkers. Keep the circus to a minimum until you actually have a yeti to show the world, then respect will come.