October is here, and most of us are probably thinking about the holiday season looming on the horizon. When I was a child, Thanksgiving marked the start of the holiday season that would stretch into the New Year. However, in recent years Halloween seems to have replaced Thanksgiving as the traditional start of this festive time. Stores sell a wide assortment of Halloween decorations and people buy them, turning their homes into eerily lit dioramas of monsters waiting to greet trick-or-treaters.
While most students would agree that creatures like werewolves and vampires don't exist, television shows like Monster Quest use high-tech equipment and production techniques to suggest that there are multitudes of hidden animals whose existence has not yet been proven.
The 21st century – with all its advanced technological magic, Facebook, Twitter, and Internet blogs – casts shadows of doubt upon what's real and what's imaginary. It's challenging for our students to distinguish between true science and technological pseudoscience. This is where we, as experienced biological educators, have a growing responsibility to teach and share topics with scientific accuracy and credibility.
An example of this 21st-century educational confusion is in the field of cryptozoology. Cryptozoology is the study of and search for animals, especially legendary animals, usually in order to evaluate the possibility of their existence (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cryptozoology). These creatures not only include Bigfoot, Nessie, and Chupacabra, but also many lesser-known mysterious creatures. While biologists believe that scores of undiscovered species (mostly invertebrates) exist and are awaiting discovery, cryptozoologists are not concerned with researching and cataloguing them (Dash, 2000). Instead they focus their efforts toward mysterious creatures that often appear in popular culture, but for whose existence there is little or no scientific support.
Although some cryptozoologists strive for legitimacy, cryptozoology has never been fully accepted by the scientific community and is perceived as a pseudoscience by mainstream biologists. Cryptozoology relies on anecdotal information, stories, and alleged sightings and fails to follow the process of science (Shermer, 2003). Our students need to be informed of these pitfalls and scientific misconceptions.
True science is a process by which answers to questions about the natural world are derived from evidence obtained through testing, observation, and the formulation of logical conclusions (Ellis & Blustein, 1991). These conclusions are then repeatedly tested until they are deemed to accurately describe the observed natural phenomenon. Even then, the conclusions are open to further testing.
Cryptozoology appears to resemble the science of zoology. However, there is a key difference. Zoology focuses on the classification and characteristics of animals (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/zoology). Cryptozoology doesn't do this because it is still searching for these shadowy animals. Even if these mystery creatures were found (like the coelacanth or the okapi), the search would be over and they would quickly move into the realm of zoology where the real science would begin. Cryptozoology, therefore, is not valid science or even science at all. It is monster hunting.
Our responsibility as biological educators is to help our students understand the difference between science and nonscience. Being a member of the NABT can provide support and assistance in helping you accomplish this goal. There are too many people who believe that our world is full of creatures such as Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, or even aliens from other planets.
Scientific misconceptions exist everywhere. Join your colleagues in NABT as together we teach true science to all our students. Help NABT educate tomorrow's adults, parents, leaders, and citizens.