Why the Yeti, Bigfoot and Nessie myths live on

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In calling them ‘myths’, you sound sceptical…

I can understand why people believe what they believe, and, of course, some people claim to have actually had sightings of ‘cryptids’…

Wait, what are ‘cryptids’?

‘Cryptids’ are animals that are presumed by believers to exist on the basis of anecdotal evidence.

The name derives from ‘cryptozoology’, a term coined in the late 1950s by Belgian zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans and Scottish biologist Ivan Sanderson for the study of animals whose existence is yet to be proved.

Like I was saying, these myths exist in various folk cultures, but scientific evidence of the existence of the so-called ‘Abominable Snowman’ (or the Yeti) in the Himalayas; the similar-looking Bigfoot in the US and Canada; and of the Loch Ness Monster; is sparse.

What about the photographs the Indian Army team took recently?

Of what looks like a giant footprint, which the Army claimed could be of the Yeti… The Indian Army will be the first to acknowledge that while this finding makes for an interesting ‘anecdote’, it doesn’t qualify as clinching evidence.

How old is the Yeti myth?

Writing in East and West magazine in 1972, the mountaineer and cartographer Peter Aufschnaiter (whose experiences alongside climber Heinrich Harrer are depicted in Seven Years in Tibet) cites 12th-century poetry by Tibetan monk Milarepa describing a large ape-like being that resembles modern-day depictions of the Yeti.

Has the Yeti ever been sighted?

A UPI news agency report from 1958 quoted Norman Gunther Dyhrenfurth, a German-Swiss-American mountaineer who led the Mt Everest expedition of 1963, as saying that a “reliable” Sherpa had seen a Yeti. “The Yeti is no more a myth, but hard truth,” Dyhrenfurth said. As far back as in 1937, after the Shaksgam Expedition, British mountaineer Bill Tilman reported footprints “about 8 inches across and 9 inches deep”, which were “all on the same axis”, which the Sherpas thought were Yeti tracks. Based on his observations, he said, “the pundits of the Natural History Museum must either accept the Yeti or else find us a carnivorous one-legged bird weighing several hundredweight.”

Yet, you call it a myth…

Charles Wynn, co-author of Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends and Pseudoscience Begins, explains that humans are “pattern finders and explanation seekers”. He recalls that in December 1978, a red panda escaped from the zoo in Rotterdam, Holland, upon which the zoo put out an alert. Red pandas are not indigenous to Holland: besides being rare, they are distinctive in appearance and cannot be mistaken for any other sort of animal. And almost immediately after it went missing, the red panda was found dead near the zoo. Even so, over 100 people reported sighting the red panda all over the Netherlands long after the panda had evidently died. In other words, if people are hoping to see the Yeti, chances are they will come across something that “looks like” what they expect to see, reasons Wynn.

Bottomline?

Social scientist Frank Sulloway said: “Anecdotes do not make a science. Ten anecdotes are no better than one, and a hundred anecdotes are no better than ten.” As American science writer Michael Shermer noted, sightings of footprints of mythical beings “make for gripping narratives, but they do not make sound science.” A century has been spent on searching for these chimerical creatures, without result. “Until a body is produced, scepticism is the appropriate response.”

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