Monday, September 20, 2010

The Montauk Monster eats my cat food

Today's story comes from the field of cryptozoology. In 2008, a strange beast, about the size of a cat, allegedly washed up dead on the shores of Montauk, which lies on the eastern tip of New York. It was photographed from many different angles, and became a relatively big news story, drawing the attention of many, including skeptics.

People sat at their desks all around the world, ready to debunk the so-called Montauk Monster (Click the link to see the creature. I didn't want to ugly-up my blog with it). All manner of animal species were thrown at the corpse, with hopes that one would stick. Some called it a raccoon. Some said that it was a sea turtle sans shell. Some called it a large water rat, a dog, a sheep, a sloth, or even a biological experiment. William Wise, director of Stony Brook University's Living Marine Resources Institute, has a wonderfully credible name, and he said that it was simply a fabrication. The body was never studied in-person by scientists, so any guess is as good as any other, right?

Well, no. Just like not all evidence is created equal, not all speculation is created equal. For instance, even a modestly educated man like myself can tell that the beast was never a sea turtle. Firstly, the turtle's spine is actually a part of its shell, secondly... well I hope you'd have to hit someone over the head pretty hard before they thought that thing was a sea turtle, is all I'm sayin'. If it's not obvious to you, then I probably don't have the power to convince you.

It wasn't a rodent. It has some rodent-y features about it, for sure, the teeth are wrong. Those are not the kind of teeth that chew holes through our drywall and plastic cereal canisters. A rodent's mouth is pretty distinct.

As for a latex fabrication, it's not a bad guess, but I personally don't agree. Some things have a certain realness that you can see, and while this sense is not so hard to fool, it tells me that this nasty thing was actually a living creature once.

After doing some of this modern internet version of research, it seems likely that this poor thing is actually a drowned raccoon. It's not obvious, but taking a look at a raccoon skeleton casts some light on the subject. I'm not 100% sure that's the case, but it sure seems to be.

I think two things are interesting about the story of the Montauk Monster:

1. How quickly we latch on to something mysterious, just because it's mysterious. Without this kind of reaction, science would have never been founded. But, then again, neither would have religion. I imagine that, when we were still a new species, we ran into the mysterious so often that we probably spent most of our time giving things labels and explanations that would later become mythology.

2. How quickly many of my fellow skeptics, when confronted with something that is mysterious, will scramble to debunk it, worried less about the truth, and more about getting that blemish off of their worldview. This is whack-a-mole debunking, and when the average person reads that kind of nonsense, they may come away thinking that they live in a world where something that's obviously not a turtle may be a turtle. After all, science is counter-intuitive often enough that some people just believe everything a professional skeptic says.

To those of us that do write for the public, let's think twice before becoming too hasty with explanations. Whether you like it or not, there are people out there who hang on your every word, and will be bringing up your conclusion in discussion boards for years to come. "That was debunked back in 2008!"

So let's tread a little more carefully, and not make a fool of these people by jumping to foolish conclusions. Sometimes your worldview has to be a little blemished. Mine is pock-marked and scarred beyond recognition. The trick to it is to know that you don't know it all.

Get that one down, and you'll be fine.

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