In the Wake of the Sea Serpents
Ah, another wonder of my youth, “In the Wake of the Sea Serpents.” This was a book first published in English in 1968 by Bernard Heuvelmans, one of the first modern cryptozoologists. He is in fact called the “founder of cryptozoology.” Cryptowhatnow? Cryptozoology is the scientific study of unknown or undiscovered animals. To Heuvelmans’ credit, he tried to make the study of things such as the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, etc into more than just collections of anecdotes and stories. Sadly the field is still rife with hoaxes and the remorselessly credulous, but it still never hurts to study something.
My parents must have bought “In the Wake of the Sea Serpents” when it first came out, because I remember it fondly from my youth. I mean, this was a book about sea serpents, and it was dreadfully serious and filled with the details of various historical sightings, like the 1848 HMS Daedalus encounter illustrated above. It had footnotes, illustrations, an index…proof positive to a ten year old boy that the world was indeed full of wonders.
And what most impressed my young scientific mind was that Mr Heuvelmans had not only collected hundreds of sea serpent sightings, he had catalogued them by type and plotted them on a map of the world, all helpfully printed on the inside cover of this remarkable book. And lo and behold, the types of sea serpent sightings showed definite clusters. Giant eels would be seen in one ocean, giant turtles in another, and so on. This was the clincher, this showed beyond any doubt that sea serpents were real, otherwise why would ships from all over the world see the same types of monsters while sailing in certain parts of the world?
The innocence of youth, what can I say. Now that I’m older and marginally wiser, I’ve discovered the awful truth about Heuvelmans’ wondrous map. It turns out that when people went back and looked at the individual cases, Heuvelmans consciously or unconsciously had taken wide latitude with how he had classified sightings, in many cases clearly shoehorning them into classifications where they did not belong. Heuvelmans’ sea serpent map was at best an exercise in self deception, at worst an outright fraud.
Still, the map does serve its purpose, because this map is a classic example of what I was referring to as crackpot thinking. It seems clear that our esteemed Mr Heuvelmans had convinced himself that sea serpents were real, and carefully collected and interpreted the data needed to support his contention. So even though the topic of sea serpents is not an example of a crackpot theory, new large sea animals are still being discovered and more almost certainly remain to be discovered, the map is an example of crackpot logic.
There’s several things going on here. It should be noted that “counting the hits and ignoring the misses” has been a recognized logical fallacy for a long time, referred to as confirmation bias. And it’s a good bet that most people engage in it to some extent, scientists are certainly not immune. And I suspect there’s a bit of something akin to pareidolia going on here, Mr Heuvelmans really really wanted to see some sort of pattern in the data he had painstakingly collected. Alas his wonderful map was no more scientifically significant than the Face on Mars, and not nearly as much fun.
In any event these two columns started out as a “ten crackpot theories” column but has expanded into quite a bit more. And since I’m on a roll, tomorrow I will look at Gavin Menzie’s book: “1421, The Year China Discovered the World.” It too is a wonderful example of crackpot science, in fact it also has an amazing map on its inside cover that is enthralling ten year olds the world over as I type.
I am also open to suggestion about what odd conspiracy and crackpot theories to write about in the future, I find them fascinating from so many perspectives, and much can certainly be learnt from them. Plus, they are fun! I believe all men still have that ten year old kid in them somewhere. That’s my theory at least.
(The above image of the sea serpent seen by the crew of the HMS Daedalus is public domain under US copyright law because the copyright long ago expired. The Daedalus was a minor British warship notable in history only for the sea serpent sighting of 1848, which inspired much discussion in the Times of London and was the beginning of modern cryptozoology. What they saw has never been identified, an overturned canoe or a dead/dying giant squid are the two best prosaic explanations.)