Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.
Sometimes Bigfoot believers go “squatching” in the forest to hunt for tracks left behind from the purported apelike creature. Other times, they seem to take a more sedentary approach, sitting behind their computers, complaining about what they see as disrespect for their beliefs on Wikipedia.
The internet encyclopedia defines cryptozoology as “a pseudoscience or subculture that searches for and studies unknown, legendary, or extinct animals” such as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the chupacabra, and other so-called cryptids. But on the talk page that sits behind the wiki article, some users are up in arms about that specific wording. One editor, a self-described cryptozoologist, writes, “I am appalled to hear my trade called a pseudoscience. It is true that cryptozoology does not follow the traditional scientific method, but that does not make it fake!” To which the experienced Wikipedia editor Bloodofox retorts, “If you find yourself attempting to convince others that your pet hobby is a not a pseudoscience, chances are it’s a pseudoscience.” Meanwhile, the Reddit cryptozoology community claims that Wikipedia’s coverage of these creatures is plagued by bias. But is it true? Are Wikipedia contributors unjustly targeting Sasquatch, Nessie, and company?
Throughout the past decade, Wikipedia has undergone what can fairly be described as a Great Culling of the Cryptids. Back in 2013, the English Wikipedia page titled “List of cryptids” had about 300 entries, according to a snapshot from the Wayback Machine. Since then, a few Wikipedia volunteers have proceeded to take a hatchet to the list, developing a far more limited inclusion criteria for what meets the cryptid definition. This winnowing process meant cutting out entries for the Tasmanian tiger, an extinct carnivorous marsupial; the Will-o’-the-wisp, the ghost lights that travelers see floating over marshes; and the Wild Man of Navidad, a Bigfoot-like creature said to reside in southeast Texas that became the subject of a beloved 2008 horror film. Today, Wikipedia’s list of cryptids has only about 50 entries, having also lost references to popular creatures such as the Jackalope, a mythical jackrabbit with antelope horns, and lesser-known aquatic beings such as the Lake Tahoe Monster.
Bloodofox told me that this purge was for the best. “The reason for this is straightforward: Articles that are unsourced or consist of material attributed to poor quality sources get deleted,” he said in an email. (Bloodofox is a long-term Wikipedia editor who asked Slate not to reveal his real name because of threats he has received in the past over edits on unrelated topics.) Furthermore, Bloodofox cautioned that word cryptid should be used sparingly, arguing that cryptozoologists invented the term out of whole cloth to make their hobby sound more “science-y.” That is why Wikipedia today classifies the Jackalope and similar entities as folklore creatures rather than as cryptids, per se.
But how Wikipedia categorizes a subject changes and potentially limits the topics that surface during the research phase—providing yet another example of how the content of a wiki page affects reality itself. Ask ChatGPT to “provide cryptid legends from southeast Texas,” and its response is likely to include the chupacabra, but not the Wild Man of Navidad. Why? It could be because ChatGPT has been trained on Wikipedia, and Wikipedia has classified the chupacabra as both cryptid and folklore, while the Wild Man is (just) folklore. Now, that exclusion might not seem like a big deal, but it would certainly matter to someone compiling a lighthearted guide to American cryptozoology.
“The answer is not necessarily to gatekeep what is and isn’t a cryptid,” said Cristina Van Epps, who co-hosts the popular Cults, Cryptids & Conspiracies podcast with her friend Chelsea Miller, and typically takes the skeptical point of view. Before they make a cryptid episode, they usually check the topic on Wikipedia and review the collection of sources collected at the bottom of an article. Their listeners will also suggest a cryptid to cover by linking to its Wikipedia page. So when Wikipedians reclassify a creature as folklore rather than a cryptid, then that subject no longer has the same visibility for information seekers.
Rather than “gatekeep” the cryptids, Van Epps and Miller suggested the page instead feature a disclaimer saying that the topic it not accepted by mainstream science. That’s exactly the kind of language that appears on the Bigfoot article, which is sprinkled with descriptors like pseudoscience, hoax, folklore, and wishful thinking. But these words infuriate serious Bigfoot believers, who claim that Wikipedia should be softer and more neutral in its language.
According to experienced Wikipedians, the best way to counter a neutrality argument from the Cryptids Are Real side is to focus on Wikipedia’s core policies, especially the requirement to reflect reliable sources. “We call it is pseudoscience because that’s what the citations tell us to use. We’re not making up the word,” said Susan Gerbic, who leads Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, a volunteer association of editors who seek to monitor the site’s content for claims that go against the body of scientific evidence. “The sources that you have to use [on Wikipedia] have to be secondary, notable, and have journalistic integrity,” she said.
But Gerbic told me that it is sometimes challenging to find sufficiently high-quality sources to use for covering these fringe topics. First-person accounts—like the wild cryptid encounters that Van Epps and Miller share and challenge on their podcast—are not permitted by Wikipedia. Then again, national news organizations don’t always go out of their way to report on cryptid hoaxes. “You’re not going to read about cryptozoology in the New York Times that often,” Gerbic said. And tenured professors at esteemed academic institutions have generally decided not to touch cryptozoology with a 10-foot pole, even to debunk it, perhaps fearing guilt by association with such a disreputable subject matter. Ultimately, the GSoW team often leans on niche publications like Skeptical Enquirer to find a Wikipedia-worthy source that clearly states a particular cryptid is considered pseudoscience.
And that word is overused, according to Bigfoot fans, who complained about how “pseudoscience” is mentioned five times in the lead section of the cryptozoology Wikipedia page. But Bloodofox told me that it’s important to make this point abundantly clear to the reader. “The danger is misinformation,” he said, adding, “We do not allow Young Earthers or Flat Earthers to dictate our geology coverage.”
As it happens, Wikipedia mentions numerous times that there is a subset of cryptozoology that promotes Young Earth creationism, a belief system whose adherents hold that the Earth is only 6,000 to 10,000 years old. That’s a topic Van Epps and Miller have covered on their podcast. “Basically any sort of cryptid that could be described as dinosaur-like, [Young Earth creationism believers] will take and try to prove it’s real as evidence that the Earth is younger than we think it is. Because ‘dinosaurs’ are still alive and with us,” Van Epps said.
Miller pointed to interesting tidbits from Bigfoot culture that do not appear on the subject’s Wikipedia page. For instance, some religious Mormons assert that Bigfoot is Cain from the biblical story of Cain and Abel, cursed to walk the Earth with the “mark” of a hideous ape. Also not included on the Wikipedia entry? The bitter and long-lasting feud between Bigfoot hunters based on the West Coast vs. the East Coast.
Clearly, some of the best cryptid content has little to do with the (fake) creatures themselves but rather how their stories have influenced regional culture. On their podcast, Van Epps and Miller have covered the Peninsula Python Festival that occurs every July in Peninsula, Ohio, and originates from a giant python that allegedly escaped and sneaked around the town back in 1944. Sure, the lore around the Peninsula Python itself is dubious, but nobody disputes that the annual parade has become a real tradition. Despite mainstream press coverage, that legacy is not covered on Wikipedia, perhaps due to the aforementioned gatekeeping.
Bloodofox says the problem is that folklore scholars aren’t generating enough sources or volunteering on Wikipedia to help expand its content. “If more folklorists contributed to Wikipedia, then it would have more folklore articles and better folklore coverage,” Bloodofox told me. He also confirmed that he believed that Wikipedia should generally continue to resist the cryptid label. But why not … call a cryptid a cryptid? If legitimate scientific sources refer to an alleged creature with that word—and many of them do, even as they are disputing the claims of cryptid hunters—then it is appropriate for Wikipedia to use the cryptid label as well.
To sum up, it seems to me that the two sides of Wikipedia’s Never-Ending Cryptozoological War could both stand to make some concessions. First, if a reputable publisher describes an entity as a “cryptid,” then Wikipedia should classify it within its cryptid category. (Sorry, Bloodofox.) This relaxed admission standard does not necessarily mean that Wikipedia’s list of cryptids needs to jump to the previous 300 entries—that doesn’t really serve readers, either. At the same time, Wikipedia should continue to clearly label cryptozoology as pseudoscience, reflecting the exact language that’s used by reliable sources. (Sorry, Bigfoot truthers.) Once the article provides this disclaimer—essentially flagging: *This monster is not real*—Wikipedia should proceed to treat the reader like an adult, providing information about notable regional festivals and all the famous forgeries. Remember that Wikipedia’s verifiability policy does not necessarily require excluding all cryptid content, especially if it’s part of regional culture. As they say, don’t throw the Nessie out with the bathwater.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.