Monday, 6 June 2011

Loch Ness Monster Revisionism

There is a trend I see today in Loch Ness Monster research and perhaps cryptozoology in general that I can only describe as harmful to future research. I describe it as a form of revisionism in which the original raw data is subject to additions and deletions all in the name of said research. Let me state the obvious, raw data is of vital importance and to subject it to unwarranted change is to be avoided at all costs.

I have witnessed this in various forms across the board and there is no one single person particularly guilty. It just seems to have become the accepted norm that the data can be revised as if it was incomplete. The problems arise however when the data is being arbitrarily altered to fit current theories rather than because other raw data or the internal evidence demands it. Let me give two theoretical examples where the two opposing approaches are used.

Firstly suppose a witness states that they were looking south towards Castle Urquhart from Foyers. This is patently wrong since Urquhart Castle is north of the village of Foyers. The raw data can be acceptable revised to say "north" instead of "south". However, suppose the editor of the data decides to move the story from Foyers to Inverfarigaig (a few miles north of Foyers). The change may seem negligible but it is wrong if the internal evidence does not warrant it. The first example is correction, the second is revisionism.

I have been debating Dale Drinnon on his theories that some land based sightings of Nessie were elk and six foot otters. Dale is entitled to hold these opinions, promote them and defend them. I don't single him out as being the worst example of what I have seen, in fact, those who believe in a large, unknown creature may also indulge in this. But since he is currently blogging on this, I give my critique. Let me give an example of the problem here.

I posted recently on the Alec Muir land sighting. I quoted verbatim from the original text which you can read here.

Dale mentions this case in a recent blog and I quote:

Name: Alec Muir
Date: 1930's
Location: Inverfarigaig
Description: Large beast crossed road in front of car. Left visible trail (footprints or hoofprints, normal 4-legged animal) and showed depression in vegetation where it had been resting.

The first problem encountered here is the addition of the data "footprints or hoofprints, normal 4-legged animal". The words are not offered as opinion or labelled probable but are given as a statement - they were four legged footprints. However, you will not find these words in the original account for they are words extrapolated and then interpolated into the text above. The original in no way offers any internal evidence to suggest what kind of animal left what kind of trail. There is not enough internal data to make this extrapolation. These are unwarranted words.

The second problem is the omission of data or rather what is not mentioned in this text. The original account states that the creature obstructed the car for a full ten minutes! Now I may be going out on a limb here, but if a witness cannot after ten minutes figure out they are looking at a moose or something that is patently "normal" then they are most likely blind and should not be driving in the first place. The problem is that if the ten minutes is not mentioned in the text then the uninformed reader will naturally assume that this account was fleeting like the other ones and hence "may" have misindentified the creature. I will assume Dale was not aware of this ten minute problem and the omission of data is accidental - although the effect is the same.

So the underlying problem is the all too common problem of making the data fit the theory. Assume a theoretical researcher does not believe that Loch Ness holds large unknown creatures. As a consequence, if he reads an eyewitness report as reporting a long serpentine head and neck, this will be regarded as untrue and inconsistent with whatever theory they hold. The witness was clearly wrong in the researcher's eyes and two things must have happened:

1. The witness misjudged the situation and/or
2. The original account was subsequently exagerrated by the witness or another.

... even if there is no evidence to suggest these accretions happened. However, this leads to the problem of what the witness actually saw and this is where the interpolation prejudiced by the researcher's pet theory comes in. The researcher has justified re-editing the account, but solely on the grounds that there just cannot be a large unknown creature in Loch Ness.

The danger here is that what the editor has added as a comment/opinion can often end up as part of the alleged "original" account. Perhaps in 20 years we will see "de facto" accounts of the Alec Muir sighting in which a beast quickly shot across his car and left hoof marks in the grass and all because of a succession of copying and pasting off the Internet.

I said those who believe in a monster in Loch Ness can be guilty too. Regarding the Alfred Cruickshank land sighting of 1923, Tim Dinsdale was troubled that the beast described was khaki green and had a short neck. This did not harmonise with the usual elephant grey and long neck. Tim to his credit still published the account without any redactionism but offered his thoughts on why this was so. Perhaps the creature was looking towards the car and gave a foreshortened neck appearance. Perhaps the car's ancient magneto lights as they faded gave the creature a green tint.

Ironically, Dale Drinnon accepts Dinsdale's fading green light explanation (presumably because it is convenient to his theory with its inconveniently brown-gray colored super otter). I emailed the owner of a Model T Ford enthusiast's website and asked if the colour of a magneto headlight emitted any colour in full or fading luminence. His reply was this:

"The bulb was a typical light bulb of the time. It was bright white at full brilliance but turned a bit yellowier as the engine slowed down. Looking at it, it just dimmed...a color change was not too evident."

In other words, not very likely to turn a grey/brown otter khaki green. Whatever Cruickshank saw was most likely green. So, when the redactionist approaches this account one can imagine the checklist:

Short Neck (fits my theory - accept)
20 Feet Long (does not fit my theory - change)
Emits barking sound (fits my theory - accept)
Khaki Green in colour (does not fit my theory - change)

You begin to see the problem I hope.

We are in the third generation of Loch Ness Monster researchers. The first were led by Rupert T. Gould and believed in a monster. The second generation were led by Dinsdale thirty years later, went through the LNIB and the Rines expeditions and believed in a monster (with some exceptions like Burton). Nearly thirty years on again and this third and current generation largely does not believe in a monster. In this case, those who believe in a monster are now the exception. Such is the evolution of a skeptical society. The Loch Ness phenomenon is shoehorned into the genres of each successive generation but what the beast actually is when stripped of each generation's preconceptions is another matter entirely.


  1. I have been going up to the Loch since 1969. I still believe there is something in the loch having seen something strange myself.The problem with people writing books and articles is :
    1) they rely on other people's books whose reporting may not be accurate
    2) they are trying to sell the books so may sensationalise things
    3)They follow trends also in order to sell the books
    4)their own perception colours what they write. Scientists try to be objective but their belief in their theories often means they sometimes bend the facts to meet those theories.
    We are human , we are not perfect and so we each must take from the evidence what we will.
    There are still believers though not many of us left from the 60s/70s.Some changed their minds.
    What I do find annoying is those who say they don't believe and then make a living from other people's interest in Nessie.That is just exploitation.
    Keep up the good work. Love the blog :-)

  2. I am afraid there is a lot of shoddy research - on both sides of the debate. I have various books from the 1970s as people jumped on the bandwagon of Nessie popularity and most do not past muster. As you said, some just did a cut and paste job or perhaps had an outlandish theory to promote.

    Anyway, hopefully ongoing debate will seperate the chaff from the wheat.

  3. Hmm. This is an interesting debate and I admire people who have the attention to detail to compare one version of an account with another.

    I hope I have avoided such things in my own Loch Ness, Nessie and Me book (2010).

    It must be remembered that some accounts, second hand, like Mrs Mackay's had been in the public domain for over fifty years when we discovered, by talking to her again, that what she saw was probably only about six feet long.

    The debate then is what? Did she forget how big it was? Did she revise her own opinion?

  4. Hi Tony,

    If the original witness wishes to revise their account then that is fine. It is when revisionist researchers read too much into the historical accounts. If they can offer some logical procedure as to how they came to that conclusion than that is fine again.

    However, changing the data because one believes there is no large creature in the loch is to some extent a conflict of interests. Keeping one's bias/prejudice out of the raw data is almost a mental discipline.