Wednesday 30 November 2011

The Skeptic Theory of Nessie

In this posting I would like to address an interpretation of the Loch Ness Monster which though the most popular has nothing to do with a monster in Loch Ness.

It is of course the sceptical view on what is being seen at Loch Ness. I am not aware of any official name for this theory so I will simply call it the Skeptic Theory. The theory itself can be summed up in the phrase "Deceived and Deceivers" which states that all claimed sightings of a strange creature are either

1. Deceived witnesses who have been fooled by perfectly normal phenomenon.


2. Deceivers who lie about what they have seen.

I think the theory is nicely summed up in the humorous picture above. Let us look at each of these sub-divisions in turn.


It goes without saying that people make mistakes in all walks of life and claimed sightings at Loch Ness are not exempt. All Loch Ness researchers accept that people misidentify known objects and events, the problem is the degree to which it happens in the face of some pretty extraordinary witness claims.

In one sense this theory is the most complex because it employs a large array of items to explain what witnesses claim to have seen. The "deceived" category itself can be further subdivided into three sub-categories.

  • The Object
  • The Context
  • The Person

Firstly, we look at the object under observation. An incomplete list follows:

  • Standing Waves
  • Boats
  • Birds
  • Tree Debris (such as logs)
  • Vegetable Mats
  • Otters
  • Deer
  • Seals
  • Sturgeons
  • Fish Commotions
  • Moose
  • Dogs
  • Rubbish
  • Buoys
  • Rocks
  • Surface Reflections
  • Surface Shadows
  • Gas bubbles

You can add your own definitions to this list. Now since it will be rightly argued that people tend not to mistake otters, boats and trees for 30 foot monsters, the second subcategory of context is generally required. Context is the means whereby the theory attempts to blur the distinction between "object" and "monster". A context will obfuscate the physical perception of the object. Examples of context are:

  • Distance (to object)
  • Time (e.g. light levels)
  • Light Effects (e.g. reflections, shadows)
  • Weather (e.g. heat haze, rain)
  • Seiches (counter-underwater waves)

The idea being that increasing distance makes it harder to identify the object, a dark time of day makes an object more indistinct and seiches can make an object such as a log behave in a counter-intuitive manner.

So proponents of this theory will combine the object and context to reinforce an explanation for a sighting. For example, one explanation of the Spicers land sighting requires "Otters" to be combined with "Weather (Heat Haze)" and "Distance" to produce what is claimed as an adequate explanation.

(Interestingly, some skeptics take the Spicers' original size of 7-8 feet instead of his revised size of 20+ feet but take his revised distance of 200 yards and ignore the original distance of 50 yards. Unbiased selection of data?)

However, these two sub-categories are still not enough to take on the thousands of claimed Nessie sightings (indeed the context is largely irrelevant if the object is close). What has to be added is the human factor or how the human mind perceives the object under observation in the given context. Examples of this are:

  • Inexperience
  • Expectation
  • Hysteria

This category is more controversial since it involves qualitative and subjective elements. Objects are real and solid, context can be determined to some degree but the mind of the given witness is not so amenable to measurement. Consequently, there is less agreement as to the degree of this category's merit.

Inexperience is probably the least controversial element. Some people will indeed fail to recognise an object for what it is because they either have never seen it or have not seen it in the given context (if context is important). People who have spent their lives in urban areas may be more susceptible (though this has to be countered with any knowledge gained from books, zoos, hobbies, etc). However, those less prone to this element would be locals and experienced observers such as anglers, water bailiffs, boat operators and of course hands-on "Nessie hunters".

Expectation is more controversial in its claim that the mental state of the visitor or local resident is somehow "primed" to see a monster in the loch and hence will prejudice their powers of observation. In other words, the person "wants" to see a monster and therefore is more likely to "see" one. Again, there is no doubt that some people will view the loch with this attitude but the question is "How many?" and that is where disagreement arises.

Since it is a safe assumption that the majority of the population do not believe the loch holds a large, unidentified creature then it follows they will not be viewing the loch with such a sense of expectation.

But it has to be noted that "expectation" is normally a pre-condition rather than a continuing one. Once a person begins to process what they are seeing according to their level of experience then expectation will normally tail off as reality sets in. However, if the context mitigates against this (i.e. object too far away, too dark, etc) then the expectation may remain and even heighten.

Hysteria is related to expectation but is more group oriented. It is basically the "crowd effect" in the situation where a group is watching an object in the loch and their expectations may begin to mutually reinforce beyond what may happen if only one person may be present. Richard Frere in his book "Loch Ness" tells of how he managed to whip up monster enthusiasm in a group of people by pretending some distant object was the Loch Ness Monster. An interesting "experiment" (we couldn't call it an experiment in the scientific sense), though we doubt every sighting has such a cheerleader egging on the witnesses!

Another claimed aspect of hysteria is media coverage of the Loch Ness Monster. The idea put forward is that the Press not only perpetuates the Loch Ness Monster "myth" but instills across their readership an unreasonable expectation regarding the beast. The problem with this approach is that newspapers do not take the subject seriously at all. As a result, one should not expect the bulk of their readership to be different on the matter.

As you can see, the interplay of object, context and observer is a complicated affair. In fact, I am not aware of any attempts to successfully model this and come to some hard conclusions. All we have is anecdotal evidence such as the Frere example above.


One could with tongue in cheek summarise this whole theory in the following way:

The further away the object, the more likely the witness is deceived. The closer the object is, the more likely the witness is a deceiver.

When it becomes untenable to insist that the witness is a victim of object, context or his own preconceptions then this theory in its full blown form still does not admit to the existence of an exotic creature. In such instances, the "safety net" of deceiver is employed (although surprisingly some will continue to insist that witnesses at less than a hundred yards still misidentify common objects). In other words, the account is a hoax.

This part of the theory is mainly targeted at film and photograph but can be applied almost indiscriminately to any and all witnesses whose stories are deemed inconvenient. Of course, photographs of the Loch Ness Monster are emotive and powerful icons. These are the items that stick in the public memory and often motivate and inspire others to research into the subject. If these photos can be proven to be hoaxes and removed from public memory and credulity, then the theory has made advances.

Now, it is admitted that as with reports which are a result of being deceived, so there will be photographs or testimonies that are the products of deceivers (hoaxers). However, in the realm of film and photograph, I am hard pressed to come up with a confession by anyone to being a hoaxer.

We have hearsay about somebody saying something to someone else, but next to nothing that can be verified by more than one witness. The one exception is Christian Spurling and his Surgeon's Photo confession. Does this imply that deceiving the public is in fact less common than proponents of this theory claim? Perhaps, but we move on.

Hoax photographs can be exposed in other ways. The best example was one of Frank Searle's head and neck pictures where it was proven beyond doubt that a wooden post out from shore had been used as the "neck".

But whereas one expose will cast doubt upon one person and their pictures, every other photo be it Hugh Gray, F.C. Adams, Peter MacNab and so on has to be judged on its own merits. So various means will be employed to discredit the photo. Like non-photograph testimonies, the account will be scrutinised solely for errors or inconsistencies to "incriminate" the person. The photograph will be poured over for any tell-tale signs of tampering or damning clues based on field of view, light levels and shadows, etc.

There is nothing wrong per se with these methods, it is rather the non-neutral way in which the picture is handled. Perhaps the most withering aspect of this procedure is the popular "reproduction" technique. Here an attempt is made to reproduce the picture using hoaxing techniques such as models, natural items (e.g logs) or photo development trickery.

Once something that resembles the original picture is produced, the copy is proudly displayed to the world as "proof" that the original was hoaxed. The problem with this technique is that it is a complete non-sequitur and useless as a critical tool of analysis.

The reason being that almost anything can be copied to some degree of accuracy if enough time and resources are applied to the problem. The art world is awash with copies of famous works of art - some of which only experts can distinguish between. If someone can copy something as complex as that, they can copy a blurry picture of the Loch Ness Monster.

Some may be careful in only using tools available at the time of the picture but in truth, apart from image editing software, most of what is available now has been available since 1933 (or close substitutes were on the market). More modern photographs claiming to be of the Loch Ness Monster will be debunked as the product of Photoshop or similar packages. Thus, the tautology of reproducing look-alikes moves from the lochside to the computer screen.

Reproducing a photograph is a pointless act because if in theory a real picture of a monster in Loch Ness appeared, then that too would be reproducable using tools and techniques not beyond the wit of man. Hence, in the context of Loch Ness Monster research, this is a tautological procedure and an unfalsifiable process. Anyone employing this process to debunk Loch Ness Monster photographs should give up as they will only be preaching to the converted.

But even if this reproduction aspect of the "Deceiver" theory was viable, there are still problems. For a hoax has three aspects to it:

  • The Intention
  • The Plan
  • The Execution

What we have only discussed here is the "execution" or the end product in the form of a photographic negative or print. What has not been discussed is how the sceptic proves the "intention" to hoax and whether the skill, time and resource was in place to execute the "plan". Since we suggest here that the "execution" critique is flawed, it therefore does not add anything in pursuit of these two other aspects of an alleged hoax.

As it turns out, unless a confession is forthcoming (to multiple witnesses) or there is a serious flaw in the testimony which cannot be put down to lapsed memory or newspaper error, the "hoax" aspect is unprovable. And the same is true of the ability to "plan" the deception, most anyone (with possibly help from others) can put together such a thing. So unless the incriminating model or tampered negatives are found, nothing can be gained from saying "it is possible for someone to fake this".

So photos can be obviously faked, but reproducing a similar picture is meaningless. What is required is:

  • A verifiable confession
  • The "tools" which did the job
  • Internal evidence from the photograph

I would note that the last point can be a bit of a quagmire since Loch Ness investigators are not always thorough in establishing the facts. One recent example will suffice. The Inverness Courier printed an account of a photograph taken recently in September. The witness was said to have taken the picture at 8:30am but a well known Loch Ness researcher cast doubt upon the picture as a result of this because he (correctly) pointed out that the picture suggested the event happened closer to midday.

As this point, we could have all turned negative on this event and began to walk away from it. However, I contacted the photographer and he said the picture was indeed taken near noon and the paper had misquoted him.

Now one may cynically accuse the witness of backtracking to preserve their debunking - but I call it going to the original source (NOTE: I had not asked any leading questions either - I had merely asked if the newspaper account varied in any way from his own). If it means a key fact is lost in critiquing the picture, then so be it, better to be thorough than shallow. After all, critical thinking needs facts not what suits one's case.

One wonders how many cases have been discarded as dubious when all it took was a rechecking of the facts with the witness?

So the Skeptic theory reigns supreme amongst the general population. But like all the other theories about the Loch Ness Monster, it is flawed. It's biggest problem is its assumptions about witnesses. To not put too fine a point upon it, it regards them as observational idiots.

This flaw has already been discussed elsewhere on this website, such as the Greta Finlay and Spicers cases. Check those articles to see how incredulity is stretched when skeptics try to assassinate witness credibility. There are also plenty of other similar cases which challenge this view of witness competence.

Advocates of this theory will fall back on Occam's Razor and claim that this theory is the best one because it requires less improbable assumptions than any exotic creature theory. Well, not quite. It has to make hundreds, if not thousands of assumptions about every person that has ever claimed to have seen a strange creature in Loch Ness. That is, that every witness was an incompetent observer. Each individual and circumstance was unique, so each assumption is unique.

Now that I do find improbable.


  1. Awesome article! You have done a wonderful job at explaining why people like you and me are actually skeptics. Those closed-minded debunkers are not skeptics. They are, indeed, the true believers!

  2. With Rines photographs of 1975,included the secret one that I have,there´s no evidence that the Cadborosaurus of Loch Ness existed.You´re skeptics,because you don´t believe in yourselves.

  3. Wow thats a big article and very informative.
    I've always thought there were 2 types of witnesses..

    1. Honest, but unsure what they were seeing. Could be an animal, but it could be a wave, or a log or a shadow cast by a cloud. Either way, they're seeing something unusual, and their faith determines how they interpret it. They're not idiots. We all see things, and for a moment are not sure what they are. If they saw some of these things on a place which -was't- loch ness, maybe they'd dismiss it. Either way, the romance of a mysterious monster on a famous lake adds some pizazz to what might be a ripple now doesn't it?

    2. Deceivers. These people make hoax photographs or stories to further themselves in some way. They're not honest, but they know they have an audience (commercial or otherwise) in the believers - or even the open minded but unsure. There's money - or at least momentary fame - to be made everywhere. ;-)

  4. A marine Biologist did speculate there was more than one and it/they came from the north sea,swim around the loch, surface occasionally then return via an underground river. Its reckoned there is not sufficient food in the loch to sustain a creature this size. Could it be a Plesiosaur ? In the nineteen thirties,a Coelacanth was discovered off east Africa,thought by scientists to be long extinct,perhaps Nessie is in a similar category.

    Have you seen this yet?

    1. My understanding is the paper has to do with 19th century sea serpent reports and contemporary fossil finds and nothign to do with 20th century nessie reports.