Monday 5 November 2012

Can There Be Convincing Nessie Footage?

A reader recently directed me to that clip from the film "Incident At Loch Ness" where a "Nessie" swims past an incredulous camera crew. They get a shot and the clip from the movie is shown below.

Some of you may be familiar with the clip and it's a realistic looking stunt. Obviously, this kind of footage - if it was real - would outdo anything presented as evidence in the last 80 years of Loch Ness Monster hunting. It goes without saying that, unless some equivalent of the MacRae film is holding out, this quality of footage has never been taken.

In some ways this is not surprising. Firstly, the equipment used to record the stunt was of high, professional quality and this is not the type of machinery the typical Nessie witness will have to hand. You are more likely to have some consumer grade mobile phone doing the recording on a lower resolution.

Secondly, the hump prop in the film was perhaps only 20 metres or so from the camera. As rare as Nessie sightings are, it is even rarer for anyone to report something less than 100 metres away. As an object recedes into the distance, detail is obviously lost and interpretation becomes more ambiguous.

Thirdly, there is the "paralysing" effect once spoken of by monster hunter, Alastair Boyd. He had a sighting in 1979 of a large hump breaking the surface of Urquhart Bay. So striking was the sight that he could only but gaze at the spectacle before he snapped to it and scrambled unsuccessfully to get his camera as the creature submerged out of sight.

Monster surfacings are all too brief and Alastair defied anyone to calmly go through their rehearsed camera routines when the Great Beast of Loch Ness deigns to show itself to you.

As the film shows, such a close encounter seems more likely from a boat. In fact, the recent George Edwards hoax was such a claimed event. However, as suggested by the eyewitness data, the Loch Ness Monster does not seem to like boats as witness reports from boats are much less. It is possible though that this is due to less potential witnesses being in boats than on land, but then again the expected proportion may still exceeded the actual proportion.

But, if you are potentially closer to the monster, more sightings should in theory happen on water. A resolution to the matter would require a study of the eyewitness database. However, if the assumption is held to, it is noisy engines rather than boats themselves that deter the creature due to the high auditory acuity I think it possesses.

I will say what I have said before, just because Loch Ness is a "mere" twenty four miles long, one mile wide with an average depth of 433 feet, it is assumed finding one or more creatures is relatively easy with the right application of technology and human ingenuity. This was the attitude in the 1960s as searches got more organised, but Nessie steadfastly refused to yield so easily.

An object appearing halfway across the loch is about half a mile away, too far for recording of decisive images. The high opacity of the loch underwater makes photography near useless and sonar is too blunt an instrument, especially when nobody can say for sure what a sonar trace of Nessie would look like.

Throw in the likelihood that our beasts stay on or under the bottom and sides of the loch and you have a recipe for futility. But these techniques will continue to have their place in Loch Ness research, just don't expect final, decisive proof.

But going back to our clip from "Incident At Loch Ness", suppose it was the real thing, perhaps taken by a TV camera crew filming a regional news item? Would it be accepted as proof of a large creature in the loch or would some explanation be proffered as to why it is no more useful as evidence than any photo of a distant blob?

Well, I would say that the default reaction of leading Loch Ness researchers would be one of caution. That is no surprise and probably the best one given the history of evidence at the loch. The film and its owners would then be subject to scrutiny as questions are asked, frames are analysed and the scene of the event examined.

At the end of this process, the film will be declared to be a natural but misidentified object such as a seal or certain inconsistencies will be pointed out about the owners or film that suggest the film takers are not being wholly truthful.

Well, that's the normal modus operandi. But would this type of higher grade evidence get over that hurdle? I can't honestly say the majority of recognised Loch Ness experts would be won over because of a problem in the aforementioned modus operandi.

Now the mode of critical thinking that proceeds in this wise is in my opinion faulty. One of the main premises behind it is the well known "Occam's Razor". According to Wikipedia:

"It is a principle stating that among competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be selected."

So, there are two competing hypotheses for this type of film clip. One concludes it is a large, unidentified creature that is not from the known variety of wildlife and the other says it is either a known animal or a hoax.

The "unknown animal" hypothesis would no doubt conclude we have something "real" here but my contention is that the "normal object" hypothesis will always come out with an answer - no matter how good the film,  photograph or eyewitness report. So what good is a hypothesis that always comes up with the required answer? It is non-falsifiable and therefore useless for critical analysis. It is like spinning a two headed coin.

Let us by way of example apply this to our hypothetical film clip.

In the case of natural objects, the hypothesis would clearly struggle and be forced to consider the hoax scenario. On this basis, it would be stated that since the hump is in theory "hoaxable", then a hoax cannot be discounted and indeed should be entertained as a better explanation since it is a simpler assumption than the presence of large unknown creatures in Loch Ness.

Speculation can then have its way as various schemes are considered as to how the effect was achieved. A frogman with a plastic hump attached to his back being driven by a DPV (Diver Propulsion Vehicle) or the prop being towed by an out of sight motor or perhaps its a CGI effect.

Human imagination could invent a number of reasons how something could be hoaxed and hence always come up with an explanation. Again, I say what use is such a hypothesis?

Widening the hypothesis to eyewitness reports, the other explanation of people misidentifying objects as monsters is because their judgement is "clouded" by Nessie expectations. The over-application of this sub-theory weakens the overall hypothesis further. To more forcefully put across my point, when the Logic Fairy sprinkles this dust over even the best Nessie sightings then deer, otters and ducks magically become monsters.

Again, what use is such a theory when it always produces the expected answer?

Now when monster hunters of old put the various sightings through their own "Monster" hypothesis, at least it didn't always flash "Monster" at the other end of the pipe. But consider the case of this hypothesis where a non-exotic but non-indigenous solution is proposed such as a sturgeon or catfish.

But even these more mundane explanations can't get past the filters of misidentification or hoax because again "misidentification" or "hoax" are preferred by Occam's Razor. Because after all, it is simpler to believe that a report was misidentification, etc than the alternative explanation that a visiting Atlantic Sturgeon was passing through.

In conclusion, perhaps the weighting given to suggestions of misidentification or hoaxing needs to be lessened to allow other theories a look in. But perhaps we have reached an evidence impasse here and nothing short of a plesiosaur or sturgeon carcass on the shore of Loch Ness will do.

But then again, who is to say the sturgeon was not simply dumped there by a passing fishing boat?

Well, you see the problems.


  1. If by "convincing" we mean convincing to the world at large and the scientific community in particular, I think that would be very, very difficult for any new footage in this digital age. Authentic footage would be assumed to be fakery too sophisticated to detect. Vintage footage on the other hand that's been viewed since prior to the digital era and has an established provenance would stand a better chance, but it would have to show something really definitive, something unquestionable, but there doesn't seem to be any of that around. At least not that we're aware of. The irony would be if a tourist in say the 1940's caught something convincing in a vacation photo or home movie, but never realized what they had and it's sitting in a moldy box in someone's attic, never to see they light of day.

  2. Clear footage of the LNM entering the Loch from one of the beaches at the same time as being witnessed by numerous people might just sway many disbelievers into a rethink but there will always be people out there with wonderful imaginations who can explain even the obvious away using the good old fashioned clutching at straws technique, when what is really needed is some straightforward thinking. As Sherlock Holmes use to say, "when one has eliminated all other factors, the one which remains must be the truth"

  3. Consider this: the loch ness monster is reported by "observers" as being anywhere from 30 to 90 feet long. If this thing emerged out of the water long enough for someone to take pictures of its entire neck, wouldn't it stand to reason that they would have time to take multiple pictures? It would probably take at least 5 seconds for it to completely disappear under the water again. Why are there no sequential photos?

    1. There are sequential pictures out there but their authenticity is disputed.

      R.K.Wilson (1934) 2 pictures
      Peter MacNab (1955) 2 pictures (one destroyed)
      James Gray (2001) 5 pictures
      Roy Johnston (2002) at least 5 pictures

      and perhaps more

    2. And as badly as Gray photos 2 through 5 turned out, I wish someone had saved them so we could judge for ourselves! Oh well.

      That the second Wilson photo shows a change in the angle of the "neck" to the water, AND a change in the angle of the "head" relative to the "neck" is possibly the biggest reason that the hoax story may itself be a hoax.

  4. Hi GB. You mentioned the MacRae film in this article and I am sure most of us are aware of the alleged film but what is actual truth regarding this. I can't seem to find much about it other than it is supposed to be in a bank vault somewhere, (allegedly).

    1. Check out these two links:

      which should answer all/most of your questions.

  5. Thanks for the info. Seems to be another dead end but who knows. Very intriguing though.

  6. Of course, there is the other factor: any individual sighting or photo can be explained away, but cumulatively they might be very convincing. In other words, there might be one chance in 10 that the evidence is a misinterpreted or hoaxed. But two such incidences make the odds 1/10 x 1/10 = 1 in 100. Three incidences make it one in 1000. If there are no monsters in Loch Ness then every last report or photo must be false.

    1. Yes, it is that cumulative effect that is important to me and others. I suppose it is a more subtle version of the "they can't all be wrong" argument.

  7. Sadly I don't think anything will convince a professional sceptic. As it stands, professional CGI is almost indistinguishable from the real thing, although costly no doubt.
    The title of your article is very interesting. As time has moved on, I think our chances of high quality visuals lessen, due to increased mechanical noise (although this might have reached its peak some time ago) and maybe fewer people taking this anomaly seriously and carrying appropriate photograhic equipment. I'm not sure, just a thought. I really don't know how many wildlife photographers are stationed at Loch Ness, at any given time.
    To be honest, the media are the usual pain in the ass regarding all of this. It's a joke, or Nessie's on holiday to the south of England, or a student is working on a film project and just happens to catch a glimpse of an unknown water beast (but not the boat towing it) etc etc. I don't know if we're all being dumbed down or it's just very poor media in general. And YouTube is the firey pit of hell with regards cryptid sightings.
    Maybe I don't look at Occam's Razor the same way as some people, but if I were to see a video that looked like it really was Nessie, that would be a fairly simple explanation for me.

  8. Scientists, who, at least in principle, embrace parsimony as a strong logical axiom related to how much complexity an explanation warrants, are convinced of things they are skeptical about. It takes time, especially if the phenomenon in question leads to serious revision of previously held theories. But it really makes little sense historically to think scientists and researchers are so dogmatically skeptical that science never moves forward. It does. And especially in zoology and biology.

    New species are discovered constantly, and, though this is more rare, so are large species. It's not as if scientists have avoided studying the loch or have dismissed the possibility of unknown megafauna living in the loch. That's just preposterous. A great deal is known about the loch's ecosystem because of serious scientific investigation. The scientists or research expeditions that finds unknown megafauna in the loch—especially something closely related to an animal known only from the fossil record—that would one of the greatest discoveries in scientific history alongside the coelacanth or giant squid. Why do you think scientists are treating an alleged Nessie any differently?

    Scientists and skeptics are not denying or rejecting or thoughtlessly dismissing the unknown animal hypothesis. They are saying that the evidence that has been offered or found does not come close to the kind of evidence needed to be confident of that hypothesis. Despite decades and decades of expeditions and scrutiny, nothing has been found that you can call definitive evidence in the way definitive evidence is found for actual newly discovered species.

    Maybe such a discovery will happen, but the longer people look, the chances of that discovery, one has to admit, gets smaller and smaller. One would think we would have found such a species by now given the intensity of interest and attention the loch has received.

    Yes, I know, you have photographs and footage and eyewitnesses. And no serious person can compare their evidential value to the photos, footage and eyewitnesses we have for, say, red pandas. Or the elusive greenland shark. We know they exist because the consilience about these species is beyond reasonable doubt.

    Nessie, so far, hasn't come close. If and when it does, we will learn about this fascinating animal using the same methods and skepticism we apply to all objects of science.

    Do you really think evidence for Nessie is as good as the evidence of the 18,000 new species discovered in 2016?

    It's difficult to take a person seriously who makes arguments like that. Nessie isn't exceptional, and her existence will either be confirmed or remain forever open, just like every other organism on this planet. You can bypass the scientific approach, if you wish. But you won't produce something scientific by doing so.

    1. You claim again, everything must be done in a scientific manner. I prefer the approach of a court of law rather than a scientific laboratory.

      Here eyewitness testimony is regarded as evidence alongside photos and films. So called "expert witnesses" would be called in to give their considered opinions before our hypothetical judge and jury.

      It is a bit like a witness to a murder. You may argue that finding direct evidence such as the accused's DNA on the gun or the victim's blood on the accused's clothes is superior evidence. It is, but the testimony of an eyewitness is also valid and would be subject to cross-examination (just like the DNA/blood evidence).