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.