Wednesday 27 June 2012

The Pseudo Art of Nessie Science

Now seems a good time to look further at the scientific method as it is applied to the Loch Ness Monster in the light of a recent news item.

Readers may recall the furore last year over a popular cryptozoological series called "Finding Bigfoot". The format of the show was pretty much in keeping with the TV hunt shows such as MonsterQuest and Destination Truth. However, the producers of the show were exposed as being economical with the truth and using shots which were made to look like mysterious events but which in fact were known to have ordinary interpretations by the very hunters involved in the program making. The Bigfoot people themselves complained about this at the time (for example, see link).

That this seemed to be a common format for at best filling in "gaps" and at worst distorting the whole show was even exposed at the respected British Broadcasting Corporation and their acclaimed series "Frozen Planet". It transpired that a shot of a mother bear with her cubs in a den which was shown interspersed with Arctic scenes was actually filmed in a Dutch zoo with snow added for good effect. The truth of this matter was only revealed in an obscure section of the BBC website, anyone watching the show would have been fooled into thinking it happened in the wild frozen north (story here).

The question therefore to ask of modern documentaries is not if this warping and dumbing-down happens but how much it happens. In that light, I wish to address the 2005 "Loch Ness Investigated" documentary made for the National Geographic and which I think also came under the "Naked Science" series (correct me if I am wrong). The documentary itself was viewable on YouTube at this link but that is now gone. For now you will just have to trust me on what I say!

The documentary is one of those "cool science" programs where we are shown how science and logic have all the answers and now watch us dismantle the Loch Ness Monster. Anyone watching the program will indeed get that impression, but as somebody who has studied the Nessie phenomenon for decades I was not impressed and wondered how much of the aforementioned reality-distortion technique was being applied to this program.

Before I begin, this is a commentary on the production of the program and not the Loch Ness experts that were brought in to state their case. It is possible they had no say in the final editing process, so they are largely left alone here. 

The program begins with the usual introductions to the Loch Ness Monster and before long the traditional plesiosaur is wheeled in (as an aside, Robert Badger who we featured in a recent classic sighting, makes an appearance). It's acknowledged that people in general think this is what Nessie would be if she did exist but the producers of the show indulge in a straw man argument by implying this is the only possible exotic explanation for Nessie. Once they dispose of this animal as a viable theory, the program fails to consider any other hypothesis apart from the sceptical one and gives the impression there is no more to be said.

The first main howler is when they state there is only 24 tonnes of fish in the loch to feed on. This is in fact a false statement. The 24 tonnes is taken from a study done by Loch Ness expert Adrian Shine. But a closer look at his original study reveals that this estimate was only referring to the fish swimming in the open waters near the top of the water column. It did not include the salmon, trout and eels which inhabit the sides and bottoms of the loch because these areas were not accessible to the sonar devices used in the study. If these were included, it would not be an overstatement to say the numbers could be trebled. More mistakes were made in regard to this food stock issue such as the predicted predator biomass but for further info see this link.

Having made that mistake, one did not exactly grow in confidence, but I watched on as they moved onto the sceptical arguments about the various pieces of Nessie evidence. Three of the classic images were first addressed. The Surgeon's Photo, the MacNab Photo and the Dinsdale film.

In regards to the Surgeon's photo, David Martin, the co-author of the book which exposed the hoax, was interviewed. The story was told of Marmaduke Wetherell and the fake tracks he created with a hippo's taxidermy foot and the subsequent desire for revenge as the Daily Mail newspaper dumped him for this tomfoolery. He set up a fake photo using a model head and neck on a toy submarine and the Daily Mail swallowed the bait as it published the picture and the rest is history. 

The story seems fine enough and this hoax will always be brought out first as "Exhibit A" by the prosecution. However, note this is not evidence against there being a creature in Loch Ness. I have no reason to think the confessor of the deed, Christian Spurling, was a liar. However, the producers did not address some failed predictions based on this story. The first is that there is a second photograph of the head submerging. The story does not predict this and this remains a bit of a mystery. More importantly, the story is wholly predicated on Wetherell's desire to get back at the Daily Mail for firing him.

He executed the first part perfectly in palming the pictures of to them but it is an unanswered question as to why he did not follow thru to expose the fake to the world and to the Mail's great embarrassment. In fact, the exact opposite happened as the Mail's new picture went on to be the icon of the Loch Ness Monster for the next sixty years (the other quibble I have with the toy submarine theory is that when the hoax is staged for TV, very lightweight styrofoam is used as the base for the fake head-neck. Hasn't anyone tried the actual metal submarine?)!

Next up for analysis was the famous Tim Dinsdale film. The whole thesis here revolved around the fact that Tim Dinsdale failed to recognise a boat for what it was and naively thought it was a brown backed monster. The main proof given for this is the idea that certain intermittent blobs seen behind the main body as it travelled parallel to the opposite shore were in fact images of a helmsman. By sequencing some frames from the film, it was claimed that this "helmsman" object was indeed part of the film.

A stereoscopic examination of some "helmsman" images were also presented as proof that the suggested helmsman was indeed part of the object.

Is that an end of the Dinsdale film then? Not quite, for the producers do not mention one thing and that is the quality of the data that was examined. Testing of theories can only be as good as the data available. The documentary itself shows about eight seconds of the object travelling parallel to the opposite shore. When one compares a still from their excerpt of the film with a similar still from the 1973 Disney Documentary, "Man, Mysteries and Myths", the problem with the data quality becomes obvious.

In the field of science, the ability to reproduce another researcher's results is key. If it can't be reproduced, doubt is cast upon the theory's validity. So, I can take this clip from the National Geographic documentary and attempt the image stacking that was shown. I may or may not be successful in reproducing what is claimed to be there but it is worth doing (and thanks to Adrian Shine for his help in this regard). So, does the poor quality of data hinder a proper assessment? Does the inferior data with its higher noise to signal ratio introduce artifacts that are not there in the original? The ultimate answer is to repeat the experiment with the original film (or something close to it) and its complete far shore sequence. So I have to suspend judgement on this aspect of the program until I see how far I get with the image stacking process.

The final photograph assessed was the one taken by Peter MacNab in 1955. The producers presented the case that it was simply the wake of a boat. To that end, the documentary homed in on a PC screen with the MacNab photograph overlaid with lines which were said to be converging boat wakes and the contention was that the "monster" lay along one of those lines. However, a further look at the photo shows that such a line simply does not exist. Take a look at the "monster" and see if you can see any boat wake ahead of it along the presumed line of travel. There is nothing there and so this particular line of reasoning should be seriously questioned.


The second photograph is my own taken near where Peter MacNab stood in 1955. Should I presume the other wakes in the upper part of the picture should be associated with the foreground cruiser once it disappears from view? No, and neither should they be in the MacNab photo.

The second problem as regards the MacNab picture involved the TV crew filming up close the wake of a boat and trying to make this look like the MacNab object. It was an abject failure and unworthy of critical thinking. The wake was filmed almost at eye level and much closer than the MacNab photograph (since this is the best way to see them). But from MacNab's position hundreds of yards away at an elevated position, no one would be fooled.

However, this appears to be another case of the producer cutting corners in presenting their argument because I suspect the person they consulted on this photograph would also disagree with their abbreviated conclusion. Last time I looked he further required some touching up of the photograph to "enhance" the two humps. To see what a real boat wake looks like, we have the 1969 Jessie Tait photo below and reversed to point in the same direction as the MacNab photo. Note that compared to the MacNab picture, the "humps" are of a different size, shape and spacing and that the wake continues beyond the front "hump".

My own analysis of the MacNab picture can be found here.


Having "disposed" of all the classic Nessie pictures, the thoughts of the production crew turned to what they thought explained all sightings. The argument mainly lay in a series of witness deception theories which we now consider in turn.


At this point we were treated to a scientific explanation of what seiches were and how these underwater currents can make objects move in a contrary fashion to the prevailing wind. It was then suggested that such currents can fool people into thinking they are watching an inanimate object become a "live" object.

Now we readily admit that such a thing is possible, but a seiche on its own cannot fool anyone. A piece of footage was produced which was described as "rare" which perhaps indicates the infrequency of these events. However, it was quite clear that the object being moved was a log. That means other factors are required to complete a complex scenario such as obscuration by distance or time (i.e. too far away or too short in duration). In other words, seiche, log, time, distance makes for a less likely scenario. To that end, the probability of the person being deceived is not primarily down to the seiche but it is in inverse proportion to the distance to the object and the time available to view it.


More scientific talk came but now about temperature inversions between the loch surface and the air distorting familiar objects into unfamiliar objects. However, unlike the seiche footage, nothing was offered by way of proof that such conditions produce Nessie-like objects. One wonders if these proposed events are so rare as to be of no relevance to the discussion. I appeal here for any such footage else we'll consign talk about Nessie-like mirages to the merely theoretical (and I mean Nessie-like mirages and not general large scale pictures of distorted mountains and forests). I would note in general that I too often see theories proposed to explain how witnesses misinterpret events but little in the way of field testing these theories.

But the most contentious slot for me was the psychological theory about people seeing Nessie in ordinary objects because they are somehow pre-conditioned for this before they arrive. A psychologist was brought in to conduct an experiment in which an ordinary pole was made to bob up and down in the loch water as tourists stood on the shore taking in the view. The people were then asked what they saw. It was an exercise in the difference between what is there and what is perceived. However, the tourists were not playing ball and no one said they thought it was the head and neck of a Loch Ness Monster. We were treated to such non-committal descriptions as:

  • "I think I saw Nessie's kids toys" (?)
  • "Some kind of underwater machine"
  • "It looks like Nessie's breathing pipe"

The best candidate for this less than convincing experiment was a young lad who thought it was Nessie but changed his mind when he had a closer look and decided it was a log. The producers triumphantly showed the boy's boat-like picture (everyone else drew a pole), but it was clear it was a picture drawn from his first impression rather than what he saw on a continued look.
It was evident that no one was really deceived by this and the experiment to me was a failure (unless only kids ever report seeing Nessie). Even creative editing would not have rescued this experiment and an excuse was made that one in ten would make a misidentification. Based on this episode, we are not convinced of that unsubstantiated statement.

For some reason, they then took the pole to a body of water at Stirling University and reran the experiment. What was the point of this I asked myself? No one was going to scream it was the "Stirling University Monster", in fact, it appears they got the same results as at Loch Ness!


Logs seemed to feature a lot and as a final experiment a piece of tree was chosen "at random" to be used. Pretty good choice for a Nessie-like log, I thought, considering it was random. It was set off afloat and filmed and ... it looked pretty much like a log. Curiously, no mention of experiments with tourists was mentioned. Perhaps they had learnt the lessons of the other experiment?

Yet despite all this debunking of Nessie reports, one sighting was allowed to "live". It was a report from 1932 by a Miss MacDonald who said she saw a crocodile like creature in the River Ness. The reason it was allowed to live was because it was seen to support the theory that some sightings could be down to a large sturgeon. Now I am not sure why the program needed a sturgeon. Was it to instill a feeling that perhaps all these sightings are not adequately explained by logs, waves and wishful thinking? Or was it down to a desire to keep the mystery alive but in a more scientific context? Whatever the reason, the sturgeon theory was presented as an explanation for some sightings.
Now, we are quite sure the evidence for sturgeons is irrefutable, but the evidence for sturgeons in Loch Ness is no better than the evidence for an unknown species in Loch Ness. We have no carcass, films, photographs or sonar which allow a final classification of either of these critters. Sure, there have been sturgeons caught in the Moray Firth but nothing inland. It seems as if the scientific rigour of proof applied to an unknown species is not being applied to a known species. Again, it seems we are asked to equate something which is plausible to the realms of probable.
But I don't mind the sturgeon theory being proposed. It is a viable theory after all but if any sceptic asks where the exotic species carcass is, I will simply tell them it is in the same place as the sturgeon carcass (though Adrian Shine informs me that cartiliginious bones decay quicker than other bones).


What on earth have earthquakes got to do with Loch Ness Monsters sightings you may ask? As it turns out, seismic activity can disturb waters in unusual ways, but is this enough to explain any Nessie sightings?
One got the impression the bottom of the barrel was being scraped here but it did introduce an unusual element to this documentary - someone was brought in to present an alternative view on this theory. If only they had been more even handed with the other theories presented. The dissenting geologist said that earthquakes were not frequent or strong enough in the Great Glen to make such an explanation useful.
It was then stated in the program that the last time an earthquake had such a noticeable effect on Loch Ness was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Well, actually, this was another inaccuracy in the program. There has been at least one more recently documented story about unusual earthquake-induced effects upon Loch Ness. I'll leave it as an exercise to the documentary makers to find out where it is.

I was tempted to entitle this article "The Art of Pseudo Nessie Science" but to be fair, the producers were going about in a largely scientific way, it's just that it was not done very convincingly. It may convince those who are not familiar with the subject, but that is as far as it went. Hence I suggest there was a bit more of the "art" and less of the "science" in the final copy. One of the contributors to this documentary once described this blog as "justifiable as art" but not science. If this National Geographic documentary is the last word on "science" at Loch Ness, then for now I'll gladly stick to the "art" that goes on at this website!
National Geographic has released a new documentary on the Loch ness Monster under their "The Truth Behind ..." series. Once I see this, I will post a review. Hopefully it is an improvement on this 2005 version.

Monday 25 June 2012

Nessie, Plesiosaurs and Creationism

It seems Nessie has been brought into the creationism/evolution controversy and the usual invectives that get hurled about ... are getting hurled about. The original story is here but the point is that the creationist teachers presuppose Nessie to be a plesiosaur which is seen as a proof against evolution. I suppose the argument is valid to some degree, plesiosaurs died out about 65 million years ago and if they are found today that would mean dating techniques based on these "key" fossils would be weakened.

But I am not sure that holds since the good old coelacanth was found to be alive and not extinct in 1938 but I do not read of that upsetting paleontologists' dating of rocks/fossils (and I presume most zoologists would be delighted to find a live plesiosaur still swimming around today's oceans). What the creationist Christians need to find is not a live plesiosaur but a fossilised plesiosaur with a fossilised human in or near it. That would upset the scientific apple cart no end, but to date no such thing has been found .

The other problem regarding this theory is that Nessie is not a plesiosaur - or certainly does not act like one. The alleged body shape is similar but that is just about where the similarities end. I would take the personal view that she is not a plesiosaur, sturgeon, catfish or giant eel but something akin to a fish-like amphibian or an amphibian-like fish. It was discussed somewhere else that perhaps Nessie is a highly adapted plesiosaur which does exhibit Nessie-like behaviour, in which case the animal is probably as different from the original as a lemur is from a human and hence irrelevant to this current topic.

Whatever the creature turns out to be, I do not think it will have any bearing on the creation-evolution debate.