Sunday 22 February 2015

At the Scholarly Research of the Anomalous

The Counting House in Edinburgh hosted a series of speakers this weekend for the Scholarly Research of the Anomalous Conference. Since I live in Edinburgh, I made my way along to take part in proceedings. The event was organised by Gordon Rutter and Charles Paxton, who had previously done the successful "Nessie at 80" event at the same venue in 2013. Gordon organises the regular, monthly meetings of the Edinburgh Fortean Society which I often attend.


First up was Darren Naish, well known author at the popular Tetrapod Zoology blog. He spoke on "The Evolution of Sea Monsters in Terms of What people Report". Darren spoke of the four phases of Sea Serpent cryptozoology, starting with the classic exploratory stage in Victorian time when biologists such as Huxley and Owen would debate living plesiosaurs.

From there is was onto Oudemans and his pinnepedial Megophias and then onto Bernard Heuvalmans' more complex classification system of up to ten variants. Finally, the revised taxonomies of Coleman, Huyghe and Champagne.

But Naish sees us in a post-cryptid cryptozoological period and perhaps in a last phase as these reports are re-analysed. I could see the parallels with the Loch Ness Monster and would disagree with the post-cryptid scenario. But it was an interesting talk nonetheless. 

At the end, I asked Darren if the presumed absence of serpentine megafauna in the seas suggested there was evolutionary pressure against such a morphology. He thought this was the case for mammals and the way endothermic energy is dissipated in such a shape, but not so much for exothermic. Which suggests a gigantic and slender reptile or fish is not impossible, yet nature (from a sceptical point of view) has not seen fit to produce such a beast. Then again, perhaps not.


Charles came up next with a familiar theme, the statistical analysis of cryptid sightings. This has been a long running pursuit of Charles' in the sea serpent context and now for the Loch Ness Monster. The problem for analysts such as him is to measure the precision and accuracy of such anecdotal evidence. One can make some estimate of this by comparing the same single eyewitness accounts over different time periods or comparing multiple eyewitness accounts of the same event.

The other is to attempt to set up a controlled environment with known parameters and measure how eyewitnesses make their own estimates of distance, length, height, etc. It turns out Charles had some Edinburgh Forteans go past some witnesses in a Bigfoot-like suit in order to measure their responses!

In terms of the Loch Ness Monster, I later suggested to Charles that he should try and track down the transcripts of the 2005 Channel 5 documentary "Loch Ness Monster: The Ultimate Experiment" where an animatronic plesiosaur was put into Loch Ness for unwitting boat passengers to see. It would be interesting to see if it contained any witness estimates of the object's attributes.


After lunch, it was Roger Musson of the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh. He spoke on the 1974 Berwyn Mountain UFO case which is dubbed by some as the "British Roswell" as it allegedly involved a crashed flying saucer. Even though this was the only non-cryptid talk, I had an interest in it as a documentary on this case had recently appeared on British TV.

As it turns out, Roger's explanation that the crash noise was actually a magnitude 3.5 earthquake made sense. The interpretation that the lights seen in the area were poachers' car lights and/or meteors was more open to debate. I asked him at the end whether such an earthquake instead could have produced light energy as well as sound energy. I offered that theory with Paul Devereux's Earth Lights theory in mind. Roger did not think so in this case, but was open to it happening in other cases (such as one in Lincoln in 2008).  


Dr. Bildhauer from St. Andrews University next spoke on "Monsters in Medieval Manuscripts". That world was a world of all manner of strange beasts including unicorns, dragons, basilisks, mermaids, sea serpents, crane headed people and single footed humans. 

We also had an insight into medieval medicine as the four humours of black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm were explained and their relation to the Evil Eye of the basilisks and witches. Things got even stranger as this was linked to menstrual cycles. Changed days.


I have enjoyed and been informed by Mike's fortean writings over the years, so it was a pleasure to at last meet him and hear his talk on "Our Artist Pictures What the Witness Saw". Mike's talk focused on the various artistic renderings of Fortean phenomena that have been less than accurate in the representation of what the witness saw. Such pictures are almost too numerous to mention and range from the sea serpent drawings of the HMS Daedalus in 1848 to Mike's dealings with artistic depictions for the Fortean Times.

It is an issue I have seen myself in the Loch Ness literature, though original witness testimony and sketches can obviate some of the more dramatic touches of periodical artists. I pointed out to Mike later that embellishment is a two way street and pointed out the case of Maurice Burton and his sceptical 1961 book, "The Elusive Monster".

In that book, Burton, shall we say, reinterpreted one or two photographs as drawings to fit his theories. Moreover, his drawing of a deer which, by coincidence, looks amazingly like the Greta Finlay creature is "interesting".


The day ended with an informative and entertaining Q&A session involving all the speakers. Just to show these people were not all crusty sceptics, they were asked which Fortean phenomena they gave credence to. Darren Naish said out of place cats, Mike Dash had a penchant for poltergeists, Charles Paxton was still open on large, undiscovered creatures in the oceans and I am not sure what Bettina and Roger said.

My only question to the panel was for Roger the seismologist. I recalled reading a book on an earthquake in Inverness at the start of the 20th century and how the author described seeing the waters of Loch Ness boiling like a cauldron. 

Roger said this was in 1901 and was one of the largest recorded earthquakes in Britain. The effect on Loch Ness was perfectly explicable as a giant standing wave shaking the loch as opposed to my expectation of a tidal surge. That must have been a sight to behold.

All in all, it was a good day, and I look forward to the next conference.

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  1. I always contemplate going to these events but always decide against it at the last minute. I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that the audience will be made up almost entirely of males wearing Slipknot t-shirts and Matrix leather coats. Not my scene.

    1. By gaw geordie,yer right.i preferably my light blue velvet suit and burgandy flannel bowtie during disco hour at the skeptics and debunkers society dance.

    2. To be fair, it was a fairly sceptical line up at the weekend.

  2. I was wearing a chunky jumper and moleskin trousers. I do not recall a single black t shirt slipknot or otherwise or a leather coat. One chap had a rather good top hat though. But why on earth does what the audience wear affect your decision to attend?

    1. To my shame, I merely wore a shirt and woollen jumper (on top that is).

    2. It's called humour. Well my humour anyway.

      In truth I would not wish to be sitting surrounded by "Squatchers", tarot readers, ghost hunters and the like. So much confused thinking in one location would upset my biorhythms. Plus I was told by a psychic that my number charts suggested travel on 21st Feb was ill-advised. Logic told me not to take an unnecessary chance.

    3. Hmmm, sounds a little superstitious GS. We hope that you took a legitimate day off work and didn't pull a "dial a day" if you had to avoid travel to work :-)