Monday 23 November 2015

Grumpy Skepticism

The world is full of Nessie sceptics, they may be young or old, fat or thin, near or far from the loch, they may be intelligent or dumb. What they do have in common is a shared belief that Loch Ness harbours no large, exotic species of animal. It is, of course, their right to hold such an opinion. However, another thing they may not have in common is the way they express that opinion and that involves personality.

Take these words from retired Loch Ness researcher, Tony Harmsworth, as he gave a short, grumpy pre-review of Gareth Williams' book, "A Monstrous Commotion".

Anyone studying the subject seriously might find it useful, but his repeatedly going into depth about exaggerated sightings and reports which, for anyone who knows the subject, have no credibility whatsoever, was the most annoying aspect of it and I found that extremely tiresome. This was the very reason why I didn’t include all of these irrelevant sightings in my own book. However, now they are all referenced, perhaps we can let them die a natural death. 

It seems Gareth's mistake was making these eyewitness reports sound too "real". I began to suspect that if Tony didn't like the book, then, ipso facto, I would like it. Since I have started reading the book, that feeling has partially been confirmed. I will put up a proper review when I have finished (as I am sure Tony will).

Now Tony does not really involve himself in the search for any form of Nessie these days, his presence on such forums is minimal to say the least. Having written his book, "Loch Ness Understood", he perhaps feels that is all he has to say on the subject. I note that when Tony mentioned a book by another sceptic, Ronald Binns, called "The Loch Ness Mystery: Solved", he describes this as "rather prematurely titled". Presumably, Tony has now "put the world to rights" with his similarly (but still prematurely) titled book!

Tony suggests Adrian Shine would do a better book on the history of the Loch Ness Monster and its pursuers. I wouldn't care to give an opinion on that but I would certainly look forward to such a book (as I did with Tony's).  I think Adrian is now aged 67 years old and must be nearing retirement from his post at the Loch Ness Centre in Drumnadrochit. Maybe after this we will see such a book.

As best as I can ascertain, Tony now tends to be preoccupied with aiming verbal arrows at people who believe in one or more gods (presumably he regards them as another set of witnesses who have misidentified something ordinary for something extraordinary). However, back to his quote.

In typical bombastic fashion, he put us to rights by describing all claims to seeing a large animal in the loch as being "exaggerated", having "no credibility", "tiresome", "irrelevant" and we ought to "let them die a natural death". And this, he says, should be obvious to "anyone who knows the subject".

Let us look at how Tony handles one of these claimed sightings. I refer to the John McLean case and how Tony has decided that this was in fact just a bird; a cormorant to be more precise. His post in facebook can be found here.

The long neck fits in with cormorants. It is well known that people overestimate sizes over water. The body drawings are typical of boat wakes or groups of birds apart from the last drawing which is a bit of a mystery. Bearing in mind that only around a third of an aquatic animal's body appears above the surface when swimming, the size estimates would put this animal at around 50 to 60 feet or almost the size of the largest animal on the planet - a blue whale. We also know that long-necked animals have high metabolic rates so there would be insufficient food in the loch for a long-necked creature of any size. Oh how I wish I could have been looking over his shoulder so that I could have pointed out that he was actually seeing a ...... or a ...... or a ......, but my Tardis is currently not operational.

Now to dig a bit deeper into these words.

The long neck fits in with cormorants. 

Well, it doesn't actually, the sketch by McLean looks nothing like a cormorant. The lack of a long beak is a give away. The proportions are also wrong.

It is well known that people overestimate sizes over water.

But not by a factor of nearly seven. McLean suggested a length of up to 20ft (610cm) while a cormorant is about 90cm long. Moreover, overestimates are not so credible at a range of under twenty yards. This is a bit like someone claiming they saw an articulated lorry pass by, only for some "expert" to tell them they actually saw a mini car. I think the words "exaggerated" and "no credibility" just as equally apply to Tony's strained interpretation of what Mr. McLean saw.

The body drawings are typical of boat wakes or groups of birds apart from the last drawing which is a bit of a mystery.

Group of birds, but only one neck? Curiouser and curiouser. It goes without saying that Tony completely ignores any experience John McLean may have had as regards boats and birds. After all, he had claimed to have seen the monster, so he is immediately an unreliable witness. That is circular reasoning by any other name. As for the inflated hump, Tony hopes we will just ignore this minor "mystery".

Bearing in mind that only around a third of an aquatic animal's body appears above the surface when swimming, the size estimates would put this animal at around 50 to 60 feet or almost the size of the largest animal on the planet - a blue whale.

Loch Ness Monster fans have always held that the creature has notable powers of positive buoyancy. This is rejected by sceptics, hence the unwarranted use of this one third formula. Tony fails to note that McLean said he saw the creature from tail to head, so that blows his one third calculation clean out of the water.

As a side note, here is a YouTube clip of an animal with positive buoyancy that matches and perhaps even exceeds that of our favourite cryptid. Nature again provides a precedent to the confounding of the sceptics.

We also know that long-necked animals have high metabolic rates so there would be insufficient food in the loch for a long-necked creature of any size. 

Well, using proof by contradiction, it appears the long necked nothosauridae did not - Quad Erat Non Demonstrandum.

Oh how I wish I could have been looking over his shoulder so that I could have pointed out that he was actually seeing a ...... or a ...... or a ......, but my Tardis is currently not operational.

Ah, such arrogance! Besides, Tony, I am sure you would rather send off your Tardis to more interesting times .... such as White Hart Lane in the early 1960s.

If this is what "anyone who knows the subject" knows, I will continue to live in ignorance, thanks very much.


  1. Poor Gareth Williams get's raked over the coals for his book by Tony on his website, then offers his book for sale “Here, try this one, it's better” Another one with the “It was Alex Campbell” Cheeky fellow, that Tony

    1. Tony's book is still well worth the read though. I may not agree with his conclusions, but his life and times at the loch as curator of the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre is part of the Loch Ness history.

      I review it here:

    2. I'm sure it would be. A book from Adrian Shine or Dick Raynor would be interesting also, full of the history, anecdotal stories and facts of the mystery. And hopefully readers could then make up their own minds. Adrian did put out a booklet “Loch Ness”, as you are well aware. Maybe once Adrian retires and has all the time in the world, he can write a more comprehensive tome. At one time his booklet was offered as a downloadable ebook in PDF form from the website “Not Just About Nessie”, but that website has since gone defunct. At that time I had downloaded it to my Hard Drive, but never got to thoroughly review it before my HD crapped out on me. No backup either. Backup, backup, backup, always backup!

    3. I hasten to add that it was a free download, so no money was made off of Adrian.

  2. rigid mind set on one answer one view ......thanks GB

  3. Enjoyed the article!
    This Tony Harmsworth sounds like the typical pseudosceptic to mel

  4. Skepticism isn't a negative trait, its a positive trait. Its critical thinking and not simply accepting any assertion people make. Its right to be sceptical of any claim where no meaningful evidence is presented.

    You too, GB, are very sceptical in your blog, sceptical of any rational explanation given for Loch Ness sightings. I'm sure you would also be sceptical if a child told you there was a monster under his bed. You are as sceptical as anyone else.

    In the past people were sceptical that the world was a sphere, until overwhelming evidence proved otherwise. Same with Nessie people are naturally sceptical, but they wouldn't be if the evidence proved they shouldn't be.

    Lastly, what would you like the sceptics to do? Simply accept that Nessie exists on faith - its not a religion.

    1. I don't mind skepticism, just not the grumpy and simplistic version I critique here,

    2. I take it Les's comment is addressing all readers. Skepticism of a child telling you there's a boogeyman under the bed is quite different than hearing from an adult who claims to have seen something strange or unusual.

      I am skeptical when skeptics offer simplistic explanations e.g. vegetable mats, waves, seismically produced surface bubbles, very low frequency induced hallucinations etc. These are also not rational and are not empirically reproduced, to the satisfaction of the believer. Sightings can also not be reproduced at one's whim, Loch Ness being a very large body of water to have under constant surveillance all at once, to the satisfaction of the skeptic.

      Seems we are at a deadlock. Belief and skepticism are not mutually exclusive of one another. And that's just the nature of the humane experience. I think...

  5. I don't think there is a deadlock since the burden of proof lies with those making the claim, and nothing has been proven. The more extraordinary the claim is, the more extraordinary the evidence needed to back it up.

    The alternative is to suggest that we accept any hypothesis as it’s presented, unless we can prove it’s not true, but it’s almost impossible to prove a negative.

    If the content of a photograph is ambiguous, this doesn't mean its Nessie or even a possibility it’s Nessie, it’s simply not known what it is. If investigation can't reveal what it is, that doesn't mean the believers "win" because they have produced a picture that no one can identify. Think of the fallacy of this logic.

    Sceptics don't have to be satisfied, it’s up to the believers to produce evidence to back up their claim. Unless, of course, the belief is faith based, like a religion, so you don't have to prove anything.

    1. I am quite happy to argue this into deadlock. I don't win, but neither do the sceptics.

      I haven't proven my argument, but neither have they. People can pick the "easier" argument, but being unproven, it;s just a belief.

  6. The skeptics don't have anything to prove - this is the point. They aren't making any claim that needs backed up or proven. The believers must prove Nessie exists if they are making that claim. Often when its pointed out to believers that there is no evidence to support their claim, they default to the "I believe anyway" response, then it starts to sound like a faith based religion, they have no rational reason to believe, but they do.

    The only deadlock that we reach is nothing to do with Nessie, its on how you go about proving a claim. GB, the way you assert the existence of Nessie by tying to poke holes in other explanations for ambiguous doesn't go any way to prove Nessie exists, its only a proposal the that "contact" is still unknown, but that's miles away from proving its Nessie.

    1. I never said "poking holes" (I prefer the word "disproving") proves Nessie exists. As I said, I am happy to drag this debate back to the middle ground.

      And I beg to differ over skeptics not having to prove anything. They are constanlty trying to "prove" these reports are this and that. They don't need to do it, but they do as I guess scepticism abhors a cryptozoological vacuum, When they do this you can be certain a burden of proof also falls upn them.

    2. I don't for one moment believe that GB gets the argument back to the middle or a stalemate. By the very fact that the loch would have to be drained for final negative proof, you have NOT in any way created a stalemate. Any more than me telling you there's a monster in Lake Windermere. It's just all empty words GB. As Les here says, the position in 2015 is most firmly that THERE IS NO LOCH NESS MONSTER, unless anyone can PROVE otherwise. It's no good to simply turn around and say "Prove there isn't one", that's no one's job. The case FOR Nessie needs proof

    3. Typically weak sceptic logic.

      The middle ground or stalemate is "I don't know" when it comes to the eyewitness/film/photo/sonar evidence.

      Your position is "we do know". I say you don't as your group's interpretation of events does not stand up to scrutiny.


    4. And of course the comparison with Lake Windermere is ridiculous. That lake does not have 1500+ eyewitnesses and various films. photos, etc to make any claim with.

    5. Well but there is plenty of evidence for an unknown creature, just not the type acceptable by skeptics. Eyewitness reports, photos, and anomalous sonar returns vaguely suggesting something there. For skeptics nothing short of a body on a slab will do. For believers faith in what can be inferred by the existing evidence. Astronomers can deduce a planetary body circling a distant star light years away by changes in the star's brightness as the planet transits in front. Can that be called faulty logic or wishful religion?

    6. John, a distant planet is scientifically measurable. A Loch Ness monster is wholly undetectable by science. The Nessie myth is built on numerous confused eyewitnesses, sonar anomalies that have since been explained, a body of obviously fake photos and non existent films. Quite simply, there is no evidence for Nessie at all. A body on a slab is not required by skeptics, just one piece of good evidence and of that there is none.

    7. A series of sweeping generalisations that is easily challenged. Hence this blog.

  7. I regard skeptics as life's winners. Show me a lake monster skeptic and I'll show you a successful person. Show me a believer in Nessie and I'll show you someone who can't keep pace with modern life.

  8. Mr Harmsworth seems to have a fairly aggressive negative position, as his default. His website is arrogant, as if he alone is the custodian of the truth, and anyone who takes a contrary view is not really worth his consideration. Dealing with anyone like that is a waste of time. He appears to be contrary for the sake of it. I much prefer Adrian Shine, who is gracious in his disagreements.

    1. Agreed about Adrian. Other sceptics, however, are straight from the snake pit and are best ignored.