Friday 8 June 2018

The Photographic Problem

Take a look at the photo montage above. Do you believe all the pictures are of the Loch Ness Monster? If so, you are likely what they call a gullible believer. If you think none of them are of the Loch Ness Monster, you are likely a die hard sceptic, whether you say you are a believer or not. I say that because over 85 years and a swathe of good sightings, some of these will be converted into photographs or films. There will be a minimum greater than zero, if you say there are zero pictures, you are effectively saying there is no Loch Ness Monster (this is in distinction to the argument that there should be more pictures which I discuss elsewhere).

How do many people today sit with this logical tension? The answer is due to the assault on these pictures by a band of die hard sceptics dedicated to the task of debunking the Loch Ness Monster. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, most photographs purporting to be of the creature were passed through in a largely uncritical manner by Loch Ness researchers of the time. Or at the very least, they kept quiet about the ones they had reservations about.

Fast forward to the 80s and 90s and we see a form of historical revisionism as those who once believed but no longer believed, attempted to align these photographs and films with their new worldview. Theories were formulated to explain away such pictures in terms of boat wakes, birds, dogs or just plain fakery. Since this was a process which lacked a negative feedback loop, it grew into the bloated form of lazy scepticism we see today.

As we progress in the new millennium it is time for a new form of revisionism which is sceptical of the sceptics and the tools and techniques they employ. This blog has attempted that over the last eight years and one would like to think others are involved too. But what is the problem I allude to? I shall explain in general terms and then apply it to one specific photograph that has recently gained attention.

I titled this article after a chapter of the same name in Ted Holiday's 1968 book, "The Great Orm of Loch Ness". His problem concerned the difficulty of obtaining good photographs at the loch. This article is concerned with the ease of obtaining bad explanations of photographs. Let us start with the example of the Surgeon's Photograph. Prior to the expose by Alastair Boyd and David Martin, several sceptical explanations were offered to explain what had been photographed. We had an otter's tail, a water bird, the branch of a tree and a fake model.

Logically, of those four theories, at best three are wrong, at worst they are all wrong. It wasn't until the Boyd-Martin expose that we got to see who was swimming naked when the tide went out and it was the model theory that won. The other people, despite their detailed and convincing arguments were simply wrong. No doubt they had their followers, but it didn't matter how convincing they came across or the evidence they produced - they were as wrong as wrong can be.

Sadly that is the ongoing state of affairs with Nessie photographs. People make arguments which sound convincing, but may not actually add up to a hill of beans because no one can prove that is what actually happened. When people go around promoting their pet theory as if they had been there when it was being perpetrated, they should remember Burton's otter tail and Mackal's water bird.

Although hoaxes are normally undesirable events which tarnish the reputation of Loch Ness investigation, they do serve a useful purpose in testing the robustness of sceptical theorising. As we just saw with the Surgeon's Photo, if Boyd and Martin had not published, all four theories would have been considered as viable and plausible to this day.

Another chance to see who was swimming butt naked came with the George Edwards photograph of 2012 which was exposed as a fake fibreglass prop by Steve Feltham. Prior to this revelation, another local researcher, but die hard sceptic, had published his own mathematical analysis and concluded the object was 23 inches across above the water.

Without Steve Feltham, people would have concluded this other researcher had with the application of science, crafted an unassailable theory. How wrong they were as the actual exposed part in the water turned out to be 46 inches long. The mathematical wizardry was not 10% out or even 20% out, but 100% out. How many other sceptical theories are sitting pretty claiming they have solved this and that monster picture, but actually are as useful as a chocolate teapot?


I will revisit this principle as we apply these thoughts to a recent sceptical analysis of a Nessie photograph from 2006, but I move onto another problem with scepticism and that is the problem of unfalsifiability. To put it in a nutshell, no matter what picture you put before sceptics, they will always find an explanation for it. This is a violation of the scientific principle of unfalsifiability which requires that any theory must require a test or experiment to disprove its viability.

To put it another way, if one asked a sceptic what kind of photograph would prove immune to any of their explanations, you may not get an answer. Even a close up picture of the monster, nostrils and all, may just elicit the response, "good CGI picture". I would go further and say that if a genuine picture of a large unknown creature was taken, we would get a raft of theories explaining why this is anything other than what is shows!

I ask you what use such a theory is if it always produces a sceptical result? It is of no use and is just a shell game. Now we know that photographs of misidentified objects and downright hoaxes exist and some kind of scrutiny needs to be applied to them. However, the problem is not so much the theory but the warped version of it applied in an unscientific and biased manner by certain people.

The final point I would make in this regard is how, once formulated, such explanations are handled in the context of Occam's Razor which states that the theory with the least assumptions should be accepted. Here some pseudo-intellectual pressure is applied when it is argued that since a sceptical theory requires less assumptions than a monster theory for a given picture then it should be given priority.

The problem here is that since it will be argued that a large creature in Loch Ness is a big assumption, then people will be led to always accept a sceptical theory over a monster one, even if they sound flawed. The flaws are papered over by invoking the "big assumption". The truth is that if a theory with less assumptions is flawed, then it is just as wrong.


Now I am not saying you cannot prove a photograph to be a hoax. This has been done in various ways. The first line of proof is participant confession. We had this with the Surgeon's Photo and Christian Spurling. I would prefer a corroborating confession and we got that with the 1975 newspaper article citing Ian Wetherell's confession and his part in it. Such confessions are few and far between in the Nessie world.

The second is physically direct evidence of fraud. There is no better example of this than Frank Searle's infamous 1976 "Brontosaurus" picture where it was obvious to even the most gullible believer that Frank had superimposed a silhouette from a contemporary postcard onto the waters of the loch.

That is the closest one gets to empirical facts, but after that the "facts" weaken and become more indirect and circumstantial. In other words, they become deductional rather than empirical. At that level of proof, we have Anthony Shiels' infamous 1977 Nessie picture. Unlike Frank Searle, we have no model and no confession that he faked this photo. However, we have a taped confession of Shiels discussing how to fake sea serpent photographs and a confession that he faked a multi humped object in, ironically, Loch Shiel (below).

That is indirect evidence rather than direct evidence, but the waters begin to get murkier after this. One favoured mode of what is called indirect evidence is inconsistency of eyewitness testimony. This is a very contentious area of analysis which attempts to find contradiction in a testimony such as a time or a place. For example, the witness may say he was in such a place when the photo suggests he was elsewhere. They may say the event happened at such a time when the photo suggests the sun was in the wrong place for such a time.

Sceptical interpretations will seize on these apparent discrepancies and say "It looks like they lied about this, so how can we trust them on the actual photograph?".  But it has been demonstrated that such an approach can often be ambiguous and easily challenged.

When a photograph of a curious fin like object in Loch Ness was published back in 2016, the aforementioned researcher who erred with the Edwards hump declared he did not think it was taken at Loch Ness (due to the lack of background hills) and was likely a dolphin. When Steve Feltham produced the uncropped picture, the insinuation that the photographer was lying was retracted and the dolphin transformed into an osprey. But what if there had been no background hills, the sceptic's almost dogmatic pronouncement would have seemed important.

Likewise, the same researcher took the Lachlan Stuart photograph to task because he claimed the sun was visible above Urquhart Bay which would have been impossible if Stuart had taken the picture when he claimed. However, comparison shots done by myself showed that the bright patches were easily reproduced by clouds above Urquhart Bay reflecting light from the sun when it is on the opposite side of the loch. Again, a dogmatic decree becomes an easily challenged opinion.

The examples could go on as the analysis dilutes to the point where empirical fact goes from deduction and onto pure speculation. Example of speculation include objections that the testimony of the photographer does not sound right. By that one may produce objections such as "why did he do that instead of this" or "why did he not do that instead of this". Such low levels of analysis do not need empirical or deduced facts and are especially useful to debunkers when the person is no longer around to answer and silence is taken to mean guilt.

These are the levels of analysis and they are quite legitimate to use so long as one recognises their relative strengths, the problem arises when there is no one to cross examine them when the researcher is preaching to the converted.


Perhaps one of the biggest issues regarding investigation of cryptid images are reproductions. By that I mean experiments where investigators attempt to reproduce an original image using what they think were the original hoaxing ingredients. This has been attempted at various times over the decades with various famous pictures of the Loch Ness Monster.

Some examples will suffice. A few years back an attempt was made to reproduce the 1951 Lachlan Stuart photograph with its famous three humps and head. Since a Richard Frere had claimed that Stuart had confessed to him that hay bales and tarpaulin were used, these constituted the main ingredients for this particular experiment. It is important where possible, to use items which were readily available at the time with no modern contrivances involved.

The results were arguable for reasons I laid out in my response to that staging. The bales did not look like the triangular peaked humps of the original and there was no third hump reproduced raising questions as to whether a third bale would have sunk, bringing the whole experiment into question.

The Tim Dinsdale film has also had the reproduction rule run over it with distant boats being filmed with an original Bolex cine camera and film back in the 1990s. Maurice Burton attempted to reproduce the Peter O'Connor picture with inflated bags and sticks. The Surgeon's Photo has been the focus of floating necks on styrofoam and other materials. And to bring things right up to date, the recent debate over the anonymous 2006 picture is discussed below.

Problems may arise as to what constitutes original hoax ingredients and a lack of such knowledge may lead to researcher bias selecting the materials that produce the best results without any regard as to whether they had anything to do with the alleged hoax. In the Stuart case, we have an unverified claim by Frere, it's the best they have, so they go with it. Others have less to work with.

But the problem I allude to is one of psychological manipulation rather than any degree of proof discussed previously. Sceptics love to craft these reproductions, trying to get them to look as much like the original, like some artist copying the Mona Lisa. The trouble is, a very good reproduction of the Mona Lisa does not make the original a fake.

Perhaps some will claim that a decent reproduction of an original is proof that this is how the photograph was done. Actually, all it proves is that they can produce a photograph that has a resemblance to the original. Whether the original picture was created using this technique cannot be proven from such an experiment.

For example, suppose we raise further theories that the Lachlan Stuart photo was faked with three airbags or three rocks (as implied by Ronald Binns). People may discuss the merits of either theory and similar looking photos may be reproduced. However, at least two of these three theories are completely wrong even if convincing reproductions are made! The only way to know which, if any, of the three techniques is true is further evidence as discussed in the previous section, be it a confession from one of the participants or physical evidence found near the scene.

Note I am not saying that I have disproved the meaningful use of such reproductions, only that another level of proof is required to corroborate the use of the image. Beyond that, it is a matter of opinion how to interpret the reproduction.

Ultimately, I am fairly convinced that even if a genuine monster photo was presented to a group of sceptics, they would come up with a theory as to how it was faked and they may even go out and stage a similar looking picture. What does that say about the whole process? I think the operative word is again "unfalsifiable" and in this age of CGI, sceptics have a safety net to fall back on if things get too tough to debunk.


Now having said all that as a backdrop to the photograph from 2006 that I recently published, there has been various opinions offered as to the nature of this picture. The one I will focus on here is Steve Feltham's reply which basically states it is a monster shaped piece of bird excrement on a window photographed over a passing boat but not its wake, this giving the impression of a monster on the move.

This opinion was not the first as another person, Aleksandar Lovcanski, had suggested a similar theory some days before, but using a monster cut out stuck on a window. Indeed, this is all rather reminiscent of the 1955 Peter MacNab photograph which debunkers to this day claim is no more than a black cut out over another boat wake passing the castle.

Nessies on windows is nothing new. I took the picture below in 2014 as I took a ride on the Cruise Loch Ness boat out of Fort Augustus. It's a little trick for tourists to snap pictures to kid on people back home. Obviously, no one is fooled by it and neither is it intended so. But can you fool people in  a serious way with this technique?

So Steve has put out an article detailing his investigation which you can find here. In summary, he thinks the photo was taken from the windows of a rented house near the Clansman Hotel based on what he perceives as similar foreground vegetation and some other cues. he also attempted his own monster cut out experiment which I shall address below. Steve is pretty confident he has the solution, but I am not so convinced and will begin with this photograph he took from the rental house.

The first thing I did with this photograph was to overlay the original 2006 picture on top of it, line up the major topological features and see how the two compare. The result is shown below and presents some difficulties. The first thing to note is that the tree which is claimed to be the same as the vegetation in the 2006 picture is not in the expected position in the overlay.

As you can see, the 2018 tree is well to the right of the 2006 vegetation (be it tree or bush). Based on that discrepancy, I do not accept that these are the same objects and therefore we must look elsewhere for the location of the 2006 picture. We are also told that the second item of vegetation seen in the 2006 picture is located just behind a large hedge which now dominates the foreground.

Again, there is little information in the 2018 comparison photo to make that deduction since the object is largely obscured by the hedge and so no compelling conclusion can be drawn. There is also the matter of that hedge. Obviously, no hedge is present in the 2006 picture and so we are asked to assume that it was not there or not high enough back then. Should we make that assumption or should we ask for more proof of this assertion? Be that as it may, the picture does not square up for other reasons.

In fact, comparing trees in pictures is not the easy task it is made out to be. We are led to believe that the twelve year gap between the original and comparison pictures is a matter of no consequence. Look again at the two trees in the overlay. They are practically at the same height, should that be accepted after a time gap of twelve years?

I don't know what the trees are in either photo, they could be birch or hazel, in which case, annual growth rates can be from 1.5 to 3 feet per year. You can do the maths for a 12 year growth period and again conclude it is unlikely these two trees are the same tree. One could also take trimming into account but still come up with an essentially unknowable scenario.

Steve also questions whether any of the nearby parking spots on the road were suitable due to the background tree heights. The first point to make here is that the height of the trees will again be different compared to 12 years ago, be it due to growth or any trimming done. Secondly, we do not know exactly where the car stopped to take the photograph.  That requires further investigation with the proviso that this 12 year gap has to be taken into account.


That alone could conclude this analysis, but there are some other items to discuss. Steve went further in his analysis by trying to demonstrate how such an image may be produced. He glued a paper cutout of a notional monster onto his car window and snapped pictures as boats passed and were obscured by the cutout. I compare one of his photos below with the 2006 picture (zoomed and flipped).

Now no one in principle is saying that you cannot produce a Nessie like object superimposed over a boat wake. Indeed, that accusation has been around since sceptics turned their attention to the MacNab photograph. However, that principle has two requisite components - reproducibility and repeatability.

In terms of reproducibility, the question is asked whether the reproduced image has the same "look and feel" of the original. Looking at the two pictures above, the answer is clearly "No" as the reproduction is of an inferior quality and is obviously a fake. The retort may come that it was not the intention to fully reproduce the original, to which one can legitimately ask how much quality needs to be lost before the reproduction experiment is rejected? I suspect the answer to that depends on one's own bias.

In terms of repeatability, this is a requirement that the original tools are used to reproduce the original image. This is something that is often overlooked in modern analysis as corners are cut to produce an image with psychological impact. The issue here is that the initial reaction to the 2006 photo was that the blurred nature of the object suggested it was out of focus due to its proximity to the camera.

The reproduction here actually shows the overlaid object is not much less blurred that its surroundings. The point being that a digital camera from around 2006 may be a better candidate to resolve the issue of whether the blurring is due to motion or focus as well as inform on any other differences between itself and a modern camera.

In this case, the theory is that the opportunistic tourist was lucky enough to have a piece of monster shaped bird excrement on his window. The one thing I would point out here is to look again at the overlay picture (below) and you will see that a cruiser boat is passing very close to where the 2006 object is. Note how the object is not big enough to cover the boat and so one wonders what kind of boat it would have to cover and still produce a noticeable wake?

So a substitute method was used in the reproduction and thus we have no idea if the originally proposed method is actually viable. Is the original proposed scenario something you find on demand? I agree it is not and so we must logically take the position that the conclusion is "inconclusive" on whether the originally proposed method would work.

I hope to do some further onsite and offsite investigations on this photo in due time, so watch this space.

The author can be contacted at

Sunday 3 June 2018

The Peter O' Connor Photograph Part V

I have been told to expect another sceptical critique of the Peter O'Connor photograph in the weeks ahead. I will leave any comments on that article for next month, but in the meantime, the author mentioned some things that reminded me of my own previous research on the topic. If you wish to see my prior thoughts on the subject, you will find them listed under the Photographs of Nessie section linked on the right of this page. What Aleksandar Lovcanski tells us was this:

Maurice Burton claimed that he stumbled upon THREE distinctly different versions of the photograph during his archival research of a certain newspaper.

Now when I was researching this topic some years back, I contacted researcher Steuart Campbell for further information. He replied with some documents and I quote a portion of a letter from Maurice Burton to Steuart dated 12th December 1984. As stated before, Burton took his family on a visit to the loch in June 1960 to fact find for his forthcoming book, "The Elusive Monster", the very first sceptical work on the Loch Ness Monster.

He came, he saw and he thought he had conquered as he visited the O'Connor camp site and found various items he deemed part of a conspiracy to create a fake photograph. My very first article on this picture demonstarted that all was not as clear cut as Burton had claimed. However, Burton mentioned something else to Steuart Campbell is his letter:

There is a tailpiece to all this. Several years later I called at the offices of the Daily Mail. I wanted to be able to examine the original negative of the London Surgeon's photograph. The art editor was most helpful. He took from a safe a folder containing Wilson's negative. In the folder I noticed a contact print of 35mmm film (I think it was 35mm).

There were three frames, not separated but in one strip. One frame showed O'C's picture as published in the Weekly Scotsman. The second showed the same object sagging in the middle. The third frame showed the same object moderately well restored to its original shape. There was no sign of a picture of the alleged animal creating a commotion (see Dinsdale 1961, p.152, 6 lines from bottom). Indeed, the whole account as reported by Dinsdale on pp.152-3 just makes me laugh.

What struck me during the brief glimpse of these three pictures was that O'C had allowed the most damning evidence to find its way to Fleet Street. And I marvelled at the obtuseness or naivete O'C had shown in allowing such a thing to happen! In fact, this second frame was comparable with Forbes' results and my own. But since my aim at that time was to seek an interpretation of Wilson's photo I did not pursue the matter. 

So there you have it. According to Maurice Burton, there are not one but three pictures taken by Peter O' Connor on that day of May 27th 1960. What do we make of this astonishing claim? Now when I read it at the time, I was dubious in the extreme and put it down to another of Burton's exaggerations. Quite simply, if I had stumbled upon two new O'Connor photos, I would have most certainly have made time to obtain copies of these pictures and publicised them. But Burton just breezes past them as if it was some minor detail

To add to the puzzle, one would have presumed he would have gone back to the Daily Mail to retrieve these alleged photographs, but he did not! We can see how much contempt Burton had for O'Connor (as well as Tim Dinsdale), so these would have been his equivalent of finding a hoard of gold coins and a final victory for Burton over O'Connor - if indeed the images were as bad as he claimed.

But not only did not go back to get them, he also doesn't bother to make this known to anyone else for twenty years! In that light of these inconsistencies, I dismissed it. Perhaps Aleksandar has further information on these alleged missing photographs? We will find out soon enough but I highly doubt Burton would have passed up on such an opportunity back in the early 1960s.

Likewise, I would also have marvelled with Burton at O'Connor's "obtuseness" and "naivete", so much in fact that I would further doubt the whole Burton story. Do hoaxers tend to give publishers their pre-hoax setups and experiments as well as the final, perfected picture? Yes, I though they tended not to either. But if Aleksandar can produce this contiguous strip of three pictures, I may change my mind

You may say I am being hard on Maurice Burton, but he has previous form in giving other researchers the run around and making statements that are not true (how much of that is due to misremembering or plain deception I would not say). Others may swallow everything Burton has said but this blog would prefer to see something more.

On a similar theme, Burton mentions a person by the name of Forbes in the above quote who he claims found the stick used to mimic the monster's head-neck. Where is this stick now you may well ask? Alas, Burton tells Steuart Campbell he was, like the two missing O'Connor frames, unable to retrieve it and display it to the world because Forbes lost it in curious circumstances:

Shortly after my return to London, Professor Peacock, of Dundee (or was it Aberdeen), brought a certain Angus Forbes, retired journalist, to see me. He told of having visited O'Connor Cove soon after we left. Among other things he told of having found, in the bivouac, a stick lying on the ground, beside where the occupant had slept, that corresponded as nearly as made no odds with what could be seen of the 'monster's' neck and head in O'C's photo.

"Where is that stick now?" I asked eagerly. To this Forbes embarked on the following story. It seems he (Forbes) came to the same conclusion as we did and having found the stick decided to use it to reconstruct O'C's monster. Returning home, he obtained a plastic sack, inflated it and weighted it, using the shallows of the river Dee for his experiment. He also chose the hours of darkness for his experiment to screen his activities from curious passers-by. As he was pushing the stick into the mud, in front of the sack, it snapped.

At that moment a stentorian voice demanded what was he doing. He had been mistaken for a poacher. Startled, he accidentally snapped the stick and, during the brief conversation in which he sheepishly explained what he was up to, he had the chagrin of seeing the important part of the stick, the part visible on O'C's photo, drifting downstream to be lost in the darkness.

Forbes' photographs of the inflated sack were not very successful but were sufficient to suggest that had he had more time, free of interruption, he would have produced a convincing 'double' of O'C's photo. That is why I spoke of his photograph not differing "in any significant way from O'Connor's photograph". I did not say 'identical, as you did in your letter.
It seems Maurice Burton had no luck whatsoever in getting his hands on all this vital evidence. Mind you, in an earlier article to another journal, Burton himself claimed he had found the stick on the beach during his 1960 visit. Now some might want to point out that I sound like a sceptic handling an eyewitness account of the monster - i.e. they don't handle it and bin it.

To be fair, I have lodged my reasoning here, but if Burton claimed he saw something unusual - like a Nessie witness - I can but leave the door ajar and we shall see. But in the light of all this, I think I will take the stance of Peter Costello when it came to things claimed by Maurice Burton:

Nevertheless, Dr Burton would have to produce evidence for the existence of the all too easily found polythene bag before I would believe him.

Note that in the original text, Costello puts the last word in italics. 

The author can be contacted at