Friday 3 August 2018

Tricks of the Sceptics

This blog has been running now for eight years and published over 600 items in that time. During that period I would like to think I have gotten a good handle on the debating tactics of that class of Nessie naysayers commonly known as "sceptics". Quite likely you will hear them before you see them as they loudly go forth proclaiming the inerrancy of their ways and the perfections of their thoughts.

Like a crowd of wannabe Spocks they practise the raising of the right eyebrow and the parting of the fingers, but they have no desire that your monster theories will live long and prosper. I long ago grew used to this logical posturing and the shallowness of much of their argumentation. Today I would like to present to you some of the tactics they use in the pursuit of doing whatever it takes to rid themselves and the world of these meddlesome monsters.
1. Eyewitness accounts useless ... unless they support pet theories

You've heard it many a time from sceptics, eyewitnesses are poor "recording devices". Not only do the fail to perceive what they are seeing at the time, but are pathetic at recalling the details later on. Well, that is unless what they describe supports your agenda, in which case the clouds of poor memory suddenly depart. The perception of the eyewitnesses becomes lucid and their descriptions are now as sharp as a tack.

This duplicity came to my attention when the matter of the sturgeon came to the fore. Instead of the usual rejection of certain eyewitness reports, a number of reports were deemed accurate to support the sturgeon theory; namely K.MacDonald(1932), J.McLeod(c.1900s), and M.MacDonald(1993). Go to this link and search for "sturgeon". Adrian Shine admitted that "anyone, of course, can assemble sighting reports to support a pet theory", so why bother with this? All that being said, I take this as a positive as the sceptics are admitting witnesses can accurately describe what they are seeing. 

2. Devise unfalsifiable theories

The obvious one being "If it is not a misidentification, then it is a hoax" allied with "If it is not a hoax, then it is a misidentification". A piece of circular reasoning specifically devised to exclude genuine monster reports.

3. Cherry picking accepted theories

In other words, promote only those theories which advance your agenda. This even includes parts of theories such as the false memory theory but ignoring the inconvenient theory that dramatic events stay longer in the memory.

4. Devise explanations to explain reports without testing

 A common tactic wherein sceptics put forward seemingly plausible explanations as to how a witness was wrong, but they never actually test if it is a viable explanation in the field. Of course, not every theory can be tested, but the sceptics are quite happy with that arrangement.

5. A lazy over reliance on the "least fantastical" approach to theorising

This is the "improbable" versus "impossible" theories and is a straw man argument. You construct an albeit unlikely scenario but use common everyday objects to soften the implausibility. This is then propped up against a monster theory and the audience is deceptively asked "which one looks more likely to you?". An example would be, "What is more likely to you? A line of otters in a heat haze or a plesiosaur crossing the road?". The correct answer from a neutral or sceptical audience should be "The first, but both look unlikely, so we are no further forward."

6. Objectification of subjective data

Sceptics often berate believers for going over monster pictures with a fine toothcomb for minor details that are at best inconclusive and at worst wishful thinking. However, sceptics are guilty of this when we are assuredly told that there are wires present in the Surgeon's photograph, a canoe's rudder point in the O'Connor photograph and a forward wake in the MacNab photograph. Like the believers they put down, they are merely seeing what their confirmation bias wishes them to see!

7. Inconsistency in accepting eyewitness testimony that suits their agenda

Eyewitnesses to monster sightings are categorised as inadequate (unless it involves sturgeons) but people who come forward to offer juicy information to debunk sightings are star witnesses who cannot possibly be wrong. In this list we include Richard Frere who claimed to have information to debunk the Lachlan Stuart photograph and likewise Alec Menzies on Arthur Grant. One is not inclined to judge whether these people lied or misinterpreted an event, but the sceptics make no attempt to assess the weight of their testimonies. 

8. Ad Hominem tactics 

A somewhat baser form of tactic which gets personal. For instance, I heard one sceptic state that eyewitness testimonies from anyone at Fort Augustus Abbey should be discounted in the light of the recent child abuse scandal there. Not much logic there I am afraid. Also, we are told to discount Arthur Grant's testimony because known faker Marmaduke Wetherell visited the site while he was at Loch Ness. The old "guilt by association" tactic. Finally, the monks get it in the neck again when some of their eyewitness testimonies should be discarded because "they like their whisky". Yeah, sure.

9. Overuse of tentative or false theories

Be it discredited theories such as vegetable mats, earthquakes or uncatchable sturgeon, some theories just seem to go on well past their sell by dates. But f they deflect attention away from inconvenient monsters, what's not to like?

10. Mistakes in use of eyewitness reports

The classic here was Ronald Binns' conflation of the Margaret Munro and Torquil MacLeod land sightings. The intended or unintended synthesis of these two accounts resulted in inconsistencies which Binns then exploited to discredit the MacLeod account. I am not making this up, folks! 

11. The psychological use of hyperbolic language 

Or to use an old phrase, "Argument weak here, shout louder!". Do you want your faltering arguments to carry more weight with your audience? Simple, just attach such words as "damning", "amazing" or "very telling" to arguments which are nothing of the sort. This one comes straight out of the politician's playbook.

12. Deflection

You may have noticed when debating a sceptic that the topic under discussion actually has nothing to do with the original question. This is called deflection and usually involves the sceptic going off as a tangent so long as the direction is away from the original awkward question. Another tactic taken from the politician's playbook.

13. The "holistic" approach

A tactic whereby a clutch of minor arguments are made against a case, which though each one in and of itself would not be important enough,  the sum of the parts is meant to give the impression that it is greater than the whole. This tactic has been used by Maurice Burton on the O'Connor picture and another on the Roy Johnston pictures.

So there you have it. No doubt Mr. Spock would have replied "Fascinating!". The next time a sceptic beams down and starts pontificating to you on the matter of lake cryptids, get out this list and check how many of these tricks they are trying to pull off. Perhaps we should start an annual award for the worst offender. We could call it the Cryptozoological BS Award, where of course BS stands for Bogus Spocks.

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