Wednesday 3 October 2018

Summing up the Loch Ness Monster (in 1934)

Decades ago, the Field magazine ran an article by Martin Hinton, Deputy Keeper of Zoology at the Natural History Museum in London on the 27th January 1934. By then, the monster phenomenon was about 8 months old and people were asking questions of those in authority. The evidence was scant with the Malcolm Irvine film taken the previous month on December 12th and the Hugh Gray photograph of November 12th along with a few dozen eyewitness testimonies. That now lost film formed the top image of the article as Hinton assessed the phenomenon from his point of view as a sceptical zoologist and is reproduced in text below with my comments following.

Facts versus Visions - An Analysis of the Evidence
By MARTIN A. C. HINTON (Deputy Keeper of Zoology, British Museum - Natural History) 

NO zoologist would deny the possibility of discovering a large creature of "prehistoric type" (whatever that may mean) hitherto unknown to Science, in vast ocean solitudes, in imperfectly explored foreign lands, or even in the limited and completely surveyed waters of Loch Ness. But for more than 200 years zoologists have been busy ransacking this world, and the chance of finding a large vertebrate animal of a type entirely new to Science living anywhere, either on the land or in the sea, grows smaller and smaller every day.

The larger animals of the North Atlantic and the North Sea are fairly well known, and the chance of making a sensational addition to the list is now small indeed. To establish such a discovery today the zoologist would be required to furnish rigid proof based upon a personal examination of at least some characteristic portion of the alleged new animal. Without such proof Science, whose first business is the collection of cold facts, could not recognise such a claim, even though supported by an infinity of eye-witness stories, photographs and alleged "spoors". With good faith all through, such substitutes for real evidence could do no more than make every scientific man very eager to go and collect satisfactory material for himself.

Bad faith showing through, here and there, would arouse his suspicion of the whole story, and would merely tend to divert him from the inquiry. We may accept the 51 eye-witnesses interrogated by Commander Gould and the score or more later witnesses who have made statements describing what they have seen of the Loch Ness "monster" as witnesses of truth; that is to say, each of them has done his best to describe without addition, subtraction or embellishment, what he thinks he saw on the loch or on its shores. Accurate observation, even of familiar stationary things on land, is a very difficult art and accurate description of the impression left by the observation is still more difficult. These difficulties are enormously enhanced when the observation concerns an unfamiliar object seen at some considerable distance in motion in the water, when light, reflections, ripple, wind and haze change from second to second.

Considerations such as these would lead us to expect many discrepancies of detail in the stories of the witnesses; so that no adverse criticism could be based upon the variable nature of their accounts. The more honest and uninstructed the witnesses the more they will differ from each other and the more difficult it will be for the zoologist to find out what it is they are all endeavouring to describe. One fact alone does emerge from this great mass of testimony, namely that for some months the loch has been inhabited by one or more large animals not usually there. Accepting the statements of two or three of the witnesses, we find that the intruder is not confined to the water but comes on shore from time to time, crossing the road, and ascending the slope beyond. One observer surprised the creature on the roadside at night nearly 40 yards ahead. "As he approached, the creature moved, turned a small head in his direction, and then with great bounds crossed the road and plunged into the water." Further. " it had . . . large oval shaped eyes set almost on top of its head . .  a big heavy body, and there were two flippers in front. It seemed also . . . to have two legs behind, and they appeared to be webbed".

From other witnesses we learn that the "monster" chases the salmon, and that it is most frequently seen round the mouths of the streams flowing into the loch or near the exit of the Ness by which the salmon enter from the sea. Several mauled salmon have been found, including at least one "kelt", important. as showing that the injuries were sustained in the loch and not on the upward run of the fish. Now all these facts, looked at broadly, are in harmony with the view that the loch has been invaded by one or more grey seals. They are common in the Dornoch Firth and by no means infrequent in the Beauly Firth. They prey upon the salmon, and probably one or more followed the salmon up the River Ness last year. Seals have been seen in the loch on previous occasions.

The river presents almost insurmountable obstacles to any large marine vertebrate other than a seal or a salmon; but to the grey seal, capable as we know of doing a journey of 30 miles over rough country, the ascent would be easy. The general description of the individual seen on land and of its progress across the road into the water, quoted above, fits the grey seal to perfection if we make allowance for an excusable overestimate of size. Great attempts have been made to lead zoologists to a more romantic conclusion. Much stress has been laid upon the supposed colossal length of the "monster", its small head, long outstretched neck, and serpentine body indicated by humps visible above the water. Each description of the swimming animal is a simple summary of the impressions made upon the mind of each observer by a longer or shorter series of continually changing images. In no one of them could we put implicit trust.

The very agreement of the more sensational stories among themselves tells against them. The observers, despite their good faith, appear to have been influenced subconsciously by three things, singly or in combination, namely, the Kelpie tradition, the sea-serpent myth, and by the picture postcards of the "monster" on sale in Inverness. The Daily Mail, with customary enterprise, sent investigators. These included a big-game hunter. who eventually found two impressions of a large foot upon the shore. Photographs and a cast of these were submitted to the museum, where the impressions were found to have been made on a heaped-up bank of fine shingle with the help of a stuffed foot of a hippopotamus. A wag had been busy - had he used a living hippopotamus the impression would have been different and the big game hunter would not have been deceived ...

Efforts were made to "film" the "monster". Some of the first pictures were reproduced in various newspapers, and two slides made from one of them were shown to the meeting of' British zoologists on January 6th. They showed nothing that could be positively identified as an animal. Although apparently not of great scientific interest, the "monster" is of considerable importance to local industries and to the great world of advertisement. In gratitude business men are asked to address it privately as "ministering angel" reserving "monster" for public occasions.

It struck me reading this sceptical article how little has changed in so called critical thinking regarding the Loch Ness Monster. Hinton (pictured below) was an older colleague of later sceptic Maurice Burton and one senses there was not much difference in their approaches thirty years apart. The one distinguishing factor was Burton's pre-occupation with vegetable mats in the 1960s.

To start with, I agree with Hinton that the real proof is a specimen, be it dead or alive and in part or whole. Nothing has changed in that regard and I have no argument with that from an empirical point of view. However, Hinton's dismissal of eyewitness testimony echoes throughout sceptical history in his successors as a piece of poor science when he asserts that they could not possibly describe what they saw in an accurate manner. 

The trouble with this theory is its unscientific unfalsifiability, to wit, no matter how numerous, how skilled or how close the observers, the testimonies go in one end of this meat grinder and come out "unreliable" with infallible certainty each time. If you would ask Mr. Hinton what eyewitness testimony would escape this tautology, I doubt you would get a clear answer. Note I am not saying each witness will deliver a perfect description, but I am saying there will be accuracy in terms of size and power which differentiates the phenomenon from Highland norms.

Having conveniently rejected all accounts with this blunderbuss approach, Hinton does acknowledge the testimony of eyewitnesses enough to admit they were indicative of the presence of one or more large animals in the loch, though not of the thirty to forty foot variety. He considers the Arthur Grant land sighting and some instances of mauled salmon and kelt to fall in favour with some itinerant grey seals. The inconvenient problems of long necks and humps are dismissed as subconscious embellishments. 

That was his summing up some eight months into the new sensation and some eight decades on, not much has changed in the modern sceptic's summing up. But that pre-war summing up has an awkward ending for Mr. Hinton when he discussed the examination of the plaster casts he and his colleagues received from Marmaduke Wetherell. They were correctly recognised as hippopotamus prints and the product of some joker, though they did not suspect Wetherell himself it seems.

Astoundingly, the hypocrisy of this assessment was later exposed when Hinton was accused after his death of being the person behind the infamous Piltdown Man hoax. Wetherell planted his fake spoors in the cause of advocating a prehistoric monster. Hinton it seems planted his fake hominid jaw, teeth, cranium and tools in the cause of advocating a 500,000 year old fossil human. You can read the defence of this accusation in this 2003 article.

It seems it is not just monster hunters who can be accused of fakery. Even those fine upstanding, critically thinking, sceptical scientists are well capable of indulging in deception. And why should we not be surprised? After all, they are just as human and fallible as the rest of us. Does this disqualify Hinton from speaking on the matter of the Loch Ness Monster? Perhaps not, but the tinkling of broken glass houses can be clearly heard.

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