Thursday 28 February 2019

Pseudo-scepticism and the Loch Ness Monster

In my new book on photographs of the Loch Ness Monster, I take a different tack to the traditional works by pro-Nessie authors. In the past, photos were published, eyewitness tales were recounted and evidence for the monster was sought within the images. Today is the age of scepticism and various arguments brought against not some but all photographs arise and must be examined and challenged. You may say that is a good thing which encourages debate.

However, I would like to make a point that has led me to change my wording when it comes to addressing the arguments of sceptics against the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. To wit, I have now decided to label such people and their arguments as pseudo-sceptics and pseudo-scepticism. I do this in deference to real scepticism which one should seek to employ where possible at all times.

What is the difference you may well ask? In the context of the subject of this blog, pseudo-scepticism takes the position that there cannot be such a thing as the Loch Ness Monster (i.e. an exotic, large unidentified creature seen in the loch) and therefore any eyewitness report, photograph, film or sonar image must of necessity be deconstructed into an explanation based on known explicable events and objects, there is no room for monsters.

Note this is not the same as a person who disbelieves in the monster but still goes about their investigations in a true sceptical manner. This, I put to you, is not true scepticism which would attempt to maintain an open mind and assess such reports in a critical but unbiased and unprejudiced manner. Now pseudo-sceptics may claim to have an open mind on the subject, but their actions betray such words. This is demonstrated in several ways.

Firstly, it is a sign of pseudo-scepticism to maintain that none of the 2000+ known witnesses over 100+ years have accurately described what they claim as a large creature (unless it looks like a sturgeon). Apart from being a statistical improbability, it betrays a prejudice which proposes such a thing when other disciplines (e.g. history and jurisprudence) do accept eyewitness testimonies at face value but apply due and proper sceptical enquiry on an individual case by case basis.

Secondly, it is a sign of pseudo-scepticism when counter-intuitive explanations are offered for what eyewitness have seen or recorded. One classic example of this was the 1938 John McLean sighting of a 20 foot creature seen at 20 yards. One leading critic suggested he had seen a group of cormorants, despite the witness being an angler at Loch Ness whom we assume was familiar with such things. A second example was from another "expert" in these matters who used ad hominem tactics to suggest one group of eyewitnesses (the monks at Fort Augustus Abbey) were well known for imbibing too much and therefore should not be trusted.

Thirdly, it is a sign of pseudo-scepticism when illogical techniques (as opposed to explanations) are applied in the deconstructing of eyewitness reports. Refer to my article on "tricks of the sceptics" to see how it is more of the politician and the lawyer that prevails in an analysis than the logician and scientist.

Fourthly, it is a sign of pseudo-scepticism when they stick to the same repetitive arguments even when sufficient doubt has been cast upon them. This is because the primary purpose of a pseudo-sceptical argument is not scientific enquiry but to cast doubt and dismiss. So long as it achieves this, then it is useful and therefore is to be retained. Some examples are the long discredited vegetable mats and the "dog" explanation for the Hugh Gray photograph.

Fifthly, it is a sign of pseudo-scepticism when no recognition at all is made of studies made by cryptozoologists. The tactic is obvious in its deployment as no credence must be made to such people lest it is seen as a concession to cryptozoology. In fact, efforts will be made to portray cryptozoology as a danger to scientific enquiry.

Finally, it is a sign of pseudo-scepticism when an explanation is infallibly fashioned for every event and no room is made for the inconclusive. Indeed, it is a vanishingly rare thing for a pseudo-sceptic to say "I can't explain that". By making such an admission, they are not admitting to the existence of a large creature, but the confirmation bias that is deeply ingrained blocks even statements of such neutrality from coming out.

You may ask whether there is any sign of true scepticism in the field of Loch Ness Monster research? The answer is, of course, yes. People can follow the correct lines of enquiry and come to the best natural conclusions. Possessing a pseudo-sceptical attitude does not preclude viable explanations being made at points over time. However, it does not follow that instances of successful investigations is an exoneration of pseudo-sceptical attitudes and does not condone their tactics.

One final point is whether a person is a pseudo-sceptic or merely displaying the traits of pseudo-scepticism? It is a subtle point which may largely be in the eye of the beholder. But I would say that those who persist in indulging in pseudo-sceptical tactics may be justly called pseudo-sceptics.

Not surprisingly, when I put forward such a view elsewhere, the usual attempts at deflection ensued as the term "pseudo-cryptozoologist" cropped up. It's an odd term since cryptozoology is labelled as a pseudo-science, so does that make pseudo-cryptozoology a pseudo-pseudo-science?

Anyway, I was already aware of this antithesis of the pseudo-sceptic which is a cryptozoologist or "believer" who accepts everything as evidence and fits his arguments to make them so.  However, such a charge is lacking the force which is applied to the pseudo-sceptic.  I say this, because although the pseudo-sceptic rejects all reports as false, the cryptozoologist patently does not accept all reports as true.

I certainly do not accept all testimonies, films, photographs and sonar readings as proof of the Loch Ness Monster and I suspect every cryptozoologist to a man and woman does not accept them all either; be it Nessie, Champ, Ogopogo or Caddy. The other point is that, unlike pseudo-sceptics who rate all reports as 100% false, not all sightings, photos, films or sonar are created equal in the eyes of the cryptozoologist.

Cryptozoologists (such as myself) will rate recordings or reports in different manners. One may believe a photo to be genuine, but only just at 51% whereas another may go up to 80%. Cryptozoologists will disagree over whether something if genuine, fake or misidentified. That is called healthy debate, whereas the one size fits all rejection of the pseudo-sceptics has a stale unanimity - you know well in advance what their "conclusions" are going to be.

But one may retort that a pseudo-sceptic could not accept even one report as genuine as that would put them in danger of becoming a "believer". That point is conceded, but they can still mark the better attested reports as "inconclusive" or "I can't explain that" rather than being compelled to offer strange explanations about cormorants at 20 yards.

But to be truthful, charges of prejudice in assessing reports is a problem across this divide. I admit I will have a degree of bias in my investigations. It is my job to minimise this universal human failing in me to the best of my ability. What I cannot stomach is these vocal critics of the phenomenon not stepping up to admit they have it too. They are not Vulcans after all, but that is a problem they have to face and deal with. As an example, it was a joke to see one state his bias as being logical analysis. Can you see the contradiction in that phrase?

Are there any real Loch Ness Monster sceptics out there? Given human nature's foibles, I doubt the ideal sceptic exists, so I personally will remain neutral on the question of who comes closest. But the next time one of these people turns up on an Internet forum, in a magazine or book, just ask yourself what the underlying motive might be behind those criticisms they launch against reports of the Loch Ness Monster.

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